A Visit with Charlie Gilmore

A Story by Charles Gilmore and Edited by Richard Parks


Richard Parks

   I was born and raised in Bucks County Pennsylvania way too long ago (1936) but I firmly believe that I got to live through the best and most exciting era of U.S. history. Coming of age during the 1950's and '60's was fantastic and even though we went through a great deal of turmoil in the later decade it was still a great time to be alive and young. We not only had the brand new sport of drag racing but also the birth of rock & roll, the greatest era of high performance Detroit iron, and the factory involvement in racing at all levels. But, above all, we had hope for the future. Things were getting better for the working and middle class and almost everyone could afford to buy that Detroit horsepower or build a race car and go out and compete. My parents were native to the area where we lived and our family history was part of the history of Bucks County. My Grandfather was a building contractor who was responsible for the construction of some of the prominent structures in the area. My father and his brother (twins) both followed in his footsteps until the advent of the great depression which ruined Granddad's business. My father and my Uncle were both musicians who played and marched in the Philadelphia mummers parade even though they both struggled during the bad times picking up work were ever they could. Needless to say this experience shaped my thinking when it came to handling finances so that I held my money close and did all that I could with what I had.
   As I reached my teen years I became more and more interested in cars, especially big powered cars. I began buying and reading the few magazines that were available in the late 1940's and early '50's. These were mostly sports car magazines that depicted the European roadsters and coupes that were just starting to be introduced into the market place. Cars like Alpha Romeo, Jaguar, Ferrari, Maserati, Lancia et al. About that time we started to receive a subscription to Ford Times and inside were stories and photos of cut down Fords with hopped up flathead engines racing at a place called Bonneville and other wide open dry lakes in the west. I was excited to read those stories and scan those photos. Low slung roadsters and coupes, sans fenders and any other parts that would not contribute to going fast. It was almost enough to make this teenage boy break out in zits. 
   During this time my old man and I had gotten into the habit of sitting on the front porch and watching the cars go by. Since we lived in a small crossroads village it also gave us the chance to socialize with the neighbors and exchange gossip which was the old man's major motivation. On one of those evenings while taking in the night air I heard a distant roar coming from the western end of town where the road came over the top of a hill in a long swooping turn. I jumped up from my seat and walked to the edge of the road when suddenly a pair of headlights appeared coming around the turn followed closely by another pair. The two cars appeared to be sliding slightly and were traveling at a high rate of speed. As they rocketed towards us I could see that they were both cut down roadsters just like I had seen in Ford Times and they were smoking.' No fenders, no windshields, no hoods and wide open exhaust where small flames shot from the pipes. Well, I almost peed my pants at this sight; I was that excited. My old man came running out to the road cussing and hollering (something he did a lot of) and shaking his fist at those hoodlums in those cars. I was grinning from ear to ear and determined to find out who those "hoodlums" were, because I thought they must be Gods and anything that would thrill me to the bone and piss off the old man at the same time had to be something for me to pursue. The next day I hitch hiked down to New Hope, which was the closest town with street lights so I figured it had to be the source of these road demons or at least someone would know who they were. As I jumped out of the car that had picked me up I was right on the canal bridge which was a great humped back affair high enough for the coal barges to pass under and this gave a view of a back yard that adjoined the Canal. In that yard I saw the two outlaw roadsters and two guys were busy pulling the motors out of them.
   Trying to be as casual as an excited 13 year old could be I sauntered into the yard and approached the two guys. I shouted out a 'Hello," and they turned around and gave me a grease stained look. I introduced myself and they told me their names were John and Scotty Paxson. I asked them what they were doing and John said, "We’re swapping engines to see if they will go faster in the other car. Well, that sounded logical to me so I started looking over the cars and boy were they stripped. The upholstery was gone as well as the external parts and the seats had been replaced with a pair of olive drab aluminum seats that they said had come from the navy float planes that were being junked up at Doanie's junk yard a few miles north. I must tell you now that Johnny Paxson later moved to California and began driving rocket powered drag cars first for a fellow from Australia (a three wheeled contraption) and later a more conventional dragster chassis car sponsored by Armoral. John toured with that car all over the country and I saw him go over 300mph and down in the high 3 seconds at E-town in, I believe, 1970. He also did some testing with another rocket car that was supposed to try for the world speed record with a woman at the controls. That attempt was never made and I didn't hear the reason for not proceeding. All of this proves that even road outlaws can go on to have a legitimate career in racing.
   When I turned 15 my lust for fast cars had grown to monumental proportions and I was working my tail off to get enough money to purchase my first ride. By the end of my 15th summer I had accumulated the princely sum of $400 and I was on the hunt for a fast car when a guy pulled up in front of the house with a 1940 Merc coupe. It was nosed and decked and lowered in the back (which was the style of the day in our area) and a pair of duel pipes sticking out the back. I wasn't exactly excited about this car, because I had my heart set on a '34 coupe or roadster, but when he popped the hood and I saw the dual carbs and aluminum heads, headers and a hot ignition system I was sold. I could tell by the lumpy idle that it had a hot cam in it and the owner showed me the build sheet for the motor which stated that it was bored and stroked with a Mercury crank in it. I always thought that the Merc was ugly looking but it was fast. In those days, drag racing had not come to the east coast and we engaged in races over open roads that covered five to ten miles in length. The challenge usually went like this; "Hey, I'll race to Buckingham (about five miles)." We would be sitting at the one and only traffic light in New Hope and when the light changed we would take off for a hair raising, flatout race in which my Merc would almost always win. Of course in those days there was no traffic on the road (a two lane concrete highway) after dark, let alone after midnight when we did most of our racing.
   One night I was trolling around Lambertville New Jersey, which was just across the river from New Hope looking for Lambertville Betty to try and appease one of my other youthful urges when I came upon a skinny kid in a '41 Ford coupe. He asked me if a wanted to race top end up the road out of town. I said sure and with that he jumped from his car and slid underneath the back end and began rocking the car back and forth until I heard a metallic click. I asked him what he was doing and he grinned and said, "Two speed rear." I thought that even with an overdrive rear I could still beat a stock flat motor so up the road we went. We ran it up to about 70mph and then we stood on the gas. At this point I heard a whistling sound which grew in pitch as we increased our speed. We were still side by side when the Merc's speedometer needle buried itself in the dash. Neither one of us could gain an inch so after a couple of miles we both blew our horns, the signal that the race was over. We pulled over to the shoulder of the road and started to compare cars when the other guy popped his hood. I saw a strange red device sitting on top of the intake with a Stromberg carb sticking out of it and a snout coming out the front that ended in a pulley that had a belt wrapped over it. This was the first blower I had ever seen. I think it was an early McCullough blower. The guy in the other car was Bunny Schnieder, the brother of dirt track legend Frankie Schnieder who was a stock car driving hero in our neck of the woods. Bunny went on to race on the many dirt tracks that populated the area in the 1950's and '60's. Of course, most of them have been converted to shopping centers by now.
   I started to help out a local Bucks down race with his dirt tracker just so I could be around racing. I had graduated through a blown flathead 1949 Merc with a chain drive Itallia Mechanica Roots blower on a stock flatty. This combination was mostly successful in scaring off any competitors with its wild screaming noise produced by the blower and the whirling chain and full race flatty in a '39 sedan when the Oldsmobile craze hit the east coast. I had a '40 Ford PU, with a chopped top and white flames over Purple lacquer. This was a full on custom with another flat motor in it. I wanted more power so I built a full race Olds for it with 3 carbs, a hot cam and milled the heads down as far as I could go to boost the compression. Unfortunately this combination did not win me any races at the local drags that were forming due to the lack of traction endemic with Pickups. We were just starting to discover ways to make horsepower and outside of throwing a lot of ballast in the back we didn't know much about traction. At this time I decided to focus on drag racing mostly because it was cleaner than dirt racing. Most of the racing was still on the street since the drags only ran once a month but as more tracks opened up we moved our racing to safer venues. Prior to the introduction of drag racing there was a period in the early '50's when illegal top speed races were held on a very straight piece of road that cut through the Jersey Pine Barrens. This was arranged in advance and drew a number of cars that competed. These were mostly Olds sedans and hardtops that were built by Jack Kulp who had a shop in Pendell, Pennsylvania. This shop was populated by guys like Charlie Hammer, Porto Of Pendell, Flapper Jaw, Flannel Mouth, Atlas (George Van who began his Fuel dragster driving career with Kulpie) and many other strange and unusual characters. Needless to say the fuzz got wind of an upcoming after midnight race and came upon the scene. Although they never caught any of the drivers they rounded up a bus load of spectators and hauled them before a local judge who didn't think that standing along a road in the middle of the night was a major crime and let everyone go.
   I progressed through the various drag racing classes and was going faster each time when in 1963 I traded my '58 Vette which I was racing on a weekly basis for a brand new '63 Plymouth superstocker. The car had been purchased by a friend of mine who didn't realize that the Plymouth was a real race car that had to be maintained properly and that required work that he was not willing to do, so he proposed an even swap of his Mopar for my Corvette. I wanted to go faster so I jumped on the deal. I raced the Plymouth at Vargo, Atco & Cecil County with some success until Grumpy Jenkins and his boys began to dominate Super Stock racing with their factory sponsorships and super trick cars. At the end of 1963, I rebuilt the 426 wedge motor in preparation for the following season. During the winter I was hanging up at Ed Jepson’s' shop in Doylestown when a funny looking little guy came in out of the snow. He said his name was Doug Rohdi and he was from Dallas, Texas. This was shortly after Kennedy was murdered down there and we all looked kind of suspicious of him, but he assured us that he had nothing to do with it so we let him stay. He asked if anyone had a garage that he could put his race car in to get it out of the snow storm that was raging at the time. I was living in an apartment at the time and it came with a garage that I did not use so I invited him to follow me home. When I walked out of Jep's shop I saw what appeared to be a 1932 highboy roadster sitting on a trailer that was towed by a new Chevy sedan. The whole deal was covered with snow so we headed for my place to give it some cover. The next day I awoke with a banging headache due to the welcome party we threw to celebrate Doug's arrival or whatever. I went down to the garage to check out the roadster which was now more visible without the coating of 'Pennsylvania sunshine.' I was really surprised when I opened the hood and saw an Olds sitting back under the cowl-dressed out with 8 carbs on a log manifold, a Vertex mag, Chrome plated Headers and no visible cooling system. The driver’s seat was recessed into the rear deck area and the cockpit (I sure would like to know the origin of that word) was lined with aluminum with center steering and a large aluminum load pedal mounted on the firewall. A clutch pedal and a hand brake along with a stick shift sticking out of the floor were the only other accoutrements present. I was blown away by this machine and I thought I had gone to heaven when Doug walked in and asked if I knew anyone who would drive it for him.
   Naturally I said yes and as soon as the weather dried up we decided to take it out for a test drive on one of the many back roads in the area. This was the moment that Doug told me that the Olds ran on Nitro. It was after dark when we unloaded the car on the back road and Doug loaded the fuel tank with 85% and we pushed it down the road to get up oil pressure. On the way back I flipped on the mag and slid the shifter into high gear, pumped up the fuel pressure and let out the clutch. Needless to say I had underestimated the amount of noise that the Olds, with eight straight pipes and an 85% load in it, would make. I idled the car back to the side road where we had unloaded it and cut the wheel hard to the left and stabbed the throttle. This spun the car around so I was headed down the road. It was dark but I could see the road so I stood on the gas and the car rocketed down the strip of blacktop like it was being chased by the Devil himself. I went about an 1/8th mile down the road and slowed down until I got to the dirt road where I did another 180 and came flying back up towards the trailer which was parked around the corner of the side road. I got lucky when I came around the corner and ran right up on the trailer. We threw on the tie downs and jumped in the Chevy and took off. I was still out of breath when I pulled into the Diner for some grub. Wow, was I stoked.
   As soon as the weather broke and the tracks opened up we went to Vineland, New Jersey for the opening day race. Vineland was an asphalt oval track that ran modified stock cars but had a road course which incorporated a long straightaway that came off the fourth turn of the oval. The drag strip started at the first turn continued towards the fourth turn where it climbed the slight banking and proceeded down the rest of the quarter mile. The NHRA fuel ban was in effect at the time but we were able to talk the track manger into letting us make a couple of runs. We warmed the car and purged the cylinders then refueled and got ready to make a pass. We pushed toward the starting line and I fired the engine. This would be my first real run in a fuel car and it was a dream come true for me. I stuck the trans in high gear and flipped on the mag, dumped the clutch and the engine fired with that cackle sound that only nitro can make. As I pulled up to stage I saw that the starting system was a traffic light. The line official positioned me on the starting line and ran off to the side. The light turned green and I dropped the clutch and hit the gas. The car was going nice and straight even though the tires were pouring out smoke down the front straight-away until I hit the slight banking. When the car came off the top and onto the rest of the track the back end slid to the left and I pedaled the throttle for an instant. When it came back around straight I drilled it again and went down through the lights. I pulled the chute (a big ring slot) and grabbed the brake. Fortunately the shutdown was good and long because the chute did not blossom, but I got stopped with room to spare. The elapsed time (E.T.) was 10 seconds flat and the top speed was 158mph. I remember that like it was yesterday. 
   We came back later and made another pass. This time Doug wanted to try something that his fuel dealer had sold him back in Dallas. That something was hydrazine. We added the hydrazine to the fuel and pushed the car to the line and when the engine fired I thought it was WW3 going off right under my butt. This time I took the left lane where the banking transition was gentler. When I hammered the throttle the noise was really, really loud and the car smoked down the lane and through the lights at 9.43 seconds E.T. and the speed was 166mph. This time it was a little harder to get stopped since the chute failed to operate again and I ended up in the tooly bushes. After that pass the manager thought that perhaps we had better go home. As we pulled out of the gate it started to rain, but I was as happy as any fool could be.
   During the time that I was driving the roadster and my Plymouth I was also helping a friend of mine with his AA/gas dragster. This became an embarrassment because this guy was not cut out to be a dragster driver and couldn't find his ass if he used both hands. Along about then I became friends with Dick Belfatti, known as the "The Shadow." Dick was a local hero and was then running a fueler. He drove for himself for a while, but then hired George Van (Atlas) to drive. George had been driving for Jack Kulp's AA/gas dragster and they had everyone covered on the east Coast. Shadow and Atlas went on tour. I had to lend Atlas my helmet since he was broke at the time and didn't have one. They were on the road for the summer and when they got back Shadow had hired Bobby Vodnic to drive and Atlas was out of a ride. During the following year I bought one of Shadows cars. It was a Kent Fuller Chassis and I had a partner that was to supply the Hemi. As often happens, this partner did not come up with the grease for the Hemi so I had a car and no engine. I had sold my Plymouth to buy the dragster so I was without a ride. The partner recently moved back into the neighborhood, but I haven't been able to get a clear shot at him yet. Ed Jepson volunteered to put his blown Olds into the car, but before we could do that his wife filed for divorce and the Olds was sold for the settlement. Sure is funny how life gets in the way of having fun.
   I seemed to be in a sort of twilight zone of bad luck and my misfortune continued when I met this perky little redhead and fell in love. We planned on getting married and of course I had to sell the dragster because we needed the money to get married. Wow, two big mistakes in the same month. I learned a valuable lesson though, "never sell your race car to get married." I languished in newly wedded nirvana for about a year when I saw an ad in the paper for a mechanic to travel with a Funny Car. I called right away. That is when I met Jeff Foulk. I got the job, but I was amazed to see that the Funny Car was powered by an injected small block Ford in a flip top Cougar body with a chassis built by Kent Carlis, a local race car builder. I was disappointed with the first year running on the East Coast Fuel Funny Car Circuit run by Smoker Smith. We had a lot of breakage that year and even though Jeff could drive the wheels off the car we were always the underdog running against 500 inch Chevys and big inch Hemis. The next year we made some vital changes, but still had the same power plant, but because of the light weight of the car, the tuning updates and new tires we became competitive. Jeff was leaving on everyone we raced and the little Ford was able to cover the first half of the track faster than the other cars, so at least we stood a fighting chance and the race fans loved the underdog, especially when we won. We went on to set, and as far as I know, still own the record for the quickest small block Funny Car. There weren't too many others, but one of those was Doug Nash, and he was running a blower.
   We campaigned for a few more years switching over to a Logghe chassised car and a big inch Cleveland Ford engine, but our success was limited and Jeff and his father finally suffered from that old racer's disease called 'Lackamoney.' After that I started a pro-comp circuit which never really got off the ground so I went back to the dirt racing where I had started and built a dirt modified once again with a big inch injected small block, only this time it was a Chevy. We had to run against the big block guys, but we could do alright if we could keep it wound up and in the clear. After a few years I acquired the racer's disease and had to back off for a while. I got married again, and settled down into a life of tranquility until I started to get that itch again, when I heard about Nostalgia racing. In 1990, I formed the Eastern States Timing Association, which grew to 250 member racers and we ran 13 events a year in the PA, NJ, NY, and MD areas. During that time I owned and drove a slingshot rail powered with a 300 inch Ford six. This car ran low nines and could be pushed into the eights. Toward the end of the nineties I was buying, restoring and reselling old drag race cars. It was at this time that I purchased what was left of Junior Thompson's Opel Kadet Gasser. After 5 years of work and frustration I finally finished the car. I had been diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1998 and gave up ESTA to fight that problem. I sold the Opel back to Junior and his son Tommy and it is currently with them, though I hear that they are trying to sell the car while claiming that they did the restoration. I am still battling the cancer and I hope to be doing so for many years to come.   

Gone Racin' is at [email protected]

Click on Photos to Enlarge

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I drove the number 88 Fuel Roadster for Doug Rohdi at Vineland Speedway. This picture was taken in the spring of '64 at Vineland Speedway.

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The Finagler shot was taken in summer of '69, small block Ford powered Cougar that Jeff Foulk and I ran for Smoker Smith on the East Coast Fuel Funnycar circuit. We got runnerup and ran 8.29. All concrete track with a ton of bite. The Cougar has been restored and is still being run on a local nostalgia circuit with a Cleveland engine in it.

Pict 003AA

This is the Jr. Thompson Opel Kadet that I restored and sold to Jr. and his Son Tommy Thomson. This was taken at my house in Pottstown Pa. prior to my shipping it to Jr.

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Pict 006AA

The engine photos are of the engine that was in the Opel after I sold it to Jr. I had blown the engine and I sold the car without the engine. I then rebuilt the engine and it is currently for sale. It is a 470 ci stroker motor with all new parts and has zero runs on it.

Pict 007

This is my Jaguar XKE that I lost in a fire.

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