Drag Racing

Ted married his high school sweetheart, Lois Maginnis Thatcher, and started a family. Ted still had the racing itch, so in the 1950’s, Ted would visit the Santa Ana dragstrip to watch his friend and fellow milkman for the Meadowview Dairy, Leon Fitzgerald, run a B Gas, ‘38 Chevy coupe. During these early drag racing days, Ted learned welding and chassis fabrication. Ted and Leon became partners and they built a dragster with a 324 cu. in. Olds engine with a front mounted Blower that ran in the B Dragster class. Santa Ana, Irwindale and San Gabriel drag strips were their asphalts of choice.

Ted and Leon decided to install a Fiat Topolino body on the dragster so they could run in the B Competition Coupe Class. The car did well, setting track records and collecting trophies. It also had a unique reputation. The chrome transfer tubes from the blower to the Potvin intake manifold had a bunch of dents and scrape marks. As the car made its run, the pressure built up in those tubes and it would cause them to blow off the car at the finish line. One would hear the engine winding out with a loud “poof” just as the engine shut down. The “poof” was the failure of the clamps causing the tubes to be launched end over end into the sky. At night, under the glare of the lights, the chrome tubes would sparkle and flip in the air like a July Fourth display. The track announcer would say, ”It looks like the Fitzgerald-McMullen car is running well tonight since their blower tubes are spinning through the air.”

Ted stayed involved in drag racing, but it was the design and fabrication that he came to enjoy most. Leon Fitzgerald continued racing and went on to drag racing fame driving that wild Bantam bodied AA Fuel Altered, “Pure Heaven”.

U.S. Speed Sport not only built production street rods – from bare chassis to complete car – they also built custom chassis, including use in dragsters. Drag racing was still in Ted’s blood and he wanted to build a dragster that promoted the products and design activities of U.S. Speed Sport. In the short time that the shop was operating, dragster frames had grown in length from stubby to well proportioned.(Front engine dragsters would last only a few more years and their frames would lengthen even more.)

Ted built the first U.S. Speed Sport dragster chassis in 1963.  It had a streamline fiberglass body with a blown Chrysler Hemi engine.  Before it ever hit the strip, Ted and his driver, Andy Yancy, took the car late at night to an industrial section of Norwalk, California, to test and tune the engine.

Greenstone Avenue was a well-known isolated street racing spot, since it was hidden among buildings and was wide and deserted at night.  They removed the car from the trailer, fired it up, and commenced tuning the engine.  Andy tried some burn outs and then gave it a full wind-out as if on a quarter mile strip.  The car was way to quick for Andy, since he was used to driving Gassers, and his judgment of the stopping distance to the wooden barricade at the end of the street was off.  The car skidded on the big rear slicks and slammed into the wooden barrier.  As soon as the car stopped, Andy pulled the chute.  Too little too late.  The tow truck driver summoned by Ted was real cool.  He and Ted worked feverishly to get the dragster onto the flatbed so they could disappear – except the noise had brought some spectators – and a local Sheriff squad car.  The cops thoroughly chewed out Ted and the tow truck driver, and told them to get out of there and don’t come back.

In 1964, Ted built a lightweight frame with a torsion suspension. He modified a fiberglass T body by cutting wheel wells in the sides, molded a cover over the open body and attached a bolt on extended pick-up bed. This design set the body far back on the frame, resulting in a low, sleek wicked looking roadster pickup. The rail was also powered by a blown 392 cu. in. Chrysler Hemi, sucking nitromethane for fuel. This configuration did not fit within the vehicle classifications set by NHRA, the sanctioning organization used at Lions Drag Strip in Long Beach, California. There was class A/MFR for the short wheelbase, big block modified fuel roadsters, but no AA class for a long wheelbase like the new U.S. Speed Sport car. With no one to really run against, the U.S. Speed Sport car could only run exhibition passes down the ¼ mile track. And that is exactly what happened.

Ted had hired a local boy from San Pedro to pilot the AA/MFR. He was a real character and a top-notch driver; a genuine talent by the name of Gary Gabelich. Gary was one of a very rare breed of intuitive drivers – without a hint of fear. And driving Ted McMullen’s car that was capable of speeds approaching 190 mph, was just the ticket for Gary to put on a show.

When the car was push started and fired, Gary would turn it around and come back to the starting line on the return road. At Lions Drag Strip, the bleachers were separated from the return road by about ten feet of asphalt and a rickety chain link fence. Most everyone at the time was using “zoomies”; which were exhaust headers that made a 180-degree arc and dumped the exhaust on the tires. The idea was that the tires would heat up and provide a better grip on the track. The U.S. Speed Sport car ran exhaust headers that were called “weed sprayers”. They splayed out from the engine and sat parallel to the ground. Spectators “in the know” would crowd up to the fence as Gary made his return to the line. This is what they knew and expected:

As Gary cruised past the giddy line of spectators, he steered close to the chain link fence and revved the big Chrysler full throttle, spewing out blue flames about a foot from the open headers, blasting the fans’ pant legs, like a nitromethane machine gun. Seen from behind, one can only say that it was a spectacular sight. As the car passed, one by one, fans’ pant legs fluttered from the blast all the way down the fence line. The blasting blue flames caused fans to leap back from the fence as if in some synchronized moving wave. Thus, the original sports fans “wave” was created. And to top it off, Gary would throw his long lanky arm out of the cockpit and straight up into the air, flipping the bone to the crowd. This, of course, was part of the show, and the crowd loved it. His helmet even had a painted cartoon hand flipping the bone and “The Bone” was lettered right on top. And to add to the flair, Ted built a push-bumper and mounted it on the Instant T. It was quite a sight to see the Instant T pushing the T bodied Double A Modified Fuel Roadster.

This activity took place over a few months and though Gary got a big kick out of the sport he made with the fans, even though he was warned time and time again by track officials to cease his offensive and dangerous behavior.

Ted’s AA/Modified Fuel Roadster racing partner, Jerry Goure, ultimately put an end to the drag racing plans of U.S. Speed Sport. Gary told Ted that he wanted the steering to be more responsive – he explained to Ted that when the front wheels lifted on take off, he needed less play for tighter steering. “It makes a difference,” he told Ted.  Ted knew what Gary needed and adjusted the steering for a very tight, quick response for a skilled driver.  Gary drove the car many times with the adjusted steering and was very pleased with the feel – Ted had got it just as he wanted.  However, on that fateful day at Lions Drag Strip, Gary did not have his firesuit, so Jerry wanted to drive the car.  Ted was nervous about the event, almost clairvoyant, trying to discourage Jerry, but Jerry insisted on driving.  Jerry had driven a few times before, but was still a novice.  So jerry drove it for his first time with the tighter steering configuration.  He handled the car well enough until he hit top speed.  For no apparent reason,, he drifted off the track and plowed the car into the side wooden fence at nearly 190 mph, causing the car to flip end over end in the finish lights as the car disintegrated. Ted’s well-built roll cage remained intact and Jerry only suffered a dislocated shoulder. The car was brought home in the back of a pick-up truck, literally in pieces.

After the crash, Ted examined most of the steering parts and could find no evidence of failure.  It appeared that Jerry just did not yet have the skills to handle a fine tuned racing suspension at those speeds. Gary moved on to drive for the Sandoval Brothers, coaxing some impressive speeds from their hard charging AA Fuel Dragster, called “The Scoundrel”. Gary was on the fast track (pun intended) to set speed records, and in 1969, he did it with powerboats. By 1970 and back on land, Gary signed on with the racecar design firm, Reaction Dynamics. In October of that year, he drove their liquid fuel rocket powered car, The Blue Flame, to a land speed record of 622.407 at the Bonneville salt-flats. This record lasted for an amazing 13 years. Unfortunately, Gary Gabelich was killed in 1984 in a motorcycle accident.