CHARLOTTE, N.C. (January 11, 2004) -- In 1974 a young, 15-year old Charles Carpenter first strapped into a 1955 Chevrolet Bel Air and began his drag racing career. Since then, there have been 30 Super Bowls, six Presidents (two named George Bush), the end of the Cold War, two Gulf Wars, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the introduction (and quick demise) of New Coke. During all this time, one thing has remained constant -- Carpenter's involvement in drag racing behind the wheel of his beloved '55 Chevrolet.
Today, at 45, Carpenter is older but far from slower. In fact, he is now running the best times and fastest speeds of his three-decade-long career.
"When I first got started in racing we were running 11-seconds and around 100 mph for a quarter-mile pass and thought we were really flying," said Carpenter. "At Rockingham (N.C.) last October I laid down my best runs ever, clocking a 6.247 ET and more than 224 mph."
Over the years, Carpenter has owned five different drag cars, each of them a 1955 Chevrolet Bel Air. Today, his claim of owning "The World's Fastest '55" is valid and the current model, adorned in purple and yellow, is among the most popular on the Pro Modified circuit. And while many of his competitors use the same body style, such as a Corvette or Camaro, Carpenter remains the sole '55 Chevy in Pro Mod competition.
Because of his devotion to this car, Carpenter has been named by many as "Father of the Pro Mod."
"The 'Father of the Pro Mod' really was an accidental thing," explained Carpenter. "When I started racing the '55 Chevys, they were still popular in class racing. We ran in many different types of class competition and the car was still an accepted body style (used by other competitors). Then in the mid to late '70s, more aerodynamic and smaller cars started appearing on the race tracks -- the Vegas, the Monzas -- cars like that. There were also Camaros, of course.
"Finally, it got to a point that my car was almost not competitive and then IHRA allowed us nitrous oxide. That was in the early '80s and when we started using the nitrous it suddenly caught me up with these smaller, more aerodynamic cars. Then the media picked up on it and they loved it. They liked that a 'shoebox' -- a big, boxy car -- was out here racing with these little sleek cars and that started the Pro Modified drive."
No slouch behind the wheel, Carpenter really can't tell you the number of victories he has captured over the years, but estimates them at more than 200. He was twice national points champion in the Super Chevy Series (1988, '89) and was the 1992 United States Super Circuit champion. Carpenter was the first of the nostalgia car drivers to break the 200-mph barrier, as well the first to break into the seven-second and six-second elapsed times. Carpenter has set more than 20 track records, as recently as this past August at Eddyville (Iowa) Raceway.
Carpenter has developed a legion of fans over the decades, some with personal memories of the '55 Chevy, others from watching his career over the years.
"I've developed quite a following over the years," Carpenter admitted. "Everywhere I go people come up and tell me that they watched me race at some little track, like Shuffletown, years ago and have been a fan ever since. I have to laugh because quite a few of those tracks that I used to race at are no longer even around -- most have been turned into housing developments."
It is not just the fans that have been loyal to Carpenter, either. He has had several sponsors remain with his program for a number of years, including Custom AutoSound and Buddy's Automotive Concepts.
"I've had some sponsors come and go like every race team," reflected Carpenter. "Custom AutoSound and Buddy's are unusual in that they have stuck by my side through thick and thin for nearly 15 years. Now I've got some new sponsors, such as Embee Performance Coatings and Country Motors Trailer Sales that are excited about using racing to market their products and their enthusiasm is motivating me to have 2004 be my best season yet."
When asked about the most significant changes that he has noticed over the years, Carpenter replied with an unexpected answer. "Now you can buy everything," said Carpenter. "You can even go out and buy a complete race car and head straight out to the track. Thirty years ago that was impossible. Back then we adapted things, fabricated and reworked almost every part that went on the race car."
While cruising the pits at the races, spectators often see the drivers off to the side watching as their crew prepares the car. Today's teams often divide up the duties so that the driver does little else. On the other hand, Carpenter is a throwback to the "olden days" and takes a hands-on approach to setting up his car. Fans asking for his autograph at the races are likely to get some clutch dust along with a signature. After 30 years of doing things himself, it isn't likely that Carpenter is going to give up turning a wrench anytime soon.
And since Carpenter has no plans to hang up his helmet anytime soon, fans of the "World's Fastest '55" can look forward to watching him for years to come. Could we see a 50th Anniversary for Carpenter in the future?