NHRA's 50 Greatest Drivers: No. 23 -- Jack Chrisman

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NHRA'S 50 GREATEST DRIVERS -- No. 23: JACK CHRISMAN When Jack Chrisman passed away in 1989, the drag racing world lost one of its biggest stars and greatest pioneers. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Chrisman was probably the premier gas ...

NHRA'S 50 GREATEST DRIVERS -- No. 23: JACK CHRISMAN

When Jack Chrisman passed away in 1989, the drag racing world lost one of its biggest stars and greatest pioneers.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Chrisman was probably the premier gas dragster racer in the country, or certainly one of the best. In 1961, he won the inaugural NHRA Winternationals and the NHRA World Championship. The following year, he won Top Eliminator at the U.S. Nationals.

During that era, he was, for all intents and purposes, the king of NHRA drag racing. In a way, he was the NHRA's first really big star.

Chrisman also played a major role in the development of the Funny Car class. At the 1964 U.S. Nationals, he debuted the Sachs & Sons Mercury Comet -- the sport's first blown, injected, nitro-burning Funny Car. The Comet was an exhibition car and generally regarded as an oddity, but it laid the foundation for the modern Funny Car.

Chrisman came from quite a family. Born in 1928 in Grove, Okla., he was one of 13 children who migrated to Southern California with their parents from the Dust Bowl area immortalized in John Steinbeck's novel The Grapes of Wrath. He had an older brother, Everett, who was the father of racers Art and Lloyd Chrisman, and 11 older sisters. Jack was the youngest of the brood.

He didn't find his way to a dragstrip until 1953, when he campaigned a '29 Model-A Ford with a flathead, and later an injected 354-cid Chrysler that ran both gas and nitro.

Chrisman raced the Chrysler for four years and was a fixture at tracks such as Santa Ana, Saugus, Pomona, Lions, and San Fernando.

He later bought Ed Lusinski's Purple Car, a front-engined, blown, gas-burning Chrysler dragster, and enjoyed success with that car, earning trophies at many of the SoCal tracks he frequented.

Chrisman had built quite a reputation as a driver in the busy Southern California racing scene and, as a result, he found himself rather busy. Not only did he drive the Purple Car, but he wheeled the Top Fuel dragsters of both Pat Akins' and Masters & Richter Top Fueler. The Masters & Richter team thought Chrisman to be such a proficient driver that they would fly him up to the Bay Area and back to drive their car.

In 1959, Chrisman got behind the wheel of a car that truly would gain a national reputation: the Chuck Jones-owned, Joe Maillard-tuned Sidewinder -- a short, wedge-shaped, rear-engined car that ranks as one of the most unique race cars ever built. What made the car unique was that the motor was mounted sideways, which allowed the team to use engine torque for additional traction.

Despite being less than 100 inches long, the Jones-Maillard-Chrisman Sidewinder ripped up the West Coast competition. Consistent 9.0s at more than 160 mph were more than the local racers could handle.

Chrisman drove three Sidewinder cars before moving on to Howard Johansen's camp and the Howard Cam "Twin Bears" gas dragster (side-mounted twin blown Chevy engines) in late 1960.

Aboard the Howard Cam car, Chrisman made the first eight-second run in NHRA national event competition, when his 8.99 beat Dick Rea's blown Chrysler in the first Winternationals Top Eliminator final. From there, Chrisman set the NHRA Top Eliminator (Top Gas) elapsed time record with the car in the summer, clocking an 8.78 -- a time that held up all year -- at Caddo Mills, Texas. At the end of the '61 season, Chrisman was recognized as the NHRA World Champion.

In 1962, Chrisman joined forces with Mickey Thompson, driving a single-engined blown Pontiac gas-burning Dragmaster dragster, a twin-engined Dragmaster-chassised Chevy entry, a Tommy Ivo-built Chrysler that ran either nitro or gas, and an ultra-trick, single-engined, aluminum 432-cid Pontiac with radical hemispherical heads.

Chrisman spent most of 1962 touring with the twin-engined car, and it proved to be a real terror. With it, he reset the NHRA Top Eliminator speed mark with a 176.60 charge at York, Pa., and later, the old Drag News 1320 A/GD mark of 8.34.

A few weeks before the U.S. Nationals, Thompson and Chrisman unveiled the Hemi Pontiac. As most know, Chrisman later went on to win the Indy Top Eliminator crown with it, beating such superstars as Connie Kalitta and, in the final, Don Garlits.

Chrisman then capped the year with a best-of-three win over Ohio's well-respected Gordon "Collecting" Collett at Bakersfield, Calif., for the Drag News number-one spot in Top Gas.

The '63 season was Chrisman's last with the dragsters. During a regular Sunday afternoon Top Fuel show at Pomona Raceway in May, Chrisman suffered a severe groin injury when the Yeakel Bros./Vince Rossi "Spaghetti Benders" Top Fuel dragster broke a rear end.

He spent 42 days in a Pomona hospital recuperating from the accident, and when he recovered, Chrisman went to work for National DRAGSTER in an advertising capacity. Chrisman was ready and willing to defend his Top Eliminator title at Indy that year, and in fact was slated to drive for Thompson again. Unfortunately, Thompson's open-air, triple-decker trailer overturned en route to Indy, sidelining Chrisman.

It was at that time that the Funny Car came into the picture. While working for NHRA in late 1963, Chrisman became friendly with Ford's Fran Hernandez, who was one of the key figures in Ford's drag racing program. He made sure that all the major Ford racers of the period got either a factory experimental Ford Mustang or Mercury Comet for the upcoming Super Stock wars. Chrisman wound up with a Comet, but didn't race it.

When Hernandez asked, "What's going to get you to race that car?" Chrisman reportedly said, "Put a blower on it." A few weeks later, Hernandez told Chrisman to go to Helen Sachs' Lincoln-Mercury dealership in Downey, Calif., pick up his race car, and do what he wanted with it.

Chrisman picked up the Comet, drove it to Bill Stroppe's shop in Long Beach, Calif., and the pair and their crews put together a car that would revolutionize the sport.

Chrisman debuted the car at the '64 U.S. Nationals to the capacity crowd's amazement, lighting the rear tires of the cackling nitro burner to half-track and running mid-10s at 150 mph. The car was an instant hit and toured the East Coast and Midwest for the remainder of the year and through 1965, mainly on the exhibition circuit, running 9.60s and 9.70s at more than 165 mph.

In 1966, when Mercury stars "Dyno Don" Nicholson and "Fast Eddie" Schartman got their revolutionary flip-top Comets (fiberglass bodies over basic dragster chassis) from Logghe Chassis in Michigan, so did Chrisman -- only with two big differences: Chrisman's mount was a Comet roadster and it had a blown and injected nitro SOHC Ford.

The car absolutely thundered, and generally is credited with the first Funny Car runs beyond 180 mph. At the '66 Hot Rod Magazine Championships at Riverside Raceway, Chrisman won his first race, in the Exhibition Stock category (one of several precursors to the Funny Car Eliminator), running a quick 8.72 at 184 mph and beating "Jungle Jim" Liberman in the final.

The Comet roadster went on tour and continued to set records. On July 10, at Capitol Raceway in Maryland, Chrisman went 188 mph to set the fastest speed ever for the class. However, two weeks later at the Super Stock Magazine Nationals at New York National Speedway, Chrisman's entry blew the engine, caught fire, and burned to the ground.

Undaunted, Chrisman came back with another Comet, and for the remainder of 1966 and throughout the 1970 season, raced Comet and Mustang Funny Cars at national events, on the Coke Cavalcade Circuit, and at match races.

He didn't race in 1971, but had a "sidewinder" Mustang built for the 1972 season. He never raced the car, and sold it to Roy Maheu. The car later became current star John Force's first ride, which he called "the Nightstalker", in late 1973.

During that time, Chrisman formed Jack Chrisman Enterprises in his hometown of Long Beach, supplying rear ends and driveline components for top stars of the sport until his death in 1989 of cancer at age 61.

NHRA founder Wally Parks recalled, "At anything he undertook, Jack Chrisman was one of the best. As a campaigner who drove some of his era's fastest and most innovative cars, his heads-up abilities put him out in front and won him a well-deserved World Championship title. Jack represented the true spirit of drag racing -- always ready with a smile and a willing offer of assistance."

NHRA's Top 50 Drivers are being revealed on NHRA.com and through the pages of National DRAGSTER, in reverse order throughout the 2001 season, with a schedule leading up to the naming of the top driver at the Automobile Club of Southern California NHRA Finals at Pomona Raceway on Nov. 11.

As NHRA celebrates its 50th anniversary in 2001, it has emerged as one of the most popular spectator sports, highlighted by a $50 million, 24-event, nationally televised tour. The NHRA has developed into the world's largest motorsports sanctioning body, with more than 80,000 members nationwide, and more than 140 member tracks.

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NHRA's 50 GREATEST DRIVERS 50. Elmer Trett 49. Richard Tharp 48. Malcolm Durham 47. Billy Meyer 46. Ken Veney 45. Scotty Richardson 44. Dave Schultz 43. Frank Hawley 42. David Rampy 41. John Mulligan 40. Frank Manzo 39. Danny Ongais 38. James Warren 37. Edmond Richardson 36. Blaine Johnson 35. Terry Vance 34. Willie Borsch 33. Brad Anderson 32. Darrell Gwynn 31. Dick LaHaie 30. Chris Karamesines 29. Art Chrisman 28. George Montgomery 27. Jim Dunn 26. Gene Snow 25. Tommy Ivo 24. Gary Beck 23. Jack Chrisman

-NHRA-

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