The "Albertson Olds"
(their sponsor) gas dragster was owned by Ron Scrima, Gene Adams
and originally driven by the late Leonard Harris and later by
Tom McEwen. It had a short life span for cars of that era as
it only ran for the 1960 season and part of 1961. Below is the
whole story as told by Greg Sharp, Curator of the NHRA Wally
Parks Motorsports Museum.
Engine builder Gene Adams already
was a drag racing legend from his exploits with his famed dark
blue '50 Olds fastback that dominated the coupe and sedan classes
from Saugus to Santa Ana. His engine found its way into everything
from Vern Tomlinson's '34 coupe to a fiberglass sports car, holding
several records simultaneously. Adams' brother, Gary, and Mort
Smith also used the motor in a Ronnie Scrima-built dragster that
they campaigned successfully throughout Southern California.
Driver Leonard Harris owned a
Seaside service station in Playa Del Rey. He was a well-known
street racer with his yellow '56 Olds, as was his buddy, "Stump"
Davis. After tiring of the tickets and hassles that resulted
from street racing, Harris bought the former Ostling & Argento
Fiat competition coupe with the intention of building a blown
Olds engine for it.
The Albertson Oldsmobile dealership
was a short distance down Sepulveda Boulevard from Adams' home.
Longtime Albertson parts manager Don Farr introduced Adams and
Harris in early I960, and at Fair's urging, Adams agreed to put
his 407-cid Olds engine in Harris' coupe.
The Albertson Oldsmobile Racing
team posed for this publicity shot at the Culver City dealership
in spring 1960. From left, kneeling, are Gene Adams and Ronnie
Scrima; standing, Lou Albertson, Leonard Harris, and sales manager
Phil McNab, Albertson Oldsmobile was the first dealership to
become a household name among race fans nationwide.
Chassis builder Scrima, Adams'
close friend and occasional crew member, purchased a Chassis
Research K-88 dragster frame. Chassis Research, founded in 1957
by outspoken and controversial Scotty Fenn, was the first company
to produce dragster frames commercially. The company eventually
produced more than 2,000 complete chassis. Scrima removed the
small top frame rail and Fenn was not happy about this modification,
but it sure worked...and made identifying the car very easy.
Scotty thought it was dangerous that way and wanted to sever
any connection to it.
Harris' driving ability and the
willingness of Albertson to provide sponsorship in the form of
engine parts, paint jobs, and lettering brought the trio together.
The Albertson Olds dragster debuted April 24 after Adams' Olds
was taken from the Fiat and lowered between the K-88 chassis'
huge three-inch by .095-inch framerails.
The combination of a chassis that worked, abundant reliable horsepower,
and a naturally skilled driver clicked immediately. Harris broke
Tommy Ivo's San Fernando track record with a 9.30, set top speed
of the meet at 163.33 mph, and won the event. He repeated the
feat a week later at Lions.
Harris, a former top-ranked gymnast
who won two national championships on steel rings, possessed
tremendous body strength, coordination, and concentration despite
his slight five-foot, six-inch stature. He could finesse the
clutch and throttle off the starting line to avoid smoking the
tires and muscle his way through any handling difficulties.
This remarkable photo by Petersen's
Bob DOIivo captures the essence of Leonard Harris' driving talent.
Notice the black stripes behind the slicks just off the slippery
Detroit starting line and the absence of smoke. Harris was sliding
the clutch before anyone discovered it as the quick way to get
down the strip.
A straightforward driver, Harris
would enter the staging area with the engine just above idle;
he never winged the throttle or abused the motor. He would stage,
bring up the motor, then leave. He seemed to have a sixth sense
about who he had to leave on, who he could drive around, and
he did only what was necessary to win.
On May 15, at the Inyokern NHRA
Record Meet, Harris set the national class record before a spun
bearing broke a rod in Adams' trusty Olds. In search of more
power, Adams built a 462-cid replacement using a '59 block and
a 6-71 blower. On May 21, they broke it in with a 9.08,163.33-mph
pass to begin an amazing string of 12 straight Top Eliminator
wins at Lions, then the most hotly contested Top Gas track in
the country with fields often in excess of two dozen entries.
After only a six month reign
of terror, Leonard Harris was killed in another car at Lions
in late 1960, Scrima left the team and Tom McEwen took over the
driving, beginning a long and successful partnership with Gene
Adams. It was necessary to add a second hoop to the roll cage,
as McEwen was quite a bit taller than Harris. According to Gene
the car never lost a single round of competition at Lions during
the fuel ban. But then the car became obsolete quickly, and was
sold for something newer, longer, and lighter. The additional
bar was another sure sign of the car's authenticity.
Lions Drag Strip 1960
After Harris' fatal accident
in another car, the Albertson Olds became the first in a string
of successful Adams & McEwen collaborations. Long before
he became "the Mongoose," Tom McEwen praised it as
one of the few s/ng/e-eng/ne cars that could run with the big
twins. The addition of a second roll bar, due to McEwen's height,
and the parachute are the major differences from the Albertson
trim. Here, McEwen was out first against eventual Top Eliminator
Jack Chrisman in the Howard twin, setting the fastest single-engine
speed of 170.77 mph.
Photos by Eric Rickman, Bob
D'Olivo, Randy Fish, and from the Petersen Photo Library and
the author's collection.
Pictured here at a big Lions
meet, the Olds is at the far end, preceded by Joe Tucci's Lyn-wood
Welding Chrysler, the Mudersbach-Herbert Cams twin Chevys, the
Guzzler Chrysler of Chicago's John Kranenburg, the Magwinder,
the Howard Cams-Chrisman twin, and Hayden Proffitt's Miss Tuned
Gene Adams (foreground right)
tuning, the late Leonard Harris driving. This picture was taken
on the Tuesday night before the NHRA Nationals at Detroit in
Dave Dewars photo
NHRA Nationals at Detroit
To qualify for Top Eliminator
at the Nationals, the Albertson Olds crew first had to wade through
a field of 35 A/Dragsters. Harris then beat the AA/D class-winning
Two Thing Drag-master before beating Red Dyer in Raymond Godman's
A/MR Tennessee Bo-Weevil in the final. At right is starter Joe
Guiterrez of the Dust Devils car club.
NHRA Nationals at Detroit
After winning the 1960 NHRA Nationals
L to R: Ronnie Scrima, Leonard Harris, Gene Adams, Vern Tomlinson,
Stump Davis, Starter ?
Minnesota Dragway 1960
Bob DOIivo, third from right,
presented the Motor Life Low El trophy to the Albertson Olds
crew at the 1960 Nationals. From left are team members "Stump"
Davis, Ronnie Scrima, Leonard Harris, Vern Tomlin-son, and Gene
Dave Dewars Photo
Minnesota Dragways 1960
- Stump, Gene, Vern, Ronnie and Leonard.
The weekend after Detroit, September
10th and 11th, Adams, Scrima, Harris "Albertson Olds"
(below) came back to Minnesota Dragways for a Mr. Eliminator
match-up with the Big Wheel. Both cars had 12 race winning streaks
in class (A/GD) going into Detroit, where Leonard trailered Bruce
Norman in the Big Wheel twice. 13 for Harris, 12 for Bruce. At
Minnesota Dragways, in the race for the Mr. Eliminator title
Leonard did it again. However the streak ended the next run.
In the race for A/Gas Dragster class Bruce made a better start.
The Big Wheel, was the winner of A-Gas class with a 9:13 e.t.
In the pits at Long Beach
Summer of 1960 at Lions
Tom McEwen vs. Tommy
Ivo - Fontana, 1960
McEwen & Adams at
Fontana, Dec. 1960 with Stump Davis in the seat.
Doug Peterson photo
After being passed around SoCal
the car eventually was owned by a guy named Charles Finley, who
lived either in Alabama. Over the years the car was basically
abandoned, and was quietly rusting away. Somehow, the late "Big
Gene" Townley discovered the cars whereabouts, and the newly
formed NHRA Historical Services Department bought it. John Zenda
was running the "pre-museum" at that time, and he drove
to Finley's place to pick up the car. Don Ratican was paid to
do the restoration. By all accounts he did nice job putting the
car back, as closely as possible, to the original configuration.
It was even in running condition (almost). This would have been
'91 or '92.
When the new museum was done,
the car was among its original tenants. In 2004, after the overwhelming
success and popularity of Cacklefest the good folks at the museum
put on some finishing touches and had the old girl making noise.
It was first taken to the 50th U.S. Nationals in 2004.
Though three decades have passed
since their six months of glory, the entire Albertson crew has
remained active in racing. Adams is a major force in fuel systems
through his Gene Adams Performance shop in Oceanside, Calif.
Tomlinson has been a mainstay
at Fuel Injection Engineering (Hilborn) for nearly 35 years,
and Davis has worked for Hilborn, Shelby, and Dan Gurney's All
Scrima built many famous dragsters
and Funny Cars at his Exhibition Engineering business through
1975. Since 1979, he has operated Racing Engine Service in Arlington,
Texas, which specializes in motorcycle engines for all types
of racing, including mini-sprints and SCCA.
Albertson Olds still is in Culver
City and run by the Albertson family, as it has been since 1948.
When the late John Zenda and
Don Ratican picked up the remains of the Albertson Olds at Charles
Finley's Birmingham, Ala., lake house (above), there was just
enough left to identify it as the real thing. One of the all-time
greatest Oldsmobile racers, Don Ratican, with his wife, Rose
(below), beamed with pride at the outcome of their restoration
The car made its debut
at the 50th US Nationals Cacklefest in 2004 with Jimmy Scott
in the seat.
It's next appearance
was at the 2004 National Hot Rod Reunion in Bowling Green, KY
It then made it back
to the west coast for the 2004 CHRR at Bakersfield.
Goob Tuller got the driving
job for Cacklefest V.
As they prepared to leave for
the cars debut at the 40th U.S. Nationals, Ratican's rig was
an impressive sight with its beautifully restored '57 Olds coupe
tow car. He didn't miss a detail, right down to the Albertson
Olds license-plate frames on car and trailer "California
Hot Rod Reunion III -33".
In 2005 the car sat in the NHRA
Wally Parks Motorsports Museum until Cacklefest VI at the CHRR.
Here it is parked with some of its cacklecar friends.
For this event Jim Adolph
got the ride.