Howard Cams Rattler


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In the 50s through the mid 70s Howard Johansen sponsored and/or owned countless dragsters driven by the likes of Jack Chrisman, Larry Dixon, Norm Wilcox and Rick Ramsey. Staples of the "Howard Cams Gang" were Jerry Johansen, Danny, Tony and Jim Porche and Larry Miersch who put together one of the most successful fuel dragsters of the1969 season... the Howard Cams "Rattler".

Howard Cams Rattler AA/FD (1968-1972), With a 175" chassis built by Roy Fjasted (SPE), wrapped in a Kenny Ellis Body with paint by Cerney, this car, powered by a 460" hemi on 88%, recorded a best of 6.42 at 230.00 MPH during its time. Originally driven by Rick Ramsey in early-’68, then by Larry Dixon Sr. from mid ’68 till 1972, it recorded wins at events like the 1969 NHRA Winternationals, the Hot Rod Magazine Championships (1969) and the PDA Championships(1969). Sold in 1972, it competed in various classes until it was found four years ago in Washington state.




The Howard Cams "Rattler" made its debut at Lions Drag Strip in Long Beach, CA in late 1968. Rick Ramsey was in the seat and the car had yet to have paint, a nose or chrome.


Drag Racing Memories Collections photo



Dixon driving the Rattler for the Porche Bros., Miersch & Johansen started 1969 off as good as it gets... winning the NHRA Winternationals at Pomona. This not only allowed the team to put a full nose on the car but race it almost weekly throughout the '69 season.
Drag Racing Memories Collections photo


Drag Racing Memories Collections photo


Dixon smokin' Garlits in 1969 - literally.
Drag Racing Memories Collections photo


Larry Dixon - "Rattler" - AA/FD - Dallas, 1969


Dixon at OCIR in 1969



Dixon accepts PDA winners check from Mike Jones at OCIR in 1969. Also present are the "Howard Cam Bunch", and Larry Dixon Jr. (in the seat).


Lions 1969







The year is 1996 and Brett Johansen, grandson of Howard was recently married to Nick Arias's youngest daughter. They were at her parents house one summer evening when Big Nick (Arias Jr) came home. He walked in the door with a big smile on his face and said, "Guess what, I think I may know where the Rattler is." Wayne King had called and told him that he was pretty sure that the Rattler was up in his neck of the woods (Washington State). King explained that a friend of his knew a fairly well known car collector had owned it for some time and had recently passed away. The collector's widow was going to be putting everything up for auction to the general public. The bad news was she was going to be doing it in 3 days. King told Arias that he thought they could buy the car (& trailer) before it went to auction but they needed to act fast. His next statement to Johansen was "what do you think little Jo, should we buy it?". Johansen told him that he would love to have and restore it, but that there was no way that he could afford to buy it in 3 days. Arias said not to worry about it, that he would buy it and that Johansen could pay him back later. Johansen looked at his then wife and got a halfhearted approval. He told Nick that he would think about it over night and would let him know the next day.

Arias did not even bother waiting for Johansen's answer, he called Wayne King and told him to broker the deal for the chassis and trailer without even seeing the car. King was pretty confident that it was the car but there was still some apprehension from Nick and Brett's side in SoCal. The deal was made and Big Nick's close friend Ken Logan offered to haul the car back home from Washington State.

The first person Johansen called was Danny Porche, who was the original car owner. He could not believe what Brett was telling him but was pretty confident that he could tell if it was the original car or not. He said, "If I can look at it, I will be able to tell." This is where it became eerie. Ken Logan was going to tow it directly to the hallowed grounds of Bakersfield. It happened to be the weekend of the 1996 CHRR. Porche, Arias and Johansen met Logan as he parked the trailer near one of the many telephone poles lining the west side of the pits. Before they opened the back of the trailer, Johansen asked Porche, "How are you going to know if it is the Rattler?" He said, "The car began to sag a little bit and Johansen's father had Roy Fjastad (SPE) butt a couple of extra saddle doublers on the top frame rails and they were nothing like anyone else had."  

With that being said they lowered the back door to get their first glimpse of the car. It was a small trailer in which only the car would fit so they had to pull it out to get a good look. As they drug her out, Danny was standing right there waiting to look at the motor mount locations. After a close inspection, he looked up and said, "Well I'll be a S.O.B, this is it, this is the Rattler". Needless to say they were all pretty excited at this point but decided to further inspect the body panels that came with it. That was the clinching point for all of them. Even though the car had been painted over, you could still see some of the original Kelly lettering beneath the fire engine red overcoat that had been applied. The body was pretty much intact and original. The only damage was to the cowl. It had been cut out so a much larger person could get in the car. They pushed her back in and locked the trailer. Logan towed her the rest of the way to Arias's race shop in Gardena. They ended up moving the car into Johansen's garage in Lawndale for a couple of months because he was in no way ready to start the restoration or even had an idea where to begin.

Move forward to the spring of '97. This is where the savior to the entire project entered, Nick Arias III. Nick had moved in with Johansen in April of '97. He had always wanted to be involved in a restoration and offered to spearhead this one. Steve Gibbs also had a bid influence on them. He had called and asked if there was anyway to have the car completed in time for the grand opening of the NHRA Motorsports Museum. His request is what really lit a fire under Arias III and Johansen. As with most people, both of them would do absolutely anything for Gibbs and they both knew that they had to have the car done for the grand opening. Failure was not an option.

The car ended up being a much needed distraction for both of them. They were both dealing with personal issues at the time and the resto was perfect timing. The first thing that had to happen was making sure the chassis was correct and straight. First stop was Dave Tuttle's shop because he was a close friend of Nick's. Dave spent a lot of time and did a wonderful job going over the chassis. He also remade the cowl (the only piece that was a mandatory remake). They also choose to remake the panels that mated to the cowl because it was easier and cleaner. Tuttle is one of the better body fabricator in the business. He saved the magnesium nose piece without adding or replacing any material. Danny Porche also played a huge part in providing some original parts for the car while running all over town gathering up other parts that they did not have, like an Olds rear end. Porche even had the original Scott injector with lines and all.

While Tuttle was finishing up chassis and body tasks, Arias and Johansen had the daunting task of finding a big piece of the puzzle, the engine. Enter savior #2, Frank Hedge. Johansen's uncle Bob had spoke with Hedge about the car and Frank offered to supply a long block, no charge. Johansen had known who Hedge was for many years, but had no real direct contact with him. Bob set up a time for Nick and Brett to meet Frank at his house in Studio City. Johansen remembers it like it was yesterday. They walked into his garage on a Saturday morning thinking that everything would be there ready to assemble, not a chance.

Hedge and his side kick at the time, Tom Shelar had a block on the engine stand and a crankshaft buried somewhere amongst all of the endless supply of "stuff." They spent most of the morning putting the short block together with Howard Rods and Arias pistons that Hedge had "lying around." Hedge said now it is time for the heads. Johansen asked where they were... bad question. Follow me Mr. Johansen and I will show you. Brett figured they were somewhere close in the backyard or put away in the shop. Fat chance. For those of you who do not know Hedge, at the time of the Rattler restoration he was the facilities manager at Harvard-Westlake High School. The house he lived in was next to the school grounds via a small gate. The next thing Johansen knew they were on a journey across the school on a Saturday (school is closed and locked up tight) afternoon. It is late enough for flash lights and Hedge took Nick, Tom and Brett to this little fenced in yard. He unlocks it and they go in.

At this point its necessary to paint of picture of this yard. It is probably 30 square feet of rolling terrain hidden in the back of the school and completely covered with tarps. Hedge says, "I know there are some cylinder heads in her somewhere, I am just not sure exactly where." He started rummaging around lifting up different portions of tarp while Tom or Brett shines the flashlight wherever he is looking. They had never seen so much "crap" in their lives. To add another twist everything was oily and covered with dirt to keep it from rusting. If any of you knew Brett's grandfather, Howard and how he collected everything, this was pretty close to that. They finally found a set of heads and rockers and proceeded back to the house. A long way to be carrying iron heads and rockers for anyone. They ended up spending another six hours dissembling, cleaning and reassembling the heads and rockers. They did not leave there until 2am, some 20 hours after they arrived. They ended up coming back the next morning and spent all of that Sunday finishing everything. They loading it all in Nick's truck and heading back to Gardena.

After a fair amount of time spent getting the car back from Tuttle (December 97), they decided to do a dry assembly to make sure everything fit and looked correct. This is where they ran into their first problem. The engine angle wasn't anywhere close to being right and had to be fixed. Enter savior #3, Bruce Dyda at Dyda Race Eng. He agreed to make all of the needed corrections for a more than fair fixed price.

After picking up the car from Bruce Dyda's shop, it was reassembled for its second dry fit. Everything was near perfect. The chassis was sent off to Pisano's for powder coating and the body to Swede's for paint. Johansen and Arias spent their spare time wisely by fabricating the balance of parts need to complete the motor and driveline.

The chassis returned from powder coating and final assembly began. The excitement level was beginning to rise for all involved. Word started to spread that the car was close to completion and foot traffic from outside visitors was growing with each passing day. The next week was spent assembling the car and putting all of the last minute details in place (the height of the oil pressure gauge was changed 3 times). Once everything was in place the car was loaded in the trailer and taken back to Frank Hedge's house.

Once their, final preparations were made before the car would see it's first life in almost 30 years. if you remember earlier in this story it was stated that Hedge lived in Studio City. For those of you who are not familiar with the LA, it is a very nice area comprised mostly of movie industry families. No place for a drag racer. Frank proclaimed that it was time to bring life back to the Rattler. He was asked, "Where are we going to start it". He stated "Right here on the street." He had Tom Shelar bring out blocks of wood and place them under the rear door of the trailer leaving the door on the same plane as the rest of the trailer. The car was rolled out onto the trailer door so the header exhaust was clear of the trailer roof line.






Bob Downey jumped in the car, a starter was placed on the blower, injector primed, motor spun over, mag switch flipped and jumped to life like it was yesterday. She ran for a minute or two , shut off and quickly put back in the trailer. It was all caught on tape - links below.



What Frank had forgotten to tell everyone is that he and his next door neighbor had had a running feud over noise stemming from Frank's personal race car. Needless to say the cops were there within 5 minutes asking questions about a race car being started on the street. Turned out the men in blue were drag racing fans and they were asked to kindly make sure that the car was not started again. Everyone obliged and called it a day.



The car was returned to Gardena where the freshly painted and lettered body was installed. The journey was almost over. One last trip to make. On the way to her new home at the NHRA Museum the car needed some additional lettering added by Kelly & Son. Nothing like waiting to the last moment. After about an hour in the paint shop, she finally arrived at the NHRA Museum. Steve Gibbs had not seen any of the progress and was not sure what he was going to see. Once the Rattler was unloaded and exposed to sunshine, she took every ones breath away and needless to say Gibbs was very pleased. The car was rolled into the Museum and readied for the grand opening with 4 hours to spare.


The restored car made its CHRR debut in 1997 and its Cacklefest debut as one of the original nine in 2000.


First push start - 2000 - Larry Dixon in the seat, Steve Gibbs pushing.


If one didn't know better this shot could have been taken in 1969. Larry Dixon push start at the 2000 CHRR.


Rattler lit after the Cacklefest push start in 2000.


The first Cacklefest in 2000 was such a smash hit that NHRA asked the museum to do a pared down version at the 2001 Winternationals. The Rattler was on hand with Dixon in the seat. The Big Show crowd went nuts.



Dixon in the 2002 pre-Cacklefest parade.




2002 Cacklefest fire up.



Bob Downey was in the Rattler at the 2003 NHRA Winternationals Cacklefest.


The Rattler made the trip to Bowling Green, KY for the first NHRR in 2003. Dixon was available to drive and Larry Jr. and Larry III made the trip down from Indy to visit.




Gregg Sharp and Steve Gibbs oversee Sean Bellemeur executing a push start at the 2003 NHRR in Bowling Green.


Ronnie Hampshire got the honor to drive the car at the 2003 CHRR Cacklefest.





Jimmy Scott was in the Rattler at the 2004 NHRA Winternationals Cacklefest and the 2004 CHRR.



In 2005 the car made its third trip to Bowling Green and put NTF driver Sean Bellemeur in the seat.




Closing out the 2005 season Marvin Graham got the cackle at the CHRR.




When its not on the road the Howard Cams "Rattler" is on display at the Wally Parks NHRA Motorsports Museum located at the Pomona Fairplex in Pomona, CA.



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