Caption Kent Lentz' smokes the tires in the early 1960s. Photo by Bob Johnson

VINTAGE MACHINES

The glory days of drag racing

by Ken Handman

At a recent event, I saw an old hotrod wearing a T-shirt that "tells it like it is" for a lot of guys with memories of the glory days of drag racing. It said, "The older I get, the faster I was."

Kent Lentz may be the one guy who doesn't need that shirt. Kent is the retired aerospace fabricator featured in last week's article about the P-40 aircraft restoration project. This guy was fast in the '60s. Twenty years later he was even faster.

In 1962 he decided to build a drag racer. With no prior chassis fabricating experience he constructed the car shown here. The 283-cubic-inch Corvette engine came from his street hot rod. Predictably, the combination of a new car, an inexperienced, but talented crew and a "green" driver lengthened the path to the winner's stand.

Kent said that one of the detours came early in his driving career when he got "a face full of oil" and crashed at the end of a 125-mph run. The overstressed engine built too much crankcase pressure causing a valve cover gasket to blow out.

As you can see in the photo, if a big glop of oil exits the engine at a valve cover, it is going to land on the driver's face shield. Lentz was bruised but otherwise unhurt when he walked away from the wreckage. Speeds increased and elapsed times (ET) decreased as experience was gained throughout the '60s.

The glory of those days was that a guy with a modest budget and a lot of talent could be as competitive as a team with deep pockets. You could go to the track and run almost anything that was safe. All the equipment (except the dragster chassis) was based on stock cars. You could play with cams, carbs, headers and ignition, but you could not spend a lot of money. Everything from sports cars to nitro-burning top-fuel cars competed on the same track and everyone learned a lot and had a good time.

In 1971, Kent sold his share of the car to his partner and quit racing. But he caught the bug again in 1987. By then the old front engine cars were hopelessly outdated by rear engine dragsters. Thankfully the Nostalgia Drag Racing Association (NDRA) was formed. NDRA held regular race meets at the Bakersfield Drag Strip, and Kent figured that it would be a lot of fun to go play race-driver again.

So he looked up his old friend, who still had the original chassis, and bought it from him. Then he located most of the other parts in Orange County and bought back them as well. Finally he built a 360-CI Chevy engine and went racing in 1988.

The first NDRA event with the rebuilt car created two surprises. The first was a blistering 170-mph speed with an ET of 8.8 seconds in a quarter mile (A fast, modern sport sedan will accelerate to about 85 mph with a 13.5 ET).

The second surprise was that the car's original crew chief, Mike Merryman, was at the track and saw the run. He immediately contacted Kent in the pits and they talked about the old days, before deciding to race together again. The first thing they did was change from gas to the nitro-burning class. This increased the speed to 178 mph and an ET of 8.13 seconds, very close to the NDRA class record. Not content with this accomplishment, they decided on moving into the "top fuel" class. They built a 327-CI supercharged Chevy engine and increased the speed to 188 mph with an 8.0 ET.

Occasionally, they ran in an exhibition class where the NDRA rules require the driver to start with the tires spinning (smoking) just like the old days. (Originally, dragster rear tires were just large passenger car tires that had been recapped with a wide, flat, sticky tread. These tires would not "hook-up" like modern drag tires.)

Following those rules, the car ran in the high 170s. In one event against the legendary Don Garlits, driving his equally legendary Swamp Rat I, Kent turned in a smokin' 177 mph at 8.71, to Garlits' 172 at 8.92.

Another time Kent was trying for both the top speed and elapsed time records and had a 187 mph run that "scattered the engine" at the finish line. This convinced him that the old car was too dangerous at those speeds. So in 1989, he built a new, longer chassis with the latest safety features, switched the driveline to the new car and headed for the racetrack.

The first full-power run in 1990 was a 193 at 8.03, followed by another blown gasket/oil in the face emergency. This time he stayed in control of the car and pulled the parachute handle to slow down. Unfortunately a crewmember had made a mistake and the chute did not deploy. The result was a spectacular cartwheeling crash that broke the car into two pieces. But thanks to the new safety cage Lentz walked away again. However, this time he called it quits.

Now, at 61 years old he "takes it easy" by working seven days a week on the P-40 aircraft project and a number of other world class machines.

If you have an interesting vintage machine, or story about one, email khandman@gte.net