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Field Find: Time Capsule 1957 Chevy Gasser is Window into Drag Racing’s Past

Superstition

Drew Hardin Dec 22, 2015 0 Comment(s)
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Found.

How can I possibly start explaining this drag racing treasure, an unmolested time tunnel to the heyday of the straight-axle gasser wars?

Maybe I can start by telling you it has survived 55 years with almost all of its original parts. That the parts alone are a virtual laundry list of period-correct hard-core drag racing components of the early ’60s and ’70s. Or maybe we should just start with a young man by the name of Charlie Proite.

In 1957, Charlie plucked a low-mile ’57 Chevy Bel Air two-door hardtop from a local Milwaukee, Wisconsin, dealership and put only 3,000 miles on the clock before heading off for a tour of duty in Korea. After returning home, he transformed the car into a 10-second, A/GS battle axe that ran with the likes of Stone Woods and Cook, and Arnie “the Farmer” Beswick.

001 Brennen 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air Gasser Front Three Quarter 2/35

The time-machine nature of Brennen Van Sistine’s Bel Air gasser is only enhanced by the throwback photo location at Delmo’s Speed & Kustom in Southern California. If the bay looks familiar, that’s because Del shares shop space with Old Crow’s Bobby Green.

The Bel Air saw its first action in 1960 at Great Lakes Dragaway in Wisconsin. Charlie set up the car with most of the heavy-duty parts available in 1960. He chose a beefy three-quarter-ton six-lug rear axle from a ’57 Chevy truck and mounted to it a set of (now ultra-rare) magnesium small-window Halibrand kidney beans.

The car was completely gutted. Most of the firewall was removed for the 25 percent engine setback, the front suspension was torched off, and a fully boxed and shortened subframe was created to house one of the trickest features on the car: a heavily modified and dropped ’32 Ford straight axle with drilled backing plates and shortened hairpins mounting a pair of Mickey Thompson Raders.

002 Brennen 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air Gasser Front Fender 3/35

The Chevy’s fiberglass nose is a very early splash job, weighing almost as much as the original sheetmetal.

Back in 1960, Pontiac was producing very powerful production V-8 torque monsters. So naturally, Charlie dropped in a 389 Pontiac fitted with a GMC blower and Hilborn two-port injection, backed by a four-speed BorgWarner transmission. The windshield was radius-cut for the blower scoop, and the ’57 was dropping into the 10s at 125 mph.

After grenading the 389, Charlie swapped in a 421 Super Duty with the same supercharger setup and raced it again for years before it was sold as a roller sometime in the ’60s. Charlie Proite then went on to campaign the very first beer-sponsored drag car, the Pabst Charger nitro Funny Car.

003 Brennen 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air Gasser Fender Detail 4/35

This custom lettering was the first sign Brennen had stumbled on something special. Longtime striper Dennis Jones told us the hand rendered in the lettering is an immediate tipoff that the work was done by a pro sign painter. “A lot of the guys did that back then,” he says, “almost like a signature.”

Enter the next owner….

As the story goes, Duane Hanson bought the car from Charlie in around 1969, fitted it with a ’67 Pontiac GTO 400, and topped it off with a dual-quad Offenhauser intake and two AFB Carter carburetors. He then gave the car the name “Superstition,” painted it on the car’s doors in traditional silver leaf, plugged in a B&M Hydro-Stick from a ’56 Olds, and went racing.

The car terrorized various Midwest tracks and consistently ran in the 10s before it was sold in the mid-1970s to a man named Ken Richter. Ken essentially picked up where Duane left off, with the exception of a few small details. Duane had painted his name on the driver-side door. Ken quickly wet-sanded off the name “Duane,” switched out the old driver seat with a used bucket from a ’66 Volkswagen fastback and, like Duane, was on his way to the track.

Over the years, Ken and his brother shared driving duties until the Hydro-Stick developed a problem in 1978. That’s when Ken decided the car and racing took up too much of his money and time. The ’57 sat outside at Ken’s house in Milwaukee for years and eventually made its way up to Green Bay, where it was stored behind a shed in a collector’s field of vintage cars.

The next chapter of the car’s story came about through my own chance encounter.

004 Brennen 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air Gasser Front Suspension 5/35

The seriously lightened front axle was chrome plated at one time. Also note all the lightening holes drilled into the brake backing plates. Radiator behind the Moon tank is from a ’62 Falcon.

My ’63 Cadillac was in need of parts, so I looked up a collector I’d met at a car show. Driving into his yard, the lot looked no different from many I’d seen before. After asking permission to browse, I started down the first row, took a right, and there it was: “Powered by Pontiac” emblazoned in bold letters on the front fender of a ’57 Chevy. I could hardly believe my eyes.

I knew instantly that this was a rare animal. Walking closer, looking around it and underneath, I smiled to see all the markings of a vintage gasser: straight axle, radiused wheelwells, fiberglass front nose, and old-school decals. The discovery seemed almost surreal.

005 Brennen 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air Gasser Front Wheel Tire 6/35

Front runners are Mickey Thompson Raders. Those All-Weather Goodyears have been on the car since 1972, Brennen says.

006 Brennen 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air Gasser Rear Tire Wheel 7/35

Those are real—and rare—Halibrand small-window mags in back, bolted to a full-floater six-lug Chevy truck axle with 4.56 gears. It’s remarkable that the early ’60s Goodyear Blue Streaks still hold air.

The lot owner told me the car was being stored for Ken Richter, and I didn’t waste any time locating him. A deal was made; the car was purchased. My next quest was to gather details about the machine, and Ken helped get me started. I wanted to learn about its past history, missing parts, anything authentic I could find to reassemble this incredible piece of rolling history and the story behind it.

Once it was back in my shop, I was pleasantly surprised to find almost all the original parts crammed inside the body, along with a raccoon’s nest and 36 years of dirt and dust. My excitement grew every time a part was pulled out that helped fill in the jigsaw puzzle.

007 Brennen 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air Gasser Engine 8/35

As a drag car the Chevy has always been Pontiac powered, first with a 1960 389, then a 421 Super Duty, and finally with a 400-inch GTO motor. It was originally backed by a BorgWarner four-speed, but now hosts a B&M Hydro-Stick transmission.

I desperately wanted to get ahold of Charlie Proite, who could answer so many more of my questions. After weeks of research and a lot of determination, I finally got a phone call to the man, who was then in his eighties, and he revealed to me that the car was an original, A/GS drag car.

Wanting to put the car back in its proper historical form, I sourced an early-period GMC blower unit to put back on the car, freshened the Pontiac 400, and reincarnated one of the baddest surviving original drag cars in the country today.

008 Brennen 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air Gasser Supercharger 9/35

Though most of its period speed parts came with the car, Brennen added a period GMC blower to bring it back to its earliest, as-raced form.

But there is undoubtedly another side to this story. While spending nearly every day with the ’57, I had the opportunity to speak to and learn from a handful of men who actually lived and raced in the Gasser Wars era. Sitting down and listening to their stories made me appreciate early racing even more.

These men had no computers or cell phones, no mail order parts warehouse. They only had gas and acetylene torches, primitive tools, poorly lit and cramped garages. They worked with factory engines, and they flat-towed their machines to the track.

010 Brennen 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air Gasser Interior 10/35

The firewall was removed and the interior gutted to accommodate the engine setback. Tinwork is crude, but it worked. Note the early Stewart Warner gauges in the panel, and the beige-top Vertex magneto visible through the window in the dash. The seat is out of a VW.

011 Brennen 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air Gasser Wide Shot Interior 11/35

Brennen says when he found the car a family of raccoons had taken up residence inside.

After firing up the car for the first time since 1978, I invited Ken Richter to my shop to hear the car run again. He rolled down my driveway in his electric wheelchair. I noticed that he parked it only a few feet away from the exhaust.

“Ready, Ken?” I called back. “Yup,” he responded.

012 Brennen 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air Gasser Lettering Detail 12/35

The car’s “Superstition” name was lettered in silver leaf in the late ’60s/early ’70s. It’s remarkable how much of the nearly 60-year-old sheetmetal is still intact, considering its exposure to the elements in storage in the upper Midwest.

I hit the go button, switched on the Vertex magneto, and that familiar sound once again put a smirk on Ken’s face. After I shut down the car, Ken looked at me and said, “There’s nothing like the sound of that big-block Pontiac through those zoomies. Nothing.

“Y’know,” Ken continued, “I always thought that car had a soul.” And he was right.

After Ken left, I sat in my garage for a long time and studied the car, its stance, the patina, the name Superstition. It’s pure nostalgia, I thought. I kept looking. The radical setback and the hardtop trim, the beat-up fiberglass and the chrome peeling off the hairpins. And who can deny that supercharged Poncho? It all made complete sense.

Ken had confirmed what I had felt all along. The car has a soul. It tells a unique story, and if it had a voice, it would say, “I was there in 1960 tearing up Midwest racetracks, and now I’m back.”

013 Brennen 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air Gasser Rear Three Quarter 13/35

Brennen won’t say exactly what he paid for the Chevy, only that the price was in line for a ’57 Bel Air project car. “I basically saved it from the sand blaster,” he says, recognizing that if it weren’t for him, someone would have bought the car to restore back to factory spec, ignoring its drag race provenance. “There are a lot of people up there who just don’t get it.”


“Powered by Pontiac”

Engine: Eric Johnson, Competition Products, Oshkosh, WI

Supercharger: Pete De Troye, East Side Garage, Kiel, WI

Vertex magneto: Art Moose, Art Moose Magnetos, Des Moines, IA

Holley carburetors: Jesse at Biggs Performance Products, Altoona, WI

Custom machining: Kevin Petty, Hart Design, Green Bay, WI


Superstition Scrapbook

014 Brennen 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air Gasser Midas Shop 14/35

This photo was taken on the day the zoomies were first put on the engine at the Midas muffler shop in Milwaukee, circa 1969-’70.

015 Brennen 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air Gasser Hanson 15/35

This is the ’57’s second owner, Duane Hanson, who gave the car its name and put in the 400-inch GTO motor that’s still there.

016 Brennen 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air Gasser Richter  1 16/35

Ken Richter, left, bought the Chevy from Hanson and raced it through the mid-1970s.


I want to give special thanks to former car owners Charlie Proite (who died December 28, 2014) and Ken Richter; Del Uschenko, who took a chance on a total stranger at Delmo’s Speed & Kustom, Burbank, California, for our photo location; Frank Cuene of Green Bay, Wisconsin, for keeping the laughter flowing; and the car’s co-owner, Todd Reimer of Hartland, Wisconsin.

I’m very passionate about finding more old photos and information about this car. If you have any film, pictures, or stories of Superstition, please email or call me, sschitownhustler@yahoo.com, 920/313-0706.


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