Buried deep in a sea of race cars at the Pomona fairgrounds is the Stock Eliminator pits. The semifinal round of Stock Eliminator at the 1968 NHRA Winternationals is quickly approaching. A nearly unknown racer named John Barkley leans over the left front fender of his dark-blue 1957 Chevy race car. He has already won class and battled his way through multiple rounds. He and his shoebox Chevy are about to become part of drag-racing history.
Stock Eliminator was huge in the late-1960s; Bill Jenkins, Jere Stahl, Joe Allread, and other Junior Stock celebrities were drag-racing demigods. Junior Stockers displaced Top Fuel dragsters on magazine covers and were featured in multi-part articles on the science of building a state-of-the-art Stocker. The draw for the guy in the stands was you could root for your hero who was often driving a car a lot like the one you owned—or aspired to own. The factories knew this, especially the Dodge and Plymouth representatives. Only the U.S. Nationals was a bigger win than Pomona. The pressure was on. In a category populated with low-buck Hudsons, Pontiacs, Studebakers, and Tri-Five Chevys, new big-budget entries from Chrysler and Ford raised the stakes—and the level of competition.
Barkley was confident in his preparation, and the '57 was running strong. This was due to an oddball combination of parts donated by noted engine builder Joe Allread and mentor Marv Ripes, who owned A-1 Automatic Transmissions. Barkley was a pioneer in running Powerglide back then. The hot ticket at this time was a sedan delivery that could legally run a four-speed Hydramatic because it was a truck in the eyes of NHRA officials. But with a 283 short-block from Allread topped with a pair of well-prepped heads, a secret Racer Brown camshaft, and a Corvette converter from Ripes, Barkley's '57 was capable of sub-record performance in M/Stock Automatic.
Winning the class title was a prerequisite for racing in the eliminator runoffs on Sunday. After wading through three rounds of eliminations, Barkley's friend and rival, Bob Lambeck, approached him before the Eliminator semifinals; his comment seemed almost nonchalant: "You know, one of us is going to the finals."
"Until that point," Barkley said later, "I hadn't really thought about winning the whole thing. All I thought about was winning the next round for the $75."
Within the hour, he narrowly defeated Lambeck. "The closest race of the whole day," Barkley said, "was against Lambeck. He cut the best light of everybody that I raced that day."
McFarland says a few weeks before the race, Buddy Martin called to ask if McFarland would like to drive the Barracuda they were building. McFarland said, "They brought [the Barracuda] out early so I could have some time in the car. It still had the factory engine in it. I took it out to the Valley for a Wednesday nightit was a big-block Chevy killer.
"I think there were 20-plus cars in class, and I proceeded to mow down even the factory Dodge cars [to win class]. And then it took forever to get the car through tech each time. Everybody wanted to know about the car, especially the factory guys. [Bob] Cahill, [Dick] Maxwell, and [Tom] Hoover—they were all there." After four rounds of competition in Stock Eliminator, Barkley and McFarland found themselves in the final.
The odds were beyond improbable, but what only a few knew was that John had shut off early on nearly every pass except for his run against Lambeck. Back then, each Junior Stocker ran against its class National Record, and NHRA allowed no more than a 0.10 second under the record. If you ran quicker than 0.10 under, that e.t. became the new record. Barkley ran right on the 14.60 record when defeating Lambeck in the semifinal. Earlier he had run a 14.50 against Pete Kost—right on the edge. It was if he could do no wrong.
For the final, the stands were full; this is what they came to see. This was the stuff of a High Noon movie script with Barkley as Gary Cooper about to slap leather with the big guns from the South. And it appeared Barkley was heavily out-gunned. It came down to a borrowed-parts hot rod staring down a professionally built Plymouth. No one except maybe Louis Chevrolet himself would have given odds on the Chevy.
Crossing the line, McFarland said, "It was so close that neither of us knew who won! It was a good race."
But what's this? The underdog Chevy had won! Jake King's horsepower pushed the Mopar to a plenty impressive 12.99 at 108.17. But Barkley got there first with a ponderous 14.59 at 89.64 mph. "It would normally run 95 mph, but I shut it off early." This was also the first Powerglide car to ever win an NHRA national event.
As with most fairy tales, Barkley's giant killer began its resurrection as an orphan in a backyard lot in the San Fernando Valley. He had been searching for a new race car and this $10 two-door sedan was a perfect candidate. His previous '57 nine-passenger station wagon was consistent but slow. Six weeks after stunning everyone at the Winternationals, he entered the big Hot Rod Magazine race at Riverside and won again. By now, this had garnered the attention of Car Craft Editor John Raffa, who put the '57 on the cover of the July 1968 issue and included an extensive interview with Big John as part of an expansive Junior Stock section. Heady stuff.
The biggest race of the year was the U.S. Nationals, and race day was looming. By this time, Barkley's Army Reserve unit had already been called up; the Vietnam conflict was heating up and his unit was going. Barkley says he couldn't get official leave, so he went AWOL from his Fort Lewis, Washington, post. He flat-towed the '57 all the way to Indy behind his newly acquired 1966 Pontiac Catalina. He didn't have an entry, so he improvised by using a friend's entry card. But even the afterglow of his Winternationals win wasn't sufficient magic to help him bluff his way past Eileen Daniels at the credential trailer. He did eventually compete at Indy, driving a friend's car, but it came at a cost.
"At that time," John remembered, "the penalty for going AWOL was they docked you one pay grade, so I thought that was worth it. The rules were, after 30 days, they considered you a deserter, so I stayed out for 29 days. When I got back, they had cracked down and there was an Airborne Captain running the unit. He didn't see the humor in it. I was an E4 (corporal), but they busted me all the way down to E1. That's the lowest you can go. They also put me in the brig, but only for five days. Eventually, I got my rank back." In early 1969, Barkley knew he would be shipped out, so he sold the '57 to Ripes.
The next chapter of our story might never have happened, except for a chance encounter with a cardboard box. Lambeck was working behind the parts counter at Cummings Buick in Santa Monica, California. Unpacking the box, he discovered this little 9-inch torque converter intended for a pedestrian Opel. Lambeck said, "It was a baby—I mean, it was tiny!" He knew this little converter was special, so he called Ripes.
Ripes instantly realized the little converter's potential, but it wasn't an overnight success. "We didn't have any turbine hubs or any other spare parts for this thing," Ripes said. "So I just jury-rigged it. Back then, almost all the GM converter pump necks were the same, so I just made a new input shaft."
It seemed natural to test this newfound converter in Barkley's '57. Prior to this, Ripes said "the loosest thing around" was an 11-inch-diameter, six-cylinder Nova converter that stalled at around 2,400 rpm. At the track, the converter allowed the 283 to flash to nearly 4,000 rpm, and that instantly spun the little 7-inch slicks.
Barkley said, "The best my car had run with the old converter was 14.20s at 97 mph. With traction problems, it ran 14 flat." Ripes bolted on a set of traction bars built by Tommy Neja along with better tires. Ripes recalls it was worth a half-second; Lambeck remembers it eventually ran much quicker. The tsunami this little converter unleashed transformed the automatic-transmission side of Sportsman drag racing. Ripes bolted in a fuel-injected, 250hp 283 in the '57 and subsequently won the 1970 Springnationals in Dallas.
After winning the Springnats with his new converter, it didn't take long before the rest of the world was in on the secret. Ripes was soon ordering dozens of Opel converters from GM. He said, "That converter put me on the map. I pretty much had my own way for about 10 years until ATI came along." Barkley said that after Lambeck's discovery, the Powerglide became the automatic trans of choice, not just for Stock Eliminator but all the way up through Competition Eliminator. "That discovery was huge," Barkley said.
Eventually, Ripes chose to quit racing so he could fill the incredible demand for converters. The '57 passed through several owners until it resurfaced on eBay in 2002. Eventually, Barkley bought the car back—for considerably more than its 1969 value—and he is now carefully returning his '57 back to near-race condition. This means right down to an original General Kinetics Stock-legal camshaft and a plodding 4GC carb. "See those orange brake drums? Those are the original ones. I found the orange paint when I started cleaning."
The author would like to acknowledge previous Car Craft Editor Rick Voegelin's editing assistance and insight into Junior Stock racing for this story.
"They were a loosely knit group of Chevy racers called the Valley Boys. These Chevy racers were disciples of engine builder Joe Allread" wrote Doug Boyce, from his book "Junior Stock."
In the late-1960s, Junior Stock racing was incredibly popular, mainly because it represented an easy and relatively inexpensive path to go drag racing. Good Junior Stock racers were found all over the country, but because of the proliferation of Southern California magazines, the Valley Boys garnered more than their fair share of attention. This was headlined by an immensely popular series of stories in Car Craft titled "How to Build a Junior Stocker" by Staff Writer Terry Cook, outlining Joe Allread's build of a two-door 1957 150 Handyman Chevy wagon. The following is a list of the core group of Valley Boys.