Grady Bryant with his first race car, 1961
It was a time when most kids were at the beach or worrying about what to wear to the next party. Fuzzy dice hung from all the rearview mirrors and packs of Lucky Strikes were rolled up in sleeves. If you were a drag racer, the only thing you worried about was how to go faster.
It has been over fifty years since I started drag racing, and boy has it changed. The sponsorships then consisted of your local parts store and a friendly gas station that might give you a tank of fuel before your next race if you painted their name on your car with shoe polish. I wanted to race, but didn’t like the grease under fingernails that so many of the guys had in those days. My good friend Dick Harrell felt about the same way. We both bought 1961 Chevys; mine was a high performance 348 and Dick’s was one of the new 409s. After a few modifications of the electrical systems and the carbs, we started attending all the races we could in the area of New Mexico, Oklahoma, Arizona, and Texas. We had no one to travel with us (Carlsbad, New Mexico was in the middle of nowhere), so we decided that if we pulled with a chain instead of a tow bar we could make faster time and eliminate using another car. Plus, it was cheaper if we split the gas. I know it sounds crazy, but we would pull 400 to 500 miles in a week end by using the chain. Dick was always the front car with the 409 and I was the brake car. We would run what they then called Super Stock with the 409 and A Stock with the 348.
We would carry our racing third members in the trunk, and when we got to the race track, up went the car with a bumper jack and we would change the rear end so we could race. When the race was over, we had to change them back to our cruising gears. At one race, Dick broke a transmission and we used mine for him to race and then pulled it out and put it in my car for me to race. This worked pretty good until it was time for us to race each other. Someone loaned us their transmission for the finals. I believed we changed transmissions about a dozen times that Sunday, plus the rear ends for our trip home. It wasn’t a sport for weaklings, or for someone who fell asleep easily. Many times we would get home just in time to go to our jobs without any sleep for the weekend. But, if you wanted to race (and we did), this was how it was going to be.
In 1963 Dick and I bought one of the new Aluminum front end 409s. I believe it cost us about $30.00 apiece per month. We didn’t know it, but it was getting us in better and better with Chevrolet. We won the 1963 Winternationals in Arizona and our reputation really shot up. In 1964, I was offered my first car from Chevrolet. I had my choice of a four door or an SS Impala, They wanted a car to run against the little Ford 289s. Of course I chose the Super Sport. This was the first real race car I had. The reason I called it a real race car was the way it was prepared. When the car came into the dealership, it was immediately disassembled. I mean the engine was pulled out, seats pulled out, carpets removed, all under dash gauges removed, and all the inside of the metal was sanded so thin it burnt the paint off. We sent some parts to California and Dick did his magic on the rest. The car was so light we had to add weight to it. This was done by plugging up the holes in the frame and adding BB shot. When you did a little chirpy, all the shot would go to the rear and boy would that car launch. That was the year we had to call Detroit every Monday morning and tell them who we raced, where we raced, and what the weather was like. We didn’t know it at the time, but the engineers were trying to help us all they could. I’m sure the Ford guys were getting the same help.
If you remember back in those days, Ford had an ad that showed a light bulb flashing and right below it a slogan that said, “We have a better idea.” Chevrolet sent us some decals that showed a bumblebee stinger breaking a light bulb with a Ford logo on it and on the bottom it said, “We knock your lights out.” This went on all our trunk lids. The factory men all had a good time back in those times, and it was all in fun. We set a few world records and won the Winternationals with that car.
In 1965, Chevrolet came out with what they called the mystery 396 and thought it would be good for a class they called B Factory Experimental. The Chevy Twos with big blocks ran against little Fords with big engines, and the 396 would be perfect in the Chevelle against the other Fords. The problem was that the only way Chevrolet could release the high performance was in an SS Chevelle or big Chevrolet. The SS had bucket seats, vinyl top, and all the other options that would come with the package. Of course, as you know we didn’t need all that in a race car. So, in their wisdom, Chevrolet sent us a Bel Air with a mystery high performance 396 in it. The window sticker stated the car had a 327 engine and the invoice backed it up. On the same truck was a stripped down 300 Deluxe Chevelle with a 327 engine and a window sticker claiming the car had a mystery 396 engine. We, of course, just had to change the engines and everything was perfect. The invoices matched the paperwork and off to the races we went, after, of course, much modification. The officials had a hard time with it, and at some tracks we were flat out denied to race. I spent more time arguing with the officials that year that I did racing. I really believe that was the only car like that in the world.
Falsifying documents was sometimes a way of life back in those days. If you remember, right when the 409s came out they only had one Carter AFB. That wouldn’t work against the big Ford with their carb set up. So…. the only way we could figure out what to do was buy an aftermarket manifold, grind off the numbers, and replace them with a General Motors part number. Then we got a parts book from the local Chevrolet dealership and had a page printed up listing our part number, and sent ourselves a telegram stating such and such part number was available as a field optional. Off to the races we went. It worked perfectly until so many guys wanted one like ours and couldn’t get it. Chevrolet finally came out with the manifold for two AFBs later on and everyone was happy. I don’t think the officials ever did know about that.
I have been asked many of times if I would ever go through all the hardships and suffering it would take to drag race back in the 1960s. The answer is simple and you all know what it is.