Gizzle Hopper: The Story of a Nitro-Burning Nostalgia Dragster

We first came across David Stewart and the “Gizzle Hopper” at the Meltdown Drags in Byron, Illinois. His Lincoln-powered dragster stood out in the crowd of pre-1968 dragsters at the event. You could scarcely miss the bright-white ‘31 Ford Coupe body atop the front-engined rail, but if you did, the Gizzle Hopper’s nitromethane cackle would surely get your attention. We saw David and his nostalgia dragster at the 2017 Muscle Car and Corvette Nationals, where we got the scoop on this awesome retro piece.

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The Original

Like most nostalgia drag cars, the Gizzle Hopper pays homage to a car raced in-period. Fred Perrenot from Dallas originally built the first car in the late 1950s, when it was a state-of-the-art machine. While most nitro racers at the time opted for blown Chrysler Hemi V8s, Fred wanted something different: the biggest of Ford’s brand new MEL (Mercury-Edsel-Lincoln) V8s, a Lincoln 430. Fred could scarcely be blamed for his interest. Rodney Singer and Karol Miller had won the 1959 NHRA Nationals Top Eliminator with the same setup and a GMC 6-71 blower.

However, the MEL engine was hard to come by for an independent race car builder in the late ‘50s. When Perrenot went to the friendly local Ford dealership with cash for a 430, they told him to keep his money because they wouldn’t sell him an engine, especially if it was going racing. Drag racing in the 1950s was not considered a classy occupation. Not to be denied, Fred talked a Lincoln-owning family friend into sweet-talking another dealership into a “replacement engine” sale.

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With a motor in hand, the rest came together. They fitted a ‘31 Ford Coupe body over the rear tin to meet class rules. With few MEL speed parts available, Fred custom-built much of the car and had the engine punched out to 507 cubic inches. And with expected speeds well over 150 miles per hour, that meant the need for a parachute. Again, with nobody building drag-racing chutes at the time, he simply used an army surplus parachute.

While Fred built the car, his son Brian raced it down the track, usually with bare feet. Even in 1960, that would have gotten you tossed out of the track, but because the nitro-burning car needed a push-start and didn’t sit in staging lanes, the race officials never had time to notice. [Author’s Note: Don’t try this at home, kids.]

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Gizzle Hopper

Fred and Brian weren’t the only family members who crewed, either. Vickie Straight, Brian’s girlfriend and later wife, helped get the car down the racetrack. And Brian’s brother, family artist Travis Perrenot, turned wrenches on the dragster. Left alone with the car one afternoon, Travis painted a bizarre creature on the Coupe’s body roof to give some character. Since race cars—especially at the time—needed a good name, he coined the part-duck, part-rat, part-whatever creature and the car that bore it “Gizzle Hopper.”

Brian came home soon and asked the most logical question of all: “What the hell is a Gizzle Hopper?” Travis motioned to the drag car and said the most obvious answer of all: “This is!”

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The combination, name and all, worked for the Perrenots. Brian drove it to an AHRA class title in 1961. That same year, he also set the elapsed time record for the NHRA. Unfortunately, the Gizzle Hopper’s career ended early: At a race in Oklahoma in 1962, Brian crashed the dragster and slid across the finish line on its roof. The whole car, save three items that were put in storage, was destroyed.

The Gizzle Hopper faded to a distant memory until the early 2000s. At that time, Travis and Brian started kicking around the idea of rebuilding the Gizzle Hopper, Travis’ favorite car they’d ever built, for the California Hot Rod Reunion. Unfortunately, Travis died in 2002 before the dream could be actualized. Brian and Vickie set out to build a new Gizzle Hopper in Travis’ memory.

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The New Gizzle Hopper

Few original photographs exist of the original dragster, which forced Brian to work off the two most-decent photos and a whole lot of memory to rebuild it from scratch. The hardest part of the build was often sourcing the right parts to build it accurately.

The only parts they had from the original car remain on it to this day: the mailbox-style engine scoop, the exhaust headers, and the magnesium rear wheels. Everything else had to be found or built as a one-off piece.

The MEL engine they found actually ran when they got it. The period-correct GMC 6-71 blower came off a diesel-powered shrimp boat in Louisiana. The Weiand intake, one of 50 ever built, took two years to track down. The Schiefer dual-disc clutch operates as basically an in-out box for the direct-drive into the ‘60 Oldsmobile rear end, which conveniently sits between the driver’s legs.

Eventually, the cackling dragster roared to life in 2007 and made its first passes in anger in 2008. Brian and Vickie took it nostalgia racing for years. And in that intervening decade, David Stewart met the Perrenots and started helping crew for them at nostalgia events. The sole blown nitro Lincoln in a field of Hemis made it one of the more popular nostalgia dragsters. The noise certainly sets it apart from the Chrysler-powered ones.

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New owner

Stewart turned wrenches on the Gizzle Hopper for several years to help get it down the track. When Brian decided that the car needed to be passed on, he offered it to David, who exhibits a true passion for drag racing. Hert took over ownership in early 2015, then spent a year giving the car a full refresh. That meant a few small design changes and things like refitting the seat and pedals.

To the untrained eye, the slingshot dragster does look a tad dangerous and his mother was less-than-enthused at her son’s new project at first. However, in the 2-½ years he’s owned it, she’s come around to being the car’s biggest fan. She wasn’t the only one, either.

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When he first got the Gizzle Hopper home, David fired it up in the driveway. That meant running it on methanol for a few minutes until the engine warms up, then switching it over to the booming nitro cackle. David was focused on attending to how the car was running and making sure everything was working safely at the time. Convinced it was going well enough, he killed the power to the blown V8 and looked around to see half the neighborhood standing at the threshold of his driveway. The kids, in particular, stared wide-eyed at the strange car from if not another dimension, then at least another long-ago decade.

That phenomenon carries over to the Gizzle Hopper’s events. Nitromethane produces an incredible noise, both in volume and pitch, along with big jets of flame from the exhaust. You can read Brian Lohnes talking more about nitro here, but it’s a serious sensory assault that people gravitate toward. That’s an important thing for generating interest, but the fuel’s volatility means it requires care and space when handling.

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“People flock to it, which honestly makes me nervous,” Stewart said. “But we know not to rush with nitro.”

That means being deliberate and cautious. If something isn’t quite right, Stewart and his crew don’t take chances. David doesn’t make full quarter-mile pulls in the dragster, usually shutting it down at about 120 miles per hour and throwing out the laundry.

On the track, the Gizzle Hopper looks properly violent. The car looks to buck and a shake a bit when it launches, but Stewart said the ride is terrific from the driver’s seat. The length of the rail chassis means the car bounces a bit, but it runs smoothly and tracks straight down the drag strip’s groove. The biggest obstacle, it turns out, is often the lack of visibility from the tilted windshield and the tall blower setup.

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Normally, they give it about an 85 percent mixture of nitromethane, but they kick that up sometimes for night shows when the bigger exhaust flames make bigger “Oohs” and “Aahs.” To that end, you’ll find David running a healthy dose of nitro in the car on July 4th after the sun sets. No, we can’t think of a better fireworks show, either.

The Gizzle Hopper will again make several nostalgia drag appearances in 2018 and David also has plans to acquire a vintage Pontiac gasser to boot. That would join his fleet that already includes the Chevy 3100 pickup that he’s run on the last two HOT ROD Drag Weeks™.

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You can read more about the Muscle Car and Corvette Nationals here and the Meltdown Drags here. You also can (and should) read more about the Gizzle Hopper’s resurrection right here.

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