One of the iconic symbols of drag racing and speed, Art Chrisman, has died after a long illness. He was 86. Pioneering the art of straight line racing in both drag racing in its earliest days at Santa Ana Dragstrip, and also in lakes and Bonneville racing throughout the 1950s, he went on to a successful career with the Autolite Spark Plug Division of Ford Motor Company, before embarking out on his own building engines and Grand National Roadster Show-winning roadsters with his son Mike in Santa Ana, California.
After becoming one of the first five charter members of the Bonneville 200mph Club, going over 235 mph in 1952, he advanced and perfected the art of dragster design, first with the distinctive Number 25 dragster—a highly modified lakes racer Art built in the mid-1950s—coming in runner up at the first NHRA national event at Grand Bend, Kansas, and then with his “Hustler I” Hemi-powered dragster from 1958, winning “Best Engineered” at the 1958 NHRA Nationals, and then went on to win the inaugural Smokers’ March Meet in 1959 at Bakersfield, California, as well as coming in runner up there in both 1960 and 1961.
He was a fixture at races such as the Indy 500, Bonneville, and Salton City 500 boat races as a representative of Autolite, reading competitors’ plugs to give a computer-like assessment of what was right and wrong about their engines.
After a short stint in the 1970s running WR Grace’s dyno facility, he and his son Mike opened Chrisman Auto Rod Specialties, restoring and building show-winning cars, including scoring the 1995 Oakland Roadster Show’s “America’s Most Beautiful Roadster” title with an Infinity-powered 1929 roadster.
Art was a diplomat of sorts for the sport of drag racing in later years, seen regularly at the NHRA Winternationals and finals at Pomona, where both his Number 25 car and Hustler I can be seen today at the NHRA Museum. He was married to Dorothy for over 60 years, and has three grand children and great grandchildren to help carry on the legacy of the family name, which included his late brother, Leroy, uncle Jack, and nephew Steve.