In just a few days, some of the most modern street-strip race cars will fly down the quarter-mile at Illinois’ Byron Dragway during HOT ROD Drag Week. But a few short weeks ago, Byron hosted an incredible gathering of old-school drag cars. The Meltdown Drags hosts some of the rawest, most awe-inspiring sights and sounds you’ll ever come across in drag racing.
This would be the 8th Meltdown Drags—run in the shadow of the Byron Nuclear Generating Station—which originated when a small group of friends decided the world needed more gasser-style cars headed down the drag strip again. What began as a meet for vintage gassers morphed into full-blown nostalgia drags with 30 cars the first year. Things exploded from there and in 2017, more than 500 nostalgia racers turned up from the continent’s far corners.
More than anything, the event revolves around fun and history in that order. No one “wins” the Meltdown Drags. Organizers refer to the Meltdowns as a “reenactment” rather than a race, but this isn’t your garden-variety Civil War reenactment or vintage baseball match.
Everyone at the Meltdown Drags wants to be there because they love the cars and the traditions of the quarter-mile. I found no LS engines, no self-learning EFI, and no other modern drag-racing wizardry. Instead, vintage race cars—from 1966 or before—graced the grounds, some raced in period and others period-correct tributes.
Like most classic car events, most of the Meltdown Drags participants are older guys. However, the event organizers hand out a handful of Young Gun trophies and 16-year-old Carly Stupar received one of them. Carly helped her father, Jeremy, put together her “Lil’ II Sassy” Chevy II gasser.
The Stupars have owned Novas and Chevy IIs for decades—Jeremy rattled off at least four that they currently own to say nothing of the ones they’d sold—and when some family friends went racing, Carly told Jeremy she wanted to race, too. The family traded off one of their wagons for the Chevy II, which was partially converted to a straight-axle dragster.
To build it right, however, they needed to start over from scratch. “I didn’t want to built it and give it to Carly,” Jeremy said. “I wanted her to build it.” The father-daughter build started with Jeremy showing Carly how to work on one side of the car and then letting her complete the other side. Other times, he’d ask here how she thought something should be done; more often than not, she figured it out.
Carly made her first passes in 2016 with the gasser and was included on the night-racing bill in Lil’ II Sassy. The gasser’s 355 was breathing some humid air, but Carly still drove it to a solid 14.14-second pass.
Carly’s Lil II Sassy parked near the staging lanes, but the pits sprawled out in three directions from there.
Robert Walker of Chattanooga races his obscure classic with Southeast Nostalgia Drag Racing and he spent much of the day fielding the same question: “What is it?” You can forgive most people for never having heard of a Kellison J-6 Panther. Originally designed as a kit for early Corvettes, most Kellisons went road-racing.
However, Dr. Robert Zorn, an ophthalmologist in Tennessee, acquired one Kellison body that he put over an Allbright Engineering chassis in 1965. He raced it locally for a few years and then parked it. Walker found the chassis—which had been sitting inside while the body shell lay outside—at the late doctor’s estate sale and paid “very little” for it.
It came with tons of documentation and spares, including Dr. Zorn’s racing suit, which Robert doesn’t travel with for fear of losing or damaging it. It took time sorting through the car’s mounds of paperwork before he understood the car’s significance.
Ironically, Robert raced motocross and other motorcycles before finding the world’s only drag-racing Kellison J-6. Only after finding it and getting it running again did he begin drag-racing the Panther, which will run mid-10s all day. “The car found me,” Robert said.
Aside from a replacement for the original transmission, a radiator, and some safety upgrades, the Kellison races exactly as it did in the 1960s. After putting it back together and racing it in Tennessee, some of Zorn’s old crew members materialized and helped Walker piece together the missing parts of the car’s incredible history. See HOT ROD Magazine’s story on this Kellison here.
The Kellison wasn’t the only incredible estate-sale find at Meltdown Drags. Chris Grote found this old blown jalopy at an estate sale in Winchester, Kentucky. It took some archaeological digging, so to speak, but Grote eventually found that it had belonged to a man named Linville Davis.
Davis, it turned out, hung out at the same service station in Winchester where the Rebel Rouser, another restored local race car (above), had been put together. The fantastic part of Meltdown Drags is seeing all of these old race cars, most of which had been raced locally in their heyday, back together and racing.
Unfortunately for Grote, this roadster is a probably too far gone for a restoration. The line on the differential and rear axle shows how deeply into the mud it had sunk; Chris brought it as a display piece last year in a condition completely unchanged from when it had been parked in 1968.
Up front, the big supercharger sits atop a Chevy 327 with ‘65 fuel-injection heads. Chris said this engine has seen just about every injection and induction setup known at the time. “I just want to hear it run,” he said, pointing out that the exhaust headers dump directly at the ground. He then said the blower still turns and the magneto fires, but a rodent population (at least) in the lifter valley probably did irreparable engine damage.
Chris told us that Australian-born drag racer Ken Lowe helped work on this car, incredibly. When Chris tracked him down, Lowe indicated that the original M&H drag tires were fitted to the car in 1962 and were almost certainly the first 10-inch drag slicks in Kentucky.
You don’t see Ford Prefects often in this country and, it turns out, this crusty-looking Prefect came to Byron from outside the United States. Winnipeg resident Paul Pelissier was attending his sixth Meltdown Drags with his daughter Megan, who drives the Prefect, and with his brother Dave.
The family’s back story with the Drags is fairly incredible: The brothers saw a 1973 Hot Rod Magazine article on a locally built International Scout. They were amazed that anybody from Winnipeg had built a magazine-caliber car and it became a favorite of theirs. Some years later as adults, Dave bought the Scout (above) and the brothers brought it to an early Meltdown Drags. They were hooked instantly.
Fast-forward a bit to a Prefect that Paul stumbled over on Kijiji (“Canadian CraigsList”) in a small town nearby. He dug it out of thigh-deep snow and hauled it home. Despite its long-ago-rotted original wooden floor, Paul set his mind to building a budget-minded car for the Meltdown Drags. A freshly built 500-horsepower Chevy 358 fell into his lap for $3,000 and everything else was scrounged. That included the Prefect’s rear wheels that he scored for $25 each.
After building floors over the ladder-bar rear, he realized there was no clever way to mount the seat in a “normal” position. The seat instead went right in the middle and while he spent hours and hours on the custom fab-work—he owns a custom driveshaft business—Paul still borrowed a few parts like front shocks from his bracket-racing Ford Ranger.
Megan Pelissier drives the miniature rocket and after a dozen years of racing a wide variety of dragsters, she’s happy for the laidback, fun-oriented atmosphere of vintage racing. “It’s cooler in a way than racing dragsters,” she said.
Indeed, cool was everywhere at the Meltdown Drags. You could find it at the car show and you could find it in wheel-standing monsters like the Suicide King Studebaker. Designed specifically to stand well up on its rear wheels, the Suicide King’s V8 occupies a slot where the firewall once was. Does it make a difference?
You bet it does.
Not all wheel-standing cars were designed specifically for that, although you will find those at Byron Dragway’s Wheel Standing Championship in October. However, Jerry Lopez made it a point to put on a good show with his ’55 gasser on every run.
Every single entry at Meltdown Drags has a story as deep as those we’ve shared. Altereds, gassers, rail dragsters, old-school hot rods, and super-raw old motorcycles…All of them have incredible stories that play out in bursts of eight to 15 seconds. The day’s racing took a leisurely pace through dinner time and only takes a break for night racing’s opening ceremony.
At 8 p.m., an honor guard silenced all but the insects. The white-shirted Meltdown staffers stood in reverence while a Vietnam vet knelt in his old uniform. He made it through his 1967 tour of duty, the announcer said, by promising himself he’d make it back to his race car and to the raging calmness of the drag strip.
The sun dipped behind the trees soon after and racing resumed. Before long, night enveloped everything except the glowing ovals cast by the temporary lights set along the racetrack. The falling darkness added a dramatic air and with all eyes on them, the racers put on one hell of a show under the temporary lights.
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