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Front Engine Hemi Dragster Rediscovered and Being Rebuilt After 50 years

We’ve seen more than a few cars found in the woods over the last year but none that were this bare. From the tube frame and exposed engine to the very basic driver seat, it’s just raw Hemi power. Unfortunately, it’s been sitting out in the woods exposed to the elements for 50 years so it needs a full rebuild.

Jim Smith was one of the people who was a local legend in the speed freak community of Dayton, Tennessee. More than 50 years ago he was the go to guy in the area inspiring other racers to go faster. He was building his own vehicles and tearing up the track to make a name for himself with his Hemi dragster.

However, when he met his wife and his daughters became the loves of his life, his car went off to the side. This is a common story that, while sweet, sees too many great cars rotting away. Early in the 1960s he built this round tube framed dragster with his older brother and started winning trophies.

The first iteration of it features a 98 inch wheelbase but, after running different tracks against different competition, it was time for a change. Longer dragsters in magazines inspired them to pull that wheel base out another three feet to 134″. From there, he sourced a 354ci Hemi from a scrapyard to replace the former Chevy small block from his previous car.

It took a combination of cylinder head porting as well as a completely custom camshaft grind to make it work with his components. These included a Weiland Drag Star intake manifold as well as a six Stromberg 97 carbeurators. The front suspension was a complete build from scratch at home, as was the aluminum fuel tank carrying nitromethane. Another touch of his home brew style was the direct drive system, hand pumped fuel pressure, and jump car to get the dragster running.

As the races and years went on, there were some wild swaps that kept the dragster as a strong contender. A homemade clutch can carried a Dodge truck flywheel and a dual disc clutch. Over time, an ambulance gave up its gears because they offered the right 4.10:1 ratio.

After three years, the local tracks started to drop the prize pools for dragsters in favor of other types, ending Jim’s career there. The dragster came apart not long after he set a personal speed record of 157 miles per hour. He also won the final race of the 1964 season at the Harriman Drag Strip before ‘retiring’.

Now the car is being fished out of the woods and reassembled by one of the people Jim inspired during his three year run with it. The plan now is to work towards fabrication of a new body to pay homage to the original. Until it comes completely back from retirement, this old school dragster is at least back on its own wheels again.

Categories: Gear Grinding

James Murrell
About James Murrell

I love to read about and research all sorts of vehicles from restored classics to top shelf supercars, monstrous offroaders to weird concept vehicles. I always have a vehicle build happening on one side of my garage for myself and a second bay open for my friends to come and build their dreams too.