Courtesy of Brian Crawford

Top Fuel terror

The Blood, Sweat & Nitro Top Fuel dragster is the only surviving original Jim Davis chassis with a full aluminum body by the famous Jack Hagemann. Driver Gary Ritter terrorized the competition with this car at drag strips such as Famoso, Half Moon Bay, Lions, OCIR, Irwindale, Sears Point, Carlsbad and Fresno. Fremont Drag Strip was the car’s home track, and Ritter took home his share of trophies. While attending the 2005 Hot August Nights event with his two restored front-engine dragsters, the “BankAmericar” and the “Mastercar,” John Ewald was approached by a guest who told him about a friend with an old dragster that had been stored in his garage for about 15 years. That car turned out to be the Jim Davis chassis, Jack Hagemann full-bodied “Blood, Sweat & Nitro” of Gary Ritter and his partners Jack Cary and Doug Kinner. Ewald bought the car, and it was delivered to Bruce Dyda’s shop, Dyda Race Engineering in Gardena, CA, where it was restored to 1970 configuration. Now the car is ready to join the nationwide “Cacklefest” events with a fresh 392 Chrysler Hemi and a removable driveline for either push starts or static fire-ups.  

SCM Analysis


Vehicle:1968 Jim Davis Dragster "Blood, Sweat & Nitro"
Years Produced:1968
Number Produced:One
Original List Price:N/A
SCM Valuation:$70,000–$150,000
Tune Up Cost:$5,000
Distributor Caps:N/A
Chassis Number Location:None
Engine Number Location:None
Club Info:Wally Parks NHRA Motorsports Museum
Alternatives:Slingshot dragsters, multiple-engine dragsters, vintage Funny Cars
Investment Grade:C

This car, Lot S704, sold for $73,700, including buyer’s premium, at Russo and Steele’s Newport Beach auction on June 22, 2013.

Here’s a staggering statistic: One modern Top Fuel dragster produces as much horsepower as the first 10 rows of the Daytona 500 combined. A Top Fuel car accelerates like a space shuttle launch (pulling 3Gs) and is just as loud (150 decibels). Forty-five years ago, the Top Fuel cars were 100 mph slower, but they were just as spectacular, and just as addictive.

By the late ’60s, the Top Fuel cars had evolved from home-built “slingshot” dragsters to professionally built, nitromethane-burning monsters. Most were powered by supercharged 392-ci Hemis, but unlike today’s cookie-cutter, corporate-sponsored cars, these front-engine dragsters (FEDs) had distinctive hand-formed aluminum bodies and beautiful custom paint schemes sporting colorful names such as Chris Karamesines’ “ChiZler” or Don Garlits’ “Swamp Rat.”

One of the top builders of these front-engine dragsters was Jim Davis of Walnut Grove, CA. Not only were they fast, but his cars often had that Cal Custom look, thanks to the hand-formed bodies by Jack Hagemann, along with paint jobs by the coast’s best sprayers. One the most famous Davis dragsters was this car, “Blood, Sweat & Nitro,” raced by Gary Ritter.

From barn storage to center stage

John Ewald bought the car, which was complete but in rough shape. He spared no expense in restoring the dragster to museum quality, as noted by its two-year stint in the Wally Parks NHRA Museum in Pomona. But it was not built just to be pretty. When restoration was complete, “Blood, Sweat & Nitro” made its debut at the Cacklefest at the 2008 March Meet in Bakersfield, CA.

Cacklefest is an event where these vintage drag cars line up and fire their flame-throwing, nitro-burning engines. Anyone who’s heard a nitro engine knows the sound — it’s deafening and permanently pounded into your brain. Now imagine dozens of restored or re-created vintage dragsters all running at the same time. Greg Sharp of the Wally Parks NHRA Museum once called it a veritable “cacklefest,” and the name stuck.

The first Cacklefest in 2000 was held at the California Hot Rod Reunion, and it drew nine vintage dragsters. It’s getting more popular: The three Cacklefest events this year will draw more than 100 cars each.

A real race car

For me, watching a car like “Blood, Sweat & Nitro” go through an auction can be a painful experience, thanks to a prejudice of the marketplace regarding vintage race cars. Generally, if it didn’t race on a road course, a lot of buyers just don’t consider it a “real” race car, and that affects value.

Here’s a perfect example: In ACC #3, I wrote about the 1960 “Race Rat” Corvette that raced just once, at the 12 Hours of Sebring, and finished 1st in class and 16th overall. That car sold for $440k — almost six times what “Blood, Sweat & Nitro” made at Russo and Steele.

How is this possible? Why don’t vintage Top Fuel drag cars generally achieve the same prices as vintage sports racers? It usually comes down to one thing: usability.

A car like that Corvette is simply more approachable for your average buyer than a vintage digger slurping nitro and belching flames. There are plenty of vintage events for cars like that Corvette to be raced. And while expensive, it’s also relatively comfortable for a vintage race driver to actually use. For Top Fuel drag machines like our subject car, it’s a different story.

Grit, power and flames

Vintage Top Fuel cars are and always were downright dangerous. These cars ran in the sixes at over 200 mph, and things happen very quickly at those speeds. When something went wrong with one of these, it tended to be in a big way — component failures were common, and exploding engines and clutches usually caused severe injury. Suffice to say, a lot of dragster drivers in the ’60s didn’t survive the ride. You had to be fearless to run one.

A lot of these drag cars aren’t restored to be used in competition and don’t meet modern NHRA tech standards — that’s the case with this car and its vintage roll cage. It’s right for the period, but any NHRA tech inspector would flunk it in a heartbeat if you actually tried to run it down the quarter today.

And frankly, a lot of owners would be wary of running one in anger down the quarter mile even if it did pass tech. They’re just too hairy for most people — I think you can argue that makes them more “real” than some of their softer track-racing counterparts.

Regardless, their use is limited to events such as Cacklefest and static shows, and that limits their market. Ultimately, that also limits their final sale prices.

Vintage cool

But for that narrow set of the market, there’s nothing cooler than a vintage 392 Hemi sucking nitro through a mechanical injector and blowing blue flames out its zoomie headers. I’m definitely a part of that group.

To me, it doesn’t matter if a car raced at the Grand Prix of Monaco, the Daytona 500, the Winternationals or the Hoosier Hundred; if it was a successful on a track, it’s worthy of our respect and admiration. I’ve always marveled at the engineering, the craftsmanship and the innovation these vehicles possess, and the brave souls who piloted them, no matter the venue.

All things considered, the new owner got “Blood, Sweat & Nitro” for a bargain price compared to what it must have cost to restore. With the money he saved, I hope he can now haul his dragster to Cacklefest events all over the nation, and I bet he’ll have a lot of fun doing it.

(Introductory description courtesy of Russo and Steele.)


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