Friend’s Tribute: Rich Martin’s Nostalgia Front Engine Dragster

The early days of drag racing saw racers experimenting with many different ideas and techniques to go faster. Those bold days of horsepower exploration led to a plethora of unique cars being built with wild engine combinations. Rich Martin has taken up the task of restoring one of these nostalgia dragsters that has some great history as a tribute to a fallen friend.

The story of Martin’s dragster began in the late 1950s when the all-steel 1931 American Bantam body was mounted to a fresh chassis. Powering the dragster was a classic flathead Ford engine as it was campaigned all over Michigan by a member of the Road Gents car club. During this time the dragster picked up a few wins regionally, however, it was about to get a big powerplant upgrade by its new owners.

“The trio of Nace, Ruetz, and Bohl purchased the car early in 1960 and converted it to run a 354 cubic-inch HEMI. They raced the car from 1961-1965 and ran at Indy, Martin, Michigan, Detroit Dragway, and US 30 Dragway. From there it was sold to Brent Gilbert and he ran the car for a year and had a lot of fun with it,” Martin says.

Gilbert eventually sold the dragster to Martin’s friend, David Crane. Over the next 20 years, Crane worked on the car with the goal of restoring it to its former glory. Unfortunately, Crane fell ill and passed away. After Crane’s death, Martin took ownership of the car so it could finally see the track, just like Crane wanted.

“We’re trying to carry on getting the car ready for Dave. It’s a neat car that has history, and the guys who ran the car originally are still alive. It’s been cool to talk with them to learn about the car and how things were back in the day when it ran. It gives a unique perspective of drag racing and makes restoring it fun,” Martin explains.

What makes this dragster interesting is the small-displacement HEMI that powers it. Racers that ran in the 13-14 second bracket with an original flathead Ford would use this engine as a way to step up and go faster. According to Martin, the dragster had run in the 10.30s at around 150 mph back when the HEMI conversion was originally done. That might not sound like much by today’s standards, but remember this was back in the day when tire and chassis technology were still in the stone age.

This labor of love is something Martin thoroughly enjoys. Finishing this project as a tribute to his friend makes the build even more special to him.

“I’ve got my own dragster that I’ve been working on building, but that was put on the back-burner to finish Dave’s car. I’ll be the person to drive it because I’m the only one crazy enough to do it. If we could just have some fun with the car that would be great. The big thing for me is to have the car make some passes and stay together while we all enjoy it. If the car goes in the 120 mph range, I’ll be happy,” Martin says.

It’s always cool to see an old-school racecar get a new lease on life thanks to someone who cares as much as Rich Martin. With a goal of paying tribute to a lost friend driving this build, you know Martin takes great pride in what he’s creating.

About the author

Brian Wagner

Spending his childhood at different race tracks around Ohio with his family’s 1967 Nova, Brian developed a true love for drag racing. When Brian is not writing, you can find him at the track as a crew chief, doing freelance photography, or beating on his nitrous-fed 2000 Trans Am.
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