Flexing Muscle – Wheels-up Muscle Cars from the 54th annual Amalie Motor Oil NHRA Gatornationals

For most NHRA fans the pro classes are the big draw. It’s hard to ignore the smell of nitro and the thrill of side-by-side 330 mile-per-hour passes. But there’s much more to an NHRA national event than what you see on television.

At this year’s Gatornationals, for example, if you walk far enough back into the pits you’ll find vintage American muscle cars that are still storming the strip, often decades after they made their first quarter-mile pass. From a super-rare 1968 Hemi Dart that is still in the same family to a 1969 Chevy full-size station wagon that’s been raced since 1970 these cars still sport stock bodies, chassis and power plants.

There are plenty of vintage racers that are updated to run in Super Comp, Super Gas and Top Sportsman, but the Stock, Super Stock and Super Street competitors are essential stock body/chassis combinations. The Super Street cars are modified more, but still mostly stock.

And, if you’re a fan of wheel stands, these are the cars to watch. While the faster classes have seemingly engineered wheel stands out of the equation, the stockers relish the two-wheel launches.

Here are several veteran campaigners that are still blasting through the lights. One caveat: If there is a lack of vintage Fords in this story, it’s because there just weren’t many competing at this year’s Gatornationals.

Chevy wagon hauls more than groceries

The 1969 Chevy Kingswood wagon is campaigned by Bob Bender, the third owner. The wagon began its life on the strip in New England, was then owned by Andy Stinson. After Stinson died in 2002 the wagon sat in Pennsylvania before Bender found the car, bought it and resurrected in for the Stock Eliminator classes. The 4,400-pound wagon is powered by a 350 that NHRA has refactored to 263 horsepower.

The wagon hauls the quarter mile in the low 12-second range. Bob and his wife Penny, who’s the crew chief, travel with their dog to the races from their home in Maryland.

1968 Hemi Dart stays in the family

Chuck Comella bought this extremely rare (80 were produced) Hemi Dart new in 1968 from Jones Colonial Dodge in Pittsford, NY, for the whopping sum of $5,200. The detail on the window sticker tells the story: “This vehicle was not manufactured for use on public streets, roads or highways and does not conform to motor vehicle safety standards. This vehicle is sold as is and the manufacturer assumes no warranty responsibility.”

In simple English: This is a born race car. Chuck’s son Steve campaigns the car these days at NHRA races and specialty events for Hemi-powered cars. These days the car turns mid-eight-second runs in the quarter mile.

Quick 1969 RS/SS Camaro

The slick black 1969 RS/SS is powered by a 325-horsepower 396 big block and has been on the quarter-mile asphalt since the late Seventies. Owned by Terry Hembre of Blue Ridge, GA, the car consistently turns 10.70 elapsed times.

1969 Camaro convertible

This light green ragtop has been on the drag strip since 1971. James Roberts of Rhode Island is the second owner. He says the car had just 17,000 street-driven miles before retiring to the drag strip. The stock 350 – cast iron head, iron intake, Quadrajet carburetor – produces low ll-second times.

1970 LS6 Chevelle still in the family

Jason Bator’s father purchased this 1970 SS 454 Chevelle new. Is was sold after his father’s passing, but the South Florida racer bought it several years ago and built it up for the strip. The original LS was replaced with a larger big block that powers the car to consistent high 10-second runs.

1970 Barracuda keeps swimming

Maryland-based Tommy Baker has his “Trippin Fish” 340 Six-Pack 1970 Barracuda sporting a beautiful period-correct, red, white and blue paint job. The E/SA competitor runs in the upper 10-second range.

Ford Fairlane flies the Blue Oval

George Warren’s 1967 Fairlane sports its original paint while it competes in E Stock, running high 10-second times. The car competes in NHRA events as well as nostalgia drag racing competitions. The Tennessee resident also campaigns a Ford Thunderbolt.

You’ll also find a variety of late-Sixties and early-Seventies cars in the Stock/Super Stock category: GTOs, Challengers, Corvettes, Valiants, Firebirds and Vegas. Even an AMC Gremlin!

One other feature at the Gatornationals most years is a display of vintage drag racers. This year that included a special showing of several vintage Don Garlits’ dragsters, from his original flat-head rail to more recent rear-engine dragsters.

When you’re at an NHRA event, take a hike back in the pits and enjoy the flashback fliers.

Photos by Dave Doucette

Dave Doucette is a long-time Goodguys member with a career in newspaper, magazine and website journalism. He was one of the founding editors of USA TODAY, editor of two daily newspapers and co-owner of a magazine publishing and trade show company. He owns and operates Real Auto Media. His first car was a 1947 Ford; he has owned Camaros, Firebirds, El Caminos and a 1956 Chevy that was entered in shows from California to Florida before being sold last year. He was one of the original Goodguys Rodders Reps and served as president of two classic Chevy clubs. Doucette grew up in South Florida, avidly following the racing exploits of local hero Ollie Olsen and, of course, Don Garlits. He remembers riding his bicycle to Briggs Cunningham’s West Palm Beach factory to peak through the fence at his Sebring and LeMans racers.