Photo Credit: Steve Reyes
by Jon Asher
Jack Chrisman was drag racing royalty from the sport's early days through the 1970s, not just for his success behind the wheel but his countless innovations on and off the track. It seems crazy now, but he rose to fame in 1959 behind the wheel of Chuck Jones' rear-engined Sidewinder. The name means exactly what you think it does; the engine was mounted sideways in the chassis, driving the rear wheels via chain. Chrisman came back the next season with a car that would become even better known, the Howards Cams "Twin Bears" dragster. With its two Chevy engines tilted outwards, the one concession to "aerodynamics" was a plywood board in front of the powerplants. Trust us, there was no science involved. It was just a bunch of drag racers doing what they do best – innovating.
Chrisman remained an innovator throughout his life (he passed away in 1989 at 61), and it's for that which he is most remembered. After a severe injury in a front-engine dragster in 1963, he spent almost a year regaining his health. It was then that he became friends with Ford's Fran Hernandez. Hernandez had a keen eye for nascent trends in motorsports, and with Chrysler's introduction of the first altered-wheelbase cars, he knew Ford had to step up or be bypassed. So Hernandez made sure every Ford factory racer had a fuel-injected Comet or Mustang. Chrisman received one of the former but never raced it. When Hernandez asked why, Chrisman said it needed a supercharger to be competitive. Hernandez told him to do what he wanted, but even Ford was stunned in 1966 when Chrisman hit the match-race trail with his now-topless Comet powered by a blown SOHC Ford. It was not only competitive, it was a media magnet, landing on the cover of Bob Petersen's Hot Rod Magazine among many others.
The hugely popular drag racer opened Jack Chrisman Enterprises in Long Beach, California in 1972, the company still operated today by his son, Steve. The list of championship-winning competitors who have relied on Chrisman-built ring and pinions, axles and related rear-end parts is legion, and with good cause. Chrisman brought the same innovation to his aftermarket operation that he'd applied to his racing career, and it paid off not only in sales, but the list of those who refused to race with anything but Chrisman-built parts.
Another measure of Chrisman's legacy came in 2001 when the NHRA compiled its list of the Top 50 Drag Racers of all time. Chrisman was #23. He may not have won dozens of races with "Nationals" in the titles, but he won hundreds of match races and thousands of fans for a sport he helped grow. And when you see some of today's champions making record-setting runs, in a lot of instances a part of Jack Chrisman is along for the ride in the form of the cutting-edge components he engineered.