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Arthur Christy is a South African drag racer who defied all the obstacles to bring his Fuel Dragster over 5000 miles to Santa Pod for the 1971 International meeting. Arthur helped create South Africa's first drag strip and constructed his Hawaiian III dragster which he raced at Santa Pod. Running on treaded tyres, he qualified with a personal best of 9.05 at 177mph on his treaded tyres, and on the Saturday ran a losing pass against Dennis Priddle before winning against Alan Blount in a third place run-off. This is Arthur's story of a lifelong love of cars and drag racing. Our thanks go to him and his daughter Cathryn for supplying pictures and cuttings, to Brian Sparrow and Roger Phillips for additional pictures and to The Acceleration Archive for details on the 1971 International meeting.
Click on any picture for a large image.
Eurodragster.com: When did you get into cars?
Arthur Christy: I started working on cars at age 14; I was given a '35 Chevy by an old man to rebuild. I stripped and overhauled the engine with help from a motor engineering firm in Springs, but being too inexperienced on bodywork, I had to get rid of it to another collector.
Then my Dad bought my Mom an Austin Seven in 1956 for her to learn to drive in, but my Mom was too scared, so I took it over in 1958 and with my elder brother Eric and two friends, Brian Orr and Ruon Pallas. We decided to customize it so that we could use it to go shooting birds; we cut the top off and split a hosepipe down the middle to put over the sharp edges.
We painted our hands white and pressed them onto the mudguards for fun and named the car 'Sputnik' as it was just at the time of the Russians launch of Sputnik. We used to go into the plantations and go up the mine dumps which sheared the Woodruff drive keys on the side shafts, so we always had a stock of these in our toolbox.
Eurodragster.com: What was the first car you built?
Arthur Christy: In 1959 I started an apprenticeship as a fitter and turner and during this time two other older friends of mine, Dave Phipps and Mike Sterling, started building a car in the shape of the "D Type" Jaguar; we had an Oldsmobile Rocket 88 engine with a Studebaker three-speed Gearbox with overdrive and a Chevy diff.
Every day after work I went on my bicycle to help them till the early hours; we got as far as the complete tubular framework and then came the real problem of covering it in Aluminium sheeting. None of us had any experience in working aluminium so the two older guys lost interest and I took it over.
I cut off all the shaped tubular frame from the car to make it simple to cover and covered it with aluminium using pop rivets. The resulting hot rod got featured in our local newspaper under the headline 'From Backyard to Main Street'. I drove this car for the last two years of my apprenticeship. At one stage held the record for fastest time from Johannesburg to Durban (600 kilometres) in 5 1/4 hrs (average speed 70mph).
Then in 1964 I did my stint in the Army for nine months so I couldn't do much on cars. A guy offered me a couple of hundred Rand for it, so I sold it to him and never saw it again. After my Army stint I bought an Opel Kadett. This was far too slow for me, so I bought a Chevy II and put a 327 V8 engine in it and it gave me years of pleasure.
Eurodragster.com: How did you get into drag racing?
Arthur Christy: Around this time, 1966, drag racing on the streets was getting very serious and dangerous, A businessmen friend from Springs, Jimmy Chapman, our local Speedway Champion, and Lukie Botha, a transporter owner from Pretoria with some money to spare, got together and asked me to help them design and build a Drag Strip which became known as Rainbow Drag Strip.
It got this name because it was on a piece of land that belonged to the owner of the 'Rainbow Pleasure Resort', Mr Hymie Nomis. It was 1/2 mile long and 30 ft wide, the first fully fledged 1/4 mile strip in South Africa.
Eurodragster.com: Did you build a car to race at Rainbow Drag Strip?
Arthur Christy: At the same time as the track was being built, I started to build what was the first real dragster in South Africa. I used an Oldsmobile Rocket 98 engine with its automatic gearbox and standard width diff. The problem was I couldn't rev the engine before take off without it moving forward due to its fluid drive, so some of the guys used to stand behind and hold it back until the guy setting us off said go. There were no starting lights yet in those days.
I campaigned that rail for a couple of years until one of the guys holding forgot to let go and was dragged twenty feet head over heels down the strip. After that no one wanted the job of holding the car any more. With a roots blower mounted in front of the engine with a big flexible pipe going into the 4 barrel carb, which kept on blowing up, my best time was 12.5 secs, hand timed by marshalls.
We also experimented with parachute stopping, we got an old personnel chute from army surplus stores, yes the big one, my brother would sit on my shoulders facing backwards in between the roll bars and when I said OK he would throw it out, this was a joke for the public's sake until one of the lines wrapped around his foot and he nearly ended up on the tarmac with the chute, luckily our speed was already slow; this hurried up my decision to build a new and proper Fueler. Also at this time, my friend Per who was an aircraft instrument technician built our first 'Christmas Tree' and electronic timing clocks. Brilliant chap.
Eurodragster.com: What was your next dragster?
Arthur Christy: In 1967 I built a new dragster (Hawaiian 111, named after Don Prudhomme's Hawaiian 1 & 11 owned by Roland Leong) with a 330 cu in Chrysler Hemi. I narrowed the diff, built our own clutch and direct drive with our own version of Chris Karamesines' Greek coupling design using high tensile steel, massive disc brakes with a booster and widened rims. Widening rims was one of our money spinners in those days.
We didn't have much success with this engine because it was very hard to get speed equipment (no one liked us because of the government's apartheid laws), and in 1968 I went to America to watch the Indy 500. There I met a guy named Chuck Strader who worked for Bell Equipment in California. So I went over to California and met up with him. He was a most marvellous friend, just to see all the stuff in the Bells warehouse was enough to make me cry, he took me to meet one of my heroes, Keith Black at his workshop.
Keith Black had one of their 2000 hp engines on the dyno, an amazing experience and he was such a down to earth nice guy. I got to speak to Keith about my 330 Hemi trouble, he said 'throw off those small port heads and get some 354 heads and go racing'. I don't think he realised in South Africa just to see a Hemi engine was a stroke of good luck. We left there and he took me to see Joe Hunt for a magneto and, behold, with him in his workshop was Mickey Thompson who, with Don Garlits, were my absolute heroes. You can imagine me meeting this man, I was speechless.
They were very interested to speak about the South Africa racing scene and also our apartheid government, also there was a guy named Bobby Hightower who drove a dragster for the owner of one of the oil additive groups and he invited me to Las Vegas the next weekend where they were racing. I got to sit in his AA/FD after a run, just the smell of the slicks and engine were fantastic to experience, I think they were in the 6 sec bracket those days. Also what was so amazing, I couldn't believe it, I was in Frank Sinatra's (also my hero) playground, old haunts like Sands, Flamingo, Dunes etc. I stayed at the old Stardust Inn.
Chuck Strader came to South Africa in 1969 and formed a partnership with one of our best speed equipment agents called Smiths Tune Up Centre; they also ran a dragster with fuel injection on a Ford engine. Through him, we could get anything as long as we could pay for it. Shipping was a problem, we had to fly everything in through a courier service otherwise it was lost in our postal service, so all in all it was a very expensive hobby. I was able by a stroke of luck to get some 354 heads. We also got Mickey Thomson pistons and rods, 4 bolt main caps, Herbert roller cam, Hunt Magneto, Edelbrock manifold, Hilborn two pot injection, 6-71 GMC Blower and a Cragar sintered disc clutch which we modified to double disc. Otherwise we made everything for that dragster in my father's workshop.
I used to design and build special machinery for stone working in the Monumental Works, foundry fettling, packaging and general whatever people needed, we couldn't get stuff from overseas due to sanctions, so we had to build it all locally which wasn't a bad thing as we became very proficient. Our armaments factories were turning out top class vehicles and big guns too.
Eurodragster.com: How did you get to race at Santa Pod in 1971?
Arthur Christy: In 1970, news came through the chairman of The Drag Racing Club Of South Africa, Jimmy Hadiaris who told us there was an invite for a South African dragster to race in England. At the time we were the best looking car and fastest so it was up to us to raise funds. This was a chance in a lifetime, so we started with all sorts of promotions at motor shows and demonstrations at hot rod and race meetings to collect funds.
We were from a town called Springs (30 miles from Johannesburg) and I knew the Mayor and some of the councillors personally. They had just committed to sponsor a yacht in the Cape to Rio Yacht race, which was called Spirit of Springs This caused an uproar from the community because Springs is 600 miles from the sea and who there knew anything about yachting anyway?
This gave us a good lever to put pressure on the councillors who were responsible for this stupid waste of money, this we did and they ended up giving us R500-00. We had to put Spirit of Springs on the trailer to qualify for the funds - this was a lot of money as in those days our Rand exchange rate was like £3 or £4 to the rand, not the current R21 to the pound.
We had to build a new trailer with a back door acting as a ramp and side openings to work through and access to fasten the car down properly, tow it down to Durban and load it on to the ship. It went on the Pendennis Castle. Henry Geddes went on the boat with the car to England, they had it loaded on the top deck in full view of everyone, and it caused quite a stir as the captain and all the seaman wanted to see what a Dragster looked like so he had to open the trailer. He had dinner at the Captain's Table that night.
I flew over later in a VC 10 which was on a maiden London/Johannesburg/London flight, the best plane I've ever been on and in my view the only planes that have the engines in the correct place!
Henry later told me the reception he from all the guys was fantastic including all the guys clearing and towing the trailer to Santa Pod. The rest is history. We didn't have much luck and I remember pulling a hole shot on Dennis Priddle only to see him fly past me about halfway down, I remember there was a big bump in the strip on his side and he took off because I remember seeing daylight under his back wheels.
At the end of my last run after the blower blew up I was just turning off the strip and suddenly my steering went limp, the connecting arm we made had been over time due to fatigue been cracking and had finally broken off, I remember Bob Phelps telling me how lucky I was that it had held until after and not while we were at 160-odd mph during the run.
The whole experience at Santa Pod was something you only get once in a lifetime, Bob Phelps (R.I.P.) and the guys were wonderfully helpful; we were able to get a set of 8" slicks and a new fuel injection setup with port injection nozzles, and we also shipped 25 litres of nitro in the trailer going back, fortunately we didn't declare it otherwise we would not have been allowed to land in Durban.
Unfortunately my partner Henry Geddes and Jimmy Hadiaris have also passed on, I am now 73 and my other good friend, who was with us in England Per Pedersen Hoein is 74, he still runs a very successful tune up shop in Benoni by himself.
We were the first South Africans to race a totally South African built racing car of any sort overseas which was a tremendous feat for us. Unfortunately there is no Drag Racing Hall of Fame in South Africa, not only for me, but in the early days in The Drag Racing Club Of South Africa there were a great bunch of guys and machines of all sorts all racing at our own expense, we even had our own "Drag Mag" magazine.
Eurodragster.com: What was racing like when you returned to South Africa?
Arthur Christy: After our return from England we raced for a year or so, nothing seemed to be the same. A guy named Brian Murray had imported a fully fledged rail from America which gave us a hard time although we did beat him on a hole shot. That upset him to no end, and he challenged us to another run but I declined as I said I am not getting paid for it and I could just blow the engine. Then in 1972 I got married, I sold the rail to Per Pedersen Hoein and retired from racing to start a family. Per didn't run it again because they found some heavy rust on the frame and stripped it down. He put the engine in a funny car which did well until it crashed.
Eurodragster.com: What were your road cars?
Arthur Christy: After the Chevy II I owned a Toyota Hi Ace, then a '64 Chevy Impala (our push car for the dragster) then a Mercury Cougar which was a total disaster, we had to cut holes in the inside of the mudguards to change plugs.
I since bought a Chrysler New Yorker Brougham with a 440 cu in engine from the King of Swaziland on auction, a very luxurious left hand drive vehicle with leather seats and everything that opens and closes down to the little flag posts on mudguards etc. Unfortunately I was involved in an accident in wet weather with three other cars which smashed the front grill and a mudguard, we could only import the parts and they were going to cost more than I paid for the whole car, so the insurance paid me out and I was allowed to keep the car.
But when cars are in your blood, in some form or other they stay there, I bought a '39 Chevy Master 85 Opera Coupe, a 1927 Chevy coupe, and rebuilt a 1956 Pontiac with the Chrysler 440 cu in engine, gearbox and diff out of the New Yorker, which took me 12 yrs. I sold the '39 Chevy and the Pontiac on an auction, and one guy bought both. Per has since bought the Pontiac from the guy I sold it to. I rebuilt a Bedford truck and sold it. I then had another Hi Ace, one of the first Audi Turbo's which caught fire burnt out and was replaced by Audi, and then a Toyota Hi Lux and have been driving them ever since.
Now I just buy and sell anything except cars or parts.
Eurodragster.com: What was your business trade?
Arthur Christy: I used to design and build special purpose machines for Natural stone working, Granite, Marble cutting and polishing, foundry fettling machines, palletising and wrapping machines and anything that people needed for special purposes.
Since the Chinese were allowed to bring their cheap machines into this country without any protection for local manufacturing, we couldn't compete, so I closed the business in 2010.
Eurodragster.com: Thanks for your time Arthur, and best of luck in the future!
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