By allowing ads to appear on this site, you support the local businesses who, in turn, support great journalism.
Early GB drag race winner returns for race week
Wooster recalls racing 67 years ago
Wooster and his roadster
Gary Wooster of Salina is pictured with his 1932 Ford Roadster. The restored roadster has a four-cylinder Hemi engine. Wooster, a 1955 race winner in Great Bend, was one of several men to return to Great Bend in restored roadsters for the start of this year’s Rocky Mountain Race Week. - photo by Daniel Kiewel

As Rocky Mountain Race Week kicked off Saturday at the Sunflower Rod and Custom Association (SRCA) Drag Strip in Great Bend, a winner from the track’s earliest days and a group of friends returned to watch the action.

Early drag racer Gary Wooster of Salina, along with friend Jim Sampson, won top elimination and fastest time trophies at a 1955 National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) race at the strip. Wooster and his friends returned in early roadsters not much different than what he drove almost seven decades ago. Sampson was unable to make the trip.

Wooster said he made the return trip to Great Bend in a restored 1932 Ford Roadster at the behest of friends, who he said encouraged him to see how drag racing has progressed since he won the first championship race 67 years ago. 

And, as Wooster recalls, the far more sophisticated drag racing of today is worlds away from the sport he took up in his youth. Drag racing back in the 1950’s, he said, was far more rudimentary. Back then, most drag races took place on city or country roads. Around Salina, stretches of country roads would be blocked off for informal drag races.

The early NHRA drag races, he said, were an attempt to bring drag racing off the streets, and make the sport safer and more acceptable to the public. The sponsor for the races in Great Bend the year he won was MobilGas, and all the racers wore T-shirts with the company’s logo. The 67-year-old shirt made the trip to Great Bend with him Saturday.

“Back in the old days. ‘hot-rodder’ was a derogatory remark,” Wooster said. “The NHRA was trying to legitimatize the hobby and bring it mainstream.”

Back in 1955, Wooster and Sampson towed a cherry red 1932 Ford five-window coupe with a beefed-up four-cylinder engine to the drag strip out at the airport. “There just wasn’t any place around Salina that had a drag strip of this caliber,” he recalled.

The cars they raced back then were also not the same caliber as modern drag racers. Most often they were street vehicles that simply had larger engines put into them to speed them up. Sampson provided the four-cylinder flathead engine for the Ford they won with in 1955. The engine was customized with a Stromberg carburetor and Magneto ignition system. His car wouldn’t break 100 miles per hour over a quarter mile, he said. Most of the parts often came from local salvage yards.

He recalls having a love for cars for as long as he can remember. “Kids that age just loved cars. There were no cell phones or computers, so cars were our computers, I guess.”

Veteran racer Mike Gordine, who also made the trip, said racers in that day often learned to work on cars out of necessity. “If you didn’t want to walk, you (learned how) to fix it.”

As a senior in high school, Wooster and Sampson would race two or three times each summer. It became a hobby he participated in his entire adult life.

The car he won with in 1955 would go on to be his regular commuter car as he went on to Kansas State University in Manhattan. “I went and took it home, took the four-cylinder out, put my flat-head V-8 in, and drove it to school in Manhattan. That was my ‘daily driver.’”

Drag racing today, he said, is “light years” ahead of the sport he remembers. 

But, 67 years later, the cars that once graced the drag strips returned once again to witness the sport for which they laid the foundation so many years ago.

1955 Race winner
Wooster, class winner at the 1955 NHRA Championship Drag Race in Great Bend, is pictured with the 1932 Ford Roadster he won the race in. Wooster raced with friend and fellow Salina resident Jim Sampson. Wooster returned to Great Bend Saturday to watch the beginning of Rocky Mountain Race Week. - ROGER MORRISON Courtesy photo
Gary Wooster MobilGas Shirt
Gary Wooster displays the shirt he wore as part of his 1955 NHRA National Championship Drag Race in Great Bend. - photo by Daniel Kiewel