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Dragster pioneer Art Chrisman dies at 86

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Photo courtesy Petersen Automotive Museum.

Legendary drag racer, hot rodder, and land-speed racer Art Chrisman – whose dragster set the pattern for many other quarter-mile conquerors and who racked up a number of honors over the last few years – died last week at the age of 86.

While best known for his No. 25 flathead- (and, later, Hemi-) powered dragster from the mid-Fifties, both he and the dragster got their starts in racing on the California dry lakes in the years just after World War II, assisted in no small part by the various Chrismans already in racing, including Art’s father, uncle, and brother.

With No. 25, however, Chrisman set the new sport of drag racing on its ear. He became the first to make a pass at the first NHRA Nationals in 1955 in Great Bend, Kansas (though not the first to qualify for the event), and later drove it to 140 MPH passes. More importantly, its stretched wheelbase, far rearward seating position, and minimal rear overhang – which created massive rear weight bias – gave it a tremendous advantage over its competition and became the foundation for dragster design.

In addition to his success on the dragstrip – furthered by his No. 25 followup, the slingshot-style Hustler I, which was good for 180 MPH passes – he also set records in land-speed racing, most notably becoming one of the earliest members of the Bonneville 200 MPH Club behind the wheel of Chet Herbert’s Beast.

More recently, the Wally Parks NHRA Motorsports Museum in Pomona, California, where No. 25 currently resides, dedicated its Gallery of Speed to Chrisman and the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles selected Chrisman for the museum’s Lifetime Achievement Award last year.