Photos by Karissa Hosek, courtesy RM Sotheby’s, except where noted.
The race took place over the distance of two telephone poles, or about 60 feet, and the winner never shifted out of first gear, but according to some of hot rodding’s pioneers, Pete Henderson established the quarter mile – all 1,320 feet of it – as the standard for organized drag racing with that race and with his victory over a quarter horse in a Deuce roadster headed to auction next month.
For all the countless times the story has been told or written up in magazines, it appears nobody ever recorded the name of the horse or of the owner who instigated the race. The latter, as the story goes, had a good racket going on, traveling the country with his horse and challenging locals who thought they had fast cars to a race.
Of course, he wouldn’t issue those challenges if he didn’t have a couple things in his favor: First, he targeted owners of cars parked in front of bars, banking on their drunkenness; second, he had a champion quarter horse, reportedly good for 0-35 MPH in just four strides, and a champion jockey to ride the horse; third, he kept the races to about 50 yards, just enough space to keep the cars from building up much of a head of steam.
Nor did it hurt he’d trained the horse to take off the split second he dropped his hat. He reportedly hadn’t yet lost a race.
As Ak Miller told the story, the horse owner approached him first, sometime in June 1944, but Miller and his friend Connie Weidell calculated that even thoroughbreds (they apparently didn’t know the details of the horse in question) would handily defeat either of their cars over that distance. What they needed was a ringer.
For that reason, they traveled to Pasadena. They’d heard of a guy there who had a roadster with a stroked flathead that was the quickest thing in the valley and found Henderson hanging out at a drive-in. Indeed, Henderson had the year prior bought a Deuce roadster that had already been hot rodded for $400. He took the 1939 Mercury flathead V-8 to Don Blair, who stroked it 1/8 inch, bored it more than 3/8 inch, and installed a Bertrand camshaft, so-called Denver high-compression heads, a Weiand intake manifold, a pair of Stromberg 48 carburetors, headers, and a Spalding dual-coil ignition.
While Fran Hernandez and Tom Cobbs generally gets credit for the first officially sanctioned drag race (over a 3/10-mile length) in 1949, unorganized hot rod drag racing had taken place on the streets of Southern California at least since the late Thirties and four- or five-wide races had taken place on the dry lakes as well. Henderson had developed his reputation as the quickest thing in the valley through just such speed contests.
“My father didn’t think too highly of it,” he told the American Hot Rod Federation for its podcast last year. “He was in law enforcement at the time.”
Henderson, deferred from service due to a heart murmur, worked in the Lockheed plant at the time and was paying down the loan he got from a family member to buy the Deuce. Like any young man with a hot car, he was intrigued by Miller and Weidell’s invitation, so a week and a half later, after a demonstration of his car’s speed for Miller and Weidell, he showed up to the spot early on a Saturday morning on Highway 39 outside of La Habra, California, that Miller and the horse’s owner had agreed to for the race.
“The jockey was in full colors and there was about 50 to 60 hot rod(ders) down there,” Henderson said. They had the horse set up to run in the dirt on the side of the road and Henderson on the road itself. A scattering of dirt two telephone poles from the start marked the finish line. The car’s owner stood between them as starter. “The horse took off at the drop of his hat, and I took off a little behind. At 25 yards the horse wasw way in front of me, but I caught him at 50 or 60 yards.”
In fact, as a widely reproduced photo that Ernie McAfee took shows, Henderson won the race by just a hood length.
Photo by Ernie McAfee, courtesy RM Auctions.
“I didn’t think much of it at the time,” he said. “That picture has become well known. The car became famous, not me.”
Henderson sold the roadster in 1946 and over the next few decades it passed through at least nine different owners and took on a number of different personalities from small-block-powered street roadster to circle track racer to channeled and Buick-powered drag racer to movie star (it appeared in “Hot Rod Gang” and “The Spider,” among other Fifties flicks). While the story of the race persisted – likely thanks to the large number of hot rod pioneers in attendance that day, among them Phil Weiand, Vic Edelbrock, and Ed Winfield – the car’s fame faded until nobody knew much about it other than that it was an O.G. Southern California hot rod.
That is, until Chuck Longley bought it. Though Longley had owned it since 1977, sometime in the 1990s he thought he’d try to sell the roadster through Hemmings Motor News. According to Gray Baskerville’s account, Henderson happened to see Longley’s ad, thinking the car might be his old roadster, and confirmed as much by verifying the chassis number (DRF99005) that Longley shared with him.
Since then, the roadster’s been treated to two separate restorations and sold in 2007 to activist investor Ralph Whitworth, then collecting historic hot rods for his planned America’s Car Collection museum in Winnemucca, Nevada. While Whitworth sold off much of the collection in RM’s Icons of Speed and Style auction in September 2009, the Henderson roadster remained in his personal collection until his death last September.
Along with the Henderson roadster, a number of Whitworth’s personal cars – including Big John Mazmanian’s 1967 Austin gasser, a 1956 Chevrolet H/Stock drag car, and an Ardun-powered 1932 Ford coupe – will cross the block at RM Sotheby’s Hershey auction, which will take place October 5-6 at the Hershey Lodge in Hershey, Pennsylvania. The Henderson roadster is expected to sell for $160,000 to $180,000. For more information about the auction, visit RMSothebys.com.