Racing legends are often hidden in plain sight. Whether referring to legendary cars or legendary people, it’s common for them to blend into society after they’ve run the course and retired from a lifestyle of speed. A legendary racer may be sitting next to you at the bar without you ever knowing his story. He doesn’t wear it openly as a badge of honor. On that same token, a legendary car may be hiding in the woods, fading into oblivion without an ounce of recognition. The older generation remembers the car and the guy who built it, but those memories get fuzzy after a few decades. Even to the owner, the car’s story may simply be a bunch of memories that pale in comparison to the memories created with his late wife, his two daughters, and his grandchildren. Alas, those racing memories bring a smirk to his face as he takes another swig of PBR.
By now, we’ve painted a pretty clear picture of a man who made an impact on people without even trying. And though he won’t take credit for the drag-racing craze in his hometown, Jim Smith is the type of guy who not only built cars for himself but also influenced local gearheads to make their cars faster. Do you remember the guy in your town who inspired you to build a fast car? Jim Smith isthat guyin the town of Dayton, Tennessee, and this is the story of his Hemi-powered dragster that was recently unearthed and reconstructed.
Jim Smith was a teenager when he began drag racing. He started with a Chevy-powered 1936 Ford, running against another local hot rodder, Ken Rhodes, who pedaled a Cadillac-powered 1934 Ford. Jim then built a Chevy-powered dragster, using driveshaft tubes as the framerails. As he became more serious about drag racing, he decided to build a new car, one that would be a step above his previous effort.
In 1962 Jim and his older brother, Tom, started with a pile of round tubing, and by the end of the drag-racing season, the Smith boys had a few trophies to show for the tremendous amount of engineering, fabrication, and time that went into the build. Racing at tracks like Harriman Drag Strip, Brainerd Optimist Drag Strip (Hixson, Tennessee), and Loudon Drag Strip taught them how to deal with different racing surfaces—and the local competition. Even though the brothers had great success early on, they knew they had to outwork and outthink the competition to stay ahead. The original configuration of the dragster featured a 98-inch wheelbase, but after flipping through an issue of HOT ROD in 1963, Jim saw Don Garlits’ new “longer” dragster (now chronicled as “Swamp Rat 5-B”) and decided to stretch the car to 134 inches.
Jim gas-welded the chassis, using 1-5/8-inch tubing for the main rail and smaller tubing for a truss support rail. Tubing benders weren’t common at the time, so Jim took his tubing to Sharp’s Plumbing in Dayton to have the roll-bar hoop bent to his specification. Tom Smith, in adoration of his younger brother, mentioned that Jim would always visualize a design, sketch it out, and then do whatever it took to make it come to life. Tom said, “Jim was the brains behind the operation—I just handled some of the grunt work and helped where I could. It was a real eye-opener to watch Jim build this car, and even more when I saw his designs work on the track.” One such case was the homebrew torsion-bar front suspension setup, mated to a round-tube front axle with 1940 Ford spindles.
While his previous dragster was small-block-Chevy powered, Jim was a Mopar man at heart, and he chose the ultimate motor for his new piece: a Hemi. He traveled to a junkyard in Mableton, Georgia, to get the 354ci Hemi engine and commenced to hopping it up for serious abuse on the dragstrip. Tom was responsible for porting the cylinder heads and spent nearly all winter making sure they would flow enough air to make use of the six Stromberg 97 carburetors set atop a Weiand Drag Star intake manifold. Meanwhile, Jim called Bruce Crower and gave him all of the car’s specs so a custom camshaft grind could be developed and implemented to the original camshaft core.
The aluminum fuel tank was another homebuilt piece, and it was held in place with two springs from a screen door. Jim later built a larger tank when he switched over from gasoline to a mixture of alcohol and nitromethane. Jim said, “We were supposed to be running A/Gas Dragster, but we ran it on straight alcohol for a while.” He eventually added a mixture of nitromethane, upward of 60 percent toward the end of the 1964 season. It’s interesting to note the car never had a fuel pump; Tom was responsible for operating a hand pump before each run to obtain the precise fuel pressure it needed to make a pass. This was especially crucial when the car was running on “fuel.” Tom would pump up the system, hop in the 1959 Dodge push car to get the dragster started, and pump the system again before Jim let it rip down the quarter-mile.
The dragster used a direct-drive system—another homebuilt setup—that worked beautifully. He used a 52-pound flywheel from a Dodge truck, and it mated to a Velvet Touch dual-disc clutch setup. All of these components rode inside a homebuilt clutch can, which had tabs to mount to the frame as well as a mount for the steering box. Moving rearward, Jim narrowed an Olds rearend housing and matched it up with a centersection from an ambulance, which was the only thing he could find with the appropriate gear ratio of 4.10:1. He didn’t want to spend money on tooling for a local machine shop to cut and re-spline the axles, so he cut and welded them himself. He did spend a few bucks on tires, getting M&H Racemaster slicks from Honest Charley Speed Shop in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
The Smith brothers had three years of trial and error under their belts by the end of the 1964 season, and they went out with a bang, winning the final race of the season at Harriman Drag Strip. The fastest recorded speed for Jim Smith’s dragster was 157 mph on a blazing run at the newly relocated Brainerd Optimist Drag Strip in Ringgold, Georgia. As the 1964 season came to a close, Jim heard the local tracks were cutting the purse for the dragster classes, while the Super Stock, Street Eliminator, and Gas classes flourished. Though Jim still had a huge interest in going fast, his drag-racing days were over. He disassembled the dragster and hung the chassis in the Smith-Clayton Dodge dealership for a while, but it would eventually end up in the woods behind his house.
Anyone who knows Jim understands his collection of cars and parts is a huge part of his life. He hasn’t sold many things out of his collection, but the dragster recently went to a new home. You might initially question his decision to sell such a meaningful car, but when you consider the nature of the transaction, it will put your heart at ease. Lifelong Dayton, Tennessee, resident Troy Byrd is one of the guys who was influenced by Jim in the 1960s, and his passion for fast cars trickled down to his son, yours truly. The Byrd boys bought the remnants of the car and reassembled it to pay tribute to Jim. The plan is to eventually fabricate a body to replicate the original tinwork and paint the car to match the color combination of blue with a white engine. For now, the car serves as the ultimate conversation piece inside Troy’s garage, and with each shared story, the legend of Jim Smith and his homebuilt dragster continues to be uncovered.
A LEGEND’S BROTHER
As we compiled information for this article, we spent time with Jim Smith, but we also quizzed his brother, Tom Smith, about his experiences with the car. Here’s what he had to say:
“It’s hard for me to accept that we built and raced this car more than 50 years ago. Jim built this car on an uneven slab of concrete at our old home place, and it always amazed me to see him come up with an idea and put it into motion. Jim could build anything, and I guess you could say I was the supporting staff. It was all new to me—the torsion bar, the direct drive, the nitromethane—but I was eager to help. We had each other’s back in every way during those days. I went with him every time the car went to the track. I drove the push car and helped him on the starting line by pressurizing the fuel system and making sure the engine was up to temperature before he made a pass. He let me make a couple passes in the car at Harriman Drag Strip, and I was more concerned with getting stopped than going fast. It was a thrilling experience. Some of my favorite memories include testing the car on Highway 30 and watching the crowd of spectators scatter the first time we ran it on fuel at Harriman. Seeing this car again brings a tear to my eye because it was such a big part of our lives and it was such a great bonding experience for us back then.”
Special Thanks: Jim Smith, Tom Smith, Jamie Ridley, Angie Smith, Troy Byrd, Kyle Shadden, Jesse Shadden, Dennis George, Tom Taylor, Tom Pelfrey, and Ron Cradic.
In the background of this photo is a line of crusty Chryslers. Those crashed and abandoned sedans held many of the dragster’s parts, such as the headers, clutch can, and even a damaged piston from a dropped valve.
The 354ci Hemi isn’t operational, but most of the parts are still there. Jim kept the Weiand Drag Star intake manifold and six Stromberg 97 carburetors inside his garage all these years, but the patina matches the rest of the car nicely.
For motor mounts, Jim used a pair of connecting rods from a 60hp Ford Flathead V8. They fit well, thanks to their 1.599-inch rod journal. The main framerail was 1-5/8-inch round tubing.
Jim built the steering system, including the steering wheel, from scratch. He made the clutch pedal from a Desoto brake-pedal pad he turned sideways and lightened with “speed holes.”
Photographed in front of the Cox-Burnette Motor Company in downtown Dayton, Tennessee, Jim Smith stands proudly with a trophy from Harriman Drag Strip. Judging by the signage in the window, this photograph was taken in late-1963. Note the shorter wheelbase: this was just before Jim added 36 inches to the frame.
When it comes to legends, it doesn’t get much better than this picture. Jim is still all business, but he probably would’ve cracked a smile if the old Hemi was running. Jim kept his car all these years, but it has been more than 50 years since he last saw it sitting on all four wheels.