This gigantic wagon looks like it was raced in the ’60s (Race Car In Tow) because it was—c
The biggest and heaviest station wagon that Pontiac produced for '61 is not the ride upon which dreams of record-breaking drag-racing performances are normally hitched. If you agree, then this is not your normal race-car story.
Ron Sanders, now of Aston, Pennsylvania, started racing Pontiacs in the early '60s when he bought a '61 Ventura hardtop with a blown engine. He built a 389 V-8 from scraps, converted it to a four-speed, and later installed the 8-Lug aluminum wheels.
In the same neighborhood, Frank Lumley owned the Lumley & Shaw '63 Catalina hardtop. Starting in 1963, various racers were associated with the car, including Lumley, Wayne Shaw, Bill Jenkins, Steve Kanuika, Bobby DeMarco, Sanders, and a few others. Sometimes Sanders drove the car and sometimes Shaw drove it. The '63 hardtop raced in and set the NHRA national record in E/SA in 1965 as Lumley & Shaw, and went down a couple of classes in its later iteration as the NHRA rejuggled the stock class weight breaks.
In 1966, Lumley told Sanders the race car was just sitting in the garage in pieces. They decided to rebuild it together and race it, which they did for about a year, but it wasn't competitive.
By late 1967, Lumley and Sanders started talking about building another car for the same class (H/SA). They scanned all the possibilities in the NHRA classification book and discovered that only one body style would make the class using the dealer-optional 368hp Super-Duty engine: a '61 Bonneville Custom Safari station wagon.
Tom Maddox (left) of Atlantic City is the current owner of the wagon, and is shown here wi
Sanders says, "The 368hp engine was not a factory-built engine. What you did back then was order a 348hp Tri-Power engine and the dealer would install the kit, which included new cylinder heads and a more radical camshaft, and then you had a 368hp engine. So what we were building was a car with 20 more horsepower and weighing 500-plus pounds more than the 348 hardtop we were running."
To test their theory, they ran the 348hp engine in the '63 Pontiac at Cecil County Dragway with two spare tires, two tool chests, and everything they could borrow that would fit inside to duplicate a station wagon's 4,400-pound weight.
Sanders recalls: "I went out and ran about 0.2-second slower than what I had been turning all day. I was pretty satisfied with that and was ready to go home when I decided to try another run. This time I came out at a higher rpm, which would normally spin the tires. Back then we were only allowed 7-inch-wide tires. To my delight, there was no tire spin and the car turned almost the same e.t. as before adding the weight. That cinched it—we were going to build a station wagon!"
The story goes on: "There were two problems with this combination. First, the No. 540306 cylinder heads were hard to find, as they were not factory-installed on any cars. They were a dealer-installed option and there weren't many sets to be had. Second, a '61 Bonneville Custom Safari station-wagon body was very hard to find.
We found a set of heads in Ohio, and the guy who had them told us he found a body in Boston. He wanted to sell us the heads, which we weren't going to buy without having the body first, so we grabbed our tow bar, headed to Boston, and towed the car home in a huge snowstorm."
What started out as the 368hp 389 with the dealer-installed parts kit for NHRA H/Stock Aut
The original Bonneville Custom Safari wagon found and bought in Boston was two-tone pale g
One of the nicest things about racing a giant ’60s wagon is that you can stretch out acros
The rusty, two-tone pale-green wagon had been used by an auto-parts store as a parts-chaser and had a blown engine. After a new set of fenders and hood; a ton of bodywork; and removing the parts and trim, including the roof rack, they painted the car white and put the fresh 368hp engine in it using the rearend, trans, Stahl headers, radiator, and Tri-Power from the '63 car. After weeks of testing, they went to their first NHRA meet at Capitol Raceway, Maryland, hoping to set their first national record.
Sanders laments, "We had problem after problem, and at the end of the day, we had not only not set the record, but our archrival, Don Potter, for some unknown reason, bombed the record from 13.80 to 13.40. That really took the wind out of our sails—not only did we not have the record, but we had to run against the new record at every event."
Like any worthwhile pursuit, it wasn't easy. "In the following weeks, I thrashed and thrashed on the car to make another attempt at the new record," Sanders recalls. "I experimented at the track with different timing, jetting, plugs, valve settings, engine temperatures, tires, carburetor air deflectors, cam timing, header extensions, fuel pressure, shift rpm, rear ratios, and aerodynamics. I never made a run without changing something. At home during the week, I removed all the weight I could find—radio, heater, clock. I put in a lighter grille, a lighter battery, and tried different wheel alignments."
In the Jan. ’69 issue of Super Stock & Drag Illustrated, the wagon is shown with the a
On the next attempt, he got what he wanted and nipped the record to a 13.39 at Cecil County Dragway in Maryland in 98-degree heat. "I immediately put the car in the record-run lane to back it up (a run within one percent was required to back up a record). I didn't cool the engine because I wanted a slower run to back up the record, not to set it lower, and I got exactly what I wanted—a 13.42. I had the H/SA national record!
Earning the right to paint "NHRA National Record Holder" on the car, Lumley and Sanders had it repainted in a Jeep green and lettered at Snooks Auto Body in Elkton, Maryland. Sanders raced the Pontiac solo for the next 17 years at 19 different Northeast dragstrips, plus Indy, and reset the NHRA class record four more times, running a best time of 12.85 at 108 mph against his own record of 13.39.
The dealer-installed 368hp combination was later disallowed by the NHRA, and Sanders then built NHRA-legal engines of 230, 235, 287, 303, 318 and 348 hp with various heads and carburetion setups to keep the wagon competitive in multiple classes, including H/SA, I/SA, M/SA, N/SA, R/SA and SS/VA.
By the early '80s, Sanders was married with two kids and ready to sell the wagon. Jerry Sawyers of Good Time Motors in Lansing, Michigan, bought it and did a complete body-off restoration. Joey Reynolds added fresh white paint. Vern Linderman added a beautiful green original-style interior, and Gary Glenn's Artrageous Studios did the Pontiac Indian-head graphics and lettering, all over a three-year period, from December 1997 to November 2000.
Sanders switched brands and gears and went drag racing and road racing in a succession of Corvettes, and helped son David to several SCCA points titles and a Driver of the Year award in a C5 Z06 Corvette.
The big wagon was then bought by Kevin DeWitte of Round Lake, Illinois, in January of 2004 and raced in nostalgia events and Pontiac-only events. In June 2008, the Bonne was auctioned off by Russo & Steele in Scottsdale, Arizona, and bought by John Nieliwocki, a vintage-car dealer in New Jersey. It was sold, and then sold again online by the next owner, who was from Byron, Minnesota.
In January 2011, the car was auctioned off yet again, this time at the Taj Mahal Casino antique-car auction in Atlantic City. Tom Maddox from nearby Woodbine, New Jersey, placed the winning bid.
When Sanders finally sold this wagon after 17 years of drag racing, he never imagined he w
At Atco Raceway in 2011, Ron Sanders was reunited with his old race car. See the air under
Here’s a vintage photo from the days when the car was garage-door green, with Ron Sanders
Maddox, age 61, a car collector, junior dragster racer (with his daughter), and A/Dragster racer, was getting older and wider, and had decided to park the dragster in favor of something he could open the door on, get in, sit down, and race.
He says, "I was a Pontiac guy from the time I was a little kid. I just fell in love with this car. Initially, I didn't think I'd be racing it. I just thought it would be a cool car to have. I found out about its long racing history on the Internet, and then I found Ron Sanders."
In May 2011, Maddox called Sanders. "I've got your old race car. I'm going to have it at Atco Raceway, and I want you to drive it for me. Just bring a helmet, and the car will be gassed and waiting for you." Imagine getting a call like that after you haven't seen or driven your old race car for many years!
Sanders went to Atco, met Maddox, and proceeded to drive the wagon so hard that he got daylight under both front tires for the first time ever! Between Maddox and Sanders, they blew it up that day, putting a large crack in the block.
The big old wagon is now powered by a 0.060-over 455 engine built by D&F Performance in Berlin, New Jersey, and fettled by the Riordan brothers, Sean and Eddie. The engine packs ported and polished No. 48 heads with 2.11/1.77 valves, a single 850-cfm Holley double-pumper on an Edelbrock Performer manifold, a new Comp Cams hydraulic-roller grind with 244/254-degrees duration at .050-inch, 0.571 lift at the valve, and a 108-degrees lobe separation angle, an MSD 6AL ignition and Pro-Billet distributor, and ceramic-coated headers.
A Turbo 400 with a 3,600-rpm stall converter replaced the tired Turbo 350 automatic, and the old 4.88:1 rearend, with its axle splines twisted from too many races, was replaced with a milder 4.11:1 rear that works better.
These days, weighing over 4,600 pounds with driver, the big Bonne runs high 11s at 109 mph. How's that for a different kind of race car story?