In Memory of the Old Timer
Its on a heavy heart that I type these words. I met Dode when I moved to California and we needed some holes drilled in axles. From there, over the years ,I found out who he was and what he did in life. Absolutely phenomenal life this man lived. If you knew him he always had a smile and always good stories and knowledge if you asked. He was a great man... He had passed Yesterday and it weighs heavy on me and some of my friends as we would make it over to his squirrel cage from time to time and hang out and learn a thing or two. He was an amazing individual and lived a very full life all the way to the end . There wasn't too many days you couldn't just stop by and know he was going to be in the shop doing something.
Well what I got is an interview with the man a long time ago at the beginning of my carrier as a journalist. He was always an inspiration for me .
The go fast master!
20 questions with one of the founders Dode Martin
If you know anything about early drag racing you better aught know about dragmaster chassis in Carlsbad, ca. In the day they built the best chassis for all the top names in drag racing. I had an inkling of what I was to find out in Fallbrook that day, I knew of Dode being one of the grand daddies of drag racing but never knew the whole story. He is a hot rodders hot rodder, putting in his time everyday at his workshop turning bolts, machining, and fabricating at age 84. After completing the trainer, a slingshot dragster made for training based on the early drag master frame, he collected parts for his two thing, which cleaned up in the 60’s being a twin engine digger you didn’t want to mess with. Presently, Dode is recreating his Drag liner, a full-bodied front engine dragster, which was his third drag car and what I come to find out the beginning of a long relationship with Jim Nelson his partner in dragmaster. Getting a hold of Dode was a little difficult, but when you know the right people like Gasser Tony, Mad Mike Moran and the limey Jay, things go a little easier. So lets go over to Dodes workshop and see what he is up to …
- So what got you in to Hotrodding?
Dode. Well in high school I had a 36 Chevy, but then I got a 40 ford and put a Carson top on it nosed it off ya know and purty soon we milled the heads, really didn’t know any thing about hotrodding really, so we milled the heads got a cam and just kept going more and more and more. Then I had a little shop down here in town for a while in a shed right on the 395 in Fallbrook that where we built this thing (the glass slipper), the two thing and a few of the other chassis. Had the equipment to do it.
T. Any stories of you running any dragsters down main in front of your shop?
Dode. Oh yeah we'd run em’ right through town ya know. Hahaha Fallbrook was small ya know in 57and 60 . So we’d fir em up at midnight or what ever give it a push see if it would run then go back to the shop.
T. What is the trainer and what are you using it for?
Dode: Well The trainer is about 2 or three years old and the fellas over at turnkey, since I donated an ls2 corvette motor, built the car for people around the shop to drive. You have to have a license to drive it, so Tommy’s girlfriend wanted to drive it and get her license so when we went down I just decided I’d try and get one too. So I got my physical, got it all signed off, and now All 5 of us have gotten a license in the car. Yeah we got Steve, Tony, Sarah, my grandson, and myself. Yeah we have fun with it, go down to Berona and see who can go the fastest. It has a radiator and fan so we can just keep going pass after pass. Its all-electronic fuel injection so there’s nothing we can really do but check the tires get in it and go! It’s a lot of fun. So now I am the 3rd oldest driver in all of NHRA.
T.What was your favorite drag strip growing up out here?
Well Lyons was about the best, most organized, nighttime runs were nice and cool and damp; lots of horsepower. But we had Inyokern, Paradise Mesa, Irwindale; we could just take our pick on Sunday. Not like it is today. Its really hard to find a drag strip, they have gone away for the most part. It aint like it used to be.
- You were big in with Carlsbad race way right?
Dode: Yeah well Jim and I were working with NHRA Designing and figuring how to do it and then we managed to run it for the first two years. We had it built and even laid the pavement myself, and ran Friday night drags, got a lot of the big guys in there ya know. In that time they were just getting to 200 mph it was were you needed to be trying for. The first cars were running 200; it was an era when you had smoking the tires, the zoomie headers and all the show. I think that’s what people like today. It was quite a time everyone had fun. Jim would take care of some of the managing and I did all the teching on the dragsters. Some of the other guys did tecking on the door slammers. Got to see all the big guys like Danny Uniteus, the mangler, n Jimmy Alan.
T. What made you want to recreate the twin thing?
Dode: well Jim and I, we’ve been going up to Bakersfield to the hot rod reunion for some time now, and we’d been talking to all of our old friends up there. And they Kept bugging me every year to rebuild the two thing, every year Dode you did the dart, are you going to do the two thing, next year, I don’t see the two thing, when are you going to do the two thing? So pretty soon I said, Well Lets see if I can find all the right parts. That’s basically why I put the project together. So we did the thing, most of the parts were available someplace, luckily for 40 or 45 years I had saved two of the flywheels ya know and the two cams. Those were a matched pair of forward and reverse grind. So that was a big part. Injector’s friends would find here and there. Motors were no problem, Jay found the In and out gearbox that we needed, a quick change rear-end which you can find Its all about looking around, making a list and start checking them off. Building it well steel you can find anywhere so start bending up the chassis by looking at the pictures. I wasn’t too sure of the cowl so I started digging around and luckily found the blueprints all drawn up which gave me the measurement for the bearings and such which gave me the measurement.
It took me 14 months to do that one so it wasn’t that bad. Its one of those things that’s good for the younger people, the older people that remember it running. And now the younger people can see it in real life not just in the pictures at the museum.
- What made you come up with the idea for the two things?
Dode: It was around 1959, 1960, we weren’t the first to put two engines together I remember Howard cams, they were one of the first, then Tommy Ivo, and so we said well this must be the way to go fast, so we designed a frame and figured how to make one run backwards, and it really not that big of a problem just get a cam ground and one thing leads to another and it just runs backwards. It was kind of a fad and during those years oh they were all over the country, two things and the freight train, and so. There were about 20 or 30 of them spread out all over the states. Sometimes the motors weren’t even matched, maybe you’d have a Chevy and an olds motor put em together and make a twin engine car. It comes to be that it would go fast but it was heavy, and it didn’t accelerate off the line. And at the time we only had 8.5 –9 inch tires so we didn’t have the tire for the horsepower. I know I won a lot of races but knew I would have to catch the guy at the top end. They’d get a length ahead of me but I would always catch em in the end. We pretty soon found out we could do a whole lot better with a single engine car. That’s what every body got now.
T. Do you get many Calls from people wanting to restore some of the old drag master chassis?
Dode: Well I get calls from time to time like the call you gave me. Well just yesterday a guy called from Sacramento wanting to know about a blower drive and a bit before that a guy called from Mississippi wanting to restore a chassis. He wanted to know about it and if I had any pictures so I mailed him off some pictures about what the frame is supposed to look like and how the steering was. There’s a guy in New York that I have been going back and forth with on a car he found, it was bought by Ron Abbot and was called the hills a poppin. Now this guy bought it and wants to restore it back to the original condition. He wanted to put a roll bar on it and said no one here in New York can do that, can you bend me a roll bar? I said sure and sent him one out. I get a call every week or two, People wanting to know about the old time racecars and things of that nature.
T. How many chassis do you think you have made?
Dode : oh probably somewhere like 200 or so of them were running around. I wish we had put tags on the chassis to figure out which one went to whom, but that’s haw we did it in those days.
T.How long have you been in your workshop here in Fallbrook?
Dode: I’ve been here 25 or 30 years, been retired from Dragmaster for oh boy around 15 years, and maybe more than that. I have gathered enough tools to build cars with ya know and have plans now to build a flathead powered dragster on some nitro.
T. How did you and Jim Nelson meet?
Dode: Well before we were partners I knew Jim for a long time, He lived in Oceanside and I grew up here in Fallbrook, been here most of my life. He was manager of the machine shop in Oceanside; Masters automotive that are how that drag liner got the name masters drag liner. They donated most of the money for the motor and the motor. At the time it was in 57 and I had my nitro flathead already sitting in the drag liner and the car was about half done and Jim Came to me and said this Chevy V8 is running purty good and he was connected to NHRA in the safari. So with that motor our partner ship was in an infant stage.
T when did you build your first Dragster?
Dode: I had built my first dragster in 50 –51 now it was crude. It was a model A frame with a flathead motor with an old ford rear-end in it. And there was no helmet or roll bar run just like that. I ran it up there at Santa Ana, at that time there were no cars called dragsters they were either roadsters or lakesters, and there was two of us, Auto Riesman and myself and we wanted to race each other so when we went to get our number put on they didn’t know what to call us so they said were going to call you guys dragsters. So they put a D and a 138 on my car. That’s the first time we had ever heard of the name called dragster. I don’t know if it was the first and maybe had started somewhere else but at Santa Ana that was the first time it was called dragsters.
I ran that car for a while and moved on to a new car I built running a flathead on 100% nitro. We started out gasoline, then alcohol, then 25% 30% 50% 75% AND PURTY SOON WE WERE RUNNING 100 % NITRO all in! That car ended in paradise mesa. I let one of my friends drive it and he got a little outta sorts and ended up running it into the pits wrecking it into a couple of cars and people. No one got killed. Brought the car home, threw the frame away saved the rear end front end and all that I could save… Took all the parts and started building the drag liner. At that time they were starting to go slingshot so I started building the new design.
T. What do you think of drag racing today?
Dode: well its nothing like it was back in the 60’s Ya know the prize was maybe a trophy or very seldom you got a hundred dollars. So it was more of a sport than being as professional as it is today. With all the big business with the products and things that they have to promote. The cars today well they race and want to win but their cars are like a billboard as seen on Television as advertising to the public. But the guys enjoy and are out there to win and love to win. When that green light comes on they put it on the metal for sure. Its still there but they need the money for the car I don’t think they would be able to run it all off just the prize money when they win. Well the first drag car was only 400 dollars to build and now these guys probably spend that on just nuts and bolts. It’s evolved into quite a thing. I 'll set back and watch these guys go 300 mph and am proud to have been apart of the start of the sport we have now, way back. We still mess around a little bit and have the fun.
T. Any memorable after parties after the races?
Dode Oh yeah, If we’d go to Dallas, we’d run there 3 or 4 times out at cattle mills just outside of Dallas. Well all the Texans would have huge parties for us ya know BBQ and Beer and what not. For all us racers coming in from California. I still see some of the guys from Texas out in Bakersfield. Tommy Tinker, he worked for Chuck Adams at his speed shop in Dallas, and back in the day if we ever broke anything they would say oh sure come on down and get what you need. I see Tinker and his son every year in Bakersfield; I have some old friends from those parties in Texas. Good Times were had.
T.Did you ever take any of the drag cars on tour?
Dode Oh yeah…. One Time Tom Nelson and, he never got much recognition for the things he did but built a lot of our motors and such, we were contracted with the two things to go on tour1 2 weeks. It was a paid thing, we got a little up front, a little when we got to the track, and then we got money for when we did 3 smoke runs for the people. Then we were allowed at most places to run in top eliminator too. So it was a trip we didn’t come home, we were out there for 12 weeks and lived in motels. Strip managers would take us out to dinner it was a fun tour for us. The people at the tracks would take care of us pretty well. One time we broke some sheer pins on the hub in the rear-end so we used the strip managers garage to repair it and then needed some new pins machined so we used one of the guys to do that. Got it all back together with everyone they’re helping out. That was in Littlerock AR, We were out there at the strip on Friday, noone was there but the media wanting to shoot some smoke pictures to show the public what was going to happen on Sunday. I made a run or two for the cameras, came back and said Tom we gotta problem only one wheel is smoking. We gotta lookin and found we had sheered the taper pins off. We got it all fixed with help and it was out there on Sunday. We raced all over in places like Denver, cattle mills, Tampa bay, way down in Garlets area, visited him and had lunch, Memphis, little rock, Atlanta, Cincinnati, Indianapolis, Detroit, all of these different drag strips for a total of 12 weeks. We set Top records in all 12 for gasoline and we won 11 outta 12 , that ol Chrysler was running purty good. Memphis was the one we had lost. It was a new strip and they had not even laid the asphalt yet. The Races were 5 or 6 days away and it was still dirt. Then they laid the asphalt a few days later and it wouldn’t set up due to the heat. So they put white lime all over it to cool it down, and then they couldn’t get the lime off after washing it, so the strip wasn’t in good shape. When I run the Chrysler there it was like running on a dirt road, no bite there at all. He got me on that one.
T. Did you ever have any problems with the two thing? Like motor or drive issues.
Dode: We had a few problems with the ring gears meshing up, and from time to time it would just spit em out in pieces, so we got a new set of billet steel one piece flywheels made, but they weren’t ready for our tour. When we got to Memphis they were good to go so we had them shipped out and boy did we have some work to do. So we got the new Flywheels on just in time to go down to the circle track there to show the people what was going to go on, on Sunday. And so during intermission they wanted us to drive it around the track .So we unloaded and I told Tom since he was driving the push car that when we got to the straight away I am gonna burn the tires for 100 feet or so to shot em what it looked like. So time came went halfway around the track hit the throttle dropped the clutch nothing happened. The clutch slipped on the brand new flywheel. They surfaced the flywheels too smooth and the clutches wouldn’t grab. So the next day we pulled it all apart again and grabbed the flywheel we ran the clutch on, took it to a machine shop to get a little knurl put back into it. It wasn’t all fun and games we had to work too.
One time at Inyokern it spit out the ring gear on me and at the top of the track I could hear it going sst sst ssst and what had happened is the ring gear exploded and went through the tire. It was the friction of the two rings going together.
- What Happened to the original two things?
Dode: Well I was running one night up there at Lyons and just as I was getting to the lights doing 175-180 I went to pull the handle for the chutes and the whole left motor blew up. When I started the motor it vibrated a little and I thought well maybe a plug fouled. So we ran and yep right at those lights that motor blew up making a lot of fireworks with the oil and all the sparks. I didn’t crash. But what did happen is the crank broke and the noise I thought was the plugs was in fact the crank vibrating. So we fixed it ran it a few more times. But then we were up in Pomona at a meet a couple months later, I fired it up and it made the same vibration, so I just shut it off and took it apart. And yep we had broke another one, it must have been the friction of the two running together. We weren’t running Billet cranks, they were cast ones that Mickey Thompson was making at the time Ya know stroker cranks and I think they just weren’t strong enough. So we figured it was getting pretty expensive and the single engines cars were doing as well or better than these so we will just take it apart and save and sell of what we wanted to. It was a fun car for a couple of years.
T. So when you say doing a smoke run what do you mean?
Dode: A smoke run would be for the crowds, burning tires the whole way down the track. We would change the gears in the quick change on our last pass if we knew we were in the lead and give the crowd a little something. Lifting the tires and making a good show of it. Putting it to the pedal and running it through the lights.
T. When you rebuilt the two thing did you guys ever get a chance to run it again or is it more of a cackle feast type car?
Dode: No they really don’t want you to run them at all at the tracks now. And we really didn’t build it to go racing. When we first built it, it was a ford rear-ends then we went to a 10-inch ford that was offset 7 and a quarter inches. Well it would blow the ring and pinion right outta the back so I built a strap to hold it back. So then we had to go to a Halibrand champion rear-end which didn’t break. Always upgrading so we got the original up and going pretty quick. So the new one was built for exhibition and for the museum.
T.How do you get all the photos and documentation of the cars?
Dode: well most of it is brought in and people know who I am. Its donated for the most part and really helps with rebuilding some of the old cars …Well you see the drag liner I have a lot of pictures and what I will do to figure out measurements is take the picture and say well the wheel is 16 inches on the rear. I’ll measure it with a micrometer and do the math to figure out the rest of the spacing and lengths. The pictures sure do help out a lot. .
- So what’s fun to you?
Dode: All of it is fun but building the cars and finding the right parts is fun to me. Its all savable no matter what, with the right tooling you can do it all.