Top Fueler John Dearmore – The Interview
Nostalgia Drag World recently sat down with long-time Top Fuel racer and valve train parts manufacturer, John Dearmore. Sit back and read with us for an insight into John’s long career with nitro cars and his views on today’s nostalgia racing……
NDW – John, you’ve had an amazing career as a drag racer and later as a racing parts manufacturer. Where did it all start?
I was born in Evansville Indiana, but my family moved to Wichita, Kansas in 1951, where I lived until 1973. 1954 is when I first started seeing drag racing. As a teenager, back in those days you could drive a car to and from home if you had a job. I had one, working at a speed shop on Broadway where I was the “go-for” – doing everything from sweeping to cleaning up. Back then speed shops sold speed equipment and worked on engines, installing what they sold. That, along with my Dad’s interest and help, is where I learned to rebuild engines. The only drag strip we had was at the local air force base, which they ran to help their airman’s fund. On race day they would close off a runway and have the drags.
One Friday the owner of the speed shop took me over to Scientific Motors, which was owned by a guy named Al Williams. That day on his parking lot I saw some of the biggest names in drag racing having a pre-race party. Bobby Langley, Lou Cangelose, Eddie Hill, Bob Sullivan, and several more were there.
The owner of the speed shop took me inside and introduced me to some of the racers, which was pretty overwhelming for a thirteen-year-old! I got to go and get beer and cigarettes for the men and their wives or girl friends. Everyone was having a great time and I forgot what time it was and went past my time to drive home. I knew I was in big trouble but it was worth it. On my way out the door the guys told me they would have a pass for me at the gate for the next race.
To my surprise Mom didn’t say much and the next morning when my Dad wanted to know why I was so late, he seemed okay with what I’d told him about the previous evening’s activities. Since I couldn’t drive on weekends with my special permit, I asked Dad if he would take me to the races at the air base. He made me a deal that if the pass was there then I could go, and if not - it was home and with no complaining.
Sure enough there was a pass waiting for me, so Dad said to have fun and left. I walked in and found the cars and the guys from the day before, all of them telling me how great it was I could make it. They were getting ready to push several of the cars and I got to ride along with one of them. From then on I was hooked on drag racing and have been ever since!
In 1955 I got to go to the big time - Great Bend, Kansas. It was another one of those first time deals that you needed to be young for, as there were no motel rooms, causing us to have to sleep outside. There were races in the daytime and, besides a few street dances, we walked around watching guys work on their cars at night. We finally found a park where we could sleep a few hours before getting up to do it all over again the next day.
NDW – Did you start racing street-type cars before you got into dragsters?
I did have some very good street cars before I built my first dragster. I raced several in the gas classes, with hot cams and multiple carbs; the class depending on how many cubic inches I was running. I still had friends from the speed shop where I’d worked and they helped me build an injected small-block Chevy for my first dragster. That’s the one I bent the chassis on, the first time out. I had to take it all apart and fix it, but learned a bunch, which I believe helped me in later years when I teamed up with Norman to go Top Fuel racing.
NDW – Didn’t you work in the aircraft industry?
Living in Wichita, jobs were pretty easy because of all the aircraft plants and I worked at them all at one time or another. Plus, we had a couple of service stations. My Dad ran one and I was at the other. Working and having a race car was a full time job, so being young helped when burning the candle at both ends.
I worked with a friend who introduced me to a German in 1961 who had a machine shop. He was from the old country and all his machines were the old belt-driven kind. For the first six months he would not let me make any parts until I could read micrometers, calipers, blueprints, or anything that had to go into making a part. He taught me a lot. I made many of my own race car parts in his shop and, since 1962, have been designing, making, and manufacturing parts for race cars.
NDW – When did you and Norman Gingrass get together?
I teamed up with Norman in 1965. A friend who was a crew member on John Wiebe’s team knew Norman and came down to Wichita and told me about him while we were having a beer. I was opening a speed shop of my own - the first DRE – and was also going to college at Wichita University. The speed shop was kind of a part time deal, just to see where it would go. Well, I went out and had a talk with Norman and we made the deal.
NDW – Tell us about that first “Gingrass & Dearmore car.
Our first car was a Kent Fuller. My friend who introduced me to Norman and my dad went with me to California to buy a chassis. Part of the partnership was that I would furnish the chassis, truck, trailer, and anything else and Norman paid to build the engine.
On our way to California I had already called about buying a Woody Gilmore-built car from Paul Sutherland, who drove for Jim Brissette. I thought an agreement had been made, but when I arrived and met up with Jim and Paul they had changed the deal and wanted us to buy all their 331 Chrysler motors as well. I called Norman who said he did not want any 331s, so that deal went down the tube.
Here we are in California, money in hand and wanting to find a dragster. Most of the chassis builders were behind and could not get us one for months. We looked at a few that were for sale, however Norman was pretty good sized and my friend, who was built about the same as Norman, could not get in the ones we found. On the second day of looking in the Los Angeles area we stopped at Reath Automotive to see if anyone there knew of any cars for sale. One of the guys who worked for Joe had a new Kent Fuller car but could not finish it as he was now married and expecting a baby and needed to sell the car. I met him after work and after my friend Gib climbed in and had room to move around, we knew Norman would fit. We knew Kent Fuller had a great reputation for building good cars, so I bought it.
The only problem we had was that it needed to be re-tagged by Fuller, so the next day we headed north to Kent’s shop, just outside San Francisco. We arrived late that day and Fortunately Fuller was still there. The neat thing about that car was that it already had the body work done including a tail piece, which had been very popular up to that time. Little did we know, however, that most of the new cars were getting away from the swoopy tail pieces
Norman and I wanted to be racing by the first of next year which was 1966. As soon as I got home to Wichita I checked around for a painter and our friends in Oklahoma City suggested a guy who was doing some painting by the name of Nat Quick. I called and took the car down to Oklahoma City to him and it was a cold weather paint job as winter was coming on. While the car was in Nat’s paint shop I was building our new trailer which I wanted big enough to work out of. It took me about eight weeks to build it, working nights and weekends as I had a job during the day. Norman was busy building two engines plus one pretty stock one he put together just to play with.
I kept in touch with Nat as he painted the car. He told me he was going to try something he had been thinking about for some time, and if it worked it would be beautiful. The shop he was using was an old two-story building, which worked out great as Nat hung the car from the ceiling and painted it by working from a ladder. As far as I know, our Kent Fuller car was the first to have a lace paint job. Nat used a piece of lace 20’ long to put over the full-bodied car. It turned out to be just beautiful, and to this day Nat says it’s his favorite car of all the ones he has ever painted. cont... on next page