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Dave Hales' S&S Willys Gasser

6/30/2020
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Small, light, short-wheelbase Willys coupes dominated the Gas classes in the 60s. They also happen to look really cool when given the gasser treatment.

It’s been said that the 60s were the “glory days” of drag racing, and for good reason. The variety of cars, innovation, and colorful characters made for a show that filled the stands across the country, week after week. One of the greatest things about this era was that just about anyone could campaign a car. In todays atmosphere of multi-cajillion dollar corporate sponsorship and outrageous budgets, there’s no place for the little guy with a home garage. But in the 60s, a little money matched with a lot of determination and hard work could make you a national contender.

Dave Hales' legendary Willys looks right at home at rest among the greats in the Museum of American Speed.

Dave Hales is a perfect example of this idea. Dave was a young guy when he bought a clapped out 37 Willys from a farmer for $25, dragging it home on Thanksgiving day in 1962. Dave was already a member of the legendary S&S Parts Racing Team, and the other team members helped him with his car.

Dave joined the S&S team with this 55 Chevy, moving on to the Willys after this car was wrecked in a towing accident.

Dave blew the car apart in his home garage and began building, taking notes from fellow S&S team members Charlie Hill and Porky Zartman and their already fiercely competitive “Filthy Forty.” A sturdy 57 Olds rearend was mounted to the chassis behind a T-10 4-speed. Additional crossmembers were added behind the rear axle and filled with lead shot, putting extra weight where it was needed the most.

Gas Class state of the art, circa 1963. The Moon tank, Hilborn injector, Vertex mag, and Corvette valve covers have become iconic speed parts, but at the time they were simply the best way to get the job done.

Stout, high-revving small block Chevys were the engine of choice for the S&S team, and Dave built up a 56 265 with a Crane cam, Vertex mag, Hilborn injector, and ported “fuelie” heads. Though the stock crank and rods were retained, Dave routinely shifted at 9000 rpm, pulling the front tires with each shift.

The great thing about race car interiors is that there's nothing there that doesn't need to be. Those seats came from Charlie Hill and Porky Zartman's (of Filthy Forty fame) fiberglass business.

Dave had the car ready for the ’63 NHRA Nationals in Indianapolis. He charged through round after round, running right up against the record in D/G. Gene Moody’s 55 would take him out in the final, but the race was so close that neither driver knew who won until they saw the win light on Moody’s tower.

The Willys in action. This shot shows it after some weight was removed and a bigger small block moved it up to C/Gas, where it also set records.

The Willys would see some evolution over the next few years, including some additional weight reduction and a few other small blocks, going on to hold records in D/G and C/G. Finally, by 1967, the high and mighty Willys of the Gas class were no longer competitive, being replaced by the slippery Camaros and Mustangs. But now, Dave’s Willys sits in the Museum of American Speed as a Matador Red beacon, showing how it was in the days when little guys could topple giants, and world-beating race cars were built in home garages.

Many race car stories do not have happy endings. Dave located and re-purchased his old Willys more than 30 years after selling it. Many of the original components remained, and Dave completed the impressive restoration back to the way he campaigned it.

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