"I am amazed at the interest in my top fuel dragster some 40 years later and believe it is important to share with enduring fans and historians of the sport "how it used to be". Since I built my first dragster in the family garage fifty years ago, a lot has changed in the sport of drag racing, with the tractor trailer haulers, large fully equipped pit maintenance areas, paying sponsors, computer enhanced tuning, and the ability to measure everything! I had none of those We decided to break out a few dusty photos and share with today's drag racing fans how it used to be...we hope you enjoy the website."
The American Way Streamliner Designer/Owner October 2010
Click for Beacon Field website !
The FLATHEAD Ford Days!
Harry's parents bought a blue 1951 Ford
from Herby's Ford in Alexandria, Virginia, for him to drive around Beacon Field
Airport since at the age of 14 he could only legally drive off road. Harry modified the '51 Ford removing the mufflers,
adding three two-barrel Stromberg 97 carburetors, and ran "F" gas
at Manassas. The stock manual transmission with the
4:10 rear end gave Harry's dad the first 2 trophies running at Old
Dominion Raceway in Manassas, Virginia. After these
wins, Harry took over driving and won 3 more trophies.
With the wins at Manassas, Harry
was motivated to take his racing to the next level. Buying a green
1934 Ford 3 window chop top coupe chassis from the local Banks Junkyard
in Alexandria, he built another trophy winning hot rod in a
pilot training building his parents had moved from the
airport. The winning combination was another Ford
flathead V8, with a Cadillac La Salle 2-speed transmission,
Halibrand Quick Change rear end, Diest belts, and a Stu
Hilborn fuel injected system. Only Harry could drive the car because the clutch
was too difficult for anyone else and he won trophies at York, Capitol, and
Driver Harry Lehman - Capitol Raceway, Photo Courtesy John A. Durand
"Beacon Airfield Special"-- Photo Courtesy Lawrence Bennett
Harry's parents closed the airfield in 1959 and moved the flight operations across the Potomac River. The closed runways provided an excellent research and development test site for the local automotive enthusiasts. Already in the area, the Sportsman Car Club of Groveton built and tested the "Beacon Airfield Special" which safely competed at the local sanctioned drag strips.
Many neighborhood homebuilt race cars tested here including Big "Ed" Sloper (Big Ed's Speed Shop) and Ron Bohn (Ron's Speed Shop) of the Alexandria based ACCELERATORS Car Club. Both dragsters utilized Lynwood Welding Chassis' of Wilkesboro, Pennsylvania. Harry's Jolly Green Giant (photo below) used several Lynwood components including the bell housing and the cast aluminum withLynwood script front friction shock absorbers.
"Jolly Green Giant" -- R&D Testing at the Airport
Never dwelling on a car more than two seasons,Harry sold the '34 Ford chop top and began building from scratch a green rear engine nitromethane dragster.Truly innovative for the east coast mid atlantic region, Harry equipped the car with a flathead Ford V8, another Halibrand Quick Change rear end center section, and Hilborn Injectors.Working with Scotty Finn of "Chassis Research",Harry used CR rear hubs and axles, steering box, and steering wheel.The unique car grabbed the attention of Hot Rod magazine who conducted an extensive photo shoot, as well as CARS and Rodding & Re-Styling magazines.
This car would be Harry Lehman's first "D" dragster class Indy entry in 1963.The"Lehman Stevens Lehman" letteringwas completed just hours before the race.The slim Willy Stevens was supposed to drive; however, the car was so light it was nicknamed the "grasshopper" because it would hop at launch.Harry who had two poundsfor every one of Willy's,drove the grasshopper at Indy.
Enjoy the youtube video directly below of 1963 Indianapolis Nationals -- you will see the Grasshopper in action!!
Click to enlarge+ "Hot Rod Mag" photo shoot
Jolly Green Giant
The team continued to race the grasshopper locally until
Harry heard through the Coleman Brothers Speed Shop in Elkridge, Maryland,
about a California chassis built by Lefty Mudersbach .Even though he was still in
college, Harry pursued racing full time and in 1964 bought the California chassis and had it
trucked in to Coleman Brothers.The bare bones back seat rail needed a front end, seat, and a body.Harry, Russell Barnes, and Willy
Stevens fabricated the body at the Lehman's
This car was named the Jolly
Green Giant and had the Flathead V8, Olds rear end direct drive, dual disc
clutch, wire spoke front wheels, "American Magnesium" rear wheels.Harry Lehman
stepped up to the Mickey Thompson magnesium Olds center section.An interesting story
in building this car was the installation of the bearing races that required
heating the center section.So, Harry used his mother's Kenmore double oven to bring the temp up to a toasty
375 degrees for one hour, and then quickly dropped the bearing races in and let
it slowly cool down.Amazingly,Harry's mother
knew and he was not thrown out of the house.
...On to the Chevy Small Blocks !!!
In 1964, the Jolly Green Giant went to Indy and did well for
a built from scratch 110 inch wheel base dragster.The next season Lehman replaced the flathead with a
283 Chevy small block and installed a Hilborn fuel injector system.This combination with the existing Olds
Mickey/Thompson magnesium center section worked very well bringing home more
trophies from Island Dragway, Aquasco, Capitol, and Pittsburg to name a
few.Lehman and Stevens took the Jolly
Green Giant back to Indy in 1966 and achieved "quickest car in class" and
should have won the event.A fuel
injector system malfunctionprevented the car from starting at the line.
BUILD A $125 DRAGSTER ?
Custom Rodder Magazine -- November 1964
Custom Rodder Magazinecovered Lehman's $125 dragster built while waiting on pricey racing components to be returned from the machinist shop.... in his own words:
For the 1967 season, Lehman's racing evolved to the longer
135 inch wheel base Little Leaguer sling shot dragster. Based on a speed shop tip, Harry made a trip on a cold sunny day to Sinking Spring, Pennsylvania, to look at a "CaliforniaChassis by Byron Blair" under a tarp in a hobbyist's garage. He took one look and was so impressed with the craftsmanship and thinking that had gone into the build that he knew he had to have one. Harry ordered his first Byron
Blair (Chula Vista, CA) chassis and had the body built by Doug Kruse (CA).When the car was ready to be air
freighted to the east coast, it was the height of California's strawberry
Blair had the car crated and ready for transport by United Airlines at Los
Angeles International Airport (LAX).The car sat for two weeks at LAX while the perishable strawberry cargo had flight priority.
Harry was now working at his desk as an aerospace engineer
for the US Navy in Washington DC when he got the call that his "box" had
arrived at Washington's National Airport.He was met at the United Airlines freight terminal by the
foreman who said "we had a little problem with the fork lift".The beautiful new chassis and
body had been pierced with the fork and the windshield was shattered.Harry was groaning mostly
to himself over the further delay that the damage would cause, when the foreman
interrupted his thoughts with "we can fix the body and windshield right here at
the airport".After a week,
Harry was set to go build his dragster.It wasonly after he
unloaded the body at the garage, that he noticed the big strawberry stain on the
Despite the early setbacks, Lehman's nitro chevy small block "Little Leaguer" driven by Carey Jones, was a success.Racing mostly at night in the cool
weather, the Little Leaguer qualified and beat the top fuel supercharged hemi
cars.The team threaded the
needle by not having enough power, while the top fuelers would overpower the
track and lose to the red dart Little Leaguer.Lehman and Jones enjoyed a fairly long string of victories
until a fateful night at Capitol raceway.Jones was running the left lane when Ronnie Vito's supercharged car in the other lane blew an engine. The driver lost vision control when he got oiled down and squeezed Jones off the left side of the track into the
weeds hitting piles of junk lining the dragway.Driver Jones was left hanging upside down in his Deist belt
system, no fire, and no spills.Other than bumps and bruises from falling when he released his belts, he
walked away from the crash.
The GOLDEN YEARS !!!
Hot Rod Magazine Mar 70
Little Leaguer II "A" Fuel Dragster
After the Capitol Raceway crash,Harry air freighted the Little Leaguer chassis back to Byron
Blair on the west coast for repair.When it returned back to Virginia, 15 more inches had been
added to the chassis. Harry rebuilt the dragster and continued racing .The car was a success capturing
wins and eventually was sold to Willie Zaiser of the Baltimore Dairy.
Over the winter of 1969,Harry ordered another Byron Blair sling shot chassis,longer in length 195 inches.He and driver Jones
built the car from scratch using the Chevy V8and christened the new dragster the Little Leaguer II. The car won races and it was hard to beat. A good payout was $300 and a trophy. The publicity and media attention was the true reward. Luckily, due to the metro location photographers were plentiful and willing to commit time and resources to the sport. Their photos were submitted toCalifornia based National Dragster and Drag News.
American Way I Top Fuel Dragster
Harry had all
of his chevy engines machined at Bill Ford and Dick Burgess's Precision Engines
machine shop in Hyattsville, Maryland.While picking up a block one day, Bill Ford
pointed to a pile of hemi engine parts on the floor and asked Harry if he was
interested in buying the lot .Another customer was looking to get out of the business and needed a
buyer.Never turning down an
auction or a pallet sale, Harry without more than a cursory look, bought the
whole pallet lock, stock and barrel for $500.
When he got home with his buy,Harry realized he had just purchased all the essential components
for a top fuel dragster including a 392 HEMI whale motor.Harry set the wheels
in motion and contracted Tom Hanna to
build a full body for the conversion of the Little Leaguer chassis to the first
American Way Top Fuel dragster.Byron Blair took on the arduous
task of converting the lighter Little Leaguer to the heavier American Way to
meet NHRA requirements.He added
the redundant brake systems, stronger firewall, and other details to strengthen
the chassis.Kenny Youngblood lent his tremendous talent to the lettering and
artwork and Tom Kirby painted the
Way I had the unique American flag painted on the front wheel spokes and
trailed a small American Flag on the rear.
Whats in a name?
Harry chose the name "American Way" because he wanted the car to be
popular on and off the track and transcend the stereotypical race car. The early seventies was the wane of the
hippie culture, the beginning of
the large scale environmental movement , and the drawdown of the unpopular
Vietnam war. The birth of the general purpose credit card in 1966 (BankAmericard) by Bank of America had given rise to the widespread and popular use of plastic in the American economy. Harry wanted a design of an eagle (patriotic aspect), e pluribus crest (on all American paper money), one dollar bills $ (little money) and a stack of credit cards (but lots of credit). Kenny Youngblood masterfully executed the design on the cowling artwork.
American Way I at Suffolk Dragway, VA (Driver Al Friedman)
The first season (1970) was not glorious and proved to be
mostly an R&D phase; however, the success was measured in the number of
lessons learned. The first driver of the American
Way I was Bob Pennington at
Capitol Raceway.The maiden run
was marred when the supercharger broke and car quit.Bob
Williams drove at the ATCO Points meet and Indianapolis and lost both in
the first round.At Indy, the
American Way started, ran briefly, and quit.By the end of the year, Al Friedman had joined the team and drove at Columbus.
1971 was the golden year for the first American Way.At the beginning of the season
Harry's driver, Al Friedman,
stock-broker by day, took the Miami and Lakeland races by storm.Lots of media
attention was generated because of the car's performance winning weekly.At the '71 Indy
Nationals,the American Way
qualified 17th out of a 32 car field.17th was the worst possible position in those
days meeting the #1 Qualifier in the first round,Don "Big Daddy" Garlits.They lost .... but gained confidence maneuvers and beat
Garlits later in the season at Epping, New Hampshire.
The American Way
Building on the success of the 1971 season, Lehman succumbed
to the euphoria of winning and set forth planning the ultimate aerodynamic top
fuel dragster.His goal was
to build a 220 inch race car that had a balance between achieving minimal
airframe drag with the practicality of really being able to race it.He generated several concept
drawingsthat captured the scheme
to reduce vehicle surface and front area and to narrow the read end, with the
highest vehicle point being the fuel injector.This completely enclosed car design put obvious constraints on the
typical build and necessitated a lower roll bar.
Under a shroud equivalent to military secrecy,Harry went back to Tom Hanna and Byron
Blair for the new streamliner.The genius of Tom Hanna hand built the all metal body to marry up to the expertly crafted Byron Blair chassis.Harry stopped by during the build
process and met up with Jim Deist to size up
the safety belts and parachutes.A month or so later and back at home on the east
coast, Harry received an updated photo from Byron on the American Way
Streamliner progress.He was
mortified to see the body sitting on the street in front of the shop in Chula
Vista.The project was
supposed to be a big secret and here it was prematurely unveiled.....sigh!
Before being transported east, the American Way
again fortunate to be graced with fabulous Kenny Youngblood
artwork and lettering carrying over the spoof on the American material culture based
on cash and the rise in use of credit cards.
Harry's driver, Bob Williams used his own Chevy pickup truck
and Byron Blair's trailer to haul the completed streamliner body and chassis
2700 miles from Chula Vista, California, to Fairfax County, Virginia. Harry and Bob spent a hot
summer month assembling the components into the streamliner which included the
392 Hemi cast iron block, 671 GMC supercharger, and Enderle fuel injector from
the American Way I. Using aircraft grade fuel lines,
marine control cables, direct drive with Lenco reverser, and a single oil pressure gauge for
instrumentation (!!) the American Way
Streamliner came to life in the family
The $25,000 cost of the American Way
Keeping in mind that in 1971, the average cost of a new house was
$25,000, the average income was $10,600
year, a postage stamp was 8 cents,
and the cost of a gallon of gas was 40 cents.
American Way Streamliner in front of the garage which was a converted LINK Trainer Building at Beacon Field Airport.
Photo Courtesy Jeff Tinsley
The first test run for the American Way
Streamliner was a couple of successful demonstration night runs at Capitol Raceway in late 1972. Satisfied that the car was safe, the American Way
Streamliner made its racing debut at Columbus, Ohio, driven by Bob Williams. Lehman had been concerned about the closed cockpit fogging up on the inside inhibiting driver visibility; however, that was not a problem. Making it into the second round on a miserable hot August day, the Lehman team chalked it up as a success and continued to become acquainted with the new car.
Harry raced the American Way
Streamliner aggressively in 1972 winning rounds. At Ohio Dragway 42, the streamliner made it to the final round. However, the turn around time was so short, the Lehman team did not have time to change the oil between rounds. The Hemi 392 could not handle the strain and pitched the # 3 connecting rod. The car was built so well that not a single drop of oil hit the strip.
Subsequently, Harry installed a 417 Donovan aluminum replica of a 392 Hemi. Harry was never satisfied with the oil pressure lost by the Donovan.
Hot Rod Magazine Centerfold
L to R: Harry Lehman, NHST Director Toms, J. Gaines
Success Off the Track
The American Way
Streamlinerenjoyed popularity off the track as
well.Harry was pleased that he achieved the goal of creating a race car that appealed not
only to the racing crowd but also to the general public.
In December 1972, the car was asked to showcase for a new Gaines-Marino
Performance warehouse in the Washington DC area.The grand opening hotel banquet was organized by
John Gaines to focus on the promotion of the positive aspects of the high
performance automotive industry to government officials.Racing was underfire from the Federal Department of
Transportationfor safety concerns
and from the recently established Environmental Protection Agency for potential
pollution issues.One attendee was the Director of
the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Mr. Douglas Toms, who was
coaxed into the driver's seat of the American Way
Streamliner while Harry
pointed out all the safety design features of the vehicle.
L to R, John Gaines, NTSA Director Doug Toms in car, Harry Lehman
Locally, when the American Way
Streamliner was not on the
track it was in frequent demandto
make appearances at the high schools andshopping malls to educate and encourage interest in the automotive
industry.Nationally, the car appeared at the 1972 SEMA Show atthe Anaheim Convention Center and at
severalUS Navy Recruiting
promotions shoreside including the Long Beach dock.
American Way Streamliner at Yorktown High School, Arlington County, VA
The United States Information Agency (USIA) contacted Harry
to be in an international movie to air in seven countries and seven
languages on American auto racing.
They chose Harry because of the American Way name. USIA rented Capitol Raceway, paid Harry's
salary for a day ($65), and shot a movie with 7 country actor drivers. Each was filmed getting
Lehman briefings on car controls and track rules, and sitting in the American Way
Streamliner. Interestingly enough, the movie could never be shown
in the USA because it was for international export only!
Achieving sponsorships was difficult and rarely resulted in
successful US Navy Recruiting Command sponsorship was an expansion of their Don
was the Fly Navy car and Lehman's was the Go Navy car.Kendall Oil had
been a long time sponsor and Harry's family business Beacon Flying Service was
the main cash contributor through out his career.He was fortunate to have many local small
businesses (Ron's Speed Shop, Ed's Speed Shop) who also helped along the way.
The US Navy Recruiting campaign featured the American Way on the cover of its February 1973 monthly publication. The car was on the wharf at the Long Beach Navy Yard sitting next to a US Navy Destroyer. The American Way was maneuvered about the wharf "wheel barrel" style by four men (including Harry) who picked up the front end and rolled the car around for the best photo op. Right before the photo shoot, the photographer noticed the gun turret was in the barrel down position for cleaning and did not present a proper Navy image. A Navy Lieutenant quickly remedied the situation by manually cranking the barrel into its upright position.
Hot Rod Magazine 3/73
Success Back At the Track
After the Donovan 417 was installed in 1973, Harry lengthened the American Way
from 220 to 235 inches, installed a 2 speed Lenco transmission, and
still battled the LOW oil pressure. The car qualified for most all
events and won a few, except at Columbus when the car caught on fire.
The paint job had to be redone. At the Englishtown Summer Nationals,
the American Way achieved 232 mph (national record was 235) and later
broke the CAE Quickchange.
Like most of Harry Lehman's previous cars, the American Way
was built with top of the line materials and components. However, the
program behind the car was fiscally constrained. The tow car was a
1968 Chrysler Town and Country station wagon that kept breaking down.
The drivers and mechanics were volunteers and Harry did alot of the
work himself "after work". Back up parts were scarce and a blown
engine could set a team back a complete racing season. The sponsors
usually offered promotional cooperation rather than cash payouts. The
American Way had no spare engines, bodies, and drivers were not under
In 1974, the American Way made it into the second round at Maple Grove against National Record Holders, Jim and Allison Lee, Virginia horsebreeders. The Lee team had a large scale program and was well financed having achieved the first US Army sponsorship and had also been invited to the White House by President Richard Nixon.
Mr. Lee had stopped by Harry's residence once and commented he
"didn't know how Harry competed so well working 40 hours a week" as a
In the second round, Chuck Turner was driving the American Way in the Maple Grove left lane against Tom Raley in
Lee's car. When Chuck released the throttle after hitting the dip in
the left lane at the finish line, a torque reversal was induced, the
car rear end left the ground, lost control and creamed out both cars.
Turner and Raley painfully walked away. Both recovered to drive
many more races. The Lees rebuilt their car and continued racing later
in the season.
In contrast, the American Way remnants were
stuffed in the trailer and transported to the garage. The damage was
so significant and with no back up financing, the American Way
was not rebuilt. Written off as a youthful adventure, Harry resumed
what would be a 33 year career in aerospace engineering and never
reentered the sport of drag racing.
Post Racing In 1987, Harry met up again with Don Garlits when Swamp Rat XXX was formally inducted into the Smithsonian Museum of American History in Washington DC. It
was also a reunion with other "retired" drivers and an introduction to
Dr. Robert C. Post, a curator at the Smithsonian. Harry was delighted
when Dr. Post included the American Way
Streamliner in his 1994 book "High Performance" and captured the American Way as an inset photo on the book cover in the revised 2001 edition.