John "Mouse" Wilson in Fred Rowsey's
The day was August 31, 1968;
the place was Green Valley Raceway, Texas; and the event was
the AHRA World Championship Drag Races. The AHRA World Championships
would go down as a race noted not only for its great competition,
but also for the tragic loss of one of it racers. As was common
at the time, it was going to take five rounds of eliminations
to determine the top fuel dragster winner. Over 50 of them from
as far away as California in the west and West Virginia in the
east were on hand for the three-day event, and John "Mouse"
Wilson had his Wilson-Wilder-Schroeder-Casarez T-Bar chassis
rail securely in the 32-car field at #10 with a 7.17. This was
shaping up to be not just another rinky-dink race because California
hotshots like Blair-Goldstein (San Diego), Don Cook (Walnut Creek),
and Beebe-Mulligan (Garden Grove) were in the pits, as well as
all the big guns from Texas and Oklahoma--Texans, like the Carroll
Bros. and Vance Hunt from Dallas; Bobby Langley from Everman;
and, the Anderson Bros. from Ft. Worth. Then, there were the
"Okies" like Creitz-Greer-Donovan from Tulsa and Boyd-Griffith
from Oklahoma City. Even Chris "The Greek" Karamesines
from Chicago, Illinois was there. After the frantic touch-and-go
pace of qualifying was completed, Leroy Goldstein was number
one at 6.92, followed by the Carroll Bros. and Don Cook in second
and third, respectively.
Despite the potent and talented
opposition, "Mouse" Wilson looked well placed to advance
in eliminations. His number ten qualifying position had him paired
against #26 Dan Widner (the pairings were done differently back
then: 1 vs. 17, 2 vs. 18, etc.) in round one, and then, a probable
showdown against the Carroll Bros. in round two. But, round two
for Wilson would never happen. As reported in the Fort Worth,
Texas Star Telegram, "John Wilson of Dallas driving the
first race of the first round of top fuel eliminations was killed
when his dragster went out of control at almost 200 miles per
hour and crashed late Saturday night." Wilson had jumped
out to substantial advantage over Widner, and according to witnesses,
appeared to have shut it down. When Widner's dragster started
to gain ground, Wilson-Wilder-Schroeder-Casarez suddenly came
back to life and moved violently to the right. Wilson tried to
save the run, but the dragster's right front tire clipped a timing
light concrete block, careening the slingshot out of control.
Ed Miller, a fellow racer,
and current president of the Texas Timing Association, vividly
recalls the moment even though it was almost 50 year's ago. "I
was standing on 'the Loop' at Green Valley, right at the finish
line, preparing my fuel roadster for the first round of A/Fuel
Altered when 'Mouse' came thundering down the track in his AA/Fuel
Dragster. While Green Valley was one of the best tracks in the
country, and certainly in Texas in those days, it did not have
all the modern safety improvements that are standard in the 21st
century. There were no solid concrete outside guard walls running
the whole length of the track and shut-off area as there are
now. The metal guardrail in the right lane, in which he was running,
stopped just short of the finish line. The timing lights for
the finish line were mounted on large concrete blocks several
feet square placed just past the end of the guardrail and only
inches away from the edge of the paved track. As 'Mouse' approached
the finish line, his FED began to sashay. The front end swung
slightly off the track just past the end of the guardrail and
clipped the concrete timing light block with the right front
tire. The dragster launched into the air, came back down, and
folded up just in front of the engine. The impact sent the engine
up into the sky, while the badly bent car began tumbling end-over-end.
The blown hemi made a tall arc up in the air and fell back down
to earth right on top of the still careening wreckage of the
car. Despite having a good roll bar, safety belts, and a harness,
'Mouse' never had any kind of a chance at all."
John Wilson had been a member
and officer in the Poor Boys Car Club from San Antonio, Texas
since the 1950s. The Poor Boys were frequent competitors at San
Antonio's Double Eagle Drag Strip. Wilson, along with Poor Boy
member Roland Rodriguez, campaigned a series of modified coupes,
including one with a rear engine design. Later, John drove for
Jesse Schrank, another Poor Boy member, who had a carbureted
Chrysler fuel dragster. But, what "Mouse" longed to
do was to make a name for himself drag racing in Southern California.
SoCal, at that time, was considered the center of the drag racing
universe. The drag strips were there, lots of them, along with
a blossoming and booming aftermarket industry. So, too, were
the talented engine builders with all their speed secrets. "Mouse"
dreamed of being one of those well-known drivers whose names
appeared in the weekly drag racing publications like Drag News
and Drag Sport Illustrated. The lure was so strong Wilson moved
his family to California in 1961.
There were seven drag strips
operating in Southern California at the time, many offering big
money for the outlawed classes that used nitromethane for fuel.
These included Riverside Raceway, Fontana's "Drag City"
and Pomona. John Wilson would team up with Jim Keeter in what
would be "Mouse's" first top fuel dragster ride. Keeter
was a recognizable face at many of the Southern California drag
strips, especially Long Beach (Lions Drag Strip), Fontana, and
San Fernando. Jim had been a partner with Dick Stewart in a variety
of nitro classes, but Stewart was seriously injured in a racing
accident at Fontana and quit the sport. Jim wanted to continue
racing but was having difficulty finding a good driver for the
new top fuel dragster he had just built. By chance, Keeter ran
into Wilson who was working at a Chevrolet dealership in Santa
Monica as a service writer. Ron Workman, a crewmember for Keeter
(and later an accomplished driver in his own right), recalls
the Keeter-Wilson team. "John was a good driver, not scared
of anything, but at the same time, not reckless behind the wheel.
There were three different dragsters during the time Wilson drove
for Keeter; each painted a different color-red, black, and yellow.
The red dragster was the first one and eventually ended up in
a sports bar in Detroit. We raced the black one in 1963-64. The
yellow car, completed in the early summer of 1964, was the last
one and the best of the bunch. We called it the 'Flexy Flyer'
because it approximated a successful design then being used by
Woody Gilmore." At this time, Wilson had moved the family
back to Texas to pursue a promising business venture. After some
test runs at Lions with Dick Stewart behind the wheel, Keeter
decided to take his new dragster to Green Valley for a big AHRA
race. "Mouse" drove it that weekend, and was so pleased
with the results, that he moved back to Southern California.
He would drive the yellow car with moderate success until Keeter
quit the sport after a disastrous 1965 March Meet (blew up two
engines). Wilson continued racing the yellow car off-and-on with
an engine owned by Mike Wynn until Jim sold the dragster.
The Keeter-Wilson black car in the pits
at Lions Drag Strip; 1963
a run at Lions drag Strip; 1963
Tire smoke frequently engulfed
the cockpit of the Keeter-Wilsom black car,so a taller wrap around
windshield was added for better vision.
drove briefly for John Harbert in 1964 after the black car was
retired and before the yellow car was completed.
The Keeter-Wilson yellow car
at Green Valley, Texas in 1964; pictured:John Wilson, Jim Keeter;
and Randy Wilson.
Wilson next teamed up with
Dick Stahl and they quickly became one of the top teams on the
West Coast. At the 1965 Hot Rod Magazine meet at Riverside Raceway,
they qualified #3 with a 7.58. The flamboyant Stahl seemed the
perfect partner for the fearless Wilson. Stahl did not put any
restraints on his drivers, so "Mouse" was free to hone
his "no lift" style of driving. To underscore this
fact, the incomparable Ralph Guldahl Jr. made this report in
Drag News after a race between Stahl-Wilson and Zane Schubert
at Lions in June 1965-"
it appeared Wilson put it
to the wood and just forgot about it, sparks gradually beginning
to escape the hauling Stahl racer. On approaching the lights,
the shadowy rig began fizzling into a bright vermillion Roman
candle at or near the final trap. The chute got out as the entire
clutch and flywheel assembly left the car, exploding the engine
into a forward trajectory also out in front of the car, in turn
shearing off the right front wheel. The pan broke open spewing
oil everywhere. Zane, in the other lane, moved over as far as
he could, then gazed upward and saw what he thought was a mag
wheel because 'a bunch of silvery stuff' was falling off it.
The silvery stuff was in actuality Stahl's motor traveling at
the same speed as Zane right over his head. The true 'overhead'
type motor and Zane traveled in this state for a while, then
the Beard shut it down-the motor taking a bounce in front of
Zane's right front wheel and continued with unchained fury all
the way to Willow Avenue.
John Wilson eventually crossed
in behind Schubert-Herbert, the car making the turn off perfectly,
slowing on but three wheels, no motor, no bell housing, no fuel
pump, no firewall, no nothing except clean frame rails. Lions'
blue lights defining the direction for Wilson to follow helped
save the day, and surely never enough credit can be heaped on
the Roy Steen Race Car Specialties chassis in withstanding a
blow like this. Both drivers were A.O.K
" Ron Workman,
who witnessed this incredulous run, heard a crewman run up to
Wilson at the end of the track and bark, "You ain't got
Stahl-Wilson in the
traps at Riverside Raceway; 1965
John Wilson (wearing
the hat) with Banzai 1; 1966
Wilson making a run
in Banzai 1 at Green Valley, TX; 1966
Wilson returned to Texas in 1966. The California dream had run
its course. Nonetheless, he had made a name for himself, earned
the respect of many in the sport, and learned enough to know
what it would take to build his own successful team. At first,
he drove for other owners before building his own car, the Wilson-Wilder-Schroeder-Casarez
T-Bar dragster in 1968. Wilson's first ride back in Texas was
Fred Rowsey's Banzai I, and in 1967, Banzai II. The latter was
an instant success. A win at Amarillo in early May was followed
by another one at Austin Raceway Park the very next week. At
Austin, Banzai II won top eliminator over a star-studded field
that included out-of-staters Creitz-Greer (OK), Benny Osborne
(OK), John Wiebe (KS), Crower Blair & Goldstein (CA), and
Al Waites (LA). The following week at a points meet at LaPlace,
LA, "Mouse" added another top fuel win, and at the
same time, reset the strip records for speed and e.t. (7.57-201mph).
This would be the start of a long string of victories for Fred
Rowsey and John Wilson that year.
Banzai II at LaPlace
Dragway, LA; June 1967;a Div. 2 WCS race that Wilson won
Banzai II had all the good
stuff: Woody Gilmore chassis; Keith Black engine; and, "Mouse"
Wilson at the controls.
The Green Gang with
Ray Collier (near) and Banzai II (far); Tulsa OK; 1967.
Banzai II at Amarillo Raceway;
1967; Div. 4 director Dale Ham's station wagon in the background.
John Wilson instructing
Fred Rowsey on how to "read" the plugs.
In October 1967, Wilson left
Rowsey when a local Dodge dealer invited John to drive his Luckey
Dodge top fuel dragster. Ray Luckey owned a Dodge dealership
in Longview, TX. His "Performance Specialties" top
fuel dragster was brand new and top notch end to end. A full-bodied
beauty built by Race Car Specialties, it was powered by a Sid
Waterman 426 cid Dodge engine, and painted by the renowned George
Joann Peters of Drag News,
who penned her column Texas Tales, described it this way "
is a rainbow starting with the dark colors on the nose-purple;
indigo; blue; green; yellow; and orange and red up to the engine.
The cowl piece is purple with the lace effect and The Dodge Boys
caricature with John's name over it
a more sanitary looking
set-up you would never hope to see." .The first time out
at Hope AK, Wilson ran a 6.81-188, shutting off at the first
light. At the 1968 NHRA Winternationals, the Luckey Dodge ran
a 7.28-212.76 to sneak in at the 32nd and last qualifying position,
but lost to Tommy Ivo in round one. Despite all the promise,
the dragster was never raced that much. Ray Luckey always seemed
to be elsewhere, big game hunting or pursuing some other interest.
Frustrated, Wilson decided to build his own top fuel dragster.
In the meantime, John drove for the Woltersdorf Bros.
In July 1968, Wilson-Wilder-Schroder-Casarez
made its debut at Pel-State Drag Strip in Opelousas, LA. Although
Wilson did not win the race (red light to Jimmy Nix), the dragster
qualified #4 at 7.19, not far behind Bennie Osborne's pace-setting
7.10. Less than two months later, John Wilson would no longer
be with us. We would never know if Wilson-Wilder-Schroder-Casarez
had been the start of another of those storied Lone Star state
drag racing legends. John "Mouse" Wilson once told
an acquaintance that a driver had to be fearless, but at the
same time, understand and respect the perils and danger of the
occupation. Drag racing was a particularly dangerous sport in
the 1960s. The sport was just starting to find its niche in the
motorsports landscape, but safety concerns had a difficult time
keeping pace with the performance breakthroughs in acceleration
and speed. The risks were enormous. Winning tempted many drivers
to test that very fine line that separated victory and glory
from disaster, even death. John "Mouse" Wilson, the
Poor Boy from San Antonio, was not one to shy away from such
a challenge. He left us that tragic night at Green Valley Raceway,
but he did it on his own terms, flying down the drag strip, always
the "Mouse" that roared.
John Wilson (2nd from left)
in Southern California to pick up The "Performance Specialties"
Luckey Dodge RCS car.
The next six images show a
sequence of shots of the Luckey Dodge at Houston International
Speedway; early 1968.
Today, John's son, Randy,
has continued his dad's legacy with the Cox-Wilson hemi-powered
Nostalgia Top Fuel Dragster. Randy started racing with a '32
bantam roadster, moved up to a SBC nitro-burning dragster, and
finally, the Cox-Wilson top fuel dragster. Aaron Cox built the
chassis, and together, they build the engines. A bad crash in
2010 destroyed the first T/F dragster, but they were back on
the strip six months later with Cox-Wilson II. Randy understands
the dangers of drag racing, confiding he has "hit the wall
in Denton, TX, been upside down, had hot water sprayed on him,
but fortunately, never on fire. My dad told me a long time ago
that you can't be scared of the race car, but you better fully
respect it 'cause it can hurt you." Recently, they hired
Don Sosenka, "Mr. Magoo" of NHRA fame as their crew
chief. Right now, Aaron has a new car on the jig and the plan
is to make it to California for one of the big NHRA Heritage
Randy Wilson's SBC T/F dragster
(near) matched with John Barret (far) at Tulsa; 1998; best time
Cox-Wilson II; maiden
run at San Antonio, TX.
Cox-Wilson II; best
run 1/8 mile-4.21/171
Aaron Cox (left) and
Randy Wilson (right)
More Stephen Justice
Racer Profiles Coming Soon