MY STORY: WALLY BELL
Owego, New York is a long way from some of the major IHRA and NHRA drag strips of America but certainly was the springboard to my career as a professional drag racer.
The First Race
On August 17, 1959, I had just washed and polished my potent ’57 Chevy and was on my way to my friend Donnie Goodrich’s farm. (More on Donnie and me later.) While passing Shangri La Speedway, my “Field of dreams,” I saw a long line of neat-looking cars waiting to go onto the track. Puzzled, I turned around to go and find out what was going on. After asking a portly gentleman named Tiny Baker, an official, I found out they were holding NASCAR-sanctioned drag races and that if I wanted to, I could enter. Well, it wasn’t in my plan to be a drag racer, but it was a chance to race on a sanctioned basis and I jumped at this opportunity. We won our class and I was so proud of the trophy I received that I couldn’t wait to give it to my mom and dad.
Mom was proud and Dad was nervous. Mom and Dad were to be my boost in racing as they were in life. Wow, am I lucky! They were fantastic.
Dad and Mom built a fabulous business from scratch and provided well for my brother Ted and me. Bell’s Fruit Stand was a landmark in Owego, New York for over forty years. Often I reminisce about what would have been if I had chosen to take their business over. It would have been a different life, but a good one.
As I mentioned, the response from my first race was mixed, and like any other 16-year-old kid, I responded to my father: I’m going to do this with or without your blessing. Thank God, they went along. After my dad passed away in 1993, — Mom died in 1977 – my Stepmother, Millie, returned that first trophy to me. When I look at it, I remember what a day that was at Shangri La Speedway and how lucky I was to be trained in business by Harold and Edith Bell.
The Early Years
To set the tone for my early years in drag racing, I have to start with October of 1959. My life almost ended in a highway crash with the ’57 Chevy. I spent six months in Ideal Hospital in Endicott, New York getting one-half of my face restored. I can remember vividly planning my future car and anxiously wanting to get going with it. I was scared to death that I would walk out of the hospital looking like a patchwork quilt.
With a lot of help from friends and family, we built a ’55 Chevy that ran in D Gas with a high winding 265 cubic-inch V-8. We did okay and I learned what I still call “the art of driving”. I wanted more power, more prestige, and to be the big gun, so we purchased a 1959 Chevy Bel Air two-door sedan super stock car. This was the first year of modern cars with four-speed floor shifters. So cool!
The mighty 348 cubic-inch engine was powerful and fast. It was a totally new experience handling this monster, and I loved every second of it. I set low times at Owego, Savannah and Cicero, and won some races. This car set the stage for the factory hot rods that I would gravitate to. I was learning.
I felt we needed a new car and went to the Chevy dealer who sponsored us and ordered a 409 Bel Air hardtop in 1961. It was satin silver and became known as the Gray Ghost.
I set out to win the NASCAR National Championship and did it. We raced as many as four times a week all over New York state and Northeast Pennsylvania. In 1961 and 1962, I never lost. I can’t even imagine that happening today and I wish I had savored it more back then.
After selling the car, my good friend Bob Chipper, who later became a funny car star, persuaded me to build a ’57 Chevy gasser. It was a big change, but we did it and set national records with NASCAR and NHRA in the process. The car was called Rampage, after the movie, and became well known. I was becoming a force in the drag racing world and even got “show-up” money. Everyone seemed to like the 9,000-RPM, wheels-in-the-air, deafening Gasser, and I loved to entertain.
In early 1964, I made the move from the Gasser to the biggest deal so far in my career. I bought the Georgia Shaker ’63 Z-11 Aluminum Impala from Hubert Platt, a nationally known racer from Atlanta, Georgia. This took me from being a weekend warrior to a paid star. We did events all over the Northeast. I thought I was the king of the world with my powerful 427 Z-11 Chevy. I won a lot of races and always left the starting line first. We called the car Wally Bell’s New York Shaker. Pictures of that car still arrive in my mailbox. It is humbling to me that other people cherish memories of those old days and cars as much as I do.
We sold the Chevy Z-11 to really move up into a lighter, smaller race car. Ronnie Sox and Buddy Martin of Burlington, North Carolina had done well with their ’64 Mercury Comet which was powered by a huge 427 Ford engine. The Comet became available when Chrysler began their relationship with Sox and Martin, so Donnie Goodrich and I decided to purchase it.
What a great season 1965 was! We barn-stormed everywhere we could, set track records, won races, and competed in the BIG RACE, the 1965 Super Stock Nationals at York, Pennsylvania. I was well known then, but I was still just a regional guy. Cars and stars from all over the United States, even factory teams, were prominent, so doing well at this race really elevated my status. I can remember winning two rounds actually running slower than my opponent. I drilled them on the starting line. Once again, we almost won our class at that race. My reputation was soaring.
I spend time thinking about that race a lot because my one and only child, Vicki, was born then — WOW — and we were making my dreams in racing come true. It was an incredible experience, Vicki and that race, one that can never be duplicated.
As they say about the Classic Sports Network, it was better then. I learned at that time what a touring pro does. All the racers traveled together, stayed together, ate together. It isn’t quite that way today. We were also all learning together.
The sixties were a wonderful time for me, even though we lost the Kennedys, which is still unbelievable to me. We did reach the moon as President Kennedy prophetically stated that we would, the Beach Boys were on the radio, cars were neat, I had great parents, a family and people helping me race. It just doesn’t get any better than that.
Donnie Goodrich and I split up as racers, never as friends, and I purchased and finished a ’64 Chevelle Funny Car dubbed Moonraker. Bill Hawk came in as a partner and we ventured into an injected-alcohol big motor, very unsafe racing. It was cool and we did well. We were one of the few Chevys in 1966 and 1967 surrounded by Mopars and Fords. The fans loved us but I almost went broke trying to beat those guys.
We were again gaining a reputation and going over 160 MPH at that time. In those cars, this was wild. We unfortunately lost some fellow racers during those years. The tracks, many of which were designed for 100-MPH quarter-mile speeds, could not handle 160-to-175-MPH speeds. Some tracks barely can even today.
In 1968, Gault Chevrolet in Endicott, New York became my first one hundred-percent sponsor. The car, expenses, everything, were handled by Gault. I was thrilled at this opportunity; however, there was a bit of ill-will from the dealer’s son. We relied on our experience as racers and our sales abilities to make this a profitable venture for Mr. Gault. Unfortunately, even though we raced well, we had too many hands in this deal and it ended after only one year. I was devastated because it should have, and could have, been a terrific deal. I left knowing that I did my best.
The First Crossroads
In March of 1969, my old friends Ronnie Sox and Buddy Martin came to Vestal, New York to do a Chrysler Road Show at Karl Gould Chrysler/Plymouth. Buddy called and said: Join us for dinner. I did. Across the table, in all his splendor, sat Karl Gould, the host dealer. He asked Sox and Martin if this Wally Bell was a good racer. Gould apparently had heard of me. Sox answered: He’s real good; Wally can drive. If nothing came out of this dinner but that, I would have been proud.
I had worked hard and 1968 had been a disaster, so I thought, oh, well, I’m like all of the other homeboys who wished and never really got there. Sox’s answer elevated that thought process. Gould quickly said: If I back him, can you get Chrysler to help us? Sox and Martin said yes. This was an exciting evening.
I went home to Vicki’s mom and said: Sara, I have a real deal for 1969 and 1970. I can’t totally blame her for not sharing my excitement. She had grown up as the daughter of a drag strip owner and had experienced lots of ups and downs due to racing. She honestly believed I would outgrow this crazy drag racing dream.
Well, we followed Chrysler’s directives to put the car together. When I returned from Burlington, North Carolina with the beautiful blue-and-gold ’69 Hemi Roadrunner, I was a proud guy. Bear in mind, it required a hundred-mile drive from the area where I lived to reach the nearest drag strip, so intelligent drag race fans were few, the winters long, not to mention, boy what a conservative area! Undaunted by all of the negatives, including a womanizing, drinking, not-always-truthful dealer who held the sponsorship, we struck out to race.
We competed often and hard. We set a national record. We won. We still fought like hell to keep our heads above water. Chrysler pulled out in 1970 and our deal died at the end of that year.
I was disappointed and wanted so much to run a Pro Stock car. That was when Pro Stock was born and I knew I could win in that arena. As much as I wanted to do it, I backed off and thought my racing career was over. This was a real crossroads for me, as my career in the insurance industry was going real well and my success brought promotions into management. I thought that if I focused on that business, played golf and mowed the lawn, rode snowmobiles (that I hopped up to where you could get killed so easily), that I would stay away from racing. Boy, was I wrong.
Reborn in Drag Racing
As the seventies, with the Vietnam War, yukky disco, ugly clothing – just my opinion of that era – drew to a close, Buddy Martin called me from North Carolina and said: Come down for New Year’s, and while you’re here, check out what we have in our shop.
When I arrived, there was a beautiful, but not finished, Cougar Pro Stock car with a strong Boss engine in it. I had no money to do it with, no trailer, no sponsor, and no tow truck. I pulled myself together and rallied sponsors and friends to help and bought the car, and much to the dismay of my family and other detractors, I proved I could still do it.
I will never forget almost winning a bracket race in Syracuse, New York with a very unpredictable high-winding four-speed Pro Car. I was back and didn’t risk all that much to be there. Again, I was proud! This was a test and I felt as if I had aced it.
In November of 1982, I attended the first Parts Peddler Auction and ended up buying a Don Hardy Pro Stock Camaro. It was beautiful. With a lot of help from friends, mainly Bob Gentile and Big John Simmons, a fixture in all of our cars from then on, we put a nitrous-assisted 482-cubic-inch big-block Chevy engine in this car and amazed a bunch of people.
That season was absolutely incredible. We went in the nine-second zone at over 140 MPH with nitrous. I was on Cloud Nine, literally.
The official end of my first marriage came in 1982. Then, in November of 1982, I married Beverly and my life changed dramatically. Beverly not only became my partner in life, she also became my partner in the racing business. We lived happily in New Hampshire, worked in Massachusetts, and set about starting our lives as a team, dreaming about Professional Drag Racing.
The Best Is Yet To Come
I came home one day and asked Bev: Do you want to live in North Carolina? Her answer: Let’s do it. We arrived in Charlotte with our love for each other and a cat. We bought a beautiful house. This is when things got really hot.
It was 1985 and nitrous cars were just starting to make a name for themselves. I wanted to be a part of it. I went to Charlotte businessman Tom Phillips with my plans and he said: Let’s do it. I came out of his office with a check, a list of potential sponsors, and a list of things to do like you’ve never seen.
We built a Pro Stock style ’66 Chevelle – Jimmy Lynch Race Cars – ordered a Hurley 36-foot trailer and bought a new dually from Rick Hendrick. I was able to get the whole deal together and Big John Simmons and I worked for two months getting us functional. We had nice stuff. Our first test indicated that we did it right. The Chevelle was fast, pretty, and a joy to drive.
I booked match races, ran IHRA events, and had a ball beating and competing with the best racers anywhere…here in the South. Bev and I attended our first SEMA show in 1987 and signed a contract to run all eighteen Super Chevy Sundays all over the United States. This was the best tour available at that time. Armed with some sponsor support and a lot of support from Bev, I struck out to the West Coast to get started. It was an unreal time in my life. I raced on tracks that I dreamed of previously and I did well. The fan support made it even better. Even at gas stations in the middle of the night, someone would say: Would you autograph my Super Chevy Magazine? That fan recognition and support make all the difference; I felt wanted and appreciated.
The Chevelle became the World’s Fastest Full-size ’66 Chevelle, and to this day, I am asked about it. I went 183 MPH in the seven-second elapsed-time bracket with a huge ’66 Chevelle SS. In the five-and-one-half seasons that we ran the Chevelle, I logged 247,000 miles on the road.
In 1988, Bev and I bought Tom Phillips’ share of the car. Then in 1990, we were approached about a sleek Beretta, the hot body of that time. A Virginian, Tommy Reekes, made an offer to us to supply the drive train and team up to run the Super Chevy Shows again, which would be our third year. We decided to take Reekes up on his offer and started in Bakersfield, California in March of 1990 with this beautiful new car. We still had the Chevelle, but later sold it (in September of 1990).
We were fast right out of the box with the Beretta. Fletcher Harrison continued to try to keep our engines fast and dependable. Those were cutting-edge days. We were testing special fuel from Sunoco, NOS was helping us with nitrous technology, and 200 MPH was in sight. The faster we went, the better I liked it.
Traveling with Gordy Foust, Donnie Little, Jeff Brozovich and Rob Vandergriff was special, although not always as glamorous as it sounds. We had the honor of competing at the inaugural USSC Races in Maryland and Englishtown, New Jersey. Racing against Animal Jim and Bill Kuhlmann with the Chevelle, and then the Beretta was one of the highlights of my career. We still love to compete with the legendary “Animal Jim.”
Midway through 1990, with coaxing from a lot of people, Team Bell – at that time with no partners – contacted Jeff Covey to build a brand-new ’69 Camaro Pro Mod race car. We debuted the car in February of 1991 at Super Chevy, Bakersfield, California. We almost won that race, quite and accomplishment, out of the box. We had finished the 1990 season in fifth place in points and this kind of start in 1991 gave us high hopes. Bear in mind, this is a 19-race tour that covers every major NHRA, IHRA drag strip in the United States. Nineteen ninety-one will always stand out in my mind because we raced the best in Pro/Mod and qualified in the top eight cars for the Soft Seal Challenge held at the hallowed Indianapolis Raceway Park. That year we used up three engines, over ninety pistons, and still made it happen. This was our first year being sponsored by Harmon’s Chevy Restoration Parts, and their support made our program work. This relationship lasted for four years and we still remain close friends.
From 1991 to 1996, we raced at Super Chevy Shows, IHRA, Independent Chevy and Nostalgia races and booked in match races. We updated and used the ’69 Camaro through 1998.
There are so many wonderful memories of those years that I can hardly remember the all-night trips across the US, blowing the tow trucks up, interrupting a midnight truck stop robbery – (honest!)
Through it all, we raced, won, and entertained the great fans who paid to see us carve out our craft.
That’s why I do it. The fans. They are the greatest and certainly are a diverse group. The fans make it for all of us.
Life After Super Chevy
As great as it was, there has been a whole other career since 1996. In 1995, Camaro Specialty and Fat Man Fabrications came on board as sponsors. They have been and remain superior sponsors. They feel good and are rewarded, bottom line, for our deal. We obviously appreciate and cherish their help. Without sponsor support, we’re finished.
We ended 1998 with the old ’69 Camaro and retired it – sold it – along with its name, the World’s Fastest ’69 Camaro. We went 202.65 in the quarter-mile eleven times, and if you look at aerodynamics, that was flying. This car is a part of drag racing history, and I guess I am, too.
The Latest and Greatest Race Car
I flew to California in October of 1998, rented a truck and brought home our beautiful ’92 Camaro. This is truly the finest piece we’ve ever had our hands on. We purchased the car from Tom and Linda Jacobson, old Super Chevy comrades, and got ready for 1999.
Nineteen ninety-nine was a good year for us with our new car. We were booked-in four times from Georgia to Iowa, entered open Pro/Mod races, where we were runner-up four times, and ended the year with a win in South Carolina in October. All in all, I was in hog heaven with our shiny blue speedster. It’s sleek, fast and light. This car is the crowning achievement in my racing career (race car-wise), and unless you have never experienced winning and competing at this level, well…
Being on TV
The side-by-side 200 MPH final with animal Jim at Maryland International Raceway in 1996 in front of 20,000 screaming fans
The upset win at Eddyville, Iowa in 1997 over IHRA star Quain Stott
Traveling with Gordy
Finishing at number five in points in the 19-race 1990 Super Chevy Tour
Being one of the original Shoe-Box Racers
Winning, sinning, winning in the 409 Chevy in the sixties
Racing and winning in my Z-11 Chevy
Signing my first autograph – quite a humbling experience for me
My first National Tour
Features written about us in Super Chevy, Popular Hot Rodding, Hot Rod and Drag Racing magazines
Building and maintaining all of these wonderful relationships in motorsports and life
Being featured on Scimitar Videos (and others)
The USSC circuit, the Sunoco Pro Motorsports Tour, the US Pro/Mod All-Stars
Being a part of Outlaw Style drag racing
Being hired to go to Puerto Rico, drive a car to a record 204 MPH pass
Much, much more. Sometimes it all seems like a dream
The Years 2000 and 2001
I couldn’t wait to compete in my sixth decade, challenging the UDRA circuit. In 2000, I was named UDRA “Rookie of the Year.” It was my first time in this circuit. I ran a total of 18 races that year, and came out a winner in six of them! I also made it to seven UDRA final rounds, each time matched up against “Animal Jim” – unreal!
In 2001, I raced at four events, and posted top qualifying numbers at two of them. This year saw my best-ever elapsed time and top speed as a drag racer – 6.59 seconds at 217 MPH. Earnhardt died, damn it! June 1, 2001 was my last race behind the wheel of a hot rod. I made the decision to step out of the cockpit entirely on my own and without planning it in advance. I just made the decision and walked away knowing that my dreams had come true.
I am proud to have been a part of the great sport of Drag Racing.
All Time “Thank Yous” to all who helped My Racing Career!
Special thanks to:
Mom & Dad
Sara (the mother of my beautiful daughter)
Buddy Martin & Ronnie Sox
The Perugino Family
The late Tom Andrews
All of those wonderful people in my life for all of these Years!
AND a Big Thank you to John Bockelman…
Thanks, Beverly ! You are the Best!