By John Gunnell
Back in the 1960s many car manufacturers found it handy to support drag racing programs to attract business from car enthusiasts who spent their weekends at the drag strip. Rather than getting directly involved in drag racing, the automakers usually relied on certain dealers to put their cars in the winner’s circle and generate publicity.
Milt Schornack was a talented mechanic and car tuner who worked at Ace Wilson’s famous Royal Pontiac dealership in Royal Oaks, Mich. According to Schornack, it was in 1959 that Wilson approached Pontiac Motor Division with the idea of turning his franchise into the company’s high-performance headquarters. PMD was all for the idea and Schornack was the guy who did a lot of the performance tuning on the cars that became known as Royal Bobcat Pontiacs.
Once the arrangement between PMD and Royal Pontiac was sealed, the next step was to build some cars to win races and make headlines. The cars would have to look good, go fast and sell the notion of Pontiac performance. Wilson told Schornack to put together a’59 Pontiac with a warmed-up motor. Naturally, the 389-cid Pontiac V-8 with three two-barrel carburetors was used.
The dealership’s drag car needed an easily recognizable identity. It was nicknamed the Hot Chief. The engine was tuned to deliver 345 hp on the drag strip. In his book "Milt Schornack and the Royal Bobcat GTOS" (co-authored by Keith J. MacDonald), Schornack says, “The Hot Chief traveled to Florida in February 1960 and by the time the Royal Racing Team left the Winter Nationals, the Daytona Beach dragstrip was but a smoking hole in the ground.”
Ace Wilson enjoyed winning races and the next year he decided he needed even more racing cars to shake things up. So, a pair of race-prepped 1960 Catalinas were constructed. Jim Wangers, who worked for Pontiac’s advertising agency, drove the Hot Chief No. 1, which had a 389-cid/368-hp Super-Duty V-8 attached to a four-speed manual transmission. This car was painted red and had bold lettering all over the body hyping Pontiac power.
This writer once interviewed Wangers' former boss, Jack Stewart, who told me how much Wangers was into drag racing. Stewart said that Wangers often put his work aside and spent all day on the phone talking to his drag racing buddies. However, Stewart had a few tricks he used to get the agency jobs done. He said he would have the phone removed from Wangers' desk and tell him he couldn’t have it back unless he did his work. According to Stewart, the job would get done fast and well and then Wangers would get his phone back.
Wangers was a top-notch driver. When he took Hot Chief 1 to the National Hot Rod Assoc. (NHRA) Nationals in the Detroit area he took both class and Top Eliminator titles with a 102.04 mph 114.14 sec. run. This performance became famous and Wangers later produced and sold a poster showing Hot Chief 1 in action. Unfortunately, the car vanished over the years.
There was a second car called Hot Chief No. 2. It was painted white, but lettered up very close to the way Hot Chief 1 was. This car had a 363-hp Royal-tuned Super-Duty Catalina with Hydra-Matic transmission. Amazingly, the Hot Chief 2 survives today in very good condition.
“This car is the only known surviving 1960 Super-Duty that was raced by Royal Pontiac,” says the current owner of Hot Chief 2, Bob Knudsen, Jr., of American Falls, Idaho. “The red car was probably crashed or crushed — no one really knows.” A man naned Dick Jesse piloted the white car and made it to the final run in the automatic class at the Nationals before another driver named Al “Lawman” Eckstrand beat him with a ’60 Plymouth.
Bob Knudsen, Jr., who collects Royal Pontiac race cars, Super-Duty cars in general and “Swiss Cheese” (drilled frame) cars in particular, says he likes the Pontiacs because they were winners. “It's simple, “ he said. “When I was a kid I loved drag racing in my ’59 Bonneville. I’d go to Pocatello Dragway all the time, but I always came in second and never won a trophy. My buddy had a ’59 Super-Duty and always beat me.” Today, Knudsen’s race car collection is hard to beat.
As for Hot Chief 2, before it came into Knudsen’s possession, it had been purchased by Ed Shafer, the Governor of North Dakota. In 1990, Shafer had a frame-off restoration completed by Chuck Simpson in South Carolina. It went from there to a Pontiac club (www.poci.org) convention in the Chicago area, where Knudsen first saw it.
“I remember Shafer loaded it on the trailer and I looked up and saw it and told myself I loved that car,” says Knudsen. Then it wound up in Floyd Garrett’s muscle car museum in Tennessee. Garrett ended up selling it to another collector and Knudsen traded a 1962 Chevy 409 Bel Air Z11 car with an aluminum front end for the Hot Chief 2.
Knudsen believes that the car is the only original 1960 Super-Duty around today. “It has the right Super-Duty intake, the right heads, the right exhaust and everything else," he says. "It has the right tank, the right crank and the right cam and the rest of the parts like the special air cleaner with the oblong holes that came in the trunk of Royal Super-Duty cars. The Super-Duty package was sold only as a dealer option, so only a few were delivered and right here is the only original one I know of to be around.”
Knudsen has begun showing the car and took it to the 2014 POCI Convention in Wichita, Kan., where it drew a lot of attention. The car is an amazing piece of drag racing history.
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