This '33 Willys-the Red Baron-was piloted by Pete Hill during the height of the Gasser wars in the late-'60s. In its prime, it raced against "Big John" Mazmanian, Stone, Woods and Cook, Shores and Hess, Jack Coonrod, and the top Gasser teams of its day. Today, Ken Kull of Pipersville, Pennsylvania, is taking the reincarnated Red Baron on its last passes, racing in the Nostalgia Gasser series. Soon, it will be permanently parked, but in the meantime it's rekindling memories of a bygone era of drag racing.
"It was Jack Coonrod who told me about the car," Ken says. "I had always loved the Gassers, and my dad, George, and I were looking for a car with a history. We went up to Wisconsin to see it. It had been stored indoors, but it was no time capsule. It was pretty scuzzy, but it was a great candidate for a restoration because a lot of the one-off pieces were there. It had the Don Long cast aluminum hubs and axle and the original ladder/coil suspension. It was an unbelievable survivor."
To make sure he got the restoration as true as possible, Ken went straight to the source. He contacted Chuck Finders, who, in 1967, built the chassis in less than two weeks for Pete and Bill Hill to go racing. Chuck was more than happy to lend his advice.
When the Hill brothers originally got the car, they had been running one of John Mazmanian's old '40 Willys coupes. In fact, the Red Baron still has one of Mazmanian's old steering wheels on it. Mr. Gasket's Joe Hrudka gave them the car that would become the Red Baron in exchange for running the Mr. Gasket logo on it. Chuck and the Hills quickly went to work. They already had a blown, injected 426 Hemi semi-prepared. So, with the midnight oil burning, Chuck chopped the top, fashioned the chassis, and, in just 11 days, got her ready to run in the King of Kings A/GS meet.
"Chuck is a legend as a chassis builder, but a lot of people don't recognize him as such," Ken says. "It seems like he's had his hands in every famous Gasser and [later on] some Funny Cars. When I got to talk with him, he had gotten out of cars and was driving a truck cross-country. But now he's building Willys' again. He came to my house and built the chassis for the '33 Willys pickup I am currently building, the Red Baron II."
Ken says the Red Baron II is ready to take its predecessor's place and eclipse what it has done. "I set out to build the fastest true nostalgia Gasser in the world," he says. "I haven't seen anything period-correct that will run in the 8s, but this will." Ken has recently added JE Pistons as a sponsor for the pickup, and you can see it June 6-8 at Thompson (Ohio) Drag Raceway and at Chryslers at Carlisle in July.
That '67 King of Kings meet began a short but successful Gasser career for the Hill brothers and their Red Baron. They sold the car in 1969 (the original ad is pictured here) in order to follow the Funny Car route, and it was retired to the garage shortly after, but not before it had set the Orange County Invitational record of 163.63 mph on gas in 1968 and earned the title of "World's Fastest Willys."
When Ken began the restoration, he turned to Chuck Sago at Chuck's Body Ranch for much of the body and exterior work. The thick lacquer was stripped down to metal. The fiberglass had cracked in places and was stripped to the gel coat. Sago used a custom blend of Acme red for the body, accentuated by gold metalflake on the beltlines. Scottie's Designs in nearby Kintnersville did the lettering in real gold leaf. A lot of lightweight aluminum in the interior, including the original aluminum tubs, keeps the Red Baron under the one-ton mark (1,970 pounds). One flaw in the body that wasn't corrected was the lower driver-side door, which is kicked out about 11/44 inch. "I told [Sago] to leave it that way because that is how you see it in all the old pictures," Ken says. "It's kind of like its signature."
The Red Baron has acquired another signature in recent years, resulting from Ken's conversations with Don Garlits.
"Don and I were talking about the pros and cons of different cam profiles, and specifically flat-tappet-style cams," Ken says. "We discussed the cam that was in his 250-mph car, which he and Bruce Crower designed, and I was really happy to be able to buy not only the cam but also the dyno pulls and research that went into it. Talk about strange: I was trying to have this cam duplicated for the Red Baron II, but the cam grinders wouldn't accommodate. I called Don, and he was nice enough to sell me the exact same cam-chilled Erson lifters and all. It was his spare for the 250-mph car. I like these flat-tappet billet cams because there is no roller failure in addition to this particular one being a tried and true grind."
For Ken, the most rewarding part of restoring and racing the car has been the people he has met along the way, from the racers themselves to the fans whose memories the Red Baron recalls. "The people that make my day are the ones that remember these cars from way back when," he says. "How many people get to go 160 mph in a piece of history? It has been so cool to hang out with my heroes and have them treat me like one of their own." The best part, he adds, is sitting in on the story sessions. While they may sound like tall tales, Ken says the drivers rarely embellish. Ken tells one of his favorites:
"Pete was telling me how once at Niagara he spun the [Red Baron] around twice at the end of the 11/48 mile. The chute was wrapped around the top of the car, and when he came to a stop, he was facing the starting lights. Pete then drove back down the track to the starting line with the crowd going absolutely nuts. I took the story with a grain of salt, but at the Willys Homerun in Lancaster, I ran into [race photographer] Dick Collins. He told me, 'I was there-I took pictures.' "
Ken says he will park the car after this season. "It's still a good car, but it's a handful," he says. "It's temperamental. If I can get it through the 11/48 mile without lifting or steering too much, then she'll go through the quarter. I've done what I set out to do. There's no reason to keep beating up a piece of history."