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Bill Bagshaw and His Crimson Cabal

The Red Light Bandits

By Arvid Svendsen, Photography by Arvid Svendsen, Rich Carlson

"We were just racers who wanted to make our cars run fast." With that simple statement, Bill Bagshaw might have revealed why legends were born during the adolescence of drag racing in the 1960s. Racing was a passionate love for fast cars lived out on the street and at the track. As a high school student in 1959, Bill attended a drag race at Pomona that would birth a journey from weekend warrior to professional drag racer in league with the sport's pioneers.

A batwing 1959 with a 348 engine and four-speed transmission was Bagshaw's first street/strip car, an ark that would prove less than ideal for competitive drag racing. So he ordered a lighter, faster car: a 1960 Corvette with the 283/290 fuelie engine. Bitten and a little bloody, Bill soon bought a 1962 powered by a 327/360 motor. As nice as it was on the street and at the track, word was out about the 1963 Corvette redesign. Bagshaw purchased a new split-window coupe with the fuel-injected 327 that would become his most serious effort to date. The engine was blueprinted and finessed, and after flogging, the 1963 claimed the A/Sports record (12.17/116.73) and won class at the 1963 Winternationals.

Bagshaw opted out of racing for a good part of 1964–65 to finish college and marry his sweetheart, Carol. He would return to drag racing in 1966 with a 1939 Willys gasser, powered by a blown 377-inch small-block, but he wasn't particularly comfortable with it, so he found a 1957 Corvette and used the (detuned) motor from the Willys to race in Modified Production.

Race cars had names back then. Bagshaw came up with the name, Red Light Bandit, after a real-life bad guy, Caryl Chessman, who would follow people in their cars to secluded areas and flash a red light that tricked them into thinking he was a cop.

By 1967, Bagshaw's driving prowess was being noticed by the racing world and those who reported it, including Hot Rod's Eric Dahlquist, who used his connections at Chrysler to put the Corvette driver in line for one of the new-for-1968 426ci Hemi-powered A-body cars slated for a select group of racers. Bagshaw met with Chrysler's Dick Maxwell, got the nod for receiving a new Hemi car, and was suddenly a Mopar guy.

Bagshaw hitched an open trailer to his 1967 SS396 Chevelle, drove to Detroit, loaded up his primered Dart, and headed back to the Left Coast. Working from his apartment garage, he tapped engine builder Joe Allread to help him disassemble and blueprint the 426 race Hemi. The car was readied for competition and painted in Bagshaw's alma mater's colors, USC cardinal and gold by the Hollywood Dodge body shop.

The Dart's first race would be the NHRA Division 7 Points meet at Carlsbad Raceway. On July 13, 1968, Bagshaw ran under the existing SS/B record but did not claim it. The car was runner-up in the eliminator. Highlights of the 1968 season included the Super Stock eliminator win at Irwindale and Super Stock runners-up at Orange County and Lions. The Dart also set the NHRA SS/B mph record at 133.72.

The 1969 season was even stronger. Bill was the victor at the February 9 Super Stock race at Irwindale, the June 7 Super Stock Eliminator at the NHRA Division 7 Points meet, and the "Heads Up" Super Stock race at Lions Drag Strip. At Carlsbad, Bagshaw set the NHRA SS/B record: 10.47 at 134.73. His greatest achievement for 1969 was at NHRA Division 7 Points meet at Bonneville Raceway in Salt Lake City, where he won the Super Stock Bonanza and Super Stock Eliminator.

Immediately following the Indy Nationals in 1969, Buddy Martin and Bill Jenkins camped out with the NHRA to form the parameters of a new heads-up racing class called Pro Stock. Rules called for a 3,000-pound minimum weight (7.0 pounds per cubic inch), glass windows, wheels in stock locations, engine in stock location, stock suspension, and two four-barrel carburetors. Fiberglass front fenders, hood, and trunklid were permitted. Thrilled with the prospect of heads-up racing, Bagshaw converted his 1968 Hemi Dart and was racing in Pro Stock by early 1970.

Driving the Dart in 1970, Bagshaw was runner-up at the March Meet, won Pro Stock at Fremont on May 3, and won the NHRA Division 7 WCS Points meet on June 27, while setting the Pro Stock speed record at 139.10 mph. He continued his winning ways, claiming victory at the Pro Stock race at Orange County Raceway on July 11 and again winning his last event with the Dart in Pro Stock at Lions on August 1. You could say that the Red Light Bandit Dart hit the tarmac with guns blazing.

In February 1970, Bagshaw received a life-altering call from the Chrysler camp. There was a lightened 1970 Challenger body waiting for him in a warehouse in Southern California. In addition, Mopar would supply a brand-new 1970 Hemi Challenger for parts and measurements purposes. Bagshaw had been working out of his apartment garage, but now he knew it was crucial to step up his race program. His hunt for a shop led him to a nearby facility, where the perfect storm developed. When signing the lease, the landlord took Bagshaw over to meet a fresh tenant moving in next door. Bill explains, "Turns out my new neighbor, Ron Butler, had been a fabricator and had worked extensively with the Shelby race cars. In light of Shelby's run with Ford having come to an end, Butler was starting his own fabrication shop. Ron definitely knew what he was doing, he could fabricate anything, he had new ideas, he was willing to try new things, and he needed work in his new business."

By Arvid Svendsen
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