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Bill Bagshaw and His Crimson Cabal

The Red Light Bandits

By Arvid Svendsen, Photography by Arvid Svendsen, Rich Carlson

So Butler welcomed his first customer. He set up the unibody shell on a squared and leveled 7x11-foot surface plate. The new Hemi Challenger R/T parts car was delivered to Bill's shop. It weighed a remarkable 3,700 pounds. Butler said that his goal was to bring the car well below the 3,000-pound mark in order to place ballast over the rear end, where it would be needed for traction. Butler worked his imagination, his theories, and his fabrication skills. These attributes would become the key components of the groundbreaking construction principles that would later be found in many Pro Stockers.

Butler emphasized triangulation, using the rollbar to tie the body together for maximum chassis stiffness and rigidity to ensure that suspension would not bind. Butler's philosophy was summed thusly: "...the best way to make a part lighter is to leave it off the car," so he kept only those parts absolutely necessary to make the car traverse a quarter of a mile.

Virtually every bit that survived the "lightening" was massaged to make it lighter. The regimen replaced steel bolts with aluminum wherever possible. An incredible number of holes were cut and drilled in every area that could not be seen by tech inspectors. The drilled door hinges are pure artwork. All of the front suspension parts, the Dana housing, and the scattershield were trimmed and then "chemically treated" to maximize weight reduction.

Even though the Red Light Bandit Challenger aggressively pushed the envelope, Bagshaw reports that it was never challenged by tech inspectors. Should it have been? Well, the rear framerails were swapped side to side, wheelwell locations were moved, and areas that were drilled and cut were hidden under aluminum panels. The rear fenderwells were widened and moved inboard. Any tech inspector with eyes would catch the tub work, yet it was permitted. Like a loosely called NBA game, maybe the tech officials just wanted to let the racers play.

A rollbar was mandatory, but Butler emphasized tying the body together for maximum stiffness and rigidity. Any hint of body flex would hinder suspension movement. Butler reinforced the body with tubing that joined the front and rear subframes together. Tubes were added from the top of the rollbar hoop down to the front subframe. In a similar manner, tubes went from the top of the hoop to the rear subframe, where the rear springs mounted. Butler preached triangulation, that a straight tube was always stronger than one that wasn't, and that the car had to be stiff for the suspension to work. The only piece of tube in the car that wasn't straight was the hoop, itself.

Butler's experience at Shelby had been mostly with building road-race cars, but many of the principles learned from road racing were transferrable to drag racing. The front suspension was modified so that front toe-in never changed throughout the suspension travel and, therefore, did not scrub off any speed. Strength and rigidity were paramount in the build process, and Butler knew that little things added up to make a great race car.

The Challenger weighed 2,680 pounds; it therefore needed a lot more than the 100 pounds of bolt-in ballast permitted by the rules. For that reason, a 137-pound truck battery was mounted in a very heavy steel tray in the trunk that cleverly concealed the lead-filler ballast. Bagshaw and Butler finished the car and showed for the Indy Nationals with just hours to spare. The Challenger qualified well, won two rounds running 10s and was awarded Best Engineered Car. Herb McCandless won the meet driving a Sox & Martin Duster.

The Red Light Bandit was campaigned mostly on the West Coast, where Bagshaw accumulated a number of significant wins, including the legendary March Meet and the Last Drag Race at Lions. Bagshaw won NHRA points races in three western divisions, eventually claiming the 1970 NHRA Division 7 Pro Stock championship.

By 1972, the rules had changed dramatically, allowing small-block engines and cars built with tube chassis. Though no longer state of the art, the Challenger was headed for bigger and better things, underwritten by a tube frame built by Butler. Its last race with Bagshaw behind the wheel in 1973 was at Irwindale. He won and set a track record running 9.20s at 147 mph—not bad for an obsolete car.

The next iteration, a 1973 Dart Sport, would roll out of Butler's shop sporting the familiar USC colors. It featured a four-link suspension, completely removable front clip, superior coilover suspension and rack steering. It was an instant winner. Bagshaw sacked 11 of the 14 races he entered during the 1974 season and was leading the points in the AHRA Pro Stock category. Then, a wreck at St. Louis sidelined him for about a year. The car was badly damaged but repairable.

Buyer's remorse and a discussion with Ron Butler redirected Bagshaw to sell the used Dyno Don Pinto he had purchased to replace the obsolete Mopar. He raced again in 1976 with the rebuilt Dart Sport running a revised paint scheme, but the high was short-lived. When a front tire went flat on a run at Irwindale, the Dart rolled a number of times and was completely demolished. Bagshaw was not hurt, but he decided it was time to retire from professional drag racing.

Bill has been instrumental in the restoration of the 1970 Red Light Bandit Challenger, which is currently owned by John Gastman. Not only has he given Gastman extensive historical information concerning the Challenger, Bagshaw assembled its 426 Hemi engine at Ron Shavers Racing Engines in California. An ingenious drag racer, Bagshaw serves as one of the finest ambassadors for the sport today.

By Arvid Svendsen
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