"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.
Returning to drag racing in 1966 after a year or two sabbatical, Bagshaw purchased this ’3
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.
Bill sold the Willys as a roller and bought this ’57 Corvette for $1,200. The stroker moto
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 completed SS/B Dart ran under the national record on its initial outings, thus making
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.
The Challenger debuted at the 1970 Nationals in Indianapolis, reaching the quarter-finals
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."
Bagshaw was a fixture at Lions Drag Strip and won Pro Stock at The Last Drag Race in Decem
Bagshaw again raised the bar with the completion of his ’73 Dodge Dart Sport. The new Red
This 1970 shot illustrates the rollcage coming together at the pinion snubber contact poin
Behold the Dart’s 426 Hemi engine as delivered. The engine was removed and prepped for rac
Fresh off the trailer at Bagshaw’s Southern California apartment, the L023 Dart is about t
Bill’s 1963 split-window coupe was also powered by the 327/360 motor. It ran chrome revers
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.
Though Bagshaw is ahead at this point, he would lose this round to the SOHC-powered ’57 T-
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.
Wheelstands wowed the crowds. Flogging and testing led to the addition of wheelie bars tha
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.
In 1972, sheetmetal and trim was upgraded to 1972 specs, along with a paint scheme designe
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.
When Shirley Shahan moved from Mopar to the AMC camp, Chrysler offered Bagshaw the opportu
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.
The Red Light Bandit 1968 Dart is currently owned by veteran NHRA Stock Eliminator Mopar r
John Gastman of Roanoke Motors in Roanoke, Virginia, discovered the Red Light Bandit Chall
The restored Red Light Bandit Challenger features one of the original 426 Hemi engines tha
One of the great silhouettes of all time, the Ron Butler Dart was a favorite of Bagshaw’s
The Dart Sport returned after the first wreck in 1974, rebuilt with ’76 trim and a revised
The high-rise configuration prompted the invention of a modular hoodscoop.