SEMA Hall of Fame drag racer, hot rodder and land-speed racer Art Chrisman passed away July 12 at the age of 86 after a years-long struggle with cancer.
In late September 1955, the NHRA staged its first-ever National Championship Drag Races in Great Bend, Kansas. The first car to make a pass at this historic event was Chrisman’s Hemi-powered No. 25 dragster.
On just his second run down the concrete quarter-mile, Chrisman hit a top speed of more than 145 mph—a mark that would remain the highest of the meet, for single-engine cars, anyway.
This was by no means the first—or last—time Chrisman would make history in a fast car. He grew up in a fast family, working at the Chrisman and Sons Garage in Compton, California, with his father, Evert, and brother, Lloyd, while his uncle Jack (a history-making racer in his own right) ran a service station nearby. Behind the wheel of Chet Herbert’s Beast streamliner in 1952, Chrisman became the fifth member of the Bonneville 200 MPH Club with a 235-mph run. His No. 25 dragster—a converted dry-lakes race car—was the first to eclipse 140 mph in 1953. Before the end of the decade, he would become the first man to exceed 180 mph in his Hustler I dragster, and he also piloted the Hustler to Top Eliminator honors at the very first United States Fuel & Gas Championships in Bakersfield, California, now known as the March Meet.
After a number of very busy years racing on dragstrips and at Bonneville, Chrisman went to work for Ford’s Autolite division, where his years of competition experience helped other racers. He later continued his family legacy of speed by opening Chrisman’s Auto Rod Specialties with his son Mike, where among their earliest projects was the restoration of Chrisman’s historic Hustler I.
Chrisman’s achievements in a race car landed him the 29th spot on the NHRA’s list of Top 50 Drivers of All Time. His accomplishments also earned him membership in the Motorsports Hall of Fame, the Robert E. Petersen Lifetime Achievement Award and induction into SEMA’s Hall of Fame in 2011.
His legacy lives on, in a way, as part of the Wally Parks NHRA Motorsports Museum’s Gallery of Speed display in the museum’s lobby. A life-size sculpted likeness of Chrisman stands next to the Beast that he raced at Bonneville, while nearby is the No. 25 dragster, ready to launch as a sculpted starter drops his flag.