EL PASO, Texas — Harry Groessel likes speed, but it’s winning he loves.
Groessel, referred to by some as the grandfather of El Paso drag racing, developed a style that has allowed him to rack up hundreds of first-place trophies since he started racing in 1957. At first he gave them to neighborhood children. When the pile got out of hand, he scooped them up and donated them to a store to reuse.
Groessel, 80 years old and retired from the El Paso Fire Department, still races at least once a year.
“He’s the only one who has made money drag racing,” said Robert Martin, 33. Both Martin and his father have raced Groessel over the years.
Groessel, unlike most drivers, doesn’t spend large amounts of cash to extract every last bit of power from his dragster’s engine. “I’ve probably spent in a month what Harry’s spent in 10 years,” said Ray Griffin, a longtime El Paso racer and Groessel’s friend.
Drag racing pits cars head to head on a straight, quarter-mile track. In the old days, a flagman would start the race. Now there is a pole with colored lights on it called a Christmas tree. When the last light in the sequence flashes, it’s time to go, smoke pouring from the tires.
As drivers win races, they attain points. Some tracks name a champion every year based on points earned.
Groessel has collected 18 track championships. Three times, he was champion at two tracks in the same year.
He started out racing a Hudson. In 1973, he bought an American Motors’ Javelin with 10,000 miles on it from a rental car agency. Now he races a four-door Plymouth Acclaim. Each of them also served as his daily get-around-town cars.
Other racers put their precious cars into enclosed trailers and towed them to the track. Groessel bolted a towing hitch on the back of the Javelin so he could pull a small trailer carrying his racing tires and tools.
In 35 consecutive years of racing, driving to tracks as far away as Wisconsin and California, he has totaled 235,000 miles on the yellow Javelin.
But don’t get the impression that Groessel doesn’t still love that car, which sits in his driveway.
During one race, the driver in front of him, after a bad start, in frustration threw his car into reverse, smashing into the Javelin. Groessel grabbed the only thing he could find, a small hammer, and started smashing the offender’s dragster.
After the driver’s crew subdued him, Groessel was hauled off by police and charged with assault.
Groessel had to pay for the other driver’s repairs before the charges were dropped. It cost him about $11,000, he said, including the lawyer’s fees.
Does he have regrets?
“I just wished I’d used a bigger hammer,” Groessel said.
When his head is in the race, he is hard to beat.
His winning record, even with underpowered cars, is possible because he competes in bracket racing. The rules for bracket racing provide an equalizing handicap system allowing four-door Plymouths to match up with heavily modified muscle cars. The system rewards drivers who know their cars’ capabilities and can shave tenths or thousandths of a second off the start.
“I’ve raced (top fuel) dragsters. I’ve raced everything,” Groessel said matter-of-factly. “I beat them all.”
Over the years, track owners have asked him not to show up for races. Groessel told one of the owners to put a bounty on his head. The driver who beat him would take the bounty. The track owner declined.
“You just couldn’t beat the guy on a consistent basis,” Griffin said. “If Harry had been a professional racer when he was young, he would have been very successful.”