Ed.’s note: John Gunnell recently had the good fortune of getting to spend some time with Firesuit Phil, reminiscing about his drag racing days. Sadly, Phil passed away not long after, and before we were able to feature his story. We hope you enjoy this look at a well-loved member of the hot rod community.
At times, Phil Pofahl’s friends poke a bit of fun at the wrinkly paint on his 1946 Ford. One bunch – the Geezer Gassers – made a hilarious, Stooges-style You-Tube video about carbon dating the car’s dark green finish. Don Garlits once told Phil that he thought his car needed a paint job. Then, when the two racers met again at Indianapolis in 2006, “Big Daddy” said he had come to the conclusion that it shouldn’t be painted because it “had patina and all of that.”
Pofahl – best known to drag racing fans as “Firesuit Phil” – never considered squirting new paint on his 5-window coupe. He doesn’t want the hot rod, which he built in 1958, to look like a gasser wannabe made in 2008. The Ford’s 54-year-old battle-scarred enamel is as authentic as its Olds Rocket Eight and its Hilborn fuel-injection system. Firesuit Phil’s Ford is “The Real McCoy.”
Phil has had the Ford longer than he’s had his wife (who also drag races in an AMX). He bought it in 1958 for $75, and it took a few years to build it into a racing car. It had a 1952 Oldsmobile V-8 when he got it, but not the one that’s in it today. The engine in the car now came from his first car – one of 6,402 Oldsmobile Deluxe 88s made in 1952. It started as a 303ci Olds Rocket V-8.
“Nobody painted cars green, especially racing cars,” Phil recalls during an interview in his tidy Kenosha, Wisconsin home. “But I built it that way, and I took it to the strip [Great Lakes Dragaway in nearby Union Groove] in ’63. I raced it, of course, and I don’t know how much you know about drag racers, but their cars are never fast enough. Never!” So, there and then, Phil decided that he was going to tear the Ford apart, move the engine back and put in a stainless steel tube front axle, Airheart calipers and “all kinds of stuff that nobody had back then.”
Phil got married in 1936. He joined the National Guard and got into the tool and die trade. He spent 26 years as a machinist with American Motors, and he still makes and sells vintage AMC parts today. His career and the many high-end machine tools in his basement explain why he could have all the neat components on his Ford back in the day. All of the hardware was homemade and helped him earn time slips like a time-tinted ticket that shows his C/G Ford coupe turned the quarter mile in 14.36 seconds at 93.75 mph on September 21, 1963. Another time slip says “eliminated ’57 Chevy.”
Phil has two slips that look as if they were recovered from the Titanic. That’s because he carried them around in his wallet for years. They come from the 1950s, when he ran his Olds coupe just about every weekend or every other weekend. Phil believes he got the Olds when he was 16 or 17, but doesn’t think he made it out to the nearby drag strip the year they first opened up.
Recently, the exact year that drag racing started at Great Lakes Dragaway has been a point of debate among those interested in Wisconsin’s hot rodding history. Firesuit Phil has an early flyer from the strip that reads, “After a full year of much hard work, and personal sacrifice, the first official sanctioned drag got under way, the morning of October 7, 1956.” However, Phil’s dating is also based on personal experience. “You see, I got picked up for dragging on the street, and my dad had to come bail me out and I thought ‘This is not good!’ So I started racing at the strip and they [his parents] never gave me any static about drag racing. So I did it all out there, and it’s safer and makes more sense, really.”
Firesuit Phil still has several trophies he won with the Olds. “That’s basically what got me started,” he explains. “So then, when I got the ’46 Ford, I started customizing it rather than drag racing it, but then I figured it’s easier to build a drag racer than it is to get ready to go on the street, because all you need for a drag racer is an ignition; you don’t need all the fancy stuff hooked up for it to race. So, that’s what I did, and it’s basically been the same way ever since then, outside of safety improvements and all of those kind of required changes.”
When Phil bought the car, it had a different 1952 Olds engine. He tried to start the car with that motor in it, but it wouldn’t start. Phil then decided not to bother with trying to fix the car, since he figured “the wiring was probably all screwed up and everything like that.” So he just yanked out the motor that was in the car, put the engine from his own Olds in and then sold the car to a man from Milwaukee for $175. (Yes, he says that he wishes he still had it today!)
As amazing as it seems, Phil built the stainless steel tube axle and other chassis modifications in his tiny basement. “I only had a one-car garage, so what was I supposed to do?” he asks. “I pulled the frame out, knocked three blocks out of the foundation of my house, chucked the frame into the basement and then built the transmission, cross members and everything else in the cellar.”
Faded photos in a yellow scrapbook trace how Firesuit Phil turned the stock 303ci Olds engine into a 395.6ci stroker with 13:1 Jahns pistons, an Isky roller cam, Hilborn fuel-injection and Coyes roller timing chain. Originally, Pofahl switched to 1956 Olds heads with 1960 valves and then to 1957 heads today. Naturally, he adapted an AMC distributor with MSD 6AL guts to the Olds, and he fabricated the distributor drive (as well as the fuel pump). The homemade 1.5:1 rocker arms are works of art and mount on a shaft that Phil drilled through.
Phil himself welded the 1932 Ford front spindles onto the stainless steel tube axle he built. He has another picture of putting the 1951 Merc rear axle in. He cut off the Ford’s original transverse rear spring and welded it to the new differential with one side shortened two inches. “The banjo is offset, so that’s why I shortened up one side,” Phil notes. “Most guys didn’t do that back then, and if you look at photos of old gassers, the tires hung out of the fenders. I always thought that didn’t look nice, and I’m stubborn; I don’t do things the easy way.”
Phil’s stubbornness kicked in when he broke an axle at Lake Geneva drag strip. He changed to a Jeep axle because they used a Dana 44. “My friend Al Pfeifer told me you could go to a Jeep dealer and buy any gear ratio you wanted for like $100,” Phil says. “Now, if you had a fancy Chevy rear, you had to buy aftermarket gears and pay a premium.” Phil also had troubles fitting a posi to the Dana because he used flat head screws that stretched and caused play. After screwing up the rear end a couple of times, he had a friend in the AMC labs test things. The Lincoln axle he was using had impurities in the casting that made it weak, and the gears in the Dana 44 (which broke) proved to be too hard. Naturally, Phil made his own changes and took care of the rear end problems.
He built his own spool and went to 4.56:1 gears. The Airheart calipers were modified to work on the car, and he adapted a 1955 Ford pickup truck steering box to the old coupe. He now knows this wasn’t the best choice, but since he is only interested in driving the Ford in a straight line, it really doesn’t matter.
Originally, the Rocket 88 Olds came hooked to an old four-speed Hydra-Matic transmission that had to go. “When I put the Turbo 400 in, I probably dropped 40 pounds of rotating mass,” Phil notes. Since there was no adaptor for that swap back then, Phil, of course, made his own. He used a TCI torque converter and a B & M Pro-Ratchet shifter, along with a TCI transmission brake.
Firesuit can show you all of his old build photos and rattle on for hours about tech stuff, but today the experiences he’s had in nostalgia drag racing and the friends he’s made in the sport are the important things in his life – as well as the family involvements.
The car sat for 23 years before Phil got it out to the drag strip again in 1987. His son was in high school at that time, and the school was going to have a car show. He told his father, “C’mon, let’s get the car going,” so they went out to the one-car garage and started working on it and got it to the point where it was running. Then, the next thing to do was take it to “The Grove,” where they won a trophy in 1987. “After I got back out there, it was kind of ‘Let’s try this’ and ‘Let’s try that,’” Phil recalls. “Like I said, drag racers always want to go faster.”
Phil found that he could do nostalgia drag racing on a budget and have lots of fun. “The one time we went to [Beech Bend Raceway in] Bowling Green, Kentucky, it cost me $300-$400 in gas,” Phil recalls. “Other guys go there, get a motel for three days and spend lots of money, but a lot of them don’t do anything on their cars themselves. I do. If it breaks, I fix it. And I got a new 24-foot trailer, so when I go to the races, the car sleeps outside and I sleep inside.” Phil says that he’s frugal, but not cheap. At a typical race, he wrenches on his own car, sleeps in the trailer, goes out for a few nice meals and has a great time for around $500.
Phil rattles off names of the famous drag racers he’s met and made friends with, growing exasperated each time his interviewer doesn’t know a name like Perry Seitz or Jerry Haley. He’s known Broadway Bob Metzler, the long-time owner of Great Lakes Dragaway, for his entire racing career and worries about Bob’s health today. Firesuit has played jokes on Don Garlits and got his good friend “Ohio George” Montgomery going when he gave racer K.S. Pittman’s widow a snappy ride in the 1946 Ford. “I told George it’s a racing car, not a bus,” laughs Phil. “Garlits once gave George a fast, scary ride in an old dragster, and he wasn’t a happy camper, but Lavaun Pittman, she had an ear-to-ear grin.”
Firesuit Phil’s awards and recognitions trace all the way back to 1962, even before he decided to make the Ford a racing car. At that time, his focus was on customizing the coupe with restyling techniques like the molded fenders and taillights. That year, it took a third place trophy at the Gas Hopper’s 1st Annual International Championship Rod and Custom Show on the Navy Pier in Chicago. In 1963, the car won 1st Place – Best Engineered honors at the 4th Annual International Championship Auto Show, at the 500 Motorama in Indianapolis.
After he got into Nostalgia racing, more honors came. In 1996, Phil won the Goodguys’ “Most Nostalgic Race Car” award. On July 22, 2000, he was inducted into the Kenosha Hod Rod Association Hall of Fame and made a charter member of the Kenosha Legends. In 2006, he was one of only 32 racers from throughout the world invited to a “NHRA Salutes the Gassers” event at Indianapolis on Labor Day weekend. The next year, he was an inaugural inductee in the Great Lakes Dragaway Hall of Fame. Then, in 2008, he captured the 1st Place “Geezer Gasser” trophy at the Goodguys Nostalgia Nats in Bowling Green.
Firesuit has stood in the winner’s circle with the likes of Garlits and Montgomery, K.S. “Tiger” Pittman, “Big John” Mazmanian, Barbara Hamilton (“The First Lady of Gassers”), Dick Crouthers, Arnie “The Farmer” Beswick, “Junior” Thompson, Scott Haebig, Elverne Pfieffer and “Broadway” Bob Metzler.
While he and his family were in the food line in the VIP tent at the 2006 Gasser Salute in Indy, Firesuit Phil saw Don Garlits cupping his fingers in a “come here” gesture, so he looked behind him and there was no one else there. “Here I was, just a regular guy in the sport, and he’s waving me over to come sit by him,” Pofahl says. “And I though that was pretty cool, and he was a nice guy.”
We ask Phil why he still has his Ford long after all the cars he raced against years ago are gone. He points to a photo of him with his hot rod at Indy and says, “They invited 32 people from throughout the world to be there, and I was one of them. So maybe that’s the reason I hung onto it. They said I’d have a good time, and the only way I could’ve possibly had a better time is if we’d raced.”
“Firesuit” Phil Pofahl
1940 - 2011
Philip “Firesuit” Pofahl, 70, of Kenosha, passed away Sunday, February 20, 2011, at Aurora Medical Center. Born in Kenosha on December 28, 1940, the son of the late Ralph and Luella (Fincannon) Pofahl. A lifelong resident of Kenosha, educated in local schools.
From 1963 until 1969 Phil was in the Air National Guard, serving in the 128th Air Refueling Group.
On January 19, 1963, in Kenosha, he married Barbara M. Eaves.
For 30 years, he worked at American Motors/Chrysler Corp. Later, he worked for 10 years at Allen Bradley in Milwaukee, until his retirement.
A member of the Geezer Gassers, Mid Century Mercury Car Club, Midwest Ford Club, Midwest Street Machines, and AMO/AMX Club. He was proud to have been inducted into the Great Lakes Dragway Hall of Fame and the Kenosha Legends. His greatest passion was drag racing, as “Firesuit Phil” in his 1946 Ford Gasser. He was proud of his many trophies and awards. Phil had been featured in several magazines. Also a member of the American Legion and Masonic Lodge #47 F&AM. He enjoyed spending time with his family and friends. He spent many years fishing at his cabin in upper Michigan.
Surviving are his wife, Barbara of Kenosha; two sons, Paul Pofahl of Kenosha, Mark (Kim) Pofahl of Twin Lakes; one daughter, Linda Holly of Vermont; one brother, Richard (Joyce) Pofahl of Salem; mother-in-law, Catherine Eaves; brother-in-law, Joel (Sharon) Eaves; sister-in-law, Kathleen Eaves, all of Kenosha; four grandchildren, Andrew, Elizabeth, Samantha, Rachael; one great grandchild, Bronx and several nieces and nephews.
1946-1948 Fords: Fat Fender Finale
The 1946-1948 Fords were restyled 1942 models with prewar technology like Old Henry’s beam front axle and transverse year spring. To many enthusiasts, they are the last true hot rods. They came in Deluxe and Super Deluxe, with the choice of an in-line flathead six or flathead V-8. Rodders like Tudor sedans, coupes and convertibles, including the rare wood-trimmed Sportman convertible. The genuine woodie wagons make neat rods, too. Car-starved Americans bought as many as Ford could make. For years, they were cheap and available.
According to Firesuit Phil, he only saw a few of these Fords racing in the old days. “Racers always want to go faster,” Phil stresses. “First they wanted ’32 Fords, then they switched to the small Willys, and then they went out and bought even lighter English Ford Anglias. It’s funny, they’re always going to get rid of their old stuff and go with the latest and greatest.”
New Stuff for an Old Olds
Firesuit Phil had to make many engine and transmission parts for his Olds-powered 1946 Ford, but today, companies like Egge Machine are manufacturing original parts and hot rod hardware for Olds Rocket V-8s. At the 2010 Hot Rod & Restoration show, Ross Racing Engines took awards for its Lacey & Morse aluminum heads and transmission adaptor for 1949-up Oldsmobile V-8s. The Mondello Technical Center in Crossville, Tennessee is teaching members of Generation Y the secrets of hopping up these historic V-8s.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
ROSS RACING ENGINES
MONDELLO TECHNICAL CENTER
Since 1962, Firesuit Phil has won many trophies.
Phil built the chassis in his well-equipped but tiny basement.
Pofahl is very proud of the aluminum rocker arms he developed.
Phil (center bottom) was a charter member of “Kenosha Legends” in 2000.
Even at retirement age, Phil hasn’t stopped “smoking.”
“Big Daddy” sent Firesuit Phil this signed photo of his 1948 Ford stocker.
Phil flipped Garlits’ photo and superimposed it on this one as a joke.
Phil still has some vintage snapshots of the 1952 Olds he raced first.
Age-tinted time slips from The Grove trace Firesuit’s racing history.
At their first meeting, Garlits told Phil to paint the car, but later said “don’t.”
Phil’s wife drag races at The Grove in an AMX. He worked at AMC for 26 years.
Firesuit says this photo from Gasser Salute sums up why he still has the car.
Phil did all of the fabulous metal work and added Renault seats.
Currently, the 1946 is back in Phil’s one-car garage for a winter workover.
Phil is proud of all the axle and spindle fabrication seen here.
The same Olds engine installed in 1958 has been beefed up a bit.
This is one of Firesuit Phil’s hotter-looking trophies.
Firesuit Phil had fun at the 2010 Symco Shakedown in Symco, Wisconsin.