by Bob Wilkiewicz
Nostalgia Super Stock Inc. Staff
After 54 years in drag racing, there is one person in the sport Larry Kaufman doesn’t know – but would certainly like to.
Of those Kaufman does know, however, many aren’t merely current racers; more than a few are pioneers, legends and most importantly, friends.
Now at most any event, he can walk into any locale and be welcomed to talk with talents such as Austin Coil, Chris Karimesines, Don Schumacher, Bill Simpson, Tom Prock, Bob Stange and Arnie Beswick, to name just some.
“Over the years they gave me parts, advice, and taught me how to race,” said Kaufman. “It’s because of these guys; they made me the racer I am today.”
Photo by Peter Ores Ores Action Photography
Which is an outstanding one, with the addition some of his own skills in first surviving the street racing scene and then for many years steering through the auto parts business as a Chicago North Sider.
From his early days on the streets to today’s senior statesman in Nostalgia Super Stock Inc., Kaufman has gone from driving a ’59 Pontiac Catalina to owning and driving a piece of factory history – and having seen it almost all.
Kaufman never had a problem with courage. “He was a young friend and afraid to drive it,” said Kaufman of his first turns with the steering wheel. “Back in the day, my nickname was ‘Leadfoot.’”
By 1961 Kaufman had bought his first Catalina; by 1962, he had established a reputation; by 1963, he was wheeling a new model 421 cu.in, 370 hp Catalina and also a frequent racer all the area tracks; US 30, Oswego, Byron and Great Lakes Dragaway.
“It was an education,” he said. “I started to learn and got to know my way around all the tracks. And I acquired friends all along the way.”
By 1966, Kaufman was also living a sequence common to many young racers; love, marriage, children and a sold car.
Forward to 1984 when he went to a race in St. Louis, just to watch and spend a weekend with Al Gartzman, who was racing his ’62 Catalina. The two friends got to talking that maybe it was time for Kaufman to get back into the game. They agreed to partner for a mutually beneficial car search.
“Al was going to Florida on a scouting trip but I decided to stay home,” said Kaufman.
“I said maybe if I find something or maybe if you find something…I’ll call you or you call me.”
A few days later Gartzman did call.
“He said, ‘I got good news and bad news, which do you want first?,” said Kaufman. “The good news is I found a ’63 Catalina and it’s beautiful, original, everything is right. The bad news is I bought it for myself.”
Staying cool, four months later Kaufman was thumbing through Hemmings Motor News and read an ad about a ’61 Ventura for sale by Gary Moore in Ohio. A 389, 4-speed Super Duty car with only 5,000 miles, it had been raced since manufacture until 1968 and then parked. Moore wanted a Ford Bronco but needed to sell the Ventura to do the deal.
The car had been built in the factory’s super stock production run, exactly 15 units after Beswick’s car, a fact confirmed by Fred Simmons, a Pontiac historian. “I have the build sheet,” said Kaufman, who was pleased to find a starting point with such a fine pedigree.
Photo by Peter Ores Ores Action Photography
In addition, the car had been entered in B/S in 1961 at the U.S. Nationals and in 1969 it won F/S at the Winternationals. “I know that because I have a picture in a magazine that shows the car in eliminations,” said Kaufman. “And Moore was a straight-up guy.”
Now with something to work with, Kaufman starting making trips to one of Chicago’s South Side suburbs, Crete, where he hooked up with Rick Johnson and his ‘No Sponsor’ Pontiac and Joe Zajac, who eventually became the long-time president of NSS Inc. The first transaction was getting a flywheel from Johnson.
Kaufman gives copious praise to Johnson and Zajac for assisting him in completing the body-off restoration. Then Kaufmann started taking the machine to car shows.
In 1986, he was at a show with Johnson at GLD. “It was fun but we got to talking and finally we said, ‘this is enough, let’s go racing,’” said Kaufman. “So I got into the car and drove it down the track.”
Before the founding of the original Midwest Nostalgia Super Stock Association, the Ventura was kept busy being both beautiful and a performer. One memorable race victory for Kaufman was at St. Louis (Gateway) with the car running in SS/B.
Kaufman became a charter member of the MNSSA when it was established in 1989 and was elected vice president during the 1997 reorganization into NSS Inc.
And who is that person Kaufman still definitely wants to meet for the first time? The one who stole his first Catalina, the one he bought in 1961.
“I got the shell back,” he said. “Everything else was gone.”
When asked about a career highlight, Kaufman’s answer was somewhat surprising, especially in the context of his accomplishments and circle of friends.
His daughter, Kathryn, turned eight years old in 1995 and that became her first year racing in a junior dragster, built by Stange. For eight years, father and daughter put in the commitment to become first-class competitors and also deepened their personal relationship.
“I named her after Katherine Hepburn,” said Kaufman. “She was a classy lady.”
In 2001, Kathryn Kaufman was season runner-up in Division 5 and with the motivation and confidence a 16-year old said she wanted to win a championship.
“I told her if that’s what you want to do, we’re going to have to build a third car,” said Kaufman.
They did and In 2003, won every track event at GLD and then went on take the match race of champions at Cordova, finally securing the Division 5 championship.
Using his best combination of charm and common sense, Kaufman convinced his daughter of the wisdom of putting aside a racing career for the value of a college education. She now works as a certified public accountant for a major corporation.
“It’s an excellent career and someday she might come back into racing,” said Kaufman. “But it would only be in a dragster, not a door car.”
Friend, ‘Leadfoot’, father, all these roles – and still rolling.
“I was helped by many guys and in return helped out other guys,” said Kaufman. “I was glad to do it. Now we know the ins and outs of this sport.
“Now I look back at all the years and the fun we had. Today it’s just like a Sunday drive. I have plenty of time and am going to keep going as long as I can.”
Photos by Peter Ores Ores Action Photography
Nostalgia Super Stock Inc.
Larry Kaufman was thinking about accomplishing two things when he decided to get back into drag racing after 20 years. “What I had in mind was not only to build a beautiful show car but also a very competitive race car,” he said. Now his Nostalgia Super Stock Inc. 1961 Pontiac Ventura named ‘War Chief’ proves his success with both appearance and performance.
Owner and Sponsors:
Owned and sponsored by Larry Kaufman with special thanks to his wife, Barbara, and friend Joe Zajac. “Joe is tireless with his effort and support,” said Kaufman. “There are no words to express my thanks. Without his encouragement and his pushing and pounding, there would be no racing.”
Larry Kaufman started racing in 1960 with a 1960 Pontiac Bonneville, a two-door automatic transmission car with Tri-Power carburetion. “It was a very fast car for the weight it carried,” said Kaufman. “I used to street race a lot and it was almost unbeatable.” Within three years, Kaufman had acquired a 421 cu. in., 370 horsepower, 3.90 geared 4-speed Catalina, also with a 3-2 intake set-up, and raced that combo until 1966. “Along came marriage and there went the car,” he said.
After considering both objectives, Kaufman chose a 1961 Ventura, which was factory-built on May 15, 1961 as a 389 Super Duty model. Used for racing only, it featured a McKeller No. 7 mechanical lifter camshaft, 3-2 aluminum intake, 4-speed transmission and 3.90 gears. Raced throughout the Midwest from 1961 to 1966, including the first U.S. Nationals at Indianapolis Raceway Park in 1961, the machine was parked in 1966. It came out of storage for competition in the 1969 Winternationals and then put back into storage until 1984, when Kaufman acquired it and restoration was started.
Pontiac Indian Adventures block, Crower billet crankshaft, Childs and Albert connecting rods with Venolia pistons, 504 cubic inches / Kauffman aluminum cylinder heads / Pontiac aluminum 2×4 intake manifold topped with Carter AFB’s / Cam Motion roller cam, Jesel rockers and pushrods / G-Force 4-speed transmission / Spool and axles by Strange Engineering, 4.76 ratio / fiberglass hood and deck lid / Pro Glass lexan windows / aluminum bumpers
All-time best, 9.92 at 136 mph
Event Champion, SS/B, Gateway International Raceway; Charter member, Midwest Nostalgia Super Stock Association, 1989; Vice President, Nostalgia Super Stock Inc, 1997