Following in the footsteps of his father, Evert Chrisman, Art got into hot rodding at a very early age.
Going all the way back to the Chrisman family’s origins in Sulpher Springs, Kansas, evidence is found of an interest and talent in all things having to do with the automobile that ran through most members of the family. Art’s father, Evert, was the owner and operator of “Evert’s Suare Deal Garage” in Sulpher Springs in the 1920s and was known to perform certain “hop-up” techniques on the stripped down Model T Fords that were preferred by area bootleggers. Anything from installing heavier duty springs, trunk mounted fuel tanks, or higher compression cylinder heads was just fine by Evert. His business thrived until the coming of the Great Depression. Although he managed to keep food on the table for his growing family throughout the 1930s, by 1942 Evert decided to follow the mass migration to California that had become so popular in the rural midwest.
Armed with a gift for welding, Evert soon found himself with full employment at the Todd Shipyard of Long Beach and sent word back to Sulpher Springs for his family to join him at their new home in Compton, California. Evert would end up serving as an underwater welder during WWII but would open up his own general business repair shop, Chrisman and Sons Garage, after the war had ended. This would be the place where Art would develop his talents as a tuner, repairman, body and paint man, and fabricator. Soon Art began to find great satisfaction in building engines for customers and took great pride in his own attention to detail and ability to “super tune.” Throughout his time spent at the family garage, Art had a secret dream to someday build a car of his own and the explosion of post-war hot rod culture in southern California was the perfect place and time to realize it.
Although Art’s first car was right in line with what most all young hot rodders were pursuing at the time, a hopped up ’32 Ford roadster, it would be a 1936 Ford sedan that Art would really work his magic on and would be the car that he first raced … both on the street and at the drags. He would attend his first organized drag race in 1950 at Santa Ana and would beat every street car that went up against his ’36. His unusual choice for a hot rod would turn an impressive 101mph that day and Art Chrisman would walk away a winner, holding his first of many racing trophies.
Art’s timing couldn’t have been better, as the new sport of drag racing was about to explode throughout southern California. The number of tracks would grow and grow annually, making a trek out to the dry lakes less appealing all the time to a young hot rodder who, instead, could race at multiple drag strips on the same weekend. This fact would energize Art, his brother Lloyd, and even their Uncle, Jack. Soon the Chrismans were a force to be reckoned with in auto racing in and around southern California.
By 1953 Art would be the man to beat in his famous old #25 car ( purchased from his friend LeRoy Neumayer ) at tracks like, Pomona, Goleta, Paradise Mesa, and Santa Ana, setting a record of firstname.lastname@example.org in February of that year . Later that same year, the Chrisman clan would make an appearance on the salt flats at the Bonneville Speed Trails with their stunningly beautiful, rear engined, Ardun powered 1930 Model A coupe. In classic Chrisman fashion, they broke or or set records in every class in which they ran. This probably didn’t come as a surprise to those familiar with the Chrisman’s, as it was just the previous year ( 1952 ) that Art Chrisman would become a charter member of the Bonneville 200mph club driving Chet Herbert’s “Beast III” to a speed of 235.99mph.
Art Chrisman’s focus would turn hard toward drag racing by the mid ’50s and this would ultimately have him build his “Hustler 1” dragster. This would be the car to beat on the west coast in the late 1950s. Running a fuel burning supercharged Chrysler it would be the first car on the west coast to go 180mph and would famously win the very first ( and now legendary ) “March Meet” at Bakersfield in 1959.
As Art and his family’s reputation in the racing world became more and more respected, their work became equally more sought after. The Chrisman garage was now a bee hive of activity with racing engines being built, custom body and paint work being performed, and race cars being constructed. But then, in 1962, Art Chrisman decided he’d had enough of the fast paced grind of working round the clock to have race cars and engines ready for the next meet and took the job he was offered by Autolite Spark Plug company to be their new west coast representative.
Suddenly, after years of being a first place finisher on the race tracks, he was now a man behind the scenes who assisted his friends and former fellow racers in tuning techniques and with what their spark plugs could tell them when read accurately. This journey would have Art on the road almost year round attending every race event imaginable, from drag racing to boat racing, to Pikes Peak and the Daytona and Indianapolis 500s. At Indy, Art Chrisman became a regular fixture and would soon be able to call drivers like Parnelli Jones, Jim Clark, Dan Gurney, AJ Foyt, and Mario Andretti friends. These racers relied on Art’s expertise as an engine tuner and proven racing driver who could talk their talk and had earned their respect. Not bad for a kid from Kansas who had learned to wrench on cars in his father’s general business garage.
Following his years with Autolite, Art would work with everyone from Ed Pink engines to Forgedtrue pistons. But it was his final move back into a Chrisman family run shop that may have brought him the most joy and satisfaction of his career… the C.A.R.S. specialty shop started by he and his son Mike Chrisman. There Art would oversee and take part in the building and restoration of many street rods, race cars, and hot rods, and would even build an Oakland Roadster Show winner with the “Infinity Roadster.”
As Art entered his senior years he became more and more connected with his roots, attending many a nostalgia hot rod event… including being honored at the annual NHRA Hot Rod Reunion at Bakersfield for his 50th anniversary of winning the March Meet at that very track. He attended the Goodwood Festival of Speed in 2008 as an honored legend in American hot rodding and the sport of drag racing and continued to make appearances wherever his restored old race cars were being displayed or were being demonstrated. He would meet and greet with his many fans and admirers, signing autographs and taking pictures, and even sitting in some of his wonderful creations that he’d built as a young man. A satisfying and appropriate way to enjoy the final years of a life well lived and full of accomplishment.
Art Chrisman passed away on July 12, 2016. He was 86 years old.
by David Steele