Recreating the T-33 drag car sparks a friendship with its original builder

Plenty of people are well-versed in the bygone glories of vintage NASCAR and Formula One racing. Colorado hill climbs and dirt track drag racing? Not so much.

That makes Denver’s Mike “Nick” Nicholas, who works as a computer consultant to finance his hot rod addiction, a very rare breed. Nicholas has a fascination with 1950s-vintage grassroots racing, and he breathed new life into the nearly forgotten tale of two Colorado racers by recreating their six-cylinder ’34 Chevrolet dragster, known as T-33.

It all began when Nicholas spotted T-33 on the cover of a 1955 issue of Hot Rod magazine. A pair of fellow Denverites, Cal Kennedy and Don Scroggs, ran the car to a win that year at the NHRA Drag Safari at nearby Lowry Air Force Base, beating a Lincoln-powered ’32 Ford roadster in the finals. T-33 was Frankensteined together from a ’30s Chevrolet, truck parts, and a nitrous-boosted Chevy inline-six engine.

“I kind of specialize in recreating or restoring these historic race cars,” Nicholas said. “We rebuilt Cal’s car from old photographs, using very few original pieces.”

Nicholas said that at first, the now 88-year-old Kennedy was skeptical of the project. The car was long gone, having been idled around 1960 when Kennedy found cracks in the pistons. He and his racing partner at the time, Warren Folker, also faced increasing pressure from rule changes within their class. So they pulled the engine and ordered new pistons for it from a mail order house. Kennedy said that after a few years it seemed clear that they weren’t going to race the car anymore, so they gave T-33—sans engine—to Folker’s sons, who raced the body for a while with their own engine. Then, somehow, they managed to lose it.

Kennedy held on to T-33’s mill, waiting for mail order pistons that never came. It was a rare bird, this engine: a Wayne Horning-built Chevy six with a rare aftermarket 12-port head, three Stromberg 97 carburetors, and custom exhaust tubing. “It makes 250 horsepower, which was a whole lot back then,” Nicholas said. Although Kennedy had plenty of opportunities to sell it, he resisted, tucking the engine away in a corner of the crawl space under his house… until Nicholas called in 2013 with an ambitious dream.

Using old photos that he talked Kennedy into sharing, Nicholas pieced together a re-creation of T-33’s chassis and body, showing off the roughed-out version at his annual shop party. He wanted to get the car ready for the 60th anniversary of Colorado’s Hot Rod Hill Climb later that year, and he wanted Kennedy to drive it. Nicholas said the car “wasn’t much to look at,” but it was complete enough to convince Kennedy he was determined to finish the job.

“I was thinking, ‘Well, we have lots of ideas and everything, but it’s probably going to die somewhere along the way because there are a lot of old parts and pieces that are pretty hard to find,’” Kennedy said. “But I had no idea what kind of a machine Mike Nicholas was. When he gets an idea, he goes with it until it’s done.”

Back in the ’50s, T-33 was one of those projects that evolved bit by bit over several years. Kennedy and Scroggs, Kennedy’s first partner, worked together and bonded over their love of Chevrolets.

“Don was already working (at the phone company) when I started,” Kennedy recalled. “I drove up in the right kind of car, and he noticed me, and the rest is history.”

The “right kind of car” was a mildly hot-rodded 1941 Chevy coupe with skirts, sparkly paint, a hot rod engine, and other goodies. “It was more than just transportation; it was pretty well fancied up,” Kennedy said.

The two started racing a souped-up 1936 Chevy truck, running it at dirt tracks in Colorado and Kansas, as well as the inaugural Hot Rod Hill Climb. Then they bought a racecar from Cloyd and Emmett Ricketts, a pair of racers from Kansas, and pulled the motor—a Horning six—to use in their ’36 Chevy. Eventually, their car received a ’34 Chevy roadster body, and they pushed the engine back and relocated the cockpit for better weight distribution.

By the time Kennedy and Folker retired the car in 1959, it had reached 120 mph in a quarter-mile run at the dragstrip in Scotts Bluff, Neb. But Kennedy said he and his racing partners were always in it more for the memories than the track times. “When we were doing our campaigning back in the ’50s, it was something that a couple of neighborhood kids could get together and do, have some fun with, then go on and have a life.”

Fast forward to 2014, when Nicholas—who ended up rebuilding not only the car, but a couple of the events in which it had competed—finally convinced Kennedy to get back behind the wheel.

“For an old guy that had just kind of forgotten about all that stuff, it was a big revival,” Kennedy admitted. “It got me and Mamma active and doing something again, not just sitting around and getting old.”

Among the events in which Nicholas and Kennedy have driven the car are the annual Hot Rod Dirt Drags, an event Nicholas created, and The Race of Gentlemen, a ’50s-style beach drag held every year in New Jersey and California. But perhaps the most amazing thing they’ve done with the car was bringing it to California to help an old racer— Cloyd Ricketts—celebrate his 100th birthday.

Emmett Ricketts’ son, Harold, came out to Colorado from California one summer to see the reimagined T-33 compete in the dirt drags; he remembered hearing the engine at the track when he was a boy. And before long, he and Nicholas had cooked up a scheme to bring the car to Sacramento, where Cloyd Ricketts was living. They showed up in time to help him ring in the century.

“That was absolutely above and beyond all the fun things we’ve done with the car,” Kennedy said. “He jumped up and shuffled his way out to the car. It was raining like gangbusters, but just having him hear the car run was worth the effort it took to get it there, and then some.”

Kennedy said getting into vintage racing has helped him connect with a younger generation that is interested in his exploits from long ago. Meanwhile, Nicholas just keeps building. Recently he finished replicating another old Hot Rod magazine cover car known as Odd Rod, a high-speed Bonneville streamliner built on a Ford Model A truck chassis and powered by two flathead V-8s.

Although Nicholas loves the cars, he knows there’s more to the work than meets the eye. “They’re just old cars, but they have so many memories attached to them. They remind us of different times, and they bring together family.”