Words and photos by Ian
remember Roger Gustin from back in the late-‘70s, when
I watched his jet Funny Car blast across the desert in Lava
Soap TV commercials. At the time that was all I knew about
a man who started racing straight out of high school in 1957
with a ’49 Chevrolet. “Driving a racecar came
as natural to me as breathing,” the former farm boy
says. “Once I got started there was never any question
about what I wanted to do.”
After struggling just to make ends meet those early years
with a ’55 Chevy, Gustin and brothers Phil and Bill
got their first big break in 1965 when a Mercury dealer approached
them about racing a factory experimental Comet originally
built for Jack Chrisman after Chrisman’s bum leg gave
him trouble driving the four-speed. Gustin, a dyed-in-the-wool
bowtie man, admits to feeling skepticism and even a little
apprehension at the time, but those sponsorship dollars meant
the Gustin brothers could go racing full time.
That led to a Lincoln-Mercury deal in ’66 that lasted
through 1971 when Gustin turned his attention to jet-powered
cars. Although running strictly as an outlaw racer for several
years, Gustin always promoted safety first and succeeded in
1977 in getting NHRA to sanction jet dragsters. Three years
later jet Funny Cars also received official status.
His driving career essentially came to an end in 1992 after
a massive wreck at Atco, NJ. Gustin says he tried to make
a comeback, “but I had so many broken bones and injuries
that the G-forces kind of took me out. They let me know that
I wasn’t 30 anymore.”
Now 66, Gustin says he’s having the time of his life
working 20-hour days and running the massive Super Chevy Show,
which features quarter-mile racing and a major car show at
each stop on its nationwide tour. And with 19 events this
year Super Chevy ranks in scale behind only NHRA’s national
event tour for professional drag racing organizations.
Gustin was inducted into the NHRA Hall of Fame in 1980, the
ProJet Association Hall of Fame in 1993, and into Don Garlits’
International Drag Racing Hall of Fame in 2002. DRO caught
up with him at a recent Super Chevy event.
long have you been involved with the Super Chevy series?
GUSTIN: Me? I’ve been
at it 11 years now, but this is the 25th year since the series
started in California. It was Dave McClelland’s brainstorm
when he worked for Argus Publishing. I was actually at that
first event; they held that event the week I got the first
jet funny car approved by NHRA, my old Smith Brothers car,
and I was out there testing when they had the first Super
made you want to become a series promoter?
GUSTIN: Well, I had experience doing that
all the way back to New Year’s Day 1966, when my brother
and I rented a track in southern Ohio and put on our first
race. And over the years I have been partners with tracks
and promoted races many times, so I always liked this part
of the business.
I spent my whole life working with track operators; I spent
my time with the very best and a few of the worst, but I always
liked the business. So, when the opportunity came along to
buy this company (AutoStar Productions, Inc.), I was very
glad of it because, as far as I was concerned, if I couldn’t
drive racecars this is where I needed to be.
I know you attend most, if not all of the Super Chevy events,
but are you a hands-on promoter?
GUSTIN: Yes, I would say
I am. It’s a very demanding life, it really is, my wife
Susan and I work basically seven days a week all winter long
to get prepared. And we have a great staff of people; my brother
Bill, he is our key person and basically runs these events.
We have a couple of other businesses and we have to dedicate
some time to them, but most of our time goes into producing
these events, the marketing and advertising, and on up from
there. But I love it. It’s what I was born to do, I