Fuel Altered legend Leon Fitzgerald passed away early last week. A cause of death was not revealed.
Fitzgerald opened Fitzgerald Racing Equipment, early in his racing career and did business on the same Fullerton, Calif., lot where Jess Tyree sold headers
Fitzgerald raced at the famed Santa Ana Drags in the late 1950s and, in the early 1960s, partnered with Ted McMullen to buy Glenn Ward’s dragster, a car crashed by friend Jack Eskelson during a licensing run. The dragster was followed by a Chevy-powered Fiat altered.
“The Fuel Altereds were really coming into their own at that time,” Fitzgerald told National Dragster in a 2000 interview. “The top drivers were starting to get rated into top 10 lists in the drag racing weeklies, so a lot more of the altered were being built. We called it Pure Heaven in direct response to Rich Guasco’s Pure Hell car, which we were running a lot.
“That car really put us on the map,” he said. “We won a bunch of fuel altered shows at Lions, Irwindale, and OCIR.” Pure Heaven II followed a few years later, replacing the 327 with a new 427. It debuted at the 1966 Bakersfield March Meet with low eight-second passes at 175 mph and eventually ran in the sevens at more than 200 mph.
Fitzgerald’s Pure Heaven III AA/FA won class at the 1971 NHRA Winternationals, beating Dave Hough, Mike Sullivan, and Gary Hazen, then went on tour with “Wild Willie” Borsch, Leroy Chadderton, and others and was the top finisher. Fitzgerald earned class honors at the U.S. Nationals in 1971. The car ran a best of 7.11 at 205 before he retired from driving in 1975.
“I kind of felt that by the time you reached age 40 you were supposed to quit,” he told Hot Rod. “I had a growing family and a good job with seniority working at Chrysler [New Car Prep Department], so it seemed like a good time to hang up the old driving gloves. After that, Alan Miller drove for a couple of years. Then I sold the car but kept the drivetrain. Art McLaren had a brand-new altered, so we put my drivetrain in his altered and christened the car Pure Heaven IV. Art drove, and we ran that car from 1975 to 1979.”
Fitzgerald got into building sand dragsters (and, oddly enough, toilet-tank shutoff valves for Fluidmaster) and was sucked back into drag racing with the restoration of Pure Heaven II by Bob Nylander, which Fitzgerald briefly drove before handing over the reins to Howard Haight. Fitzgerald’s grandson, Chris Bennett, fielded a Pure Heaven Camaro Nostalgia Funny Car, and, in 2013, Fitzgerald and Eskelson reunited to build Pure Heaven V, which both Chris and his father, Jeff, drove.
The Pure Hell II AA/FA is on display at the new Lions Dragstrip museum (currently closed; sorry), where Fotzgerald, left, and Pure Hell owner Rich Guasco posed in front of the famed machine, which is on display as a perfect tribute to the “Awful Awful Fuel Altered.”