By Todd Dziadosz
For The Daily Item
SELINSGROVE — Lew Stitely, owner and driver of a 1953 C1 Corvette named the Tijuana Taxi, is a winner when it comes to Gasser Drag Racing.
Stitely and his Taxi were the Top Gasser at the June Gasser Reunion race at Beaver Springs Dragway. But the win was nothing new to Stitely, of Selinsgrove, thanks to wins at various meets throughout several states.
Stitely has been drag racing since 1967, taking time off for work responsibilities, but always coming back to nostalgia racing when work allowed. Now retired from the Department of Public Welfare after 35 years, Stitely is living the life of the nomadic racer, chasing nostalgia races with his Corvette and enjoying every minute.
While Beaver Springs is his home track and hosts several Gasser meets throughout the season, Stitely makes the trek to several neighboring states in search of fun with his taxi. Just last week, he made a seven-hour ride to Merion County Dragway in Ohio for a race. Sunday is another nostalgia race at Englishtown, N.J., and you can bet Stitely will be there along with the Tijuana Taxi, running with the East Coast Gassers division.
Some of Stitely's previous successes were at such events as the Willys Home Run and the Gasser Reunion, when the event was hosted at Thompson Dragway in Ohio. He has also claimed victories at several East Coast Gasser events and MANDRA (Mid Atlantic Nostalgia Drag Racing Association) events on the East coast.
Fast from the start
Stitely first started drag racing in 1967 with a 1961 Ford Falcon with a 260 cubic inch engine. He progressed to an A/Modified Production Corvette and other Stock and Super Stock eliminator drag cars. Back in the 1970s, the A/MP Corvette was running 10.8 seconds in the quarter-mile and Stitely made appearances at tracks all along the East.
"Back in those days, you had a bunch of drag strips. We had the old Kreamer track (Route 522 Dragway), Green Pine (Allenwood area), Pocono Drag Lodge, York US-30, Keystone Dragway (Pittsburgh area), Numidia, Maple Grove, and New Jersey tracks Atco, Englishtown, and Island Dragway.
"We'd also run in Maryland, New York, Ohio, and one year we ran the Gatornationals in Florida and the US Nationals at Indy."
Stitely still hits several of the above mentioned tracks but remembers the racing was more fun years ago.
"Today, all the guys have more reliable cars and parts. Everything is critical with getting down the track. Now, everyone is good," he said. "The parts are refined for racing and helping drivers get down the track."
Stitely's current ride began racing in Texas during the 1958 season, and while the car never won a national event or set any records, it was competitive. The original owner sold the car to a man in Tennessee, and it sat in storage. Stitely found the Corvette and purchased it 1974, primarily as a parts car for his two other Corvettes. The 1954 and 1955 'Vettes were eventually sold, but he kept the '53, and dubbed it the Tijuana Taxi.
The Taxi name is a tribute to local racers Pete Bergen and Wayne Burrows, the team who raced a 1956 Corvette from the Milton area.
Originally the 'Vette raced in the Dallas, area with a 265-cubic inch engine, four-speed transmission, and Pontiac rear end. It was equipped with a single-loop roll bar and aftermarket hardtop. That original power train combination has changed multiple times and a NHRA-certified roll cage and additional safety equipment has been added to meet today's mandatory safety standards. The 1953 body, dash and interior remain original.
The Tijuana Taxi is now equipped with a Seth's Engines 393-cubic inch small-block Chevrolet engine, a Blurton transmission, and Moser rear end. The Taxi is fuel injected on alcohol and burns about four gallons each quarter mile. Brian Baker, of Milton, helps tune the engine and travels with Stitely as much as possible.
The 2011 season saw Stitely record career best numbers in his Taxi, turning a 9.38 seconds elapsed time at a terminal speed of 144 miles per hour for the quarter-mile. "When we go to the Gasser events, we are classified in B/Gas, which runs on a 9.50 second index, and that's right where I want to run. If it runs faster than 9.50 seconds, then we have to run A/Gas and that's faster than I want to run, so B/Gas is just fine."
Stitely has an ambitious schedule for the remainder of the 2011 season, planning to attend the following nostalgia races on Manassas, Va., Lebanon Valley, N.Y., the Willys Home Run in Buffalo, the Corvette-only race in Crofton, Md., the Old Days Race in Great Meadows, N.J. and the Fall Gasser Reunion at Thompson, Ohio, along with two more races at Beaver Springs, the Aug. 12 Flashback Friday race and the Oct.1 Jalopy Showdown Drags.
Why does Stitely continue to race his vintage Gasser? "This car let's you escape, and go back to when times were good and pure. That's what I grew up with. These older cars are truer to the history of the sport of drag racing. They remind me of how it was racing 40 years ago."