It was the wreck that didn’t happen that scares one veteran drag racer. Raymond Coulombe dug out old photos of the 1955 Chevy that he raced at drag strips across Alabama from 1969 through 1971. The ’55 was fast and known as the ‘Shadow’ by the gold leaf lettering, outlined in black paint, on each door. Many competitors feared the “Shadow” and its quick 10.6 second, 1/4-mile elapsed times. A combination of strong equipment, determination and skill made winning look easy in the “Shadow.” But, Coulombe also had a bit of luck on his side, when he avoided disaster and a flipping, crashing, Hemi-powered 1968 Dodge Dart, during a match race. These photos are proof that this L88, big block ’55 Chevy was king of the mountain during the glory days of the muscle car era.
|Slicks and cut fender wells were common on 1955 Chevys at the drag strip. The "Shadow" ran the 1/4-mile at 130 mph on the big end of the 1,320.|
Let’s go racing
Jimmy Lemon was a teenager, fresh out of high school in 1969, when he met Raymond Coulombe (known as "Columbia" to many) while hanging out at the local drag strip. Coulombe, then 26, was known for buying junkers and building them into drag cars. After racing them a few times he could sell the drag car for a profit, which paid for more racing.
Lemon was lucky enough to buy one of Coulombe's cars before he started building it into a drag car. Lemon paid Coulombe $150 for a primered, 2-door post 1955 Chevrolet Bel Air in 1969.
Coulombe provided his expertise in turning the stock ’55 Chevy into a B Modified drag car. Lemon paid for the parts and learned how to go fast. Coulombe set-up the suspension for drag racing and built the close-ratio, Muncie 4-speed transmission. He also sprayed the green paint and added a roll bar to the ’55.
Coulombe, with help from Lemon and their friend, Randy Boatright, built the 427-ci big block engine and ported and polished the heads. Most of the work on the 3,400-lb Chevy was done after hours at a local service station, owned by John Jebeles, in East Lake, Alabama. Coulombe, a proven winner, became the “Shadow’s” primary driver as the trio traveled to drag strips all over the state in a quest for prize money and bragging rights.
|Lassiter Mountain Dragway, where the ’55 Chevy often raced, was a quarter-mile track in the early 1970s. The "Shadow" is racing a 1940 Willys at Lassiter Mountain in the top photo.|
Close call with Hemi Dart, disaster
Drag racing by nature is not the safest sport. In the early ‘70s, disaster almost struck the “Shadow” during a match race with Tommy Payne’s 1968 Dodge Dart Hemi Super Stock at the Winston County Drag Strip in Lynn, Alabama.
"Payne got a good jump on me because he knew the lights better at that track," said Coulombe. The Hemi Dart had the lead on the “Shadow” but the ’55 was closing fast as they neared the finish line.
The Hemi Dart, racing in the right lane, got into trouble when its right, rear slick veered off the track. The Dart took a hard left, in front of the "Shadow," flipping into the air. Coulombe muscled the steering wheel to avoid hitting Payne's tumbling Dart head-on. The Dart’s rear bumper creased the top of the "Shadow’s" left fender as Coulombe swerved under the flying Dodge. Coulombe’s maneuver sent the “Shadow” spinning wildly down the track at 100 mph.
The one-of-72, factory built, Super Stock Hemi Dart was totaled in the crash. More importantly, Payne suffered only minor injuries. "He got a some cuts, bruises and glass in his eyes from the windshield," recalls Coulombe. "I believe they saved the Hemi running gear and scrapped the rest of the Hemi Dart."
A bent fender on the "Shadow" and a very close call meant it was just another exciting night at the races.
|A 1969 El Camino was the tow vehicle for the "Shadow" 1955 Chevy in 1971.|
Last run on Two Lane Blacktop
After the ’55 Chevy won it’s last race in Montgomery in 1971, Lemon took it for a final, rubber-burning blast. The “Shadow,” hauled on a trailer behind Lemon’s 1969 Chevy El Camino, was unloaded on a stretch of wide-open, surface roads near the Birmingham, Alabama airport. The guys performed smokey burnouts (known as hooning by kids nowadays) and general recklessness on the open road in the loud, hot rod ’55 Chevy, one last time.
Soon after, Lemon removed the engine and sold the rest of the 1955 Chevy in hopes of finding additional speed in a more aerodynamic car. Lemon bought another car from Coulombe – a 1969 AMX Javelin.
"I hauled the AMX out of a junkyard in Bessemer, Alabama,” Coulombe said. "It had a real short wheelbase, I could reach out the window and touch the back tire.”
Lemon’s new drag car never matched the performance of the Shadow, despite using the “Shadow’s” engine and transmission.
|The "Shadow's" last run before it was dismantled and sold.|
Fast and easy
The ‘55 Chevy was a high RPM, high compression hot rod. In 1969, performance was easy to find at your local dealership’s parts counter. The “Shadow” used an L88 engine with the factory short block. Coulombe hammered out 8,000 RPM runs on a factory crankshaft, rods and pistons. That’s brute force without a power-adder like nitrous. Drag racers were building their own beasts for the local strips during the peak of the muscle car era.
|The 1955 Chevy's hot rod L88 engine. 427 cubic-inches, tunnel ram and two Holley 650 cfm carbs with manual secondaries.|
1955 Chevrolet "Shadow" Specs
- Engine - L88, 427-cubic-inch, big block Chevy engine
- L88 block assembly purchased at GM parts counter for $400 in 1969
- Estimated 564 HP based on ET/MPH & weight
- Heads - Cast iron, open-chambered 12:1 compression
- Transmission - Muncie close ratio 4-speed
- Rear end - 12 bolt Chevrolet posi traction, 5.13 gear
- Best 1/4 mile ET - 10.6 @ 127 MPH
Second time around
The "Shadow" returned to Coulombe five years after Lemon sold it. "I bought it and it was just a shell," said Coulombe.
The ’55 had been raced a few more years and the name had been painted over on the doors. Coulombe didn’t keep it long. He sold it and made a few bucks.
"All the good parts were gone. I didn’t even want it," Coulombe recalls. "But I sure wish I had it now."
Did you see the Shadow?
Does anyone have photos of The Shadow in action? Do you remember seeing it, or other memorable drag cars perform in their prime? Dig out those vintage drag race photos and share your stories with junkyardlife.
– Jody Potter, junkyardlife.com
|The "Shadow" utilized a 5.13 gear in the rear end and wound the 427-ci, L88 engine to 8,000 rpm. Not bad for an old 1955 Chevy bought during the muscle car era for $150.|
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