Archdeacon: “Ohio George” – a Miami Valley sports legend – is celebrated, not forgotten

"Ohio" George Montgomery leans on the counter at his speed shop in Dayton. On the left are model car kits of his 1933 Willys Gasser. Skip Peterson/CONTRIBUTED

 Oct. 21, 2019
© 2019 Photograph by Skip Peterson
"Ohio" George Montgomery leans on the counter at his speed shop in Dayton. On the left are model car kits of his 1933 Willys Gasser. Skip Peterson/CONTRIBUTED Oct. 21, 2019 © 2019 Photograph by Skip Peterson

Credit: Skip Peterson

Credit: Skip Peterson

Seventy years ago – on Aug. 18, 1951 – the Journal Herald ran a few photos and a story about Judge Paul Sherer, the chief justice of Dayton’s municipal court, meeting with several local teenagers on Main Street downtown.

One of those teens was George Montgomery and today he still remembers the judge telling them how the city streets need speed limits and safety precautions, but also how he’d try to get authorities to find an appropriate place for the boys to run their hotrods.

“I was a bit of a hell-raiser – nothing serious though – when I was a teenager,” he chuckled. “Sometimes we’d cruise downtown Dayton, circle the Civil War monument and then race down the street.”

Back then the WING radio studio was above the old Loews Theater on Main Street and he said the announcers would look out the window and broadcast their races live.

As for the judge’s admonishment about paying attention to speed limits, we’ll get to that later.

But the part about finding a better place to race, well, Montgomery took that to heart. So much so that this past year he joined the ranks of A.J. Foyt, Richard Petty, Mario Andretti, “Big Daddy” Don Garlits and Dale Earnhardt when he was enshrined in the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America in Daytona Beach, Fla.

Because of the COVID-19 outbreak, the formal induction ceremony last March was postponed.

As we move into this new year that celebration is something the racing community hopes can take place March 15-16. But should the pandemic again prevail, nothing takes away the fact that Montgomery has long been recognized as racing royalty.

He’s already in several other halls of fame – from the International Drag Racing Hall of Fame in Ocala, Fla. to the Dayton Auto Racing Fan Club (DARF) Hall of Fame – and many of his famed dragsters are housed in museums and private collections across the country.

Known throughout motorsports as “Ohio George,” Montgomery – who’ll be 88 at the end of this month – is one of the most celebrated sports legends the Miami Valley has ever produced.

For more than three decades he was one of America’s most successful and popular drag racers. His fame came during one of the most colorful chapters in the sport -- the late 1950s to early 1970s when the AA gas super-charged coupes and the men who drove them were involved in drag racing’s most heated rivalries: The Gasser Wars

“Ohio George” didn’t just hold his own against the ballyhooed West Coast drivers – guys like Big John Mazmanian, K.S. Pittman and Doug Cook of the Stone-Woods-Cook team – he regularly beat them.

Billed as “King of the Gassers,” he claimed seven NHRA national titles and won the prestigious U.S. Nationals four times.

In 1964, the NHRA sent him and nine other top drivers to England to tour the country and promote the sport. And in 2001, the NHRA named him No. 28 on its list of the 50 greatest drag racers of all time.

Yet for all those tire-smoking triumphs, Montgomery may be even more revered as an engine builder and innovative mechanic.

His George’s Speed Shop on Brantly Avenue – which opened in January of 1950 -- is the oldest, continuously-operated race shop in the nation.

George still works there with his 64-year-old son Gregg and over the years they’ve built engines for dragsters, stock cars, sports cars, Indy cars and even tractor pullers.

“Ohio George” Montgomery (L) and his son Gregg at a recent car/memorabilia show. Gregg is holding the book by Patrick Ertel entitled: “Ohio George" Montgomery, Drag Racing's Gasser King. CONTRIBUTED
“Ohio George” Montgomery (L) and his son Gregg at a recent car/memorabilia show. Gregg is holding the book by Patrick Ertel entitled: “Ohio George" Montgomery, Drag Racing's Gasser King. CONTRIBUTED

The pair’s wondrous work has drawn customers worldwide, though none much more high profile than famed daredevil Evel Knievel, who first had them prepare his stunt cars for part of the 1975 ABC Wide World of Sports broadcast when he jumped 14 Greyhound busses with his motorcycle at Kings Island.

Knievel was so impressed with their work that he wanted to hire George full time.

George turned him down, but did agree to help him – sometimes Gregg joined in – at events around the world, including Australia.

Today the shop still draws some racing tourists who not only want to see the legendary “Ohio George” in the flesh, but step into the place where Gregg said “we made some magic happen.”

While that may be the engine room, it’s at the counter out front – behind which hundreds of trophies, plaques, photos, small die-cast replicas and other memorabilia are displayed in tall cases – where you feel like you’ve entered a museum.

Just over two months ago the shop was featured in a gala webcast – put on by the hall of fame and hosted by Marty Reid, the longtime ESPN motorsports broadcaster – to celebrate Montgomery’s induction in virtual fashion.

Several racing legends – from Garlits, the NHRA’s all-time No. 1 drag racer, to Linda Vaughn, the quintessential race queen once known as “Miss Hurst Golden Shifter” – joined the “Heroes of Horsepower” broadcast to sing the praises of their friend.

By the end of it Montgomery’s eyes were filled with tears and soon they had washed away his recently voiced fears that he’d been “forgotten.”

Auto skills at a young age

It seems as if some State of Ohio officials were ahead of the curve when it came to Montgomery.

“Where my shop is now was pretty much all rural when I was growing up,” he said. “Mad River Township had a grade school, but not a high school.

“In those days a lot of kids went off to help on the farms and didn’t go to high school. But if you wanted to continue your education, you could pick the school where you wanted to go and the county would pay the tuition.

“But the question was: ‘How do you get there?’

“And imagine this. The State of Ohio gave me a driver’s license at age 14 so I could drive to school!”

Briefly piloting a motor scooter before switching to 1939 Chevrolet, he spent his first two years at Kiser High School and then went to Parker Co-Op, which became Patterson.

In 1951, a year after he graduated, he and a buddy took towed his 1934 Ford dragster to the Bonneville Salt Flats and he clocked 125 mph.

Still a teenager, he was getting a reputation for his auto skills and that got him chosen to take part in what he said was a venture by the University of Dayton and Wright Patterson Air Force Base to test the effects of atomic blasts on parked aircraft in Nevada.

"Ohio George" Montgomery's 1933 Willys gasser dragster in action. CONTRIBUTED
"Ohio" George Montgomery's Speed Shop is filled with trophies, photos and replicas of drag racers that he used to drive in days past. Montgomery will be honored Sunday Aug 1 at Kil-Kare for his contributions to drag racing.

Credit: Jan Underwood

Credit: Jan Underwood

Before he left on the three-month assignment, he created a bit of a local stir.

“My mother’s best friend called her one day and said, ‘My God, what has George done now? The FBI just left here!’” he said with a laugh. “But they were just investigating me for top secret clearance.”

He said he ended up seeing seven blasts:

“It was safe. I was seven miles away, sitting on a mountain top. Then I had to get in a jeep and rush out and retrieve the film they took.

“While I was out there I was paid wages and given a per diem. But I lived in the barracks and ate military food, all for free. So I ended up saving all my money.

“And when I came back, I bought a new Cadillac. My dad was really proud of me. He thought buying a Cadillac showed I was growing up.

“But Cadillacs were fast and I planned to race it. And when I added glasspack mufflers, he knew. He said, ‘I see you’ve ruined a fine automobile.”

Cecil Montgomery, George’s dad, had endured the Depression and he valued a good job and wanted his son to have one, too.

“I got a job as an apprentice toolmaker at Delco Products and worked there 16 years,” Montgomery said. “But when I finally quit it to race, my dad was livid.”

When Montgomery worked his factory job, he’d race on the weekends or whenever he could.

His first successes came in 1953 when the pioneering Drag Safari circuit made stops in Columbus and Indianapolis and he won.

Eventually he wanted to get a car that was light and had a shorter wheelbase and that’s when one of his buddies spotted a 1933 Willys at a salvage yard near Hillsboro. George bought it for $150, put in a new Cadillac engine and soon had the set up in which he won five of his seven NHRA titles.

For that first win in Detroit in 1959, he mounted a spare tire filled with cement on the back of the car.

“Our tires were terrible back then and the tracks were polished rock so there was no traction,” he said. “The added weight helped a lot, but they banned that spare before the next year.”

Regardless, he won again in 1960.

“I kinda had a little lead hidden up in the back end,” he laughed.

Today that car – nicknamed “The World’s Wildest Willys” -- is on display at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Mich. Two of the most famous 170 mph Mustangs he drove later in his career are housed in a California museum and a Wisconsin private collection.

And Garlits has his first dragster – the ’34 Ford – and another of his racers on display at the International Drag Racing Museum.

Besides his cars, it was Montgomery’s moxie that was trumpeted in those Gasser War confrontations.

“Back in those days the California guys thought they owned racing and no one else could do, it,” he said. “They’ve mellowed a lot today and I respect them, but back then they hated me. That’s because Don Garlits and me ripped their rear ends.”

"Ohio George" Montgomery gets a hug from his buddy, fellow Hall of Famer and drag racing legend Don Garlits. CONTRIBUTED
"Ohio George" Montgomery gets a hug from his buddy, fellow Hall of Famer and drag racing legend Don Garlits. CONTRIBUTED

Impressed by Montgomery’s success, Ford recruited him to develop their new 427 cubic inch single overhead cam engine and when he used the 427 “Cammers” in his dragsters, he was dominant.

Soon, he said, the NHRA found ways to handicap him and he retired from driving in 1985.

Back at the shop he immersed himself in his engine work, and eventually he and Gregg were hired to build and maintain all 82 of the Buick V6 engines used in the Indy Light series. That partnership lasted some 15 years until the original series disbanded.

“Thankfully my dad lived long enough to see I had made the right decision, when I quit my factory job,” Montgomery said.

‘They still need me here’

Racing not only has supported George, but his son, as well.

Gregg first began coming to the shop when he was four and once he found a box to stand on, he could work the drill press.

In a co-op program his senior year at Stebbins High School, Gregg spent the work portion of the arrangement at the shop every day. Since then he’s never had another job.

He’s still working alongside his dad, though George, who has trouble walking, admits he can’t do everything he once could and at times, he said that has depressed him.

“I need my dad here,” Gregg said with quiet, but comforting assurance. “He does the billing, the paperwork, a lot of things.”

That affirmation was good for George to hear.

“I don’t do the work in the shop like I used to, but I taught other people how to do it and do it right,” he said. “And every now and then Gregg will bring something up here and ask me about it. So yes, they still need me here.”

The two arrive at the shop every morning by 8:30.

George drives his Ford Escape the five miles from his Huber Heights home and Gregg, who lives right next door, follows him.

“I just want to make sure he’s OK,” Gregg said.

“He said I drive too slow,” George grumbled.

“He drives so damned slow!” Gregg laughed. “He’s like a turtle.”

“I drive the speed limit,” George countered. “Exactly the speed limit.”

Seventy years later, “Ohio George” finally is making good on Judge Sherer’s other request.

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