Firesuit Phil, Drag Racing Legend

Firesuit Phil and his Ford coupe at Symco.
Firesuit Phil and his Ford coupe at Symco.

Pofahl was a lifelong resident of Kenosha. For 30 years he worked at American Motors. His greatest passion was drag racing as “Firesuit Phil” in his dark green Gasser. Phil was proud of his many trophies and awards. He was a member of the Geezer Gassers, Mid Century Mercury Car Club, Midwest Ford Club, Midwest Street Machines, and AMO/AMX Club. He was inducted into the Great Lakes Dragway Hall of Fame and the Kenosha Legends.

Jerry Haley’s Anglia in early days at Union Grove.
Jerry Haley’s Anglia in early days at Union Grove.

Pofahl never considered painting his 5-window coupe. He didn’t want the hot rod, which he built in 1958, to look like a gasser wannabe made in 2008. The Ford’s 54-year-old battle-scarred enamel was as authentic as its Olds Rocket Eight and its Hilborn fuel-injection system. Firesuit’s Ford was “The Real McCoy.”Phil has had the Ford longer than he had his wife Barb (who also drag raced in an AMX). He bought it in 1958 for $75 and it took a few years to build it into a racing car. It had a ’52 Oldsmobile V-8 when he got it, but not the one that was in it in 2011. That engine came from his first car—one of 6,402 Oldsmobile Deluxe 88s made in 1952. It started as a 303-cid Olds Rocket V-8 and grew.

Jerry Haley in his coupe racing at Union Grove.
Jerry Haley in his coupe racing at Union Grove.

Phil said he got the Olds when he was 16 or 17, but didn’t make it to nearby Union Grove the year it opened. Firesuit had an early flyer from the strip that read, “After a full year of much hard work, and personal sacrifice, the first official sanctioned drag got under way, the morning of Oct. 7, 1956.” Firesuit said that was accurate. “You see, I got picked up for dragging on the street and my dad had to come bail me out and I thought ‘This is not good!’ So, I started racing at the strip and they (his parents) never gave me any static about drag racing. So I did it all out there and, it’s safer and makes more sense, really.”

Al Pfeifer’s Willys 5-window was a neat looking gasser.
Al Pfeifer’s Willys 5-window was a neat looking gasser.

Firesuit Phil could rattle off names of the famous drag racers he knew—like Perry Seitz and Jerry Haley. He knew Broadway Bob Metzler, long-time owner of Great Lakes Dragaway, for his entire racing career. Firesuit played jokes on Don Garlits and got his friend “Ohio George” Montgomery going when he gave K.S. Pittmans widow a snappy ride in the ’46 Ford. “I told George it’s a racing car, not a bus,” laughed Phil. “Garlits gave George a fast, scary ride in the Ford and he wasn’t a happy camper, but Lavaun Pittman had an ear-to-ear grin.”

Firesuit Phil blasts off the line with his Ford coupe.
Firesuit Phil blasts off the line with his Ford coupe.

After serving Uncle Same and starting a family, Phil let the car sit for 23 years. His son was in high school at that time and the school was going to have a car show. He told his father, “C’mon, let’s get the car going,” so they went out to the one-car garage and started working on it and got it to the point where it was running. Then, the next thing to do was take it to “The Grove,” where they won a trophy in 1987. “After I got back out there, it was kind of let’s try this and let’s try that,” Phil recalled. “Like I said, drag racers always want to go faster.”

Phil and some of his famous drag racing buds.
Phil and some of his famous drag racing buds.

After he got into Nostalgia racing Firesuit took more honors. In 1996, Phil won the Goodguys’ “Most Nostalgic Race Car” award. On July 22, 2000, he was inducted into the Kenosha Hod Rod Assoc. “Hall of Fame. In 2006, he was one of only 32 racers from throughout the world invited to a “NHRA Salutes the Gassers” event at Indianapolis on Labor Day weekend. Then, in 2008, he took 1st Place “Geezer Gasser” at the Goodguys Nostalgia Nats in Bowling Green.

About John Gunnell 104 Articles
John “Gunner” Gunnell has been writing about cars since ‘72. As a kid in Staten Island, N.Y., he played with a tin Marx “Service Garage” loaded with toy vehicles, his favorite being a Hubley hot rod. In 2010, he opened Gunner’s Great Garage, in Manawa, Wis., a shop that helps enthusiasts restore cars. To no one’s surprise, he decorated 3G’s with tin gas stations and car toys. Gunner started writing for two car club magazines. In 1978, publisher Chet Krause hired him at Old Cars Weekly, where he worked from 1978-2008. Hot rodding legend LeRoi “Tex” Smith was his boss for a while. Gunner had no formal journalism training, but working at a weekly quickly taught him the trade. Over three decades, he’s met famous collectors, penned thousands of articles and written over 85 books. He lives in Iola, Wis., with his nine old cars, three trucks and seven motorcycles.
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