Even a casual tennis fan will undoubtedly recognize the name Richard “Pancho” González.
During a tennis career that stretched from the late 1940s to the early 1970s, González racked up a jaw-dropping list of Major Titles, records, and Pro and Amateur Championships. In fact, from 1952 to 1961, González was the No. 1 ranked tennis player in the world for ten years.
But with all his success on the court, González still found time to pursue his other passions, particularly hot rods and drag racing.
To learn more about this lesser-known side of the tennis legend, we spoke with his eldest son, Richard Gonzales and Pancho’s nephew, Greg Gonzales.
Pancho González Gets Bit by the Hotrod Bug
“His love for speed developed probably the moment he got around an engine,” Richard says. “The sound was incredible to him. He had an incredible ear for it.”
Greg quickly chimes in. “One of the things they used to say is that he played tennis so he could afford to go racing.”
So it’s fair to say that Pancho’s passion for hotrodding hit hard and fast—much like his tennis serve—but it really began to evolve when he had a bit of downtime early in his fledgling tennis career. During that period, Pancho brought home a Flathead-powered Ford three-window coupe that he’d won in a poker game.
Pancho ended up giving the Ford to his brother Ralph, who then began to tinker with the car.
“He and his buddies started trying to soup it up and [Pancho] came by and asked them what they were doing,” Greg recounts. “And that was it.”
From there, Pancho and his brothers immersed themselves in the exploding Southern California hotrod scene of the 1950s, tuning engines, swapping parts, and doing anything they could to make their cars perform better. Greg even tells us that Pancho’s 1934 Ford was regarded as one of the fastest street coupes in SoCal.
“Anytime he got a car, you knew he was going to do something,” Richard jokes.
Pretty soon, Pancho was having his Ford Flathead engines built by drag racing pioneer Lou Baney. And when he got his hands on a then-new Cadillac OHV V8, Richard explains “he got into the main stream of drag racing.”
In a serendipitous turn, that new motor introduced Pancho to an up-and-coming camshaft maker named Ed Iskenderian. The two worked together to develop a potent camshaft grind for the Caddy engine.
With a displacement of now 389 cubic inches and an experimental Isky cam, Pancho’s hot Cadillac powerplant would soon be driven into history.
A New World Record!
Pancho was quickly building a network of friends and racers in Southern California, and that circle included talented dragster builder Joe Itow.
After Itow rolled Pancho’s 1934 Ford at the top end of the track in San Fernando, California, Itow challenged Pancho to put his Caddy engine into an Itow-built chassis that was owned by driver Don Rowe. And with that, a new race team began to take shape.
In fact, not too long after the trio assembled that Cadillac-powered dragster, Rowe would pilot it to a new World Gas ET Record of 9.70 seconds in 1957 at that same San Fernando strip.
Though the record wouldn’t last long, it cemented the Gonzales name into the SoCal drag racing scene.
But that record-breaking dragster was just the beginning. In the years that followed, the “Gonzales Brothers” campaigned other cars in quarter-mile competition. At the time, Pancho had some constraints with his tennis contract obligations, so Ralph took over the driving duties while Pancho handled the tuning.
A “New” González Dragster Takes Shape
Unfortunately, those original cars are lost to the sands of time. Yet Richard, Greg, and another of Pancho’s sons, Dan, have begun recreating one of his later rides—a chassis that was owned outright by Pancho and his brothers.
This particular dragster was raced under the “Gonzales Brothers” team name in the seasons that followed the earlier record run.
To get the dragster recreation project off the ground, the trio brought on highly-respected builder and former racer Wayne King “The Peregrine” to lead the team.
King’s first phone call was to master fabricator Jim Hume. Hume’s resume includes rides for folks like John Force, Raymond Beadle, and Don Prudhomme—so Pancho’s “new” dragster is clearly in good hands.
Though the original motor is long gone, the team worked with prominent West Coast engine builder Hugh Reynolds to locate a 1959 Caddy engine, which will be matched to a vintage-spec 4-71 supercharger.
If there wasn’t enough star power behind the project already, the team reached out to Arias Pistons. Turns out, Nick Arias Jr. was a childhood friend of González, and Pancho used Arias’ pistons in many of his engine builds over the course of their friendship.
…And yes, the team even got support from Ed Iskenderian himself.
“Isky had the old cam on a shelf,” Greg laughs. “I guess he’s got everything at his place there.”
Thanks to the NHRA’s Nitro ban at the time, the original dragster ran on gas, but Richard tells us that the new one will drink nitromethane, so it can really make an impression during Cacklefests.
Hugh Reynolds has the engine built and in the chassis. You can get a more detailed look at the work that went into the vintage nitro engine here:
The Pancho González Legacy Lives On
Sadly, Richard “Pancho” González passed away in 1995.
In the years since, Richard, Greg, Dan, and the rest of the Gonzales family have worked hard to ensure Pancho’s legacy, both on the tennis court and the drag strip, continues to grow.
And they’re particularly proud of the Richard Pancho González Youth Foundation, where they’re able to extend Pancho’s passion for tennis to the children the foundation reaches. “We provide a learning foundation for them,” Richard says.
Greg also explains that learning foundation includes drag racing as well.
“The NHRA has a STEM program and I took some of the kids to the Nationals and they LOVED it,” he beams. “They absolutely loved it!”
So once the recreated dragster is ready, Greg and Richard plan to use it as a nitro-breathing science show-and-tell for the kids too.
…And we know somewhere above, Pancho is smiling about that.