Many tennis historians consider Pancho González one of the best players to ever pick up a racket. (Image/Greg Gonzales)

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.

When he wasn’t on the court, there was a good chance you’d find Pancho in the garage. (Image/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 Gonzales (left) poses with some friends at the local Saugus, California track. (Image/Greg Gonzales)

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.”

Pancho owned a few Fords back in the day, including the 1933 you see here. And they were all common sights at the local Saugus dragstrip. (Image/

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.

Pancho González and Ed Iskenderian built a strong friendship, and Iskenderian even featured Pancho’s Isky-cammed dragster in his advertisements. (Image/Greg Gonzales)

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. 

(Image/Greg Gonzales – Don Nickles)

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.

In later years, the Gonzales Brothers ran this dragster in events like the 1958 NHRA Nationals in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma—where they qualified second. (Image/Cornell R. Miller)

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.

Dan Gonzales (left), poses with fabricator Jim Hume during the dragster buildup, while a cutout of Pancho looks on. (Image/Greg Gonzales)

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.

Here’s a closer look at the Caddy engine—and its 4-71 blower—during the assembly process. (Image/Hugh Reynolds)

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.

Legendary racer Wayne King is leading Pancho’s dragster recreation project. (Image/Greg Gonzales)

…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.”

The guys also enlisted the help of famous former nitro fuel Harley driver Bob Thomas (seated) to ensure the new dragster stays true to its period-correct roots. Chassis builder Jim Hume looks on. (Image/Greg Gonzales)

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.

Here’s the chassis mockup for the Gonzales Brothers dragster. (Image/Greg Gonzales)

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:

Building a Nitro-Blown Cadillac 390 V8 for a Vintage Dragster Inspired by Pancho González

A year or so after this story was initially published, Greg Gonzales gave us an update. The engine is in the chassis and it’s running strong on alcohol. With a little more tuning, it’ll be ready for nitro. (Video/Greg Gonzales)
The guys plan to have the dragster ready to rock in time for the Wally Parks NHRA Nostalgia Nationals at the historic Famoso Dragstrip in Bakersfield, California this fall. (Image/Greg Gonzales)

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.

The Pancho Foundation worked with UTI to introduce students to professional drag racing at the recent NHRA Arizona Nationals. Here, student Tucker Gray talks with some members of Tim Wilkerson’s Funny Car team. (Image/Greg Gonzales)

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.

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Author: Paul Sakalas

Paul is the editor of OnAllCylinders. When he's not writing, you'll probably find him fixing oil leaks in a Jeep CJ-5 or roof leaks in 1972 Corvette ragtop. Thanks to a penchant for vintage Honda motorcycles, he spends the rest of his time fiddling with carburetors and cleaning chain lube off his left pant leg.