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Encyclopedia Dubuque


"Encyclopedia Dubuque is the online authority for all things Dubuque, written by the people who know the city best.”
Marshall Cohen—researcher and producer, CNN

Affiliated with the Local History Network of the State Historical Society of Iowa, and the Iowa Museum Association.


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Brent Fessler, crew member; Dave Powers, and John Riley. Photo courtesy: John Riley
So popular was the Powers-Riley team that the local police blocked off traffic on City Island so that the crew could test its car's modifications. Photo courtesy: John Riley

POWERS AND RILEY RACING TEAM. Upon graduation from high school, John William RILEY opened a one-stall car repair shop at First and Locust in Dubuque and continued his amateur drag racing hobby. He participated in his first organized drag racing meet in Aurora, Illinois in 1956. In 1959, Riley became a partner in M-K MATIC, a ground floor automatic transmission rebuilding business. As a partner with David POWERS, Riley began building professional drag racing cars in the early 1960s.

Dubbed the “Hicks from the Sticks,” the partners worked their day jobs, grabbed a quick dinner and an hour’s nap, worked on their cars until midnight every day and then headed for the tracks on Friday and Saturday.

From 1958 through 1962 the partners campaigned a 1934 Ford coupe powered by a 350 cubic inch Dodge V8 in the B/Altered class at local tracks, Cordova and Rockford Illinois, winning their share of races.


Dave Powers, Tom Roshek, John Riley. Photo courtesy: John Riley

In the winter of 62/63 the team added a third partner Tom ROSHEK, Jr. to the team and designed and built their own tubular chassis, with a 1947 Crosley body. They also added a much more powerful 426 cubic inch engine. This revolutionary car brought about a change for the Powers Riley Roshek team. In 1963 they moved to the A/Altered, a much more competitive class, and started racing professionally. This also took them to a wider expanse of tracks in Missouri, Michigan, Ohio and Indiana.

The Fiat coupe that won the Junior Eliminator.. Photo courtesy: Tom Roshek
Photo courtesy: John Riley

The 1964 season brought another new car, this time a fiberglass bodied Fiat with a supercharged Dodge Ramcharger engine. In April the team challenged the #1 spot on the Drag News Magazine Jr. Eliminator list, and at the Great Lakes Dragway with Tom Roshek driving, they defeated the current record holder in a 2 out of 3 match race to win the #1 title. Later that year the Fiat was totaled in a crash at Cordova Dragway, and was replaced with a fiberglass 1927 Model “T” roadster bodied car. At that time the Chrysler Corporation choose the team for sponsorship and the Model “T” was fueled by 25% nitro methane and moved up to the AA/F class. The team continued their winning ways!


Photo courtesy: John Riley

1965 again brought a change to the team, as Roshek retired from active participation. They also made a change to the top fuel dragster division. The car featured the same supercharged nitro fueled Dodge 426 wedge engine. The team had a very successful season including being the first dragster with a wedge engine to ever run over 200 MPH.

1966 saw the team returning to just Dave and John with help from long time pit crew members Brent Fessler and Bruce Elliot; Dave was the full time driver. The major change for the fuel dragster class was the entry of the Goodyear Tire Company into the drag racing sport. In previous years the dragsters spun the tires from the starting line down the track until the speed of the car caught up to the speed of the engine. The new tires locked to the track and the clutch slipped until the car speed caught up to the engine speed. This required a lot more power and they changed to a new car with a 392 Chrysler Hemi so we could use 90% nitro, not possible in a wedge engine. This produced much higher speeds and lower ETs.

Photo courtesy: John Riley
Wynn Oil Company advertising featuring Powers-Riley in the October 1969 issue of Hot Rod magazine. Photo courtesy: John Riley

In 1967/1968 the team took a big step when they were picked for one of four major sponsorships by the Wynn Oil Company including Don Prudhomme, Richard Petty, and Don Garlits. Their car was named the "Wynn’s Winner." The team was designated as a Goodyear tire test car and they expanded the races attended to all over the United States from California to the east coast.

The "reverser" was one of many important innovations designed by Powers and Riley. Photo courtesy: John Riley

1969 was the banner year for the dragster. Over the winter of 68/69 they innovated two things that revolutionized fuel dragster racing. When Goodyear entered drag racing, and stuck the tires to the track, there were no more smokey dragster runs and those were crowd pleasers. For this reason fuel dragster racing had fallen out of favor with the fans over the previous three years. The team invented a reverser so they could do smokey burnouts 300 ft down the track and then back the car to the starting line. It was an instant success with the fans! The team manufactured and sold the reverser units to other racers. They also invented a sister component, an adjustable clutch so they could easily set the clutch to the track conditions. The burnouts had another advantage, it heated the tires and the track and dramatically increased lower ETs and top speeds. We set low qualifying ET [6.21] at the NHRA Summer Nationals that stood for 3 days.

Photo courtesy: John Riley

During the spring of 1969 Powers and Riley built a 1969 Ford Mustang that changed forever how funny cars were made. Prior to the P&R innovation funny cars were built much like the Pro Stock cars of today. Their Mustang had a short dragster chassis and featured direct drive; virtually all funny cars of today are built using this configuration. The Mustang made its debut at the 1969 NHRA Summer nationals.



Interview-John Riley

Interview-Tom Roshek

Interview-Dave Powers

Hot Rod (magazine). October 1969