Drag racing has always been a family affair for Brian Perrenot.
While his family is no longer competing on the track, the Texas native’s clan has built a strong bond by bringing one of its most famous cars to nostalgia events, including the 11th annual Holley National Hot Rod Reunion, which begins today at Beech Bend Raceway.
The recreated AA/Fuel competition coupe that the Perrenot family puts on display – named the “Gizzle Hopper” – will participate on the track in Saturday’s Crower Cam Cacklefest, which shows off vintage cars that no longer meet today’s safety standards.
Perrenot’s daughter, Gretchen Shelby, will be behind the wheel of the dragster that garnered national prominence in the early 1960s.
“It’s a family legacy,” Shelby said. “(Perrenot) and his brother grew up putting together cars with his dad. It was just a whole family experience, and he gets to relive some of that now with his wife and daughter. It’s kind of like a family reunion a few times a year.”
Perrenot, 68, first drove a dragster at 14 in his native Corpus Christi, Texas. His father, Fred, began drag racing in 1956 until he had a bad wreck in 1959, after which he promised his wife he wouldn’t race again.
Fred Perrenot hired a driver to man the family’s dragster after that, but when the driver didn’t show up for a race, he put Brian behind the wheel.
Texas required a person to be 18 to get a driver’s license at that time, Brian Perrenot said, but there was no licensing or requirements for drag racing.
“He turned around and said, ‘Are you sport enough to drive this thing?’ “ Brian said. “I told him, ‘Heck yes,’ and I crawled right in.”
And that’s how the family-oriented racing progressed, with Fred supplying the cars, Brian behind the wheel, and his older brother, Travis, serving as a mechanic.
They raced until 1966, when Travis was drafted and Brian went off to college.
But in 1998, Brian and Travis began discussing the idea of recreating one of their old dragsters. They started putting aside money and parts for the project until Travis died in 2001.
Travis had wanted to recreate his favorite car, the Gizzle Hopper, while Brian had wanted to recreate their last dragster. Brian and his wife continued the project and honored Travis’ wishes.
“When he passed away, I wanted to go ahead and do the Gizzle Hopper because that’s what he would’ve liked,” Perrenot said. “It meant a great deal to me to see it actually be able to go back on the track.”
The dragster started with a Cadillac engine but eventually upgraded to a bigger Lincoln engine, and it was originally made with a 1931 Bantam Coupe body.
The car got its name from a paint design completed on top by Travis Perrenot in 1959. Travis was always an artist, Brian Perrenot said, and for about 15 years in the military, he designed the patches worn by several Air Force units.
As a teenager, Travis drew a strange creature – a combination of a dragon, duck and rat – on the top of the Perrenot’s latest creation.
“He told me it looked like a Gizzle Hopper,” Brian said. “I said, ‘What the hell is a Gizzle Hopper?’ He said, ‘That.’ “
The name stuck, and the car made its first run in San Antonio in June 1961. It won the AHRA World Championships in its gasoline-fueled class at Green Valley at the Oklahoma City Fairgrounds in 1961 and finished as runner-up the next year in the nitro-fueled class.
Brian flipped the car in Oklahoma City in 1962 and destroyed it, and the family went back to racing a traditional dragster through 1966.
The recreated version of the Gizzle Hopper made its debut at the 2008 Hot Rod Reunion in Bowling Green, and since, it’s made appearances at numerous nostalgia events and showings.
His daughter, Gretchen, 38, had little connection to drag racing until she offered to drive the car at shows.
“She likes to drive fast and things like that,” Brian Perrenot said. “She does crazy things like jump out of airplanes just for fun. I jumped out of airplanes when I was in the Army because I didn’t have any choice.”
Shelby had an urge to race dragsters after getting into the Gizzle Hopper, Brian said, and he sent her to Frank Holley’s drag racing school in Florida to scare her a bit.
His attempts backfired, and Shelby came away even more eager to let a dragster loose, he said.
In many ways, she’s just like her father, who eagerly volunteered to take the wheel at 14 many decades ago.
“It’s always been something the whole family enjoyed,” Shelby said. “It seemed like something exciting and something we could do together.”