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Gene Cromer: The Invader from South Carolina

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Gene Cromer: The Invader from South Carolina.

by Marvin T. Smith

Gene Cromer may not be a Georgian, but he took plenty of Georgia prize money back to his native South Carolina. Gene raced at Atlanta Speed Shop Dragway, Calhoun, Blue Ridge, Jefco, Savannah, and Warner Robins during the mid sixties into the early seventies.

Gene began with an interest in motorcycles, but turned to drag racing about 1960 in a Lincoln 368-powered rail. He next campaigned a 1955 Chevy like many other racers of the day, but his was quite different: it was powered by a Ford motor. Gene remembers that this car broke a lot. In 1965 he built a Ford-powered Willys coupe, called the Moonlighter, and terrorized A/G class. (See photo GDR-00228.) Gene match raced this car against other gas coupes, such as Lamar Bunky Bobo's Willys, Fred Hurst's Willys, Lamar Walden's Willys, and Bogan Renfroe's Willys. Bogan and Gene became good friends, and Gene even built the headers for Bogan's SOHC powered Cat Skinner Willys. Bogan says that Gene was his mentor, and both favored Ford power. Gene raced at the NHRA Nationals in 1965 and 1967 in A/G class. 

The Willys was eventually run on nitro in run what you brung competition. Gene remembers qualifying eighth in the 1966 Atlanta $10,000 Funny Car field, while many funny cars failed to qualify. The Willys had a tendency to wheelstand, so Gene replaced his four speed manual transmission with a C-6 automatic on the advice of Ed Skelton. The first time out with the new transmission, the car went into another towering wheelstand! After he switched to fuel, his speeds went up, so Gene lowered the front end to try to gain stability. He remembers a run what you brung race at Calhoun, Georgia when he went through the lights backwards! 

Gene next built a 1966 Mustang funny car roadster. This car was very competitive with an injected Ford wedge motor, running as low as 8.35. (See, also, photo GDR-00231.) Gene says that this car never had a really first class engine. Nevertheless, this car won the prestigious Atlanta $10,000 meet in 1967 beating Huston Platt in the final, and captured an AHRA Competition Eliminator national event win at Rockingham, North Carolina as a B/Fuel Altered. It won several injected funny car races in Miami, Florida. Cromer even journeyed north to race at the Super Stock Magazine Nationals. The Moonlighter Mustang was raced until most of the competition had switched to superchargers. The car was then retired and parted out, and Gene went back to racing the Willys. Eventually the Willys received a SOHC Ford motor.

When Pro Stock became popular, Gene built a Maverick and utilized a cammer. Gene found Pro Stock racing to be too expensive, as he was trying to support two daughters in school. He only raced Pro Stock a few times, before returning to the Willys. Gene says he never really retired, but just never got back into racing after about 1972. "I always thought I would start again, but it was not to be."

Gene's string of Ford-powered cars will not be forgotten. He built all his own cars, and was a winner. Today, he remains one of the nicest people you could meet.

Marvin T. Smith
Sociology and Anthropology
Valdosta State University
Valdosta, GA 31698

(Also, see Photos by Marvin T. Smith in our Photo Gallery.)

(Also, see Gene Cromer Installed My New Gold Shifter by Terry Hunt in our Articles & Stories section.)