Hall of fame dragster still building big engines

Modesty defines the man more than any award could - even a national honor from his peers.

Calverton resident Lee Edwards traveled to Florida in March to pick up his award from the International Drag Racing Hall of Fame.

His wife Tish and entire family most living in Fauquier County along with close friends and associates made the trip to witness the event.

"As you get older, awards don't mean as much as they once did," Edwards said. "Don't get me wrong. I appreciate the honor; you'd be stupid not to like it, but having almost all my family with me made it all the more special.

Brenda Rich wanted so much to witness her father's special moment the she shuttled between Chesapeake and Gainesville, Fla., several times while waiting the birth of her first grandchild.

"I wouldn't have missed either event for the world," Mrs. Rich said. "Having watched Dad race with (sister) Becky (Embrey) and our friends growing up, I know how much this meant to him."

Donna Garlits served as chairperson for the hall of fame awards dinner.

She also works with husband Don Garlits at their museum that houses the Drag Racing Hall of Fame in the Sunshine State.

But back before she met and married her husband, Donna Garlits lived in Fauquier County and taught in the school system.

"Lee Edwards so deserves this award," Mrs. Garlits said. "His leadership in racing goes way back, and his work today continues. I was really happy when the committee selected him this year."

Many people race cars. Some do it better than others.

But making it a career and being able to feed his family back when little money came with the sport proved a testament to Lee Edwards' determination.

"I didn't make a lot of money racing," he admitted. "Once I started winning, I made money showing up at events. They paid me so people would come to the track or event to see me.

"It was good money for the times and allowed me to make a living out of something that many considered a hobby."

Edwards, known in racing circles as "The General," started in the sport back in the early 1950s while still a student at Cedar Lee High School in Bealeton.

He became a legend long before he got the award March 12 at the 25th anniversary of the International Drag Racing Hall of Fame.

His claim to fame came with the introduction of the Mountain Motor era in the mid-1970s.

Back then, Pro Stock cars had to have components one could only purchase from dealers.

The International Hot Rod Association relaxed the rules and allowed engine builders to make larger engines - as long as they included no after-market parts.

Setting him apart from competitors, Edwards figured out how build bigger engines without the vehicles falling apart as they sped down quarter-mile drag strips.

"They were big motors for the time," he said. "We couldn't use any after-market parts. It was strange to get all the pieces to stay together under the high speed and conditions.

"But we were more successful than most."

His career got started at Old Dominion Raceway in Manassas back in 1951. After watching Don Garlits run a dragster, Mr. Edwards decided he wanted one.

His first car, a 1939 Plymouth coupe had a Chevrolet engine.

Tinkering in his Bristersburg Road auto repair shop, he came up with his first car and began racing on weekends up and down the East Coast.

Success led to driving for another car owner, but Edwards still wanted to build and drive for himself.

In the early 1960s he built an A/Gas car from a 1948 Anglia coupe and dominated at local strips, reaching speeds of 150 miles per hour.

He and other local racing enthusiasts formed a club called the Synchronizers.

The organization purchased land and built Sumerduck Dragway in southeastern Fauquier County.

Later, Edwards migrated to pro stock and raced on the International Hot Rod Association circuit.

At the wheel of a 1970 Camaro, he won his first IHRA race in 1972.

Edwards took back-to-back world titles in 1977 and 1978 and earned the top honor among all IHRA drivers in all categories in '77.

His first Mountain Motor car had a 490-cubic-inch block. Soon he built and raced a 570-cubic-inch motor and later, one that had 600 cubic inches.

Retired from active racing in 1980, Edwards began building engines fulltime for other drivers and team owners. Lee Edwards Racing Engines in Calverton builds products that find success on tracks far and wide.

"The ones we build now are almost twice as big as the Mountain Motor-era engines," Edwards said. "And now, we use after-market parts, which make it so much easier."

Not limiting himself to hot rods and stock cars, he has branched out to better engines for trucks in pulling competitions.

At 76, Edwards says he's winding down but doesn't have a date for retirement if one truly ever does when a vocation and avocation merge. This story has been updated to correct the name of Tish Edwards. A previous version misspelled her name.

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