Copyright © 2015 Albuquerque Journal
Nick Vaughn and Tim Lent grew up in the Southern California car culture of the 1960s, when “cool” was largely determined by what you drove and, sometimes, how fast you drove it.
Vaughn, originally from Redondo Beach, cruised around in a classy ’56 Chevy. Lent, who grew up 30 miles away in Granada Hills, made a name for himself ripping down a quarter-mile of asphalt in the early days of organized drag racing.
A half-century later, those tenuous links would form an unlikely friendship in an even more unlikely place – the hospice unit at the VA hospital in Albuquerque.
“The thing that differentiated Tim from other veterans that have really interesting backgrounds … is that they all have families – people who can tell their history and pass along what they did,” said Vaughn, a registered nurse who met Lent three years ago at the Raymond G. Murphy VA Medical Center. “Tim didn’t have that.”
The two met in 2011 while Lent was a patient in the rehab unit. Though Lent was a bit of a loner, the two got to talking about their Southern California roots and the talk naturally turned to cars, Vaughn said.
During a subsequent hospitalization, Lent told Vaughn he used to drive a dragster for Vaughn Raviart, a renowned engine builder and dragster designer who lived in Lent’s neighborhood. As a teenager, Lent would hang around Raviart’s garage, fetching wrenches, cleaning parts and gradually learning what drag racing was all about.
On weekends, Lent would go with Raviart to area drag strips – Lions Drag Strip outside Los Angeles, the Irwindale Drag Strip or San Fernando Raceway.
Soon, the teenager cajoled his way into the driver’s seat of Raviart’s D Fuel/Junior Dragster named The Aborigine.
With the financial backing of fellow gear-head and mining engineer Art Tapper, The Aborigine quickly became a force to be reckoned with at SoCal drag strips.
“The fast-rising Junior Fuel class on the West Coast has to rip up the record book every week now, since Art Tapper and Vaughn Raviart have introduced The Aborigine to the class,” began an August 1966 feature article in Drag Racing magazine. “This swift junior fueler, driven by Tim Lent, has laid claim to the title of ‘World’s fastest and quickest’ in the D/Fuel dragster category.”
When he set that record, Lent had just turned 19.
Uncovering the legacy
With Lent’s approval, Vaughn began researching his drag racing career and collecting magazine articles about his new friend.
“I realized Tim was not a dime-a-dozen street rodder trying to ‘get scratch’ at the expense of the rear tires in Dad’s Plymouth wagon,” Vaughn said. “This was a guy who raced professionally and at the top venues against the best in his class in several different, lightning-fast dragsters.”
On May 1, 1966, Lent drove The Aborigine to a record 189.46 mph in 8.9 seconds at the quarter-mile San Fernando Drag Strip – a benchmark that lasted for more than a year.
Today, top-fuel dragsters are hitting the finish stripe in less than 4 seconds at speeds in excess of 320 mph. This past weekend, the National Hot Rod Association kicked off its 18-event, nationwide drag racing season in Pomona, Calif.
A lonely trucker
Lent’s accomplishments, relegated to a few now-obscure drag racing magazines, could well have been forgotten.
Lent told Vaughn he had no family and that he lost contact with most of his friends years ago.
During his research, Vaughn learned that, just months after setting the D/Fuel record, Lent joined or was drafted into the Army and served in Vietnam. When Lent returned stateside in 1968, he took up racing briefly, but never again contacted Raviart, Tapper or any of his former racers.
“I don’t know that it was Vietnam, but something obviously had changed him,” Vaughn said.
Lent spent the next four decades as a long-haul trucker and retired in Albuquerque in 2009.
“That’s about all he ever told me” about his personal life, Vaughn said.
On July 12, 2014, Tim Lent, 67, died in the VA hospital’s hospice unit. He was buried at Santa Fe National Cemetery.
Shortly before Lent died, Vaughn learned that Raviart was still alive and living in a remote part of Montana. In a recent conversation with Raviart, the long-retired drag racer told him Lent was among the best fuel-car drivers he had ever seen.
“I think what Tim did is significant,” Vaughn said over a recent lunch. “He wasn’t just some guy working out of a garage who’d go out there and lose every weekend … they were very, very good at what they did, he and Vaughn.”
Making good on a promise he made to his dying friend, Vaughn created a collage of Lent’s racing exploits and a narrative of his brief but impressive drag-racing career. He also has completed a vibrant drawing of Lent at the wheel of The Aborigine, using an old magazine photo for reference.
The collage is now on display at the entrance to the VA hospital’s hospice and rehab unit.
“I just felt like I owed it to him,” Vaughn said.
“I didn’t want that legacy to disappear without a whisper.”