Unlike most of the honorees of the sport, Ollie Riley didn’t grow up around high-performance cars but his interest in mechanics and electricity were similar to those who wished to go quick and fast.
Born and raised on a farm in Stanford Kansas; when Ollie was old enough to start using tools his curiosity of things electrical guided him to make his own toys which foretold his future. Long before transistors were created Ollie created his own radio’s powered by batteries connected in series. In high school and college Ollie repaired radios for extra spending money. His devotion to the emerging science of electronics earned him a Bachelors and a Masters of Science degrees in Electrical Engineering at Kansas State University graduating with honors. He worked as an instructor at Kansas State University after graduation.
During World War II he worked at Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s radiation lab on a top-secret state-of-the-art radar bomb site; testing it in Florida onboard a B-24. After the war he worked for a short time at General Electric but moved to La Vern, California, where he joined General Dynamics Convair Division designing guided missile systems.
In 1954 while attending a Dale Carnegie class he met Bud Coons who was a Pomona, California, Police officer and the Field Director of the fledgling NHRA Safety Safari. Coons learned of Ollie’s electronics background and felt that Riley might be able to help develop an accurate timing system.
Ollie’s ingenuity and drive for perfection made him the ultimate problem solver; an attribute that was stimulated by Coons inquiry about developing an accurate timing system. Ollie built the first timing set on his kitchen table which was accurate to within 0.001 second. It had the advantage of also being modular which allowed for easy replacement of a defective components. Soon Ollie was mastering the challenge for other precision drag racing timing equipment that brought the sport to a new level.
After transforming drag racing’s timing system Ollie left the aerospace industry to open the doors of a new family owned and operated electronics business-Chrondek Electronics. It was a specialty electronics manufacturer that was dedicated to producing timing equipment for all types of sports.
During the late 1950s Ollie observed several starters were making moves that allowed a driver to predict when he would raise the flag to start the race. To correct this Ollie worked to develop the first step light starting system which debuted at the 1963 US Nationals in Indianapolis, Indiana. In addition to providing a starting system the device also had a built-in “foul light” that turn red if the driver left early. A year later pre-stage bulbs were added to assist the driver in staging correctly. Because of its overall appearance the new starting system was soon dubbed the “Christmas Tree”.
The “tree” was not initially accepted by the racers because they had become accustomed to reading the flagman’s body language and were able to jump them. Although it took some time to become accustomed to the new procedure racers soon recognized the advantage of consistent and fair starts the tree offered which led to its use at drag strips everywhere. Ollie spent nearly two decades perfecting his Chrondek timing systems and in 1972 he sold the business to Aero-Marine Electronics.
Ollie’s contributions and groundbreaking innovations have help make drag racing what it is today. While Ollie passed away in 1992; his family proudly carries on his life story as a family man and inventor who changed the sport dramatically. Today Ollie’s inventions can be seen at the NHRA Museum in Pomona, California.