TARGET SPEED TWENTY NINE PALMS — THE GUERRILLA RENAISSANCE IS NOW

Jocko Johnson’s high-desert campaign to meld the arts and sciences in an age that shuns creativity.

by Cole Coonce

Strange and abstract notions oscillate in the desert. Out there, notions emanate from the minds of exiled artists, philosophers, musicians, and engineers. Their visions and their bodies of work are perpetrated in everything from abandoned Airstream trailers to sandblasted Geodesic Domes to thatched adobe recording studios as well as the research laboratories and wind tunnels of the high-desert military-industrial complex. All of this is scattered across the Mojave like the seed of Creation itself, and these strange and abstract notions—this collective consciousness—permeates the entire Mojave ionosphere like some bastardized electro-magnetic field where errant oscillations bang into other free range oscillations, ultimately creating extrapolation upon extrapolation until one man designs a motor that debunks the conventional wisdom of automotive engineering. His design proves that the internal combustion motor as we know it is a mistake. A failure. The motor that will supersede the four-stroke dinosaur has 25 cubic inches, 18 cylinders, no crank, no push rods and weighs forty pounds—wet. And this inventor plans to prove the superiority of his design in a land-speed streamliner whose target speed is 555 miles per hour.

I recently drove out to the desert to find that man and his motor. His name is Robert “Jocko” Johnson. Actually, it’s just “Jocko” or maybe “Jocko Johnson,” but it ain’t “Robert” and hasn’t been for decades. The etymology of “Jocko” dates back to 1953; apparently our subject had an unfortunate bout with jock itch while working as a teenaged apprentice at the Barris Kustom Auto shop in North Hollywood. Because of his reflexive scratching, Robert was dubbed “Jocko” by the shop owner, kustom kar czar George Barris. And despite his nickname’s, uhh, sensitive origins, Johnson has refused to answer to “Robert” ever since.

Yeah, if you are a young, aspiring hepcat hot rodder and you are blessed with a nickname bestowed by an artist/designer of George Barris’ esteemed stature, you immediately commence to signing your entry forms and your purchase orders that way. But a cool moniker was not all that Jocko was graced with by these folks—he was privy to some pretty serious science as well. Jocko was on the ground floor of a far out, kustom kulture factory that was a crucial link to what some art historians consider the Last American Renaissance.

And what a Renaissance it was: It was a maniacal era. It was an era as wide open as a deserted desert highway. It was an era when the arts were flourishing on all cultural fronts vis-à-vis the endeavors of cats like Coltrane, Jackson Pollock, Allen Ginsberg, Thelonious Monk, Carl Perkins, and Link Wray. The intoxicating sensibilities of this “go-cat-wild!” “beat generation” infiltrated the So Kal Kustom Kar Kulture to its core: It contaminated artists like Von Dutch as he meticulously pinstriped his hallucinatory visions onto hot rods. Meanwhile, Ed “Big Daddy” Roth was taking a pressurized cake-decorating tool to paint on anything that was in his path. And young Jocko was honing his craft and expressing himself by bending sheet metal.

Barris Kustom Auto, Jocko’s place of employ, was cranking out some seriously bizarre race cars; folding, bending and carving sheet metal and aluminum for the Bonneville cats, the dragster guys and the art directors at the local film studios. In 1952, when Barris had been hired by local hotshot cam grinder Chet Herbert to design a streamliner body for the Bonneville speed trials, an epiphany lit into Jocko’s cranium like a flash of ball lightning.

This vision coalesced in 1954 when the Herbert machine ran roughshod on eleven FIA speed records at the salt flats. It was prime time for the man to sculpt a streamliner for the proving grounds of Southern California: the drag strip.

By that time Jocko was porting flathead Ford cylinder blocks under Scotty Fenn’s tutelage at Experimental Automotive. To consummate his understanding of Zen as applied to race car science, the Barris years were the yin of aerodynamics and metallurgy and the Fenn apprenticeship was the yang of fuel flow and combustion.

In Jocko’s precocious teenaged mind, streamliners epitomized the marriage of aesthetics and technology. As an artist and a craftsman, Jocko grooved on the principles of Bauhaus Architecture: “…. Form follows function…. Universal space…point, line, plane….” and applied them both to the internal combustion engine and body contour. Intuitively, he felt that the streamliner was the most direct approach to Top Eliminator. Herbert’s salt flat endeavors, as well as the Land Speed Records claimed in streamlined vehicles by Euro speed demons such as John Cobb and Malcolm Campbell, seemed to confirm this notion empirically.

So after two years of toil, sweat, r&d, aluminum bending and smoking left-handed cigarettes, the first dragster with a full-envelope body hit the strip in 1958: The Jocko’s Porting Service streamliner. Jocko teamed up with “Jazzy Jim” Nelson and they hit the strips with Jazzy shoeing the car. The results were hardly the slam-dunk that Chet Herbert enjoyed at the Bonneville in ‘54 and skepticism and derision greeted Jocko every time the car limped down the track. Finally, after a year of dragging the ‘liner with decidedly mixed results, the duo of “Jazzy Jim” and Jocko struck the mother lode. Powered by a Jazzy’s 450 Chrysler running on nitro, they recorded a 1/4-mile elapsed time of 8.35 seconds at 178 mph at Riverside CA, obliterating a previous e.t mark of 8.54 that belonged to Art Chrisman. The run may have had as much to do with slippin’ the clutch—something else Jocko and Jazzy were experimenting with—as it did with avant-garde aerodynamics. Whatever the reason, the results stood for themselves. And Jocko drank from the teat of vindication, savoring the mother’s milk of a misunderstood artist.

But vindication was fleeting: Subsequent runs revealed a chink in the armor—the aerodynamics of the ‘liner were too effective. At terminal velocity, the desired downforce actually pushed the fiberglass shell into the wheels, the body cracked and ultimately disintegrated.

The destruction of Jocko’s speed-addled sculpture— coupled with the parts attrition inherent in running a blown hemi on nitromethane—put a serious dent in Jocko’s operating capital, a budget more in tune to the lifestyle of a be-bop saxophonist than a cutting-edge Top Fuel enterprise.

Jocko began meticulously reassembling his hot rod Humpty Dumpty, while also concentrating on generating cash porting cylinder heads in his shop in Lakewood. Indeed, Jocko’s Porting Service blossomed as a business.

Ultimately, an aluminum version of the ‘liner (shoed by Emery Cook and powered by an Allison V-12 aircraft engine on aviation gasoline) turned a time of 195 mph, but it was too little, too late. The consensus at the strip was that the ‘liner’s weight handicaps negated the advantages of the tremendous downforce and the streamlining craze went the way of the hula-hoop.

He continued chiseling steel cylinder heads, with a client base that read as a Yellow Pages of cool: dragster guys like Mickey Thompson, Ernie Hashim, “The Sour Sisters,” “Big Daddy” Don Garlits and Connie Kalitta. Gasser gods like Stone, Woods & Cook and K.S. Pittman were bangin’ on the door of Jocko’s Porting Service in Lakewood.

“He lived across the street from his speed shop in Long Beach and some mornings we would have to wake him up to work on our heads,” recalls Don Ratican of The Sour Sisters Top Fuel team. “But as an engineer he was head and shoulders above everybody. In those days, on a scale of measuring visionaries, Art Chrisman was a 10 and Jocko was off the scale.”

But gradually all this precision tinkering morphed into another milieu, another form of craftsmanship altogether. In 1966, Jocko began sculpting as a fine artist. Seriously. As a career. And his sculptures were not unlike his streamliners: scrappy, yet smooth. Fluid. Sinuous with a deliberate sense of motion. He was a hit with the wine and goat liver crowd. This was liberating, this was freedom, while the automotive world was becoming increasingly uptight and monochromatic—“sheesh all these dragsters look and run the same,” Jocko musta thought, “but what I can create with a chisel and my two hands is infinite and unlimited.” Which would you choose?

In any typical sculpture, he would showcase his raw sense of aesthetics and his resourcefulness—something that drag racing taught him: You take the best of whatever’s handy and transform it into something provocative and efficient. In one of his more famous works, he incorporated bondo and rebar into a plaster sculpture that he based on the shape of a cow’s thighbone. He sold this to the Irvine Corporation for a cool 500 skins and the city managers had the artwork planted in the sandbox at the local playground.

And despite the sustained popularity of his work on an iron motor—including plenty of gigs subcontracting to Keith Black Racing Engines (whose radical 426 hemi motors were the bullet du jour), Jocko’s disillusionment with the drag-strip scene and its generic L7 aerodynamics continued to swell. Jocko ultimately bailed on porting heads and fell in with the longhaired bohemians of Laguna Beach for a while. When that scene got redundant, he shed his skin once more by relocating to the high desert, where he gathered ironwood from the dusty tundra for raw material for his sculptures.

And everything was peace, love and yucca trees. But a paradigm shift occurred in the drag strip world—this time without Jocko. In the winter of ‘71, “Big Daddy” Don Garlits had rocked the world of the drag racing intelligentsia, snagging Top Fuel Eliminator at the Winternationals as well as the equally prestigious March Meet in Bakersfield—with a rear-motored digger, a heretofore-experimental design that until then had never caught the fancy of the trophy queen.

Had the alloys, materials and basic framework of Top Fuel dragsters caught up to Jocko’s theories about the supremacy of streamlining? Piqued, Jocko knew he had to scratch that itch once again. So off he went to Florida, to sculpt the definitive Fueler, with Garlits providing the horsepower and the venture capital.

From the giddy-up, the Jocko/Big Daddy collaboration seemed doomed to failure. As a barnstorming competitor who had to honor two professional circuits as well as a plethora of match racing obligations, Garlits had too many fires to put out to devote sufficient attention to the radical Wynn’s Liner project. The futuristic machine came in over budget, overweight and behind schedule.

In late ‘73 the Wynn’s Liner debuted at the American Hot Rod Association’s Grand American meet at Orange County International Raceway—and, coincidentally, within earshot of the swing sets that teeter-tottered in the sandbox of the Irvine Corporation.

Disappointingly, the car laid an egg, qualifying last in the 32-car show—a position that neither Garlits’ nor Jocko’s egos could process or tolerate. The car wouldn’t fire during eliminations. At speed, Garlits said the ‘liner wanted to lift off, space age aerodynamics or not. Jocko adamantly refutes this, remarking that Garlits DID in fact lift off twice—in conventionally bodied dragsters in the ’80s.

And unlike the resilience of the streamlining effort in ‘58, the clash of engineering philosophies and worldviews doomed the Wynn’s Liner to a fate of rusting in some barren landfill, as a testament to failure and folly of human endeavor. A few years back, it was restored sans hemi and entered into Garlits’ Museum of Drag Racing.

And as visionaries are wont to do, Jocko retreated to the desert. And dug in deep. And began fastening, forming, and fabricating a new streamliner known as the Spirit of 29 Palms. A vehicle designed to turn 555 mph at Bonneville. On alcohol. Cut to 1996. Your humble working journalist spots Jocko at a rod run at a dry lakebed. I eavesdrop as Jocko corners Alex Xydias (proprietor of the “So-Cal Speed Shop” in Burbank) and whips out a brand new pocket-sized centrifugal force-powered supercharger, a device Jocko had machined the day before the rod run. Jocko tells Xydias this ashtray-sized cylindrical supercharger will replace the archaic, bulky and inefficient GMC “roots” design that is de rigueur on today’s dragsters and funny cars. Jocko insists that Xydias hold this pint-sized piece of kit. Alex looks kind of afraid of it.

I am not afraid of it and Jocko sense this. He invites me over to his camper for turkey tacos and Meisterbrau. I promise him I’ll come see him and his inventions out at Twentynine Palms. Six months later, I do.

The road to Jocko’s crib in the desert was an open road, the kind of highway that seems to confirm the existence of the mysteries and magnetism of the desert. Very few motorists, even fewer state troopers. The kind of road that clears the senses of any gratuitous phlegm. Invigorating.

I pass a couple of county highways that ultimately shadow the perimeter of the Twentynine Palms Marine Base. On the northern border of the Marine Base, a mere tossed coyote bone from Jocko’s digs, a cat named George Van Tassel built—“thru the guidance of other worlders”—the “Integratron,” a high energy electrostatic machine designed to recharge the DNA of a person (i.e. stop the aging process). The local Chamber of Commerce describes it as a “time machine for research on rejuvenation, anti-gravity and time travel.” The structure is four stories high and 55 feet in diameter and is thought by some to be “a very powerful vortex for physical and spiritual healing”. From the 1950s to the 70s, the Integratron was the site of an annual “Interplanetary Spacecraft Convention” and became famous as the location of Van Tassel’s “Spaceport Earth.”

As I kick up some dust on a dirt road on the perimeter of the military base, I think to myself that out on the perimeter of hell’s half-acre, there is certainly ample room to stretch out and improvise. I was then buzzed by a below-the-radar F-4 Fighter. WHHOOOSSSHHH! I haven’t even arrived at the mad alchemists and my senses are already overwhelmed by free-from improvisation in the desert.

As I pull onto Jocko’s desert compound, salsa music is percolating in the distance, emanating from a monaural Spanish-language AM station that Jocko keeps switched on 24-7. “It’s an uplifting sound and it has words I don’t understand so I don’t have to think about it,” he said about the salsa. “It’s precision musicianship—they just don’t bang away at something in order to make a sound, they’re all working together.”

I found this comment ironic, considering Jocko’s penchant for working alone, but I said nothing as he wound up and proceeded to explain the genesis of his new creation.

“I went out to Orange County for their last drag race. I hadn’t been out there for 10 or 12 years—I didn’t want to go, but a friend told me I had to go out there because they weren’t gonna have anymore. I was in the pits for about three hours and I ran into a lot of my old friends—Keith Black being one of them. I said to Keith, ‘Is everybody here doing what these guys are doing? I’ve been standing here for three hours and these guys here are taking their motor completely apart every single run.’ I’m watching them throw the rods and pistons out and put new ones in and he says, ‘Come here.’ He took me into somebody’s eighteen-wheel trailer and there was a bench along one wall that had these eight boxes that held eight rods and pistons, so there were sixty-four rods and pistons. The first three sets on that bench were used, they had a run on them. And I looked at him and I said, ‘Do you mean this guy can only make nine runs today; he’s got eight sets here and a set in the car now?’ Keith said, ‘That’s right.’ I said, ‘What the hell is wrong with this picture?’”

“So on the way home that day,” Jocko continued, “I told my friend that the combustion engine wasn’t fully invented yet. He laughed at me and said, ‘You’re nuts, they went 276 mph that day’ or whatever it was. And I said, ‘Yeah, but what were they doing ten minutes later?’ Basically throwing it away…,” he laughed.

“I figured what I needed to do was figure out what in the hell was wrong with this. Back in the days when I was porting heads people would come up to me with their problems—I consider myself a problem-solver type. Not a refiner—go to the heart of the thing and search out the flaw.

“So I went and did this.” He beckons and we climb up the steps of his portable speed shop. He unveils the PoweRRing 3 Cycle engine.

“We were still running old shit. So when I designed this engine I said, ‘I’m going to look at the history.’ So I started looking back farther and farther into time and I asked myself, ‘Where did the crankshaft come from? Where did the rod come from? Where did the piston come from?’ And it took me clear back to 1705 when they started building engines with steam. In the first steam engines they didn’t use steam to push the pistons, they used steam to evacuate the cylinder. They put a little steam in there and when it condensed, it shrank—1700 times. From steam down to water. 1700 times. It evacuated that cylinder by putting a little puff of steam in there. Atmospheric pressure pushed the piston down. That’s where you can do useful work.”

Aww, “free downforce” as per a vacuum—a pet dynamic application of Jocko’s and an application intrinsic to the PoweRRing’s efficiency.

Jocko went on to tell me that he discovered that when the piston is on the compression stroke, the spark is ignited at about 30 degrees before top-dead center. So, when the explosion goes off, the piston is still on its way up. It’s heading into high pressure and putting tremendous, often destructive, forces on the piston, rod, crank and bearings. The crankshaft has to turn an additional 25 degrees’ before the rod can lean over and let the piston start its way back down. When the piston does start down, the leverage angle is only about an inch. “How tight could you get a nut or a bolt if your wrench was only one inch long?” he asked rhetorically. When the pressure is at its maximum, the rod is straight up the bore and restricts piston movement; so if detonation occurs, there’s no place for anything to go, so the weakest link breaks, whether that’s the piston, rod, crank or the engine block—something has to give.

His solution? Shitcan the crankshaft altogether. Use a very large camshaft instead. Because camshafts convert rotary motion to linear motion.

Jocko’s PoweRRing 3 Cycle has 18 small cylinders arranged around a twelve-lobe cam wheel. Combustion occurs in one set of six cylinders after another, with the pistons exerting force on the cam-wheel, causing it to move. For every 360 degrees of rotation, there are 216 ignition firings, with six cylinders firing simultaneously every ten degrees of rotation.

He says he likes the idea of a radial engines because it would have the lightest weight per cubic inch and they are the easiest engines to cool. Capitalizing on the concept of circular ignition, Jocko’s engine is a radial, but with a cam operating the pistons and minus any connecting rods or crankshaft.

“Current engine design, he says, “derives from a steam engine built in 1705; it was the first engine to use a crankshaft to convert reciprocal motion into rotary motion and pass it along through various gearboxes and transfer devices. This system is obsolete in light of new knowledge. Since high torque is inherent in my three-cycle engine design, the engine would be placed right next to the wheel, with no gear reduction except for a reverser. This engine is very compact, shaped like a wheel and no wider than a standard auto wheel. It leaves a lot of space inside a car for other things.”

At this point Jocko and I saunter back onto his front yard where a full size mockup of his new streamliner sits. Jocko plans to unveil his 18-cylinder, 25 cubic inch radial motor—capable of 400 horsepower—in the arena of the Land Speed Record wars. The monocoque streamliner is officially known as the Spirit of 29 Palms but nicknamed “the triple-nickel” because of its target speed of 555 mph. After this combination conquers the combustion-driven land speed record, Jocko envisions installing the ‘liner as a local tourist attraction, not unlike, say, the Integratron up the road.

“I’ll rivet the skin onto the framework. It will be super rigid, it will be like an airplane but with the internal structure of a bridge,” he says. “I will start with two engines, so it will be firing six cylinders every 5 degrees of rotation.” If he needs more power for his LSR effort, he’ll just insert another PoweRRing—they only weigh 40 pounds or so.

His wife (and sometimes collaborator) Joanie was working on a series of sculptures with recycled phone wire as Jocko and I talked. At this point the discussion swung from the PoweRRing—which he isn’t going to bother to patent (he considers engineering ideas public domain)—towards the theory and application of streamlining itself.

“Every inch of those bodies is functional, ” he says in reference to his spaceship on wheels. “Every curve, every line—the whole thing is about completely covering the car, getting the maximum use of the downforce, and doing it with a minimum of drag. The first one I built…the tail end of it was radically different from anything.”

I ask him what made that vehicle—the Jocko’s Porting Special—set the world on fire.

“The air came off the top of the body at the back and rotated down and tried to get underneath the tail,” he answers. “It’s low pressure down there. They created a set of vortices that would cancel one another out. That minimized the drag… because the bigger the wake you leave, the greater amount of power it takes to create it.”

Yeah… Not unlike his sculptures and his streamliners, Jocko himself has a very low co-efficient of drag. He is free to create beatifically with a minimum of turbulence. And if his latest creations are above the ken and understanding of America, its master capitalists and its engineers, that is not the point. The point is this: He’s on to something—not unlike turning 8.35 in the 1/4 mile in 1958.

But unlike 1958, the drag strips are no longer the proving grounds, the high desert is. And it has always fostered creativity.

Once the archetypal misunderstood genius acclimates him or herself to the godawful climate and gets in tune with the rattlesnakes, the scorpions and the coyotes and the sporadic blasts of supersonic reconnaissance aircraft on maneuvers, he can let it all hang out in his own private Skunk Works. There are no board meetings or focus groups in a place where the stars are absolutely infinite, and where the wind seems to whisper that anything is possible. When time and space got it on, and—BANG—the heavens climaxed, the seeds of creation must have spilled onto the Mojave. There are no rules and there are no limitations there… Whatever you want to bestow upon humanity is limited only by your perseverance and your imagination. Just like Van Tassel, Jocko knows the desert itself is a concentrated chunk of eternity. He knows that life is short and progress is crucial to the meaning of life. Recently some nostalgia dragster guys approached Jocko about porting some heads, just like the old days… “Why would I want to do that, that’s a step backwards.” Pause. “Drag racing turned its back on me a long time ago,” he mused. “Now it’s my turn to my back on it.”

“People are afraid of progress,” he says, perplexed. But not in the outback of Twentynine Palms, apparently, where folks intuitively understand the obvious: History only happens once. And history is being made right now in the California desert. Jocko’s moment in history is NOW. It’s our loss if we can’t recognize a defining moment in history as it’s going down.

(Originally published 1997)

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8 Responses to “TARGET SPEED TWENTY NINE PALMS — THE GUERRILLA RENAISSANCE IS NOW”

  1. I was just wondering after reading this bit,what has happened since with the Spirit of 29 Palms
    A.K.A. The Triple Nickel?
    Oh and by the way I enjoy your gonzo writing style.
    It’s the best laugh I’ve had in a while.
    I suspect the good and “dead for real”,
    Dr.H.S.T. would too.
    Cheers,Tim Gilbreth

  2. “Your comment is awaiting moderation”.
    Now that is some funny shit,considering the Fuel Source.
    Going to tip the Can,T.OUT

  3. “When time and space got it on, and—BANG—the heavens climaxed, the seeds of creation must have spilled onto the Mojave.”

    …..oh yeah….

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