THE CHAMPION SPEED SHOP’S TOP FUEL WORMHOLE

A Concentric History of the World’s Quickest and Fastest Chevy on Nitro…

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by Cole Coonce

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“Man from outer space or man trying to get there? No, he’s not an astronaut, but he drives a dragster just fast enough to go into orbit. The man is Sammy Hale, driver from South San Francisco who here displays his new fireproof driver’s suit which he donned Thursday after arriving at Quad-City Drag Strip for the World Series of Drag Racing. The suit features an airtight aluminum coating, is washable and costs about $150. ‘It’s worth it,’ Hale said. ‘Have you ever seen a man burned in a dragster?’ Hale boasts the world’s fastest and quickest Chevrolet, having turned better than 180 miles an hour” — East Moline Dispatch.


As experts in the fields of quantum physics and cosmology ponder the notion of whether or not Time Travel is possible, they would do well to study the South San Francisco-based phenomenon of the Champion Speed Shop AA/Fuel Dragster, a race team and machine that has torn a hole in the fabric of what we know as the third and fourth dimensions of space and time. They have claimed the honor of being the world’s quickest and fastest accelerating Chevy on nitro*… it claimed this honor first almost forty years ago and has reclaimed the honor now.

Beyond these claims, its one constant is the occupant of the dragster’s cockpit, one Sammy Hale. That’s right, race fans: The same guy who, quick as an outhouse mouse, steered the Champion car to 180 mph in 1962 whilst putting the Chrysler-powered machine of Top Fuel potentate “Big Daddy” Don Garlits on the trailer at Half Moon Bay, was the same guy who rocketed to 239 mph last year in another Champion-sponsored front-motored fueler. (To ratchet up the Champion team’s claim to utter domination, “Swingin’ Sammy” Hale threw down a real moon shot at this year’s March Meet in Bakersfield, turning an unprecedented 5.87 at 232 mph to claim Low E.T. of the Universe. . . )

But before we get into what launches Sammy into orbit, first we must set the way-back machine to intersecting co-ordinates of a) 1957, and b) Colma, California in the general vicinity of what the locals call South City. A sleepy, perhaps moribund town sandwiched between the Pacific Ocean and the San Francisco Bay, Colma is known for its abundance of cemeteries (most specifically the Holy Cross, Cypress Lawn and Olivetti graveyards on Old Mission Road), and is a town where the population of deceased surpasses the number of actual living, breathing taxpayers.  It is where South San Francisco brings their dead. And in a charming paradoxical spin on the carbon cycle, some theorize that the preponderance of mulch and compost that seeped into the topsoil is why the “South City Hot Rod Experience” came alive here…

Although the creation of this scene was the local hot rodder’s Big Bang, its origins were certainly humble enough. “One day on the school bus I noticed this little shack on El Camino Real in South City,” Sammy Hale remembered. “There was this nice little ‘34 Ford pickup out there all painted red and striped and everything. A couple of more times we went by and noticed a sign and the next thing you know it’s like, ‘Hey, there’s a speed shop there.’ It was a big interest to see what they had so you’d go in and buy three feet of red plastic plug wire.”

Indeed, in the beginning Champion Speed Shop was nothing more than a shack, operated by a stocky, entrepreneurial President of the Pacers Car Club, Jim McLennan (aka “the Smiling Irishman”, aka “Papa Bear”). McLennan had married into the Padilla family, who ran one of the oldest plumbing companies in San Francisco. Patriarch Joe Padilla had been credited with rebuilding the town after various earthquakes and natural disasters. Although not necessarily blue bloods, they were pillars of respectability—and then their daughter up and married the scourge of society, a street racer. To appease the in-laws, McLennan began an apprenticeship as a plumber during the day. But at night and into the dawn, as Jim was burnin’ black rubber through the billowing fog that would shroud the slick, lacquered asphalt at either the Great Highway or Brotherhood Way, his true ambition became as clear and as obvious as the clanging bell of a cable car: Set up with the proper piece of real estate, McLennan had a hunch he could parlay his passion for hot rodding into a living. And yes, his was a post-WWII success story worthy of a Horatio Alger book. But the real windfall of the Champion Speed Shop was more than just the fruits of commerce. It engendered not only a cottage industry but some would maintain a friggin’ art movement. A renaissance. But not without some support from the in-laws…

“My grandfather went down there and said, ‘If you’re going to do this, you need to do it right,’ and they built this 10,000 foot tilt-up,” is how Bobby McLennan explains the Padilla family’s role as patron of the arts. The new building was on Mission, around the corner from the wooden shack the Padillas considered an eyesore. The new shop was a magnet indeed, attracting scores of young and not-so-young motorheads. And when not wrenching, polishing, fabricating or hanging out, the more mature gearheads would adjourn to Malloy’s, the watering hole where all the grave diggers and speed demons bellied up to slake their thirst and buy each other rounds. McLennan said emphatically that, “Every drag racer in the country has had a drink at Malloy’s. Kalitta, Garlits, Prudhomme, they were all there.” Beyond the touring professionals, guys with names like Bruno Gianoli, Don Cordo, Andy Brizio and others helped make Malloy’s a sort of satellite office of Champion. In ‘58, between discourse at Malloy’s and the Speed Shop, McLennan set up a partnership with “Terrible Ted” Gotelli (aka “the Goat”) to run a couple of rails, with Jim doing the driving.  In addition to driving Gotelli’s Chrysler-powered Organ Grinder digger, McLennan also campaigned his own dragster. Jim’s dragster was a wicked Scotty Fenn Chassis Research job, powered by a bored and stroke 364 c.i. mouse motor (“We started out with a 327 and put a 1/4” stroker in it,” Jim recollected) that Weber Cams dubbed the “World’s Fastest Chevy” in their trade ads.

Eventually Jim extended the forks and campaigned the Chassis Research car as a gasoline-powered twin-engined deal, a combination that lasted about six months. Regardless of the setup, the machine was the pride and joy of the neighborhood, attracting kids on bicycles every time they heard the motor turn over. Likewise, impromptu test-and-tune warm-up runs down Old Mission would wake the dead and bask the patrons at Malloy’s with a comforting mist of nitromethane that would secrete down the esophagus and seemed to complement whatever poison the bar patrons were imbibing at the time. In a commercial sense, the dragster acted as an attraction for the Speed Shop, where the scene continued to flourish and explode. McLennan partnered with Don Smith, a horse trader very adept at working the phones (and nowadays the proprietor of High Performance Distributors). Paint shops, body shops and other speed shops began to punctuate the landscape of this once-somniferous town, and McLennan branched out as a race promoter and speedway owner/operator. Out of the germination of his ideas, money and resources a renaissance flourished. Half Moon Bay, Cotati Drag Strip, Champion Speedway, and Fremont/Baylands Raceway were all under the Jim McLennan umbrella. The ripple effect was pretty profound: Andy “the Rodfather” Brizio, who mounted all the wheels at Champion’s shop, was the starter at Half Moon Bay.  He then set up shop as “Andy’s Roadsters” out of one of the side doors at Champion and then, ultimately, splintered off into his kit-roadster empire.

But beyond providing an opportunity for the regional craftsman, the new speed shop gave the local kids who were 21-or-skidoo’d out of Malloy’s a sense of place as well—it was the center of their universe. “Every street racer, every guy who would go to the drags was there,” is how Hale describes the energy at Champion in the 50s. “It was just a whole spectrum of personalities and man, there were a lot of crazy mothers who used to race on Wednesday and Friday nights out on Brotherhood Way. The nickname for the place was ‘The Zoo’ because there were so many people that came and went, it really was like a zoo. It was a social club.”

Ahh, but it was more than a club; it was a friggin’ hot-rodders’ skunk works, a proving ground for innovation, both in performance and in safety. Although in 1956 Jim Deist began mounting braking parachutes on dragsters down in L.A. and shortly thereafter began experimenting with aluminized firesuits, these innovations had yet to catch on elsewhere and were not readily available. But due to higher and higher-velocity dragsters running out of real estate while attempting to brake to a stop in the truncated shutdown area at Half Moon Bay, necessity became the mother of invention for McLennan. He envisioned stopping the dragsters with a parachute. The r & d for this device was utter slapstick, and transpired in the back of Ted’s pickup truck: “I had gotten over to Robert’s Surplus over in Oakland and gotten a great big 18’ foot ribbon-type chute for $12,” said Jim. Ted stomped on the gas and hauled ass own past Malloy’s and Jim, who had been hanging on for dear life, tossed a parachute anchored to the tailgate like a kite.  “Well, it deployed,” chuckled Jim, “but it tore the tailgate right off of Ted’s truck.” The bar patrons roared with laughter and the undertaker pondered future supply-and-demand, but the safety device caught on locally after McLennan scratched his noodle and settled upon a triangular ribbon chute. Security Parachutes from Hayward had a new customer. “It worked great—we sold a lot of them,” McLennan asserted.

Furthermore, two horrific digger fires on subsequent weekends at Half Moon Bay forced McLennan to consult with the safety crews at SFO Airport and brainstorm on fire protection. McLennan appropriated use of what the airport workers called a “proximity suit,” a silver aluminum suit that would retard fire for about half a minute—a lifetime to a drag racer. Insisting on field-testing these devices at Gotelli’s shop led to a literal trial by fire and more slapstick: Gotelli doused the shop floor with gasoline and set it ablaze, McLennan endeavored to sprint through the flames. Once in the inferno, he became somewhat disoriented, stumbled and fell before crawling out of the conflagration. “I didn’t get burned,” Jim related, “but we knew then that it worked. We did some goofy things…”

But even with distribution networks being what they were in those days, the concept of the proximity suit caught on amongst the dragster drivers. It could be argued that Deist came up with these safety features first, but the efforts of McLennan ratcheted up their profile in Northern California at the very least. And anybody who wore a proximity suit definitely remembered it. “You’d put that thing on and you’d itch for a week,” Sammy Hale said.

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(Originally published 1999)

CONTINUE READING…

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