BURY MY HEART AT EDWARDS AIR FORCE BASE… or The Sands Will Come Again…

(excerpted from TOP FUEL WORMHOLE: THE COLE COONCE DRAG STRIP READER, VOL. 1)

(photo by Cole Coonce)

(photo by Cole Coonce)


“We did it all, and we’ll never see times like these again.”—Dean Batchelor, The American Hot Rod.

At first I thought it was a mirage. Or an apparition. I was suffering from an acute lack of sleep, my disorientation and sensory deprivation amplified by a lack of proper coffee as well as the blinding reflection of the morning sun as it bounced off of the milky-white, crystallized floor of the dry lakebed. I shook my head, threw back the dregs of the caffeine, and blinked. It was no hallucination. There I was at Edwards AFB, deep in the heart of the cruel and unforgiving Mojave Desert, a landscape that a French philosopher once called a “slow catastrophe,” and three paces from my bones was the man who organized hot rodding after WWII on this very same uninhabitable desert. That’s right: Wally Parks, President of the Southern California Timing Association in 1946. Editor of Petersen Publishing’s Hot Rod Magazinein 1948. President of the National Hot Rod Association during its birthin’ in 1951, until Dallas Gardner stepped in during the Reagan Years. And probably the first man to call the linear pursuit of horsepower a “drag race,” way back in 1939 in the Racing News.

I was stunned and I was silent. I did not know how to approach the man. Or, closer to the heart of the matter, maybe I did not know how to approach the myth and the legend that is Wally Parks as he stood there larger-than-life, towering over the proceedings at the most mystical and legendary plot of real estate in these here United States of America.

Ah yes, the mythology. There has been more history, folklore, and mythology concocted at the Muroc Dry Lake than anywhere else on the planet since the days of Apollo and Aphrodite making noise on Mt. Olympus. For it was at this wasteland where the Muroc Racing Association, predecessor to the SCTA, predecessor to the Russetta Timing Association, predecessor to the NHRA, etc., etc., etc., began in 1932, hosting competition between renegade hot rodders from the far side of the San Gabriel Mountains, men who would test their mettle, bravado and mechanical acumen by racing hari-kari across the lakebed, sometimes four or five abreast, kicking up such a furious tempest of dust and debris in their wake that only the leader of the pack could actually see where he was going. The other drivers? Well, crashing into your colleagues and barrel-rolling, hobbling into the nearest hospital in Palmdale, 30 miles away via an undulating washboard of a dirt road, only to find upon your return—assuming you survived—what was left of your race car had been scavenged and stripped down to the frame rails, that was the price one paid for inferior horsepower out there in the Mojave Desert during the years of Herbert Hoover and FDR. This, race fans, was the true genesis of drag racing.

Beyond the isolation of this primeval racing on the lakebeds and just when we thought America had already made the world safe for democracy, a funny thing happened beyond either pond that flanks these here Continental United States—the Second World War. And not to trivialize the battles Iwo Jima or Normandy, but the SoCal hot rodding community also suffered a loss in the War. By virtue of eminent domain, the Muroc Dry Lake, the birth place of drag racing, was claimed by Uncle Sam as a “proving ground” for military aerospace research and development. The pangs of this loss were mitigated by a couple of factors: The dry lakes racers and the car clubbers were migrating to other lakebeds, among them El Mirage, Harper, and Rosamond where they continued “cuttin’ the crystals” during single-file “speed trials” (side-by-side competition was now deemed entirely too unsafe at the dry lakes) nearly every weekend; as well as the fact that at night the lakester guys and the car clubbers were matching wheels at either say, Slauson Avenue or Lincoln Boulevard or Glenoaks out in the Valley; or, as early as 1950, they wuz’ changing rear tires and gear ratios, pouring increasingly generous helpings of nitromethane into the combustion chambers of their flathead Ford V-8s and “draggin’” down at CJ Hart’s chunk of airstrip known as the Santa Ana Drags out in Orange County where, for once, they didn’t have to worry about outrunning the fuzz as well as the competition.

And as Chuck Yeager banged through the palpitating turbulence of the Speed of Sound over the hallowed ground of Edwards AFB (nee Muroc Field) in October ‘47, teenagers continued racing across the alkali crystals of the Mojave, or down the concrete banks of the arid, withered L.A. River bed. Soon after Yeager’s scrotal-squeezing supersonic gonzo sleigh ride, President Eisenhower unleashed the clandestine ramjet-propelled SR-71 spy planes, which would rocket through the heavens over Muroc—50,000 feet high!—at speeds in excess of 2,000 miles per hour, subsequently blaze over the bleached bones of the coyotes in Death Valley, and ultimately descend, minutes later, 300 miles away into Nevada’s notorious Area 51. At Muroc in 1959, NASA unveiled its team of astronauts destined for the moon, the Mercury Seven.

Through all of this, there was Wally, always astute and alert as per the trends of speed-addled youth, be it time trials at the dry lakes, rumbles at the malt shop, or draggin’ at the strip. A man of epic scope and vision, he was deftly plotting the co-option, development and commodification of America’s horniness for horsepower into what Parks called in a April 1950 Hot Rod feature “Controlled Drag Racing,” as administered by his yet to be unveiled NHRA. (The birth of the NHRA itself is part and parcel emblematic of how much mythology is intrinsic to the history of hot rodding. To wit, in 1951 Parks asked Lee O. Ryan, Petersen Publishing’s GM, to compose a fictitious “letter to the editor” expressing concern over the lack of direction in hot rodding. In rebuttal, Parks proposed an organization “dedicated to safety,” while providing the gearhead with a place to race, thus decreeing the formation of the NHRA whilst simultaneously inviting everyone to join.)

Suffice it to say, what made Wally Parks’ presence out at Muroc 1996 interesting was how the NHRA, which began as a nationwide extension of the ethos of the MRA and the SCTA—y’know, bitchin’ trophies for the industrious back yard tinkerer—has metamorphosed into an organization that became a player and a schmoozer in the Multi-National Corridors of Power in America. There are no luxury suites out in the desert. There isn’t even any running water. But as I stood there blinking my eyes, there was Wally…

So the paradox is this: out of the ashes of the Dry Lakes rose the multi-headed Phoenix which is Hot Rod Magazine, the NHRA, National Dragster, the Winston $1,000,000 series, and the “members only” glass-tower corporate suites that lease for $30,000 per event so’s High Society-types can watch the races on closed-circuit monitors while sipping snifters of Napoleon Brandy and eating weenies on a stick. That entire reality is of no concern to the lakebed Bedouins, however. This is because the SCTA and the whole culture of the dry lakes have continued to exist on their own terms for all those years since WWII, albeit with a low profile. In fact, it has been flourishing out at El Mirage with dyed-in-the-wool lake guys supplemented by refugees from the drag-strip wars, veterans of the 1320 who could no longer abide the rampant parts attrition as well as the exorbitant costs of contemporary drag racing. 13,000 gearheads descended upon Muroc on Saturday April 27th 1996, to symbolically reclaim Muroc, ironically a happening that never would have come to pass without the clout, sociopolitical machinations and handshaking ability of Wally Parks.

And like I say, while wiping the sleep out of my eyes, I stood in the shadow of the exalted hot rodder who embodies the duality of man, the avuncular and towering Wally Parks. I thrust a micro-cassette recorder in his mug, and lofted a softball of a question like, “How does it feel to be back on the dry lakes?” and away he went…

“We’re all absolutely delighted,” sez Wally, “that we’ve had a chance to come back here, because it’s been 55 years since the SCTA ran here. I think having access to this place has got as much value for historic reasons as it has for the satisfaction of running down the course. But the thing we like most is the people who have returned here, who were once up here, and the newcomers who come in to see it. We just think we’ve got 100 percent success and we are very grateful to the Air Base here and the commander for letting us be here.

“Our presence here,” he continued reciting, his towering, lean torso magnificently framed against blue skies and Jet Propulsion Laboratories’ rocket launchers burrowed into the nearby Rosamond Hills, “ties in with research and development programs and their technology and so forth, which is the spirit of Edwards AFB, the test center, which is what this is all about: people testing new ideas. It may not apply to aircraft but it all comes out of the same box.”

Aahh, the Mojave Desert is the perfect backdrop for a powerful oratory, and at 83 years of age, Wally Parks was showcasing his rhetorical skills. But something was a little too perfect about this sermonizing. I wasn’t sure if I was interviewing the man who is not only the driving force behind the SCTA’s wistful return to its Mecca, but also the embodiment of laissez-faire capitalism, or if I was merely on the ass-end of a feedback-generated tape loop fed into a 10” speaker implanted into a cryogenically-enhanced human body, not unlike, say, the walking-talking Mr. Lincoln Exhibit at Disneyland. It was weird—I’ve been dying to bench race with the Man, the Myth, the Legend that is Wally Parks, a complex man, a man who personifies the dichotomy of everything that is virtuous, controversial, banal, and perhaps even disturbing about the Master Capitalists of America, be it Henry Ford, Walt Disney, Dick Clark or Bill Gates. As sandstorms started to kick up and pelt my face with sharp crystals of fossilized mud, Wally continued riffing about America and “the pioneering spirit.” Despite the dust devils he never stopped talking. I have to confess at some point I began to tune out Parks’ monologue about the nobility of Muroc, as the repetitive read-only memory functions of his speech were kicking into high gear. I began to free-associate about Mr. Parks’ pivotal role in the SCTA “taking back Muroc” (at least for one weekend), and I began to wonder if this gesture was not unlike a long-in-the-tusk mastodon going home to his elephant’s graveyard. The speechifying continued, and as I dutifully held my micro-cassette aloft I thought, “Who is this guy? Who am I really interviewing? Machiavelli? Dwight D. Eisenhower? Charles Keating? Charles Foster Kane?” As I write this, I am still not sure…

As the interview with Wally continued, I was overcome by the swirling dust and the heat. As the temperature was climbing into the triple-digit range, the sweat and the sand and the sun block coagulated into this afterbirth-ish goop which seemed to gravitate from my brow into the recesses of my eyes. I tried closing one, then the other, but to no avail. I couldn’t see anything beyond vague forms perpendicular to the earth’s curvature—one of which was talking non-stop (Wally)—all of this tableaux more surreal and bizarre than your typical mirage. Wally was either oblivious or just nonplussed by my fevered perspiring and blinking, the loop tape continuing unabated. I knew this was my only chance to heave a curve ball at the most legendary figure in the NHRA. So as I wiped my eyes, I asked him, “Did you derive more pleasure from your tenure at the SCTA or shaping the NHRA into what it is today?” He answered, “Both, although it’s apples and oranges. One is a non-profit dedication and the other one is trying to keep a big thing going…”

At that moment, with the loop tape mechanism finally disengaged, I felt Wally and I were on the verge of a meaningful dialogue. I was poised to ask him if he felt the longevity of the SCTA was perhaps due to a reaction to the politics and fiscal policies of the NHRA. Fate intervened, however. A senior member of Wally’s entourage (I think it was his sister-in-law) sought relief from the heat and the sand and the noise, and Wally, who had been extremely gracious and accommodating with me, begged off further questions, and chivalrously went to assist the member of his party in distress. I was that close to the truth.

*****

Before, during, and after Wally’s discourse on the nobility of the pioneering spirit, various lakesters, nitrous-oxide powered coupes, land-speed streamliners, and blown Studebakers began their procession across the desert, hurtling across the lakebed towards the timing beams, over a 1.3 mile course marked by scores of pylons. There were hundreds of drivers in pursuit of various Muroc speed records in machines encompassing a multitude of engine, body, and chemical combinations. Among them was Al Teague, windin’ out his Spirit of 76 streamliner in second gear at well over 200 mph—this same combustion-engined contraption clocked a Wheel-driven land-speed record 432 mph out at Bonneville a few years back. Joaquin Arnett, who has been tippin’ the can since the late 40s, also showcased the home-built Bean Bandits nitro-burning streamliner. There were a few vintage “belly tank” lakesters—speed machines crafted out of fuel tanks from P-38 Lightning fighter planes that were liberated out of aerospace surplus yards. There was even a land speed entry from Guam.

*****

All told, before the dust settled, fourteen drivers were initiated into the Muroc 200 MPH Club. This included SCTA v.p. Mike Cook, who raced across the desert in his blown Ford T-bird at 227 mph.  While the eclectic assembly of speed machines continued kicking up gigantic rooster tails of dust, their clockings were announced over Channel 1 on citizen’s band radios, which were employed in lieu of a public address system. It was an interesting counterpoint, the juxtaposition of low-fidelity c.b. radios against the various satellite communication systems and megawatt transmitters deployed by the Air Force. Out of earshot of the “p.a.” and beyond the pylons, I encountered a messianic figure trekking across the desert in flip-flops. It was Robert “Jocko” Johnson, inventor, bohemian sculptor, and mechanical visionary. (In 1959 at Riverside, CA, Jocko stunned the world of hot rodding with an 8.35 E.T. in drag racing’s first full-bodied streamliner, a clocking 3/10ths of a second quicker than any other Top Fuel dragster. Before he could improve on this outrageous performance, the streamliner subsequently self-destructed at Lions Drag Strip.) Out at Muroc, Jocko was on a mission whose dual agenda was thus: a) to show Alex Xydias (proprietor of the “So-Cal Speed Shop” in Burbank) a brand new pocket-sized centrifugal force-powered supercharger, a device Jocko designed to replace the relatively bulky and inefficient GMC “roots” design; and b) to get a sno-cone and beat the desert heat. He invited me over to his tent for tacos later that evening and I graciously accepted.

That night, after consuming more than a few of “Jocko’s tacos” and discussing Jocko’s plan to unveil a streamliner propelled by an 18-cylinder, 25 cubic inch radial motor—capable of 400 horsepower(!)—out on the salt flats, it was time to explore the “proving grounds,” as it were. As the racers put their exotic machines to bed, the campfires, the Coleman lanterns and the barbecues provided the sole source of illumination, besides the constellations and the orbiting satellites (which, out in the Mojave Desert, are visible to the naked eye). I wandered through the pits, blown away by the massive proportions of this congregation of motorheads who had migrated to this uninhabitable air strip in the Mojave Desert. And as I waded through the nomads camping in the barren flats of the Seventh Circle of Hell, I overheard a campfire conversation about Project Mercury ace Gordo Cooper’s appearance on a “reality-based” teevee docudrama about the Paranormal, riffing about his brushes with alien spacecraft while in astronaut training. The winds began to howl, I looked up at the stars and the satellite space stations and continued walking.

I heard music over at another campsite and I followed its call. Dusty Springfield was singing “Son of a Preacher Man” over a car stereo ratcheted into the door panels of a not-exactly-cherry flamed ‘52 Chevy sedan, while a couple of “Go Cat Wild!” retro-rockabilly greaser-types, twenty-somethings who had complete and utter distaste for contemporary fashion and values, were engaged in a high-octane bench race session. At that moment I knew the Muroc Reunion was a metaphor. I stood off in the shadows, eavesdropping as these reactionary rodders debated the fall and debasement of the late Dean Moon’s legendary speed emporium, “Moon Special Equipment,” recently rechristened “Mooneyes” by its new Japanese proprietors, and which may or may not be a bastardization of the translation of “Moon.” At this point, I piped in from the darkness and suggested there was still a decent cam-grinder in the employ of “Mooneyes.”

“The issue is just because one good cam-grinder still works there,” said one lanky car clubber with a thick Cockney accent, “doesn’t mean that it isn’t the biggest sell-out in the history of (expletive) hot rodding, man.”

“Dean Moon was a genius,” his friend burped, “but it makes me want to puke that people are trying to make money off all that dashboard crap they sell behind the counters of these so-called speed shops.”

“What people are building today holds absolutely no interest to me,” returned the Brit, spilling his can of libation. “I came from (expletive) millions of miles away to live in this country because I’m a (expletive) hot rod freak, right? And when I got to this country I was so (expletive) disappointed because the entire (expletive) place had sold out. And everybody is driving Japanese (expletive) cars.

“I came to (expletive) America and I came to Muroc today because I thought it was the last bastion of hot rodding,” the émigré gearhead was gathering steam now, double-clutching his soliloquy into overdrive, “and I think that this is (expletive) great today because shit like this rolled up (points to a ‘32 Model A D/Gas lakester) and made me a believer that hot rodding is still alive. (Screw) all that painted chrome and shit, this is a proper hot rod (points to the ‘52 Chevy sedan). You know what? I hate all this ‘family values’ and wearing shorts with flames on it, like ‘blar, blar, blar’ and ‘blar, blar, blar’ and ‘Excuse me, you can’t have no beer on that site.’ ‘Ex-cuse me?’ y’know-what-I-mean? I ain’t got no kids, I don’t want no (expletive) kids, I don’t want to be in an environment where I have to watch my (expletive) behavior because there might be kids present, I want to go and hang out where the is some old (expletive) proper hot rods, man.”

“Our ancestors,” his pal extrapolated, “much like him, left Europe to do what we wanted to do, when we wanted to do it. He came over here, and he found he can’t do what he wants to do, when he wants to do it.”

“It’s not a case of that exactly,” the Brit resumed. “It’s a case of indoctrination. It’s a case of the asses who run the magazines these days—the writers are getting paid wages by the suits who run the magazine to say what’s trendy because the advertisers tell them to. So he has to say what is trendy, and it’s like ‘new-(expletive)-stalgia!’. What the (expletive) does that mean?

“Street rodding, as far as I’m concerned, means conforming to the rules the magazines have put down. Y’know: it’s easy to have a 350 Chevy with this person’s steering column, and this person’s (expletive) tie-rod, and this person’s (expletive) blah-blah-blah. That’s not, as far as I’m concerned, what hot rodding is all about, which is hauling shee-it out of a (expletive) junkyard and building a car on the jeeg.”

“Real hot rods don’t have tan interiors,” one of his pals summed up.

“You can build an old-looking car out of new pieces, but that doesn’t make it an old hot rod. Old hot rodding, truly, has disappeared. I think an article, really a lament, on the decline of true hot rodding would be a cool thing because nobody wants to do it—they’re scared to do it, they don’t want to put that in a magazine because they are supported by the people who are selling the parts.”

I reckoned he was correct, no magazine would publish those sentiments. I also told these adrenaline-addled hell raisers that most of their heroes—Alex Xydias, Stu Hilborn, Joaquin Arnett, etc. were in their seventies nowadays, and were probably trying to catch some shut-eye. The most reverent yet politic gesture these hep cats could make would be to turn down their stereo, put out their campfire and go to sleep…

The next morning, after a handful of test runs down the parched mud where NASA, the JPL, and the Southern California Timing Association pulled off their bizarre romantic visions (indeed the only place that could not only tolerate but actually nurture their dreams), the winds kicked in with a ferocity that rendered further speed-record attempts futile. As the mother of all sandstorms blew fiercer and more torrentially, the desert rats collapsed their tents and loaded their belongings into their motor homes, trailers, and deuce coupes and began their journey home. But for one weekend this procession of the Timelords of the Apocalypse, a gathering of tribes seriously in touch with the soul of the Universe, got to play in their Garden of Eden—never mind that the only foliage in this Garden were a few sandblasted Joshua trees out by the rocket launchers.

As the timing officials announced the cancellation of the speed trials over the c.b. radio, I closed my eyes. I could see the plume of thick, charcoal-black death smoke, emanating off of the horizon on the desert floor. And I got the chills as the stinging pricks of the torrential sands continued to dig into my face. Aerospace. Jocko Johnson. Wally Parks. Project Mercury. Rockabilly Anarchists. Sonic Booms. The SCTA. Jet Propulsion Laboratories. Drag Racing. Mach One. The Bean Bandits. They were all the same thing, big chunks of the Southern California Experience, just expressed in different ways out at Muroc. It was all a twisted, glorious manifestation of what the Mercury Seven called “Go! Fever,” a sickness that starts out innocently enough as an intellectual exercise to debunk physics via downforce (with a co-efficient of drag) or propulsion or torque, anything man, just hit the throttle!, a fever so mesmerizing that its victim becomes caught up in his quest for speed, speed, and more speed, until the rational and linear thought processes have been superseded by raw desire, damn the torpedoes and damn the consequences, I want to live man!, even if it means dying, so turn up the boost and gimme some nitro! Jocko Johnson spit out the quote that defined the existence of these veterans of the dry lake sandstorms. Over turkey meat tacos the night before he said, “The more creative you are, the closer you are to God.”

Anybody who tells you that soulless corporations are a necessary ingredient to the pursuit of horsepower has never stepped foot on the fossilized dry lakebeds of the Mojave Desert. Those who have seen and tasted the elements of the dry lakes—sandstorms, whiskey, rocket engines, nitromethane, and maximum velocity penis-shaped land speed vehicles—as they coalesce on a lunar landscape in the Mojave Desert, will tell you this: The sands will come again. Just ask Jocko. Or Wally Parks.

(Author’s note: I must acknowledge a serious debt as per literary sources that informed this article. These include: The Nearest Faraway Place by Timothy White (Henry Holt and Co. Inc.); High Performance by Robert Post (John Hopkins University); and The American Hot Rod by Dean Batchelor (Motorbooks International).)

(Originally published in Super Stock & Drag Illustrated)

(excerpted from TOP FUEL WORMHOLE: THE COLE COONCE DRAG STRIP READER, VOL. 1)

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