Posts tagged ‘AA/Fuel Dragster’

September 8, 2009

Top Fuel Wormhole: The “Wild Bill” Alexander Interview

THE CRASH, BURN AND RESURRECTION OF A WORKING CLASS HERO

The “Wild Bill” Alexander Interview

by Cole Coonce

"Wild Bill" Alexander (photo by Ron Lewis)

"Wild Bill" Alexander (photo by Ron Lewis)


This story is one of growth, transformation and alchemy as metaphor. Defined as “a medieval chemical philosophy having as its asserted aims the transmutation of base metals into gold,” the process of alchemy involves the charring of metal, a procedure that the man who came to be known as “Wild Bill” Alexander witnessed repeatedly from the cauldron of a cockpit. Indeed, nobody has encountered—and dodged—more molten metal than the bold and angry prince who answered to the name “Alexander.” Every trip down the drag strip was a potentially explosive exercise in metallurgical sorcery, which saw the alchemist himself grow and mutate from Hot Rod Hooligan into hell-bent Speed King and Conqueror to, finally, Elder Statesman of the Nitro Wars.


Alexander began his ascent into adulthood with a bad mojo. As a dyslexic schoolboy from a broken home, Bill sought comfort and camaraderie in the Bel Airs, one of the many ubiquitous car clubs that sprouted up in SoCal during the 1950s. Concurrent with leaving home at 16, he finally found a field he excelled in—and a potential outlet for his prodigious anger: Speed.

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February 27, 2009

THE SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA EXPLODING INEVITABLE

THE EPIC SAGA OF THE SURFERS

 

There is a philosophy of the world that states that there is a common realization about the interconnectivity of all things physical and spiritual—that there is a unity at a profound level—and that our actions have somewhat infinite repercussions. This discipline is known as Zen. In the mid-1960s, it was a philosophy that was integral to the machinations of an offbeat trio of Nitro Bums from the west side of Los Angeles: Bob Skinner, Tom Jobe and Mike Sorokin, aka “The Surfers.” It defined their approach to the application of nitromethane vis-à-vis compression ratios and blower speeds. It defined who they were as individuals.

This is the story of how these three men stood the World of Drag Racing on its ear via their theoretical approach to life as applied to a Top Fuel dragster. It is the parable of two abstract yet linear thinkers, Skinner and Jobe, and their driver, Sorokin, and how they discovered that the path to Drag City and the trophy queen was also the path to nirvana and enlightenment.

It all began just a few lunar cycles before Baba Ram Dass coined the phrase “Be Here Now,” but this chestnut of wisdom could have been The Surfers’ mantra. For these shrewd and mischievous nitromaniacs, the drag strips of Southern California were a blank slate to gingerly project their desires and sensibilities in much the same way a Zen Master approaches the mysteries of life: Head First. With No Rear View Mirrors. This was not just about merely kissing a trophy queen on Saturday night. This was an exercise in all things theoretical and philosophical. It was an exercise in consciousness expansion. It was a journey.

And it was the ideal time to catch a wave, so to speak. The opportunity to express one’s self in the State of California then was as wide open and infinite as the blue waters of the Pacific Ocean. The only limits were one’s resourcefulness and ingenuity… And for approximately three revolutions around the sun it was absolutely high tide for the collaboration between Bob Skinner, Tom Jobe and Mike Sorokin. The Surfers ruled.

Although The Surfers made the universe shudder with their unique approach to both Top Fuel racing and, uhh, life itself, the genesis of their racing endeavors was much more prosaic than you would imagine. Its germination was in the days of Ozzy & Harriet and Googie Hamburger Stand Americana and it specifically took root on the corner of Jefferson & Sepulveda in Culver City, California. There stood a burger joint known as the “Nineteen.” Named eponymously after its nineteen-cent hamburgers, it was the epicenter for Cafe Society as interpreted by street-racin’ Southern California hot rodders. And its atmosphere, vibrations and “extracurricular activities” resonated deep in the soul of Mike Sorokin, at the time a lead-footed Venice High School student.

“The thing about the Nineteen was, not only did they have cheap food,” recalls local digger driver and one-time street racer Ron Hier, “they had a great big parking lot. We used to hang out there because we used to street race and ‘Sork’ was one of the guys who hung out there.

“When we first started hanging out with Sorokin at the 19,” Hier continues, “there really weren’t any drag strips—except for one all the way out in Santa Ana, and there were no freeways in those days. It was Gene Adams, Craig Breedlove and his ‘34, Leonard Harris, Mickey Brown, John Peters. What got Sorokin into racing was hanging out at the 19 and street racing with the guys.” After describing a crash “near the railroad tracks” involving a now-mega-famous race car driver (who shall remain nameless) Hier concludes that, “I can’t believe none of us got put in jail.”

Hier, who sold Sorokin a ‘34 Ford that was used to drag down Sepulveda Boulevard, mentions that Sork’s desire to race led to an ego battle with his old man, a conflict stereotypical of the era’s teenage rebellion. “His dad did NOT like drag racing… he didn’t like street racing, he didn’t like drag racing, he did not want Mike driving. He would come over and try and talk all of us out of racing.” Suffice it to say, the elder Sorokin’s pleas were the proverbial fallen tree and the “fast crowd” at the Nineteen was its empty forest. Ben Sorokin’s admonishments fell on deaf ears, mostly because he couldn’t be heard over the roar of un-muffled internal combustion engines and squealing tires as they roared down Lincoln Boulevard.

Simultaneous to “Sork” sharpening his reflexes on the malt shop circuit as well as in gas coupes and a D/Fuel dragster on the strip, Santa Monica City College students Bob Skinner and Tom Jobe began tinkering mischievously in academia with what, in essence, was the pursuit of a double major of chemical prankster-ism and the theory and application of nitromethane. And as the drag strips and the freeways experienced their concurrent boom, these two whiz-kid brainiacs pooled their brainpower with a local construction worker and schemed together on running a Top Fuel car out of a motel garage. It was the perfect opportunity to apply their studies to the real world…

“Skinner and Jobe, when they put the car together,” Hier recalls with bemusement, “…it was just a hare-brained idea.” Bob Skinner doesn’t dispute Hier’s assessment. “I had dabbled in street racing. I briefly ran a B or C/Gas car,” he recalls. “I had just got back from a three-month vacation and Tom Jobe and Jim Crosser said to me, ‘Okay, we want to build a fuel car.’ And I just said, ‘Okay.’ Most things that I have done along the way have been sort of spontaneous impulse without a lot of thinking about it. So when I came back and they said, ‘We want to build this car,’ I just said ‘Great’ and we just kind of got into it.”

Hier remembers how the team raised its venture capital: “Skinner and Jobe got together with Bob Skinner’s mother—who owned the Red Apple Motel there on Wilshire Boulevard in Santa Monica—and got her to sign for a ‘furniture loan’ for something like $5000.” Skinner and Jobe immediately cashed the check for the non-existent “furniture” and began gathering parts and pieces for their AA/Fuel Dragster, which was kept in a spare garage at the Red Apple.

Jobe sums up their rationale for running a Top Fuel dragster out of his Mom’s motel’s garage thusly: “It was a time when anybody could participate. When we started all we had was enthusiasm. We didn’t know nuthin’. We were just a bunch of street racers from Santa Monica,” he says. “My brother raced in a stock class with a Chevy and I was his motor man. He street raced six days a week and would go to the drags on Saturday night, but we just got tired of the ‘class’ deal. He won the Winternationals in ‘60 and runner-upped at the US Nationals, but he was always getting torn down and all that crap. We all kinda’ dabbled with C/Gas Willys and Mike drove a (C/Altered) roadster coupe with George Bacilek,” he remembers. “Anyway, all of us had messed with different classes and we finally said: ‘Classes? That sucks! Let’s build a dragster,’ but we didn’t know how to build one, you know.”

In other words, the only “competitor class” where Skinner and Jobe could dwell as free-thinkers was a class whose framework had no real… framework. Top Fuel.

So Skinner and Jobe began tugging on the shop apron strings of the local chassis builders and fabricators like a pair of hyperactive nephews that forgot to take their Ritalin. “There were a lot of (dragster) guys around here,” Jobe notes. “Every day after work we’d hit all the garages—there was a bunch of them in Mar Vista—we’d go to every one of them and ask some questions ‘til they’d throw us out and then we’d go down to the next one. We (finally) found out enough stuff because we had to build the whole thing ourselves; we didn’t have any money to buy anything.”

They might have been strapped for cash, but Skinner and Jobe were loaded with an intellectual camaraderie that couldn’t be bought. “Tom and I had a great ability to work together,” Skinner acknowledges in references to the sculpting of their short, scruffy, minimalist dragster. But their other colleague had a somewhat less theoretical take on drag racing and according to Jobe, “Our other partner just dropped out soon after we got the thing running.”

But just getting their homemade dragster running, nay just getting the digger to fire was an excruciatingly painful learning curve, according to SoCal drag-racing fixture Tom Hunnicutt, who was crewing for his friend Jim Boyd’s Red Turkey AA/Fuel Dragster the day The Surfers unveiled their creation at Lions Drag Strip in early 1964.

Hunnicutt says of that afternoon, “They kept pushing up and down trying to get the car to fire and it wouldn’t fire,” he laughs. “I don’t know if they had the magneto in wrong or what, but they kept pushing it on the return road for a long time—it wasn’t just once. It was a bunch of laps.” About this initial impression, Hunnicutt recalls thinking derisively, “‘These guys aren’t drag racers, who are they?’ They were kinda’ geeky.”

This is the phase where Skinner and Jobe were fine-tuning the chemistry of all things material and physical—and enduring the scorn of their opponents because their homemade, homely digger was a real back-marker. Even if they could get the motor to fire, part of the boys’ dilemma was that they had yet to settle on a driver who could viscerally and intuitively interpret their cerebral approach to Top Fuel racing and run it through the lights with the butterflies horizontal. Before Skinner and Jobe ultimately settled on Sorokin to shoe, there were a litany of drivers who attempted to hang ten in the cockpit, including “Lotus John” Morton, a journeyman sports-car racer who was sweeping the floor at Carrol Shelby’s place of employ (where Skinner also punched a clock). Morton, who had a reputation as being absolutely fearless and could handle any piece of machinery that had a throttle, describes his one-day tenure as shoe of The Surfers AA/Fuel dragster this way:

“The dragster ride happened when I was at Shelby’s,” Morton states in a passage from his biography, The Stainless Steel Carrot. “I got in the car at the strip. Really got packed in. I was sitting there in that thing thinking, I have really got myself into something. Here I was a sports car racer and had never driven anything down a drag strip before, not even my dad’s car, and I was about to drive the fastest thing they made. I was scared shitless. The thing was so powerful the centrifugal force of the clutch was trying to push itself out. I revved the engine and the sound ripped out like an explosion. My whole leg was trembling on the clutch.

“I let it out. Everything was a blur, the whole world went fuzzy. I let off for a second, just a tiny bit, and got pissed off at myself and floored it again. On my other runs I never let off but it didn’t matter; the thing was so fast I did a hundred and eighty my first run and that was it, never any faster. I put the clutch in at the end of the run and waited for the thing to stop. By the time it did, I could feel my leg was still shaking, like a dog shitting razor blades. But I did it. Something made me do it.”

Morton’s eloquent and punchy account reveals something about the state of The Surfers’ racing effort: For a couple of geeks, all of a sudden Skinner and Jobe were making beaucoup horsepower. But they lacked the final piece to their puzzle: A driver who could harness all that horsepower and ride the bulbous, minimalist machine bareback. And then Sorokin passed Skinner’s reflex test of catching a series of falling coins, hopped in the saddle and history was about to be capsized.

(END EXCERPT)

(Originally published 1998)

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