Posts tagged ‘“Big Daddy” Don Garlits’

October 7, 2010

TOP FUEL WORMHOLE GOES ELECTRIC, SAVES THE PLANET

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

October 7, 2010, K-Bomb Centcom, Los Angeles, CA—In what is arguably a drag-strip journalism first, both Cole Coonce’s Top Fuel Wormhole (his collection of drag racing essays), and its predecessor, Infinity Over Zero (an impressionistic history of the Land Speed Record), have both gone electric. Which is to say these may or may not be the first books on the topics to have a presence on Amazon.com’s Kindle store, but, arguably, these are the first essential ones.

With new, paper-less versions of both of Coonce’s rocket-fueled books now specially formatted for e-readers, modern motor-sports esthetes can download these delicious digital documents and enjoy them with the knowledge that the trees spared by the lack of pulp-processing can now serve as emissions credits for burning rubber and fouling spark plugs.

To that end, K-Bomb Publishing, the imprint that produced both the electric and paper versions of these thick tomes, encourages all consumers to brandish their Kindles at the drag races and, as the next pair of monopropellant-powered Funny Cars blasts by, exclaim to anybody who can hear over the noise that with enough pulp-free purchases of Top Fuel Wormhole, drag racing could ultimately be considered carbon neutral.

Indeed, with an electronic acquisition of Top Fuel Wormhole, the drag-racing reader can enjoy Coonce’s exhaustive essays on San Fernando Raceway, Arley Langlo, Lions Drag Strip, “Wild Willie” Borsch, “Big Daddy” Don Garlits, Shirley Muldowney, “Jocko” Johnson, Blaine Johnson, the “Surfers,” Tony Pedregon, Mendy Fry, John Force and others, guilt-free! A similar, relaxed experience is available with the consumption of Infinity Over Zero, which recounts Andy Green’s smashing of both the Land Speed Record and the actual Sound Barrier in a jet-powered car, and explores the intrepid exploits of other fearless land-speed racers such as John Cobb, Mickey Thompson, Glen Leasher, Craig Breedlove, Art Arfons, Gary Gabelich and more.

These thorough, stout books are available for wireless auto-delivery to one’s e-reader for the nice prices of $6.95 (Infinity) and $7.95 (Top Fuel Wormhole).

And for old-school consumers, hard copies of both Wormhole and Infinity Over Zero can still be purchased, of course, at Amazon and elsewhere. But that’s hardly cool these day, is it?

 

Top Fuel Wormhole is now Kindle-ready

 

 

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March 11, 2009

OVER, UNDER, SIDEWAYS, DOWN!: THE STORY OF “WILD WILLIE” BORSCH

 

by Cole Coonce

(BEGIN EXCERPT) 

The men and women gathered in a semi-circle around the half-finished Winged Express, alternately laughing and listening in reverent silence to the yarns spun by Mousie. Marcellus was “in the house,” as they say, working the room with the grace and panache of Swifty Lazar at Spago on Oscar night. He regaled his minions with the story of when Willie flipped and rolled the altered at Martin, Michigan in ‘70, one of the few times the machine got away from him. Marcellus and the crew arrived at the scene to find Borsch had become rabid with fear and anxiety. Willie was wailing and bellowing, “I’m blind, I’m blind,” only to be answered by roars of laughter from his crew. After all the howling had subsided, Mousey patiently explained to Willie that he could not see because his head was wrapped and intertwined in the parachute.

Marcellus then launched into another anecdote about Borsch, and in the meanwhile I started chatting up nostalgia Top Fuel scenester Tom Hunnicutt. Hunnicutt asked me if I had said, “Hello to Willie?” I told Tom I went over and tipped my hat to the newly restored Winged Express but no, Willie Borsch was dead, what do you mean did I go over and say hello to him? Hunnicutt then asked me to examine more closely the “trophy” sitting in the driver’s seat of the Winged Express. I walked back over and looked more discriminately at the cockpit of the roadster. That was no trophy—it was an urn… containing the ashes of William Bowen Borsch. He had come home.

…Yes, even in death, the exploits of “Wild Willie” continue to be stranger than fiction. But it was his displays of bravado and fearlessness on Planet Earth for which he will be most remembered. Consider the time he banged the car off the guardrail, crossed the centerline, bounced off the other guardrail, crossed the centerline again (to get back into his own lane), and caught and passed the guy he was racing. The fact that he denied to Mousie that he was driving the altered with one hand—Marcellus had to show Borsch photographs of him in action to prove it. Or the night at Lions Drag Strip when Willie stabbed the throttle and the entire machine leaped into the air, it landed, Willie whapped it again, she became airborne once more, it came down facing the guardrail, Willie punched the throttle anyway, straightened ‘er out and consummated the run. The crowd went apeshit.

(END EXCERPT)

(Originally published in Super Stock & Drag Illustrated)

 

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March 3, 2009

LIGHTS! CAMERA! NITRO!

(PUBLISHERS NOTE: THIS STORY TO BE INCLUDED IN VOLUME 2 OF THE COLE COONCE DRAG STRIP READER)

by Cole Coonce

Drag Strip Girl

Drag Strip Girl

Zukovic and I were kickin’ it in some rather trendoid hipster coffee klatch at Melbourne and Vermont in East Hollywood, drinking espresso and discussing the troubles with the age we live in. Zukovic is a failed screenwriter who now stacks cars with a forklift at the Pick-Your-Part in Santa Fe Springs.

Our conversation turned to the topic of Hollywood, particularly how the studios had portrayed hot rodders on celluloid.

I told Zukovic about a videotape I had rented the night before, a piece of B-movie pap from 1956 called Drag Strip Girl. As I riffed on the plot of this forgotten cinematic flop I started experiencing a hazy, unsettling feeling of spooky familiarity. I assumed it was merely side effects from the fourth cup of Cafe Gavina, but I was wrong. No, this particular bout of disorientation was different than the others. I continued to reveal the plot synopsis and when I got to the obligatory part about “so the old folks are tryin’ to close down the newly opened drag strip, and to make things worse the drag strip chickee challenges two j.d. hoodlums to a street race” when — BAM — this uncanny sense of deja vu thumped me right between the goalposts of my mind.

“In fact,” I spluttered, “They were running red lights through this very intersection!”

Zukovic was dubious: “Sure they did, Coonce.”

“No, I’m serious,” I replied. “The landscape was different, but I remember seeing a street sign in the movie that said ‘Melbourne’. And there was this red brick apartment building just like that one.”

I pointed across the street to this decrepit, crumbling tenement. “Okay, minus the earthquake damage, but I swear it was the same building.”

I felt like Dorothy back in Kansas at the end of the Wizard of Oz, but I continued my riffing. “Drag Strip Girl is your basic 1950’s malt shop America love triangle,” I told Zukovic, “but with a twist. In order to cross-collateralize sex, hot rodding, rock `n’ roll, and the spirit of wild youth — all under the guise of promoting ‘proper drag racing’ — American International Pictures staged a really reckless street race, including one character hopping out of one car and into the gal’s car at maximum velocity on this very strip of asphalt.” Everything was getting clearer now. “The race started right up there,” I said, pointing to what is now the House of Pies on Franklin and Vermont. “And it ended past Sunset, around Fountain—you know, where the blue Scientology hospital is.”

At this point our conversation segued into other moments when the disparate worlds of Hollywood and hot rodding intersected. I mentioned that Robert E. Petersen was once employed as a publicist for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer before he simultaneously started both Hot Rod Magazine and the NHRA with Wally Parks. And that John Frankenheimer, the director of Grand Prix and The Manchurian Candidate, was slated to direct a film biography of drag strip hero “Big Daddy” Don Garlits, a projected shelved due to “creative differences” between Frankenheimer and “Big Daddy” hisself. But beaucoup other drag racing “projects” did in fact get produced by the moguls of Hollywood: The Ghost of Drag Strip Hollow, Bikini Beach, Funny Car Summer, Two Lane Blacktop, Heart Like a Wheel, ad infinitum. Invigorated by the coffee and conversation and jonesin’ for nitromethane — even if it was only a glimpse of raw fuel on videotape — Zukovic and I devised a plan: we would each procure as many drag racing movies as we could possibly locate in the cobwebbed vaults of our local video stores and then rendezvous at my pad. With that accomplished, I would round up all the obsessive-weirdo film buffs and race fans that we knew. This motley intelligentsia consisted of an assortment of eccentric bohemian-types, among them: Ikky Shivers, a malcontent documentary filmmaker from Death Valley; Sarah Clayton, a local unemployed beatnik painter; Cuz’n Roy Gittens, a traveling harmonica and washboard player from Ranlo, North Carolina; Sean Vigle, an out-of-work cultural anthropologist from Echo Park; and Professor Prina, an instructor who teaches a class called the “Films of Keanu Reeves” to hopelessly art-damaged college students in Pasadena.

It would be a weekend-long cathode ray orgy of drag racing motion pictures. And at these screenings, unlike your local walk-in theater (“Quiet—the audience is listening”), running monologues during the movie was not only tolerated, it was encouraged… As the gearheads and film theorists sauntered into to my living room I warned them that we would plow through this motion picture marathon — Zukovic and I accumulated 19 videocassettes — until the last reel had been projected or until the coffee maker hydrauliced. The assembled riff raff nodded and mumbled in agreement, seeming to understand the seriousness of the task at hand: not only would this impromptu film panel chronicle the marriage of cinema and hot rodding, we would also look for the definitive drag racing movie — if it even existed.

DAY ONE

As I dimmed the lights for our first feature, the aroma of Cafe Bustello brewing in the coffee maker permeated the entire house. It is a smell that is second only to the pungent punch of nitromethane, and it seemed to be a fitting surrogate for the sensory delights of the drag racing experience. A brew richer than Top Fuel dragster driver Eddie Hill’s fuel mixture, the members of this rag-tag roundtable would consume a 55-gallon drum’s worth of this go-faster nectar before the weekend was over.

I figured some light escapist entertainment would ease us into this marathon, so I slipped Bikini Beach into the VCR. This 1964 piece is another teen exploitation flick from the shrewd crew at American International Pictures, a film distribution company run by that infamous titan of the tawdry, Samuel Arkoff. Drag racing was merely an incongruous backdrop for Arkoff and director William Asher to stage a typical teenage love triangle story: Surfer Boy (Frankie Avalon) meets Bikini Girl (Annette Funicello) at a beach with no old people. British Rock Star/Dragster Driver a/k/a “Potato Bug” (also Avalon) woos Bikini Girl away from Surfer Boy. Surfer Boy drag races British Rock Star for rights to Bikini Girl.

“This Potato Bug character is really just a thinly-veiled composite of all four of the Beatles, isn’t he?” Zukovic wondered.

“Well,” I said. “You’ve got to realize that this is 1964, and the Beatles just commandeered the top three positions of the American Top Forty simultaneously. In 1964 America, if you weren’t a teenage girl, you were a little freaked out by this development.”

“Yeah, but the Surfers just called Potato Bug a ‘crumpet eater.’ Don’t you find that a little xenophobic?”

“Maybe, but the British Invasion is about to ruin surf music, some would argue rock ‘n’ roll itself. We were really lucky the Beatles didn’t kill drag racing, just music.”

Meanwhile Don Rickles, cast as a drag racing renaissance man (beatnik artist, chassis builder, “motorologist,” track announcer, and malt shop proprietor) known as the “Big Drag,” is loaning Frankie Avalon use of the Greer, Black, & Prudhomme Top Fueler for his big race against Potato Bug. Clayton, currently an artist in Los Angeles herself, is groaning at the caricature of splatter painters such as Jackson Pollock in the guise of the “Big Drag.”

“Why are they trivializing Jackson Pollock? He was really cool.”

“I think they are spoofing “Big Daddy” Roth and Von Dutch more than Pollock,” Vigle replied.

“Hollywood will always ridicule what it’s incapable of understanding,” Zukovic chimed in. “The genius of Arkoff and A.I.P. is that it made a lot of money by being completely asinine.”

While Zuke rhapsodized about the “intelligence” of the Hollywood money-changers, the “Big Drag” was showing Frankie and his surfer pals how to operate the dragster:

“Don’t pull out the choke.”

“Why not?”

“Because it releases the parachute.”

The movie eventually cut to exterior shots of Pomona and the 1964 Winternationals, resplendent vintage footage of “Big Daddy” Don Garlits in his gunslinger-black “Wynn’s Jammer” AA/FD, “TV Tommy” Ivo, the Albertson Olds Special, and Chris Karamesines’ “Chizler” rail, all juxtaposed against the serene San Gabriel Mountains.

“Every time I went to drive-in movie theatre in the deep South and I saw these beach movies with dragsters racing alongside those majestic mountains, or whenever I heard a song by the Beach Boys on my AM radio, I knew there was something going on in California I needed to experience,” Cuz’n Roy solemnly intoned.

It was time to put in another movie and put on a fresh pot of coffee.

Since the sequencing of our feature festival was entirely free-form and improvisational, I decided to step back further in time to 1956 and subject the panel to another A.I.P. teen-o-rama time bomb, Hot Rod Girl. Set at the old San Fernando Raceway, which was also nestled in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains, the story line of this B-picture was as predictable as rush hour traffic.

“Rifleman” Chuck Connors stars as the cop with a conscience. Hot Rod Girl’s raison d’etre is a parable about the perils of street racing (which we all know will degenerate into a youth-on-the-loose “chicken race”), compared to the sanctioned, chaperoned sanctuary of legitimate drag racing. Clayton dismissed it as “malt shop propaganda,” but I thought the footage of San Fernando Raceway was worth the histrionic Hollywood moralizing. Of course A.I.P. really revels in the gratuitous carnage, while hypocritically admonishing the movie-goer to drive the straight and narrow. Yeah, right… In 1956, after watching Hot Rod Girl at the drive-in on Foothill Boulevard, how many teenagers do you think realized the error in their ways, and then obeyed the traffic laws all the way back to the Bob’s Big Boy in Burbank?

As our feature reached its drag strip denouement, I sensed I was losing the attention of our audience. Too many moral lessons, not enough funny cars on fire, I reckoned. It was still early, but I hoped Funny Car Summer would rejuvenate the troops.

It did not. A 1973 16-millimeter documentary shot at OCIR, Irwindale, Sacramento Raceway, and Utah(!), Funny Car Summer has very little moralizing (or dramatic tension for that matter) to get in the way of the drag racing. Ostensibly, this flick concerns itself with the trials and tribulations of independent funny car racer “Fireman Jim” Dunn. The night racing sequences are pretty underexposed, leaving the viewer in the dark as to who is racing, both literally and figuratively. Occasionally someone in our panel could make out which racecar we were watching, or even who the driver was, say, “Big John” Mazmanian or Pat Foster in Barry Setzer’s flopper, but those moments were fleeting. I really enjoyed watching an endless parade of anonymous header flames panning across the screen— I found it rather mantra-like. Unfortunately, there is a thin line between Zen and tedium, and my opinion as to which side of (un)consciousness FCS landed on was among the minority consensus. (Only Cuz’n Roy shared my enthusiasm, but he likes listening to a radio that has been simultaneously jammed to two different frequencies.)

To relieve the monotony of the out-of-focus night footage, the filmmakers cut to shots of Dunn’s entourage caught in a sandstorm at a drag strip in Salt Lake City. After that nosedive, the filmmakers regurgitated and re-cut footage seen earlier from OCIR, this time as a montage underscored with hopelessly overwrought folk music, schmaltzily sentimentalizing the plight of our racecar driver. For sheer cinematic dreariness, Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal has nothing on Funny Car Summer.

Zukovic was unimpressed: “What manner of community-college film school bullshit is this?”

“This is art, my friend.”

Another pair of header flames shot across the screen.

Clayton, the artist, was equally dubious: “This may be art, but these guys might want to figure out how to pull focus on their camera before they shoot another documentary.”

As we argued about the artistic merits of Funny Car Summer, one of the out-of-focus header flames crashed into the guardrail at OCIR. The next shot was of Sush Matsubara smoking a cigarette, pensively contemplating the twisted, bent remnants of the once-gorgeous “Pisano & Matsubara” nitro-burning flopper. I maintain that this scene was worthy of Marcello Mastroianni reflecting on the futility of life at a cafe in Rome in Federico Fellini’s 8 1/2. Only Cuz’n Roy agreed with that sentiment. We both really liked this movie. He even liked the folk music.

Our symposium was starting to get really restless at this point, so I resorted to a film that had very little to do with drag racing, but had everything to do with gratuitous sex and violence: Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! This 1966 flick, directed by soft-core pornography purveyor Russ Meyer, squeaked into our hot rodding festival by the narrowest of prerequisites: the film’s sports car and karate sequences, featuring militant go-go dancers, were shot at the El Mirage dry lakebed in the Mojave Desert, where drag racing was born.

Indeed, anti-heroine Tura Satana and her fellow femme fatales scoff at a sports car enthusiast who is racing against the clock—ala the Southern California Timing Association—and challenge him to a real race across the desolate desert floor. Then, not only does Satana smash his prized stopwatch, which he won at a speed trial, she also delivers a lethal karate chop to the poor chap’s neck.

“I think Jim Dunn would have kicked her ass,” Ikky said.

“Yeah, but Frankie Avalon wouldn’t have stood a chance,” Vigle replied.

Zukovic was way beyond this conversation: “What you gentlemen are missing here is how this movie has nothing to do with violence against men, and has everything to do with debunking the various myths about Southern California in the ‘60s.”

This aroused Vigle’s sense of anthropology. “You mean that a pornographer like Russ Meyer has a more accurate perception of the Southern California youth culture than the Hollywood movie corporations?” he asked.

“It is all pornography,” interrupted Clayton, the artist.

“This is well beyond corporations or pornographers co-opting and trivializing a culture they did not understand, and, perhaps more importantly, a culture that is now gone forever” Zukovic replied.

“In the 60’s you stood a better chance of finding a go-go dancer at El Mirage than a British Pop Star like Potato Bug at the Winternationals,” Ikky chimed in.

“Whether it was Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! or Bikini Beach that tapped into the psyche of the youth culture more realistically is irrelevant,” Zukovic added. “The point is that once the film studios did tap into what was happening at Zuma Beach or San Fernando Raceway or El Mirage, that was the beginning of the end.”

“Even in the ’60s,” he continued, “the problem with rock ‘n’ roll, surfing, and hot rodding is not that it has gone corporate…no, that’s not it, the problem is that it’s gone. Over. Kaput. Do you know what I’m saying? It’s not that ‘things go corporate, those darn corporations…’ Well, things only go corporate when they are all over.”

“What?”

“If the corporations don’t understand what is going on, then what is going on doesn’t go corporate. I wouldn’t pin the decline of the surf culture and the car culture on Hollywood.”

“What would you pin it on?” I asked.

“Pin it on this: In 1964 there was a left turn into the future that never happened. Only now you realize it didn’t happen because it wasn’t supposed to happen. People then try to get ‘it’ back of course, which is human nature. But there is no ‘it’ to get back. By watching Bikini Beach, you realize how much of it was utter and complete mythology.”

Zukovic was really getting warmed up: “It’s called The Fall, people. It’s called ‘there was a time when the dew was upon the grass, when things were pure AND NOW LOOK WHAT HAS DONE AND GONE AND HAPPENED — THOSE DARN CORPORATIONS HAVE GONE AND CORPORATIONALIZED EVERYTHING.’ That’s the oldest myth in the world. Surf city never existed,” he thundered, as Ikky and Sean stared at their beers, “it just existed in these movies—‘We got to go bring surf city back.’ No, there was never ‘two girls for every boy,’ like these movies and the song imply, it’s a metaphor goddammit, you don’t literalize a metaphor. Not only did that time never exist, it never could exist, that’s why everybody wants it back. If the dream is realizable, it’s not worth dreaming about. Cappice?”

“And at that point the media and the moviemakers feast on the carcass of what was a ‘scene,’ or ‘movement,’ or whatever you want to call it?” I asked.

“Ex-act-ly. It’s a paradoxical thing. Something happens and while it’s happening you don’t know its happening. And then once you realized it happened, you are never gonna’get it back. The minute it’s conscious, it’s gone. That’s when the Hollywood schlockmeisters coming swooping down from the hills to take your baby away like a hungry coyote. That’s when the co-opt surfing, and drag racing, and humping in the back seat of a Woody station wagon and put music to it.”

“This coming from a man who stacks cars at a junkyard,” Clayton said.

The mood got pretty heavy — heavier than the monstrous 4-wheel drive, 4-engined Oldsmobile dragster “T.V. Tommy” Ivo drove in Bikini Beach. I felt it was time to shut down the festival for the night, despite the fact that everyone was wide awake, and despite the protests of Professor Prina. The Professor had been pretty quiet all night, perhaps because he was upset about recent rumors of Keanu Reeves marrying film mogul David Geffen during a closed ceremony in Canada. Or perhaps he was saving his commentary for the screening of Parenthood, the film in which Keanu Reeves crashes a Super Comp dragster.

Regardless, it would have to wait until the next day, when we would continue to watch the films that documented a culture very dear to our hearts and souls—from an era that, according to Zukovic, may or may not have even happened at all.

PART TWO

It had been an exhausting weekend. I felt like Ray Milland in The Lost Weekend, except instead of being soused on sauce I was buggin’ on bean juice. The reason for copious caffeine intake was thus: I had invited to my house a trail mix of crusters, pop culture scholars, life’s losers, beatniks, and other East Hollywood riff-raff—in other words: inspired amateur gearheads and film critics—whose function was to not only find the definitive drag racing movie, but also to catalogue, classify, and ruminate on the offspring of the marriage of Hollywood and Hot Rodding—a decidedly warped and deformed spawn.

Our mission was half finished. The night before this half-cocked (and half-crocked) cognoscenti had sat through a endless mélange of drag racing flicks. Some were inspired (Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!), some were tedious (Hot Rod Girl), some were both inspired and tedious (Funny Car Summer). But as fun as the previous night’s session was, things got dark, philosophically speaking, at the end of the night. We felt frustrated in our attempt to find the definitive piece of drag strip cinema, our Citizen Kane. Our Raging Bull. Even our The Right Stuff.

Most of the flicks I screened the night before were shot and set in the 50’s and 60’s. Zukovic (the failed screenwriter who is now employed as a forklift operator at the Pick-Your-Part in Santa Fe Springs) proceeded to insinuate that perhaps what is noble and interesting about the glorious art of drag racing is too abstract to capture on film. Maybe what happened out in the fog at Lions Drag Strip was just a mirage. And that celluloid is incapable of capturing the image of a ghost.

Regardless of how accurately the movie industry portrayed the digs, those were heady days in a magic place: Southern California, the home of the teenage utopia, as evinced by Cuz’n Roy’s (the itinerant washboard musician) in his moving speech about lonely nights spent at the drive-in theater in Ranlo, North Carolina, watching footage of the Winternationals haphazardly grafted onto the plot of the Frankie and Annette vehicle Bikini Beach. Us Californians never knew we were kickin’ it in Xanadu, but the strip and surf-starved residents of Creaking Mailbox, USA were made all too aware of the blithe opulence of the California dragster culture via the films produced by American International Pictures, films that played well to horny teenagers at drive-ins south of the Mason-Dixon line.

DAY TWO

It was now Sunday night, coincidentally the night before the Academy Awards. Last night our “film symposium” had endured an endless loop of mostly Eisenhower to Nixon-era drag racing films, from Hot Rod Girl to Funny Car Summer, none of which unanimously satisfied the discerning tastes and palettes of our hard-to-please critics. Clayton, the local unemployed beatnik painter, dismissed most of the movies as “sock hop damage.” Ikky Shivers, the documentary filmmaker from Death Valley, questioned the technical accuracy of the dragster crash sequence in Bikini Beach. Professor Steven Prina, the scholar who teaches a class at Art Center in Pasadena called “The Films of Keanu Reeves,” does not really like or understand drag racing. Despite this cultural handicap, the Professor is willing to ruminate about Keanu’s role as a dragster driver in the movie Parenthood. Cuz’n Roy was the most lenient in his assessment of the movies, nodding approvingly at Annette Funicello in Bikini Beach as well as toasting “Fireman Jim” Dunn during the sandstorm sequence of Funny Car Summer by raising his bottle of “Mickey’s Big Mouth” to the ceiling. Ironically, the film that had the least to do with drag racing, Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, reaped the biggest accolades from our panel during last night’s screening. That was a sad comment on the state of cinema.

It seemed obvious that the fictional accounts of drag strips were mauled and mangled by the graceless paws of the clueless Tinseltown Coyote Gods, so I reckoned we would commence the second day of our festival with some documentaries. When I mentioned that our first couple of films were independent documentaries produced without any input from Hollywood Sheckies, the mood and tenor of the forum brightened considerably. This countenances of this once-sullen bunch lit up like Chrondek Timers as soon as Hot Rod Action hit the screen. Produced by Hot Rod Magazine and NHRA magnate Robert Petersen, this flick handsomely chronicles the 1966 NHRA Winternationals, the Bakersfield March Meet, the U.S. Nationals, as well as the NHRA World Finals in Amarillo, Texas. This includes priceless footage of the late Mike Sorokin in the awe-inspiring “Surfers” AA/FD, Mike Snively in Roland Leong’s formidable “Hawaiian” Top Fueler as well as “Sneaky Pete” Robinson’s triumph as World Champion in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Interspersed with the digs are some extremely cool clips of Craig Breedlove launching his rocket-powered salt flat racer into a lake during an epic but futile pursuit of the Land Speed Record at Bonneville.

“Boy Howdy!” shouted Cuz’n Roy, spilling his coffee on my couch as Breedlove waved from the tail section of his speed machine, most of which was submerged in water.

“How would you like to race in the desert at 600 miles-an-hour on the desert floor and then almost drown?” asked Sean Vigle rhetorically.

“I can’t believe they call that monstrosity the ‘Spirit of America’,” bellowed Ms. Clayton.

The cognoscenti all expressed their approval of Mr. Petersen’s documentary, the only qualm came from Professor Prina who considered the timbre of Keith “Wide World of Sport’s” Jackson’s voice-over “an acquired taste—like escargot or butyl nitrate.” Whatever…

Despite the Professor’s neuroses I sensed we were in a groove, the vibrations were positive, Ikky asked for more Cafe Gavina (a brand of bean juice that is particularly hard to find in Death Valley). “Don’t waste time with Hollywood Productions,” I told myself, “stick with the documentaries — they are far more surreal than anything the Film Studios could offer.”

I jammed in something called American Nitro into the VCR and hoped for the best. And I got it. This guy was not unlike Funny Car Summer, but ultimately more successful i.e., no maudlin folk music obnoxiously underscoring the plight of the independent drag racer, and no gratuitous sandstorm footage. Shot mostly at Fremont Raceway, this gem contained plenty of mid-70’s era funny car racing. Also included in this work, however, is an extremely chilling interview with engine builder Ed Pink who discusses the horrors of oil fires in the early days of drag racing, particularly the incident which claimed the life of Top Fuel hero John “the Zookeeper” Mulligan at the U.S. Nationals in 1969. That was a dark day for drag racing, and the footage from this segment rattled the collective soul and psyche of the race fans and film buffs gathered in my living room.

“This too was the ‘Spirit of America,’” Zukovic solemnly intoned.

“His passing was as tragic to the drag racing community as the school teacher’s who died in the Space Shuttle was to Middle America,” replied Sean Vigle.

“Beebe & Mulligan were the #1 qualifiers at that race with a 6.43, they had the rest of the dragsters covered by 2/10ths of a second,” Ikky mentioned.

He then whispered, “It was perhaps our Hindenburg crash.”

It got pretty quiet for a few moments.

“Wow, you guys really take this stuff seriously. Do any of you remember where you were when you heard about the news about his death?” Professor Prina wondered.

“Yeah…I do,” I said softly.

Yes, the “Zookeeper” pushed the parameters of a Top Fuel car in the 60’s and did not survive. His clutch exploded, a not-uncommon phenomena at the time, perhaps due to strain from the massive horsepower. But a lot of envelopes were subjected to stress tests during that era, both on and off the ol’1320. The racing movie that embodied the social chaos of that time would have to be Two Lane Blacktop. If Mulligan’s demise was symbolic of the end of drag racing’s innocence, then Two Lane Blacktop seemed to be a fitting segue out of American Nitro.

Indeed, this 1971 flick could have only have been shot in post-Altamont America. Starring two rock stars as outlaw drag racers and directed by Monte Hellman, this is the only feature that captivates the zeitgeist of Vietnam-era drag racing. Helleman’s coup was that this feat was accomplished not only without Hollywood’s money, but also without much plot or dialogue either. In fact, there is more dead air in this flick than a baseball broadcast with Marlee Matlin calling the play-by-play.

The “plot” consists of a cross-country street race between Warren Oates in a fresh GTO and the Tuinol tag-team of James Taylor and Dennis Wilson in a primer-colored ‘55 Chevy. The first hot rodder to arrive at a D.C. Post Office pockets the pinks slips to both vehicles.

If the plot seems like an exercise in minimalism, the dialogue is excruciatingly sparse, especially from the rock musicians that were hired as actors. Dennis Wilson (the drummer for the Beach Boys) as “the Mechanic” has one phrase he repeats like a mantra throughout this art film: “I got to check the valves.”

James Taylor, as “the Driver,” at least gets to stretch out with relatively long-winded speeches such as: “He better find himself a relief driver or he’s in trouble…unless he has some uppers.”

It is Warren Oates, however, who delivers a performance worthy of Laurence Olivier. Cast as “GTO,” the pathological liar-cum-methedrine addict-cum-street racer, Oates expertly delivers such literary gems as “If I’m not grounded pretty soon I’m gonna’ go into orbit,” as well as “What are you tryin’ to do… Blow my mind?”

But is the following exchange, as GTO waves off the Driver’s symbolic offering of a flask of hooch, that sums up the tone of this teeth-grinding road picture:

Driver: “I just thought it might relax you while you drive.”

GTO: “This is competition—I got no time.”

Shortly thereafter the rock stars, now with a jailbait hitchhiker in tow, stopped at Shelby County International Raceway to make enough bread “grudge racing” to finish their cross-country endeavor. As the camera panned across the pits, bleachers, and the Tennessee drag strip itself, it looked like Cuz’n Roy was getting a little misty-eyed. This was a resplendent montage of something us Pacific Rim race fans had never cast eyes upon: down ‘n’ dirty drag racing in the Deep South. As Dennis Wilson got under the hood to “check the valves,” Roy grabbed his washboard and harmonica and commenced to improvising a impromptu soundtrack. It sounded a little like “Dixie,” but none of us were really sure. Professor Prina looked very afraid, his knowledge of the South limited to watching Deliverance.

“Y’know,” Ikky said, oblivious to Roy’s corn-pone film score, “Dennis Wilson used to drag race a Super Stocker at “the Pond” a/k/a San Fernando Raceway back in ‘66.”

“Yeah but his acting ability—and I use that phrase loosely—is stiffer than his surfboard,” replied Sean Vigle.

At the conclusion of Two Lane Blacktop I noticed that Professor Prina was still shaken and nervous from Roy’s behavior. To appease our resident academic I finally jammed Parenthood into the tape machine and hoped the race fans could sit patiently through the non-drag race sections of this feature—in essence, the first two acts.

Ostensibly a comedy about the trials, tribulations, and hijinks of life in suburbia, Parenthood was scoring few points with an audience that had been subjected to an overabundance of coffee, Mickey’s Bigmouth’s, and videotapes during the last 24 hours.

“Wasn’t this turkey directed by Opie Taylor?” Vigle asked the Professor.

“If you mean Ron Howard, yes it was,” he replied.

“He also directed Grand Theft Auto,” Ikky bellowed, “now there was a movie.”

Grand Theft Auto was utterly banal, reductive trailer-park dross,” argued Zukovic.

“Maybe so,” Ikky replied, “but at least there was some action.”

“My, how the mighty have fallen,” someone said.

“Quiet you guys,” Clayton admonished, “ Martha Plimpton just found the helmet that Keanu has been hiding from her.”

“Todd! You promised! No more drag racing!” Plimpton barked shrewishly.

“So I lied!” Keanu shot back.

“What depth!” shouted the Professor.

The argument continued to rage onscreen, Keanu acknowledging he wasn’t really a housepainter after all; in fact, he made his money as—get this—a Super Comp driver. This admission really brought the house down.

P-l-e-e-a-s-s-e,” groaned Ikky.

It only got worse. The film cut to a meet at Lakeland, Florida. Keanu was racing his rear-engined digger, now with his fiancée’s approval. Reeves was on a nice run, when, apropos of nothing, he crashed into the guardrail at half-track, destroying the car. The symposium booed en masse, except for the Professor, who looked hurt and confused.

“He’s even shittier at driving than he is at acting,” said Vigle.

Ikky was appalled at the technical inaccuracy: “What the hell was that? A Super Comp dragster just doesn’t turn left like that.”

“In Hollywood films they do,” Zukovic countered.

“I’m offended at the implication that everything is hunky dory once he quits drag racing,” I said.

“I think you people are missing the point,” Professor Prina backpedaled. “Although Keanu’s role as the racecar driver is inconsequential, and from an engineering standpoint the race scenes are implausible, that’s not the crux of this picture. What this film does is it promotes Family Values, Patriotism, and …”

“So did Joseph Goebbels and the Third Reich,” said Clayton, the feminist beat painter.

I ejected the cassette immediately. It was late and I was in no mood to watch the plight of white people in the suburbs.

But I was in the mood to try and wrap up this festival on a positive note. I gingerly inserted something that would appeal to everyone, including feminist painters and pop culture scholars: Heart Like a Wheel. This feature is the drag racing corollary to “It’s A Wonderful Life.” Indeed, Frank Capra would be proud.

This epic is the Shirley “Don’t Call Her Cha-Cha” Muldowney story. Thanks to spot-on technical advice and scintillating stunt driving from “T.V. Tommy” Ivo and “the Unsinkable” Kelly Brown, for once Hollywood captured the atmosphere of the digs. The arc of the storyline chronicles the rising tide of female liberation in the 60’s and 70’s as well as the career of one of drag racing’s epic figures.

The crashes and fires play well, there is nothing gratuitous about the carnage at all. More importantly, the casting of Bonnie Bedellia and Beau Bridges as the “Bounty Huntress” and the “Bounty Hunter” is perfect.

“What a cool story,” Clayton gushed. “This whole tale could be a blueprint for the feminist’s paradigm.”

I told her that there are dozens of drag strip dramas that would make excellent fare for films: Garlits, “Wild Willie” Borsch, the Story of Pete Robinson, etc. But it was my hope that Hollywood would just leave drag racing alone because, regardless of the Shirley Muldowney movie, Hollywood would just screw these stories up by casting Keanu Reeves as Pete Robinson or something.

Zukovic agreed. He said, “In the annals and folklore of drag racing there lie a plethora of dramas and anecdotes equal to or greater than any screenwriter could summon, but at this point in time, moments before the new millennium, let us hope that Hollywood leaves drag racing alone—let them find some other source of fodder for their gristmills.”

Zukovic then bid us adieu, and went home to get some sleep before his shift started at Pick-Your-Part in the morning. The rest of the panel also left.

As I closed the door behind them I thought about some of Zukovic’s comments he made the night before after watching Bikini Beach. He maintained that “Surf City” (or “Drag City,” if you will — the two seem interchangeable if you grew up on a farm in the Midwest which seemed to be AIP’s demographic, the only way to get your ya-ya’s out was stump-breakin’ cattle out by the feed trough) never existed, it only existed in the crass, reductive screenplays of hack Hollywood producers and screenwriters anxious to cash in on any “youth movement” that could be packaged and marketed like a hula hoop.

Let’s get real: for all practical purposes Drag Strip Girl, Bikini Beach, The Ghost of Drag Strip Hollow, as quaint and kitsch as they may be, are the cinematic equivalent to Nacho Flavored Licorice Whips. The real drag racing epics were shot without the influence of Hollywood number-crunchers and bean-counters. I.e.: Two Lane Blacktop, Funny Car Summer, American Nitro, and Hot Rod Action.

Sure, Arkoff and his ilk portrayed the surface elements inherent in the drama of the drag strip: speed, danger, sex. (Let’s face it: capturing Top Eliminator is not too far removed from slaying dragons—either way you got to bag the trophy chickee, whether she was the proverbial Rapunzel or the proverbial Linda Vaughn, or in the hot rod movies, a stacked ex-Mouseketeer in a bikini named Annette.) But when you add up the elements of speed, youth, chrome, and fire—set against a backdrop of either the majestic San Gabriel Mountains or the placid, smooth Pacific Ocean—its sum is greater than the total of its parts. That is what Hollywood never captured—the intangibles which separate Camelot from The Last Picture Show.

Zukovic had argued it was all a mirage, but he did not grow up at the drag strip and I did. There was something transcendental going on out there. Some would argue a Renaissance. Thus drag racing possessed something beyond the ken of the opportunistic Sheckies of Movieland — something intangible that these lardass cigar-chomping “movers and shakers” could never grasp. Drag racing had soul. Hollywood never did (at least not since Orson Welles was run out of Tinseltown on a rail in the 1940’s). And when these disparate worlds met, Hollywood was successful only at eviscerating the soul out of drag racing, leaving a hollow form that was then stuffed with the base, crass trappings of exploitation filmmaking. The men-in-suits considered the digs a trivial, white trash culture…

But I know there is something noble about the pursuit of horsepower. It is a crucial, virtuous component to the human spirit. Indeed, the inquisitive nature of humanity is exemplified by the passion and prowess of the likes of Madame Curie, Michelangelo, Descartes, Einstein, and even good ol’ Ayn Rand. During the last American Renaissance, which I maintain transpired at Lions Drag Strip in the 1960’s, there were physicists, artists, and engineers who could rub shoulders with M. Curie, Einstein, Da Vinci, et. al. Human beings like Beebe & Mulligan. Skinner, Jobe & Sorokin. Mickey Thompson. Marcellus & Borsch. “Big Daddy” Don Garlits. “Sneaky Pete” Robinson. Keith Black.

And yes, you can see these men and their machines in various Hollywood epic misfires such as Bikini Beach and Drag Strip Girl But in these movies you will not see what made these men tick. Or tinker.

The End. –30-

(Originally published in Super Stock & Drag Illustrated; slated for publication in Top Fuel Wormhole: The Cole Coonce Drag Strip Reader, Vol. 2)

March 2, 2009

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

(BEGIN EXCERPT)

“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.

(END EXCERPT)

(Originally published 1999)

CONTINUE READING…

September 29, 2008

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)