Posts tagged ‘Fremont’

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.

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(Originally published 1999)

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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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