Posts tagged ‘Keith Black’

September 8, 2009

Top Fuel Wormhole: The “Wild Bill” Alexander Interview


The “Wild Bill” Alexander Interview

by Cole Coonce

"Wild Bill" Alexander (photo by Ron Lewis)

"Wild Bill" Alexander (photo by Ron Lewis)

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

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

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March 3, 2009



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.


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.”


“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.


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.


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)

February 27, 2009




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.


(Originally published 1998)