Posts tagged ‘March Meet’

September 24, 2014

2013 March Meet: Nitro Marauders Motor on and Famoso Fuelers Fight back

(photo by Cole Coonce)

(photo by Cole Coonce)

In “Nitro Marauders Motor on and Famoso Fuelers Fight Back,” Cole Coonce reports in Car Craft’s Elapsed Times about the state of NHRA’s Heritage Series drag racing.

Read the story here:

March 6, 2010

Top Fuel Wormhole’s Soul-Tugging March Meet Memories

Publisher’s Note: In keeping with this weekend’s  motor-riffic machinations at the Bakersfield March Meet, here are some excerpted memories of that event from the pages of Top Fuel Wormhole. Specifically, this is Cole Coonce’s Top Fuel coverage from the 1998 and 1999 events, separated by a brief obituary of epic crew chief, Jim Herbert, who won the 39th March Meet and passed on suddenly days before the 40th, which he won, arguably, posthumously.



Jim Murphy and the WW Two Top Fueler @ the 1998 March Meet (photo by Cole Coonce)

Goodguys 39th March Meet, Famoso Raceway, March 13-15, 1998—Wam! Bam! Wallakazaam! What a rootin’ tootin’ drag race! And it all boiled down to two dragsters—the venerable awe-inspiring, Jim Murphy-shoed W.W. Two machine against the immaculate fresh-outta’-the-oven Foothill Flyer slingshot (shoed by “Nitro Neil” Bisciglia)—squaring off for all the prestige and glory that is part and parcel of winning Top Fuel Eliminator at the March Meet.

The box score will reveal that Murphy did a masterful job of negotiating W.W. Two past the traction-deficient bottom end and posted a quarter-mile elapsed time of 6.26 seconds to defeat the Foothill Flyer, which began spinning the tires about 300 feet into the run whereupon Bisciglia prudently shut off the engine while savoring runner-up status. But this doesn’t do the March Meet justice, and once the smoke cleared after this final pair of fuelers BA-WHAPPED their way down the quarter mile, it was hard not to reflect on a March Meet that was absolutely loaded with awe-inspiring moments…

Indeed, there were so many highlights, this writer is at a loss as to where to starting litanizing them; The beginning would be the logical place to start, I guess, but that was Friday night’s qualifying session, which was rained out—no epic moments there. But come Saturday, it was hellzapoppin’ right off the bat, courtesy of Denver Schutz. Schutz catapulted his way to the #1 qualifying position of the 8-car show (where he stayed) with an early shut off (!) 6.01 @ 209 mph, a run that was as smooth as a baby’s keister to the 1/8th mile—in fact, the Eirich, Schiller & Schutz Ground Zero fueler clocked an unprecedented 203 mph at half-track—before tire shake forced Schutz to abort the run. “Everybody’s accusing me of shutting it off early all the time, falling on my ass in order to save (the engine)—well, I’m tired of doing that! But it was vibrating so bad down there, the tires were so far out of balance, I couldn’t see,” said an exhilarated Schutz, champing at the prospect of driving it out the back door come race day. No matter how stunning, however, this wasn’t the run that sent the railbirds into orbit. Nor was the #2 shot by Mike McClennan, who wowed ‘em with a rod-tossin’, crank-charrin’ 6.09 @ 218…

The biggest damage to the spectator’s and participant’s sense of reality transpired during the final session of Top Fuel qualifying late Saturday afternoon, when the wheat began to separate from the chaff. Amongst the 21 cars entered, the list of non-qualifiers as of Saturday afternoon would make for a pretty decent hot-rod harvest unto itself: Champion Speed Shop, Fuller & Dunlap, Pure Hell, The Birky Bunch, the Foothill Flyer, W.W. Two, Steiner & Berger and others were all in line to get tickets to Sunday’s dance.

Dunlap punched his ticket early, clocking a 6.15 at 216 mph, which enabled the Mike Fuller MotorsportsFugowie fueler which was doin’ the monkey at 180 mph through the lights and playing pong with the guardrails while upside down. (Butch was okay… the once-gorgeous race car was actually fairly intact except for a missing rear wheel and slick, an obliterated set of front tires, a bongoed blower set-up and an inch or so of chrome-moly missing off of the top of the roll cage… yikes! Suffice it to say, Butch, who is an excavator and contractor when he ain’t running a Top Fuel dragster, operated very little heavy machinery the rest of the weekend; in fact, nothing more strenuous than a blender. Doctor’s orders!) machine to enter the show—and also kept him out in front of Butch Blair’s barrel-rolling

More high drama manifested when “Nitro Neil” attempted to qualify the brand new Stirling-chassied Foothill Flyer, which arrived at engine czar Ken Castagnino’s shop at 6 am the previous Monday morning—sans motor. It had been a tumultuous, topsy-turvy week for Neil, car owner Pete Jensen, engine donor Ron “Pro” Welty and the rest of the Foothill Flyer’s “Free Mexican Air Force,” as they thrashed on the dragster for five days, ultimately towing to Bakersfield without having even fired the engine.

More than one member of the nitro cognoscenti raised an eyebrow in disbelief as the FMAF worked like an Alabama chain gang to finish prepping the new car, only to smoke the tires during their first two qualifying attempts. All that overtime paid off, however, as Neil silenced the non-believers with an in-the-pocket 6.37 at 224 mph, a clocking which prevailed for 8th and final position on the eliminator ladder.

Once the euphoria of Bisciglia’s accomplishment was digested, the place went absolutely ballistic after the W.W. Two’s subsequent benchmark performance, the obliteration of the 250 speed barrier, as Jim Murphy turned a time of 6.25 seconds @ 250.00 mph. What makes this feat even more startling is the notion that is was all a mistake… “It was a little unexpected,” said W.W. Two czar, Jim Herbert. “We tried to soften everything just to get down the track—we weren’t in the program—the new combination (Mastodon aluminum heads) seems to be making a little different power curve.”

Herbert’s driver describes this momentous run as kind of a turkey—at last initially. “I held the brake, it was a screwed up run. it was real doggy off the start.” After Murphy let go of the brake handle, the tires started spinning again and the car veers toward the guardrail, so Murphy grabbed the brake again! “It was really screwed up,” Murphy reiterates. But all this tugging on the brakes loaded the motor REAL GOOD… when Murphy finally let go of the brake at about 700 feet into the run (while heroically hugging the guardrail) the motor was makin’ bacon like Farmer John on disco biscuits… “It was pullin’ and pullin’ and pullin’,” said Murphy later. “I was gonna run it right to the light—I wanted to make sure we got in. We didn’t want to be sitting out.”

“I don’t like a lot of speed; speed hurts things, luckily it didn’t this time,” Herbert revealed. (Actually, further evaluation proved they had hurt a main bearing.) “He got a little disorientated down there,” Herbert continued. “The car was still moving at half track on him, he kind of lost where he was at and when it did hook up it started to haul ass.” Herbert tersely doled out praise for his driver: “He drove the wheels off of it; we’re here to be in the show. I’m not a very good loser.” — Cole Coonce

(Originally published in Drag Racing USA)



Jim Herbert plugs his ears (photo by Cole Coonce)

MARCH 3, 1999—It is with great sorrow that I report that Jim Herbert, majordomo of the W.W. Two AA/Fuel Dragster, passed on this morning.

Details are still forthcoming, but apparently it was heart related. The timing of his passing is somewhat ironic because his health had been sketchy for years, but he really seemed to be getting healthier lately.

I was discussing benchmarks recently with some Internet bleacher bums and some folks mentioned the 6.000 that Ted “the Bad Lieutenant” Taylor recorded in the W.W. Two car as a definitive moment in drag-strip history. We would be remiss to mention that Herbert’s hot rod was the second slingshot in the 5’s. He also tuned his latest driver, Jim Murphy, to that 250 mph moon shot at Famoso.

I had the honor of “getting next” to Herbert during the course of my drag strip journalism endeavors—which is to say he would return my phone calls. Straight up, nobody commanded my respect more than this man—and I have had the pleasure of meeting a plethora of both abstract and forward thinkers in a variety of mediums. Herbert, however, had really been in a groove for the last decade or so. It was a real privilege to meet the man as he truly hit his stride.

One of the most epic sights in drag racing was watching Herbert snap the ground wire off the mag and WHAPP! WHAPP! WHAPP! the mighty, beastly W.W. Two fueler would awaken with a roar. Herbert would point the driver (Taylor, Gary Ritter, Murphy) into the beams and with these few graceful and economic hand gestures he would let everyone gathered around the starting line know exactly whom they were reckoning with.

“Epic.” “Graceful.” Hey! We should all hit our marks with such dignity and panache. Jim, the drag strip community will be poorer without your presence. You were truly a hero, whose penchant for setting racers and race fans on their ear was matched only by your humility and modesty.

I can’t tell you how happy I am for you. You had the opportunity to shine like a diamond, but you were never ostentatious. You will be missed. — Cole Coonce

(Originally published in Nitronic Research)

A bittersweet victory. (photo by Cole Coonce)


Goodguys 40th March Meet, Famoso Raceway, March 13-15—It was perhaps the most poignant final round in the history of the sport…

Facing off against “Wild Bill” Alexander for the honor of Top Fuel Eliminator at the Goodguys March Meet was the W.W. Two AA/Fuel Dragster, the defending champs, who were sans their esteemed point man, Jim “the Lizard” Herbert, who had passed on to the Great Flow Bench in the Sky a mere ten days prior, a victim of a heart aneurysm.

Herbert died with the secrets of his tune-up still locked in his noggin. Defense of the March Meet title was left to his surviving teammates (who were ambivalent about campaigning the dragster in Herbert’s absence but were persuaded to go racing by Herbert’s widow, Cheri) and their ability to unlock and decipher the secrets of a complicated matrix of nozzles, weights and measures that comprised the blown-Chrysler-on-nitro tune-up that had been taken to the grave. Befitting of a man of his stature, the winner of Top Fuel Eliminator at the March Meet was also the recipient of the Jim Herbert Memorial Trophy.

During qualifying, the chances of driver Jim “Holy Smokes” Murphy and the rest of the W.W. Two team transforming their appearance here into a proper wake seemed remote. After three qualifying attempts, they anchored the bump spot with an elapsed time of 6.23, far off the pace set by “Swingin’ Sammy” Hale in the Champion Speed Shop/Juxtapoz Chevy-powered fueler, who had rocketed to an unprecedented 5.87 at 232 mph to snare the pole position.

(As a parenthetical to Hale’s benchmark—“We’re going to bypass the .90s,” is how “Swingin’ Sammy” prophesied the run—bodacious manifold pressure kicked out both the ingress and egress lines of the oil system, creating a geyser of Torco that lubricated the left slick like a banana peel on a back-lot sidewalk. As an oil-blind Hale fought for control of his 230 mph Valdez, jettisoned oil actually doused the driver in the next lane, Circuit Breaker hot shoe Howard Haight, who was busy swapping lanes—not once but twice—with the caroming Champion machine. To reiterate, in addition to Sammy, Howard Haight also received an oil bath… from the digger in the other lane! Howard, who has cut his teeth on a variety of mean machines including the infamous Pure Heaven AA/Fuel Altered, said it was the scariest ride he had ever taken.)

Despite the performance of the W.W. Two machine being well behind the curve of Sammy Hale’s moon shot, during eliminations kismet, providence and perspiration intervened on behalf of Herbert’s survivors… Murphy began the afternoon by zipping past Gerry Steiner, 6.11 @ 215 mph to Steiner’s charging 6.13, 242 mph. (As a consolation, Steiner’s boisterous assault on the lights stood for Top Speed of the Meet.) In the semi-finals, Murphy upped the ante with a 6.09 clocking that dropped Denver Schutz’s trailing 6.29. (Note: FTN would be remiss in not mentioning Schutz’s first-round opponent, Jack Harris in the Dale “the Snail” Emory-tuned Nitro Thunder dragster; these guys qualified 2nd at a rollicking 6.04 but had traction problems against Schutz. . . )

On the other side of the ladder, however, Alexander, shoe for Frank “Root Beer” Hedge’s Mastercam team the unenviable #5 position on the elimination ladder and pitted Alexander against “Swingin’ Sammy” Hale. But in eliminations the Champion team made a strategic mistake as the Chevy put out a cylinder or two, lost and regained traction and sashayed to a losing 6.54 against Bill’s superior 6.17 at an impressive 234 mph. Despite an aggressive clutch set-up, fate continued to bless Alexander in the semi-final round of eliminations. His competition, Rick McGee in the Tedford, Hester & McGee entry, appeared en route to an easy victory as the Mastercam machine struck the tires on the launch and limped down the racetrack. At 1000 feet, however, as McGee was all alone ten yards from the end zone, he fumbled, striking the centerline cones and was disqualified. McGee’s transgression left Hedge & Alexander with the uneasy task of playing Snidely Whiplash to the W.W. Two team’s Dudley Dooright. . .

Indeed, as Hedge emerged from the undulating clouds of tire smoke en route to his tow vehicle and was informed that he actually had won that heat, he was noticeably shaken and appeared rather distraught. “This is Herbert’s race,” he said, moments before regaining his senses and cranking up both the nitro percentage and the lead on the magneto.

Despite any perceived trepidation concerning spoiling a Cinderella story, the Mastercam machine was loaded like an elephant gun in the final round. The motor was as loud, over-the-top and boisterous as it has ever sounded. The burnout was particularly deafening. As “Wild Bill” pulled ‘er into the beams, the blower straps caught on fire due to a leak out of the left header bank. Starter Larry Sutton (of Lions Drag Strip fame and an absolute Timelord of the Xmas tree) doused the flames with a fire extinguisher and motioned Bill into the beams (!); the blower straps caught on fire again and Sutton hit the extinguisher once more before giving Alexander the kill sign. Sutton then wheeled around and held up one finger to Murphy, signifying a solo shot to victory. It was a touching coda to one of the most emotional weekends in drag racing as crew members gathered around Murphy and the W.W. Two machine in a semi-circle, most of whom raised the right hand and the air and extended their index fingers in salute to their fallen leader. As Murphy popped the parachutes at the culmination of a 6.23, 208 victory lap, railbirds, racers and bleacher bums were openly weeping.

In general, the event was a slam-dunk success. The staging lanes, bleachers and porta-potties were all filled to capacity. Moreover, the impromptu tribute to Jim Herbert was as inspired as it was implausible. But the success of W.W. Two—in spite of the absence of their fallen leader—begs this question: When was the last time you cried at a drag race? — Cole Coonce

(Originally published in Full Throttle News)


TOP FUEL WORMHOLE is available here.

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 2, 2009


A Concentric History of the World’s Quickest and Fastest Chevy on Nitro…


by Cole Coonce


“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.


(Originally published 1999)


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)