Posts tagged ‘nitromethane’

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)


September 29, 2008


Jocko Johnson’s high-desert campaign to meld the arts and sciences in an age that shuns creativity.

by Cole Coonce

Strange and abstract notions oscillate in the desert. Out there, notions emanate from the minds of exiled artists, philosophers, musicians, and engineers. Their visions and their bodies of work are perpetrated in everything from abandoned Airstream trailers to sandblasted Geodesic Domes to thatched adobe recording studios as well as the research laboratories and wind tunnels of the high-desert military-industrial complex. All of this is scattered across the Mojave like the seed of Creation itself, and these strange and abstract notions—this collective consciousness—permeates the entire Mojave ionosphere like some bastardized electro-magnetic field where errant oscillations bang into other free range oscillations, ultimately creating extrapolation upon extrapolation until one man designs a motor that debunks the conventional wisdom of automotive engineering. His design proves that the internal combustion motor as we know it is a mistake. A failure. The motor that will supersede the four-stroke dinosaur has 25 cubic inches, 18 cylinders, no crank, no push rods and weighs forty pounds—wet. And this inventor plans to prove the superiority of his design in a land-speed streamliner whose target speed is 555 miles per hour.

I recently drove out to the desert to find that man and his motor. His name is Robert “Jocko” Johnson. Actually, it’s just “Jocko” or maybe “Jocko Johnson,” but it ain’t “Robert” and hasn’t been for decades. The etymology of “Jocko” dates back to 1953; apparently our subject had an unfortunate bout with jock itch while working as a teenaged apprentice at the Barris Kustom Auto shop in North Hollywood. Because of his reflexive scratching, Robert was dubbed “Jocko” by the shop owner, kustom kar czar George Barris. And despite his nickname’s, uhh, sensitive origins, Johnson has refused to answer to “Robert” ever since.

Yeah, if you are a young, aspiring hepcat hot rodder and you are blessed with a nickname bestowed by an artist/designer of George Barris’ esteemed stature, you immediately commence to signing your entry forms and your purchase orders that way. But a cool moniker was not all that Jocko was graced with by these folks—he was privy to some pretty serious science as well. Jocko was on the ground floor of a far out, kustom kulture factory that was a crucial link to what some art historians consider the Last American Renaissance.

And what a Renaissance it was: It was a maniacal era. It was an era as wide open as a deserted desert highway. It was an era when the arts were flourishing on all cultural fronts vis-à-vis the endeavors of cats like Coltrane, Jackson Pollock, Allen Ginsberg, Thelonious Monk, Carl Perkins, and Link Wray. The intoxicating sensibilities of this “go-cat-wild!” “beat generation” infiltrated the So Kal Kustom Kar Kulture to its core: It contaminated artists like Von Dutch as he meticulously pinstriped his hallucinatory visions onto hot rods. Meanwhile, Ed “Big Daddy” Roth was taking a pressurized cake-decorating tool to paint on anything that was in his path. And young Jocko was honing his craft and expressing himself by bending sheet metal.

Barris Kustom Auto, Jocko’s place of employ, was cranking out some seriously bizarre race cars; folding, bending and carving sheet metal and aluminum for the Bonneville cats, the dragster guys and the art directors at the local film studios. In 1952, when Barris had been hired by local hotshot cam grinder Chet Herbert to design a streamliner body for the Bonneville speed trials, an epiphany lit into Jocko’s cranium like a flash of ball lightning.

This vision coalesced in 1954 when the Herbert machine ran roughshod on eleven FIA speed records at the salt flats. It was prime time for the man to sculpt a streamliner for the proving grounds of Southern California: the drag strip.

By that time Jocko was porting flathead Ford cylinder blocks under Scotty Fenn’s tutelage at Experimental Automotive. To consummate his understanding of Zen as applied to race car science, the Barris years were the yin of aerodynamics and metallurgy and the Fenn apprenticeship was the yang of fuel flow and combustion.

In Jocko’s precocious teenaged mind, streamliners epitomized the marriage of aesthetics and technology. As an artist and a craftsman, Jocko grooved on the principles of Bauhaus Architecture: “…. Form follows function…. Universal space…point, line, plane….” and applied them both to the internal combustion engine and body contour. Intuitively, he felt that the streamliner was the most direct approach to Top Eliminator. Herbert’s salt flat endeavors, as well as the Land Speed Records claimed in streamlined vehicles by Euro speed demons such as John Cobb and Malcolm Campbell, seemed to confirm this notion empirically.

So after two years of toil, sweat, r&d, aluminum bending and smoking left-handed cigarettes, the first dragster with a full-envelope body hit the strip in 1958: The Jocko’s Porting Service streamliner. Jocko teamed up with “Jazzy Jim” Nelson and they hit the strips with Jazzy shoeing the car. The results were hardly the slam-dunk that Chet Herbert enjoyed at the Bonneville in ‘54 and skepticism and derision greeted Jocko every time the car limped down the track. Finally, after a year of dragging the ‘liner with decidedly mixed results, the duo of “Jazzy Jim” and Jocko struck the mother lode. Powered by a Jazzy’s 450 Chrysler running on nitro, they recorded a 1/4-mile elapsed time of 8.35 seconds at 178 mph at Riverside CA, obliterating a previous e.t mark of 8.54 that belonged to Art Chrisman. The run may have had as much to do with slippin’ the clutch—something else Jocko and Jazzy were experimenting with—as it did with avant-garde aerodynamics. Whatever the reason, the results stood for themselves. And Jocko drank from the teat of vindication, savoring the mother’s milk of a misunderstood artist.

But vindication was fleeting: Subsequent runs revealed a chink in the armor—the aerodynamics of the ‘liner were too effective. At terminal velocity, the desired downforce actually pushed the fiberglass shell into the wheels, the body cracked and ultimately disintegrated.

The destruction of Jocko’s speed-addled sculpture— coupled with the parts attrition inherent in running a blown hemi on nitromethane—put a serious dent in Jocko’s operating capital, a budget more in tune to the lifestyle of a be-bop saxophonist than a cutting-edge Top Fuel enterprise.

Jocko began meticulously reassembling his hot rod Humpty Dumpty, while also concentrating on generating cash porting cylinder heads in his shop in Lakewood. Indeed, Jocko’s Porting Service blossomed as a business.

Ultimately, an aluminum version of the ‘liner (shoed by Emery Cook and powered by an Allison V-12 aircraft engine on aviation gasoline) turned a time of 195 mph, but it was too little, too late. The consensus at the strip was that the ‘liner’s weight handicaps negated the advantages of the tremendous downforce and the streamlining craze went the way of the hula-hoop.

He continued chiseling steel cylinder heads, with a client base that read as a Yellow Pages of cool: dragster guys like Mickey Thompson, Ernie Hashim, “The Sour Sisters,” “Big Daddy” Don Garlits and Connie Kalitta. Gasser gods like Stone, Woods & Cook and K.S. Pittman were bangin’ on the door of Jocko’s Porting Service in Lakewood.

“He lived across the street from his speed shop in Long Beach and some mornings we would have to wake him up to work on our heads,” recalls Don Ratican of The Sour Sisters Top Fuel team. “But as an engineer he was head and shoulders above everybody. In those days, on a scale of measuring visionaries, Art Chrisman was a 10 and Jocko was off the scale.”

But gradually all this precision tinkering morphed into another milieu, another form of craftsmanship altogether. In 1966, Jocko began sculpting as a fine artist. Seriously. As a career. And his sculptures were not unlike his streamliners: scrappy, yet smooth. Fluid. Sinuous with a deliberate sense of motion. He was a hit with the wine and goat liver crowd. This was liberating, this was freedom, while the automotive world was becoming increasingly uptight and monochromatic—“sheesh all these dragsters look and run the same,” Jocko musta thought, “but what I can create with a chisel and my two hands is infinite and unlimited.” Which would you choose?

In any typical sculpture, he would showcase his raw sense of aesthetics and his resourcefulness—something that drag racing taught him: You take the best of whatever’s handy and transform it into something provocative and efficient. In one of his more famous works, he incorporated bondo and rebar into a plaster sculpture that he based on the shape of a cow’s thighbone. He sold this to the Irvine Corporation for a cool 500 skins and the city managers had the artwork planted in the sandbox at the local playground.

And despite the sustained popularity of his work on an iron motor—including plenty of gigs subcontracting to Keith Black Racing Engines (whose radical 426 hemi motors were the bullet du jour), Jocko’s disillusionment with the drag-strip scene and its generic L7 aerodynamics continued to swell. Jocko ultimately bailed on porting heads and fell in with the longhaired bohemians of Laguna Beach for a while. When that scene got redundant, he shed his skin once more by relocating to the high desert, where he gathered ironwood from the dusty tundra for raw material for his sculptures.

And everything was peace, love and yucca trees. But a paradigm shift occurred in the drag strip world—this time without Jocko. In the winter of ‘71, “Big Daddy” Don Garlits had rocked the world of the drag racing intelligentsia, snagging Top Fuel Eliminator at the Winternationals as well as the equally prestigious March Meet in Bakersfield—with a rear-motored digger, a heretofore-experimental design that until then had never caught the fancy of the trophy queen.

Had the alloys, materials and basic framework of Top Fuel dragsters caught up to Jocko’s theories about the supremacy of streamlining? Piqued, Jocko knew he had to scratch that itch once again. So off he went to Florida, to sculpt the definitive Fueler, with Garlits providing the horsepower and the venture capital.

From the giddy-up, the Jocko/Big Daddy collaboration seemed doomed to failure. As a barnstorming competitor who had to honor two professional circuits as well as a plethora of match racing obligations, Garlits had too many fires to put out to devote sufficient attention to the radical Wynn’s Liner project. The futuristic machine came in over budget, overweight and behind schedule.

In late ‘73 the Wynn’s Liner debuted at the American Hot Rod Association’s Grand American meet at Orange County International Raceway—and, coincidentally, within earshot of the swing sets that teeter-tottered in the sandbox of the Irvine Corporation.

Disappointingly, the car laid an egg, qualifying last in the 32-car show—a position that neither Garlits’ nor Jocko’s egos could process or tolerate. The car wouldn’t fire during eliminations. At speed, Garlits said the ‘liner wanted to lift off, space age aerodynamics or not. Jocko adamantly refutes this, remarking that Garlits DID in fact lift off twice—in conventionally bodied dragsters in the ’80s.

And unlike the resilience of the streamlining effort in ‘58, the clash of engineering philosophies and worldviews doomed the Wynn’s Liner to a fate of rusting in some barren landfill, as a testament to failure and folly of human endeavor. A few years back, it was restored sans hemi and entered into Garlits’ Museum of Drag Racing.

And as visionaries are wont to do, Jocko retreated to the desert. And dug in deep. And began fastening, forming, and fabricating a new streamliner known as the Spirit of 29 Palms. A vehicle designed to turn 555 mph at Bonneville. On alcohol. Cut to 1996. Your humble working journalist spots Jocko at a rod run at a dry lakebed. I eavesdrop as Jocko corners Alex Xydias (proprietor of the “So-Cal Speed Shop” in Burbank) and whips out a brand new pocket-sized centrifugal force-powered supercharger, a device Jocko had machined the day before the rod run. Jocko tells Xydias this ashtray-sized cylindrical supercharger will replace the archaic, bulky and inefficient GMC “roots” design that is de rigueur on today’s dragsters and funny cars. Jocko insists that Xydias hold this pint-sized piece of kit. Alex looks kind of afraid of it.

I am not afraid of it and Jocko sense this. He invites me over to his camper for turkey tacos and Meisterbrau. I promise him I’ll come see him and his inventions out at Twentynine Palms. Six months later, I do.

The road to Jocko’s crib in the desert was an open road, the kind of highway that seems to confirm the existence of the mysteries and magnetism of the desert. Very few motorists, even fewer state troopers. The kind of road that clears the senses of any gratuitous phlegm. Invigorating.

I pass a couple of county highways that ultimately shadow the perimeter of the Twentynine Palms Marine Base. On the northern border of the Marine Base, a mere tossed coyote bone from Jocko’s digs, a cat named George Van Tassel built—“thru the guidance of other worlders”—the “Integratron,” a high energy electrostatic machine designed to recharge the DNA of a person (i.e. stop the aging process). The local Chamber of Commerce describes it as a “time machine for research on rejuvenation, anti-gravity and time travel.” The structure is four stories high and 55 feet in diameter and is thought by some to be “a very powerful vortex for physical and spiritual healing”. From the 1950s to the 70s, the Integratron was the site of an annual “Interplanetary Spacecraft Convention” and became famous as the location of Van Tassel’s “Spaceport Earth.”

As I kick up some dust on a dirt road on the perimeter of the military base, I think to myself that out on the perimeter of hell’s half-acre, there is certainly ample room to stretch out and improvise. I was then buzzed by a below-the-radar F-4 Fighter. WHHOOOSSSHHH! I haven’t even arrived at the mad alchemists and my senses are already overwhelmed by free-from improvisation in the desert.

As I pull onto Jocko’s desert compound, salsa music is percolating in the distance, emanating from a monaural Spanish-language AM station that Jocko keeps switched on 24-7. “It’s an uplifting sound and it has words I don’t understand so I don’t have to think about it,” he said about the salsa. “It’s precision musicianship—they just don’t bang away at something in order to make a sound, they’re all working together.”

I found this comment ironic, considering Jocko’s penchant for working alone, but I said nothing as he wound up and proceeded to explain the genesis of his new creation.

“I went out to Orange County for their last drag race. I hadn’t been out there for 10 or 12 years—I didn’t want to go, but a friend told me I had to go out there because they weren’t gonna have anymore. I was in the pits for about three hours and I ran into a lot of my old friends—Keith Black being one of them. I said to Keith, ‘Is everybody here doing what these guys are doing? I’ve been standing here for three hours and these guys here are taking their motor completely apart every single run.’ I’m watching them throw the rods and pistons out and put new ones in and he says, ‘Come here.’ He took me into somebody’s eighteen-wheel trailer and there was a bench along one wall that had these eight boxes that held eight rods and pistons, so there were sixty-four rods and pistons. The first three sets on that bench were used, they had a run on them. And I looked at him and I said, ‘Do you mean this guy can only make nine runs today; he’s got eight sets here and a set in the car now?’ Keith said, ‘That’s right.’ I said, ‘What the hell is wrong with this picture?’”

“So on the way home that day,” Jocko continued, “I told my friend that the combustion engine wasn’t fully invented yet. He laughed at me and said, ‘You’re nuts, they went 276 mph that day’ or whatever it was. And I said, ‘Yeah, but what were they doing ten minutes later?’ Basically throwing it away…,” he laughed.

“I figured what I needed to do was figure out what in the hell was wrong with this. Back in the days when I was porting heads people would come up to me with their problems—I consider myself a problem-solver type. Not a refiner—go to the heart of the thing and search out the flaw.

“So I went and did this.” He beckons and we climb up the steps of his portable speed shop. He unveils the PoweRRing 3 Cycle engine.

“We were still running old shit. So when I designed this engine I said, ‘I’m going to look at the history.’ So I started looking back farther and farther into time and I asked myself, ‘Where did the crankshaft come from? Where did the rod come from? Where did the piston come from?’ And it took me clear back to 1705 when they started building engines with steam. In the first steam engines they didn’t use steam to push the pistons, they used steam to evacuate the cylinder. They put a little steam in there and when it condensed, it shrank—1700 times. From steam down to water. 1700 times. It evacuated that cylinder by putting a little puff of steam in there. Atmospheric pressure pushed the piston down. That’s where you can do useful work.”

Aww, “free downforce” as per a vacuum—a pet dynamic application of Jocko’s and an application intrinsic to the PoweRRing’s efficiency.

Jocko went on to tell me that he discovered that when the piston is on the compression stroke, the spark is ignited at about 30 degrees before top-dead center. So, when the explosion goes off, the piston is still on its way up. It’s heading into high pressure and putting tremendous, often destructive, forces on the piston, rod, crank and bearings. The crankshaft has to turn an additional 25 degrees’ before the rod can lean over and let the piston start its way back down. When the piston does start down, the leverage angle is only about an inch. “How tight could you get a nut or a bolt if your wrench was only one inch long?” he asked rhetorically. When the pressure is at its maximum, the rod is straight up the bore and restricts piston movement; so if detonation occurs, there’s no place for anything to go, so the weakest link breaks, whether that’s the piston, rod, crank or the engine block—something has to give.

His solution? Shitcan the crankshaft altogether. Use a very large camshaft instead. Because camshafts convert rotary motion to linear motion.

Jocko’s PoweRRing 3 Cycle has 18 small cylinders arranged around a twelve-lobe cam wheel. Combustion occurs in one set of six cylinders after another, with the pistons exerting force on the cam-wheel, causing it to move. For every 360 degrees of rotation, there are 216 ignition firings, with six cylinders firing simultaneously every ten degrees of rotation.

He says he likes the idea of a radial engines because it would have the lightest weight per cubic inch and they are the easiest engines to cool. Capitalizing on the concept of circular ignition, Jocko’s engine is a radial, but with a cam operating the pistons and minus any connecting rods or crankshaft.

“Current engine design, he says, “derives from a steam engine built in 1705; it was the first engine to use a crankshaft to convert reciprocal motion into rotary motion and pass it along through various gearboxes and transfer devices. This system is obsolete in light of new knowledge. Since high torque is inherent in my three-cycle engine design, the engine would be placed right next to the wheel, with no gear reduction except for a reverser. This engine is very compact, shaped like a wheel and no wider than a standard auto wheel. It leaves a lot of space inside a car for other things.”

At this point Jocko and I saunter back onto his front yard where a full size mockup of his new streamliner sits. Jocko plans to unveil his 18-cylinder, 25 cubic inch radial motor—capable of 400 horsepower—in the arena of the Land Speed Record wars. The monocoque streamliner is officially known as the Spirit of 29 Palms but nicknamed “the triple-nickel” because of its target speed of 555 mph. After this combination conquers the combustion-driven land speed record, Jocko envisions installing the ‘liner as a local tourist attraction, not unlike, say, the Integratron up the road.

“I’ll rivet the skin onto the framework. It will be super rigid, it will be like an airplane but with the internal structure of a bridge,” he says. “I will start with two engines, so it will be firing six cylinders every 5 degrees of rotation.” If he needs more power for his LSR effort, he’ll just insert another PoweRRing—they only weigh 40 pounds or so.

His wife (and sometimes collaborator) Joanie was working on a series of sculptures with recycled phone wire as Jocko and I talked. At this point the discussion swung from the PoweRRing—which he isn’t going to bother to patent (he considers engineering ideas public domain)—towards the theory and application of streamlining itself.

“Every inch of those bodies is functional, ” he says in reference to his spaceship on wheels. “Every curve, every line—the whole thing is about completely covering the car, getting the maximum use of the downforce, and doing it with a minimum of drag. The first one I built…the tail end of it was radically different from anything.”

I ask him what made that vehicle—the Jocko’s Porting Special—set the world on fire.

“The air came off the top of the body at the back and rotated down and tried to get underneath the tail,” he answers. “It’s low pressure down there. They created a set of vortices that would cancel one another out. That minimized the drag… because the bigger the wake you leave, the greater amount of power it takes to create it.”

Yeah… Not unlike his sculptures and his streamliners, Jocko himself has a very low co-efficient of drag. He is free to create beatifically with a minimum of turbulence. And if his latest creations are above the ken and understanding of America, its master capitalists and its engineers, that is not the point. The point is this: He’s on to something—not unlike turning 8.35 in the 1/4 mile in 1958.

But unlike 1958, the drag strips are no longer the proving grounds, the high desert is. And it has always fostered creativity.

Once the archetypal misunderstood genius acclimates him or herself to the godawful climate and gets in tune with the rattlesnakes, the scorpions and the coyotes and the sporadic blasts of supersonic reconnaissance aircraft on maneuvers, he can let it all hang out in his own private Skunk Works. There are no board meetings or focus groups in a place where the stars are absolutely infinite, and where the wind seems to whisper that anything is possible. When time and space got it on, and—BANG—the heavens climaxed, the seeds of creation must have spilled onto the Mojave. There are no rules and there are no limitations there… Whatever you want to bestow upon humanity is limited only by your perseverance and your imagination. Just like Van Tassel, Jocko knows the desert itself is a concentrated chunk of eternity. He knows that life is short and progress is crucial to the meaning of life. Recently some nostalgia dragster guys approached Jocko about porting some heads, just like the old days… “Why would I want to do that, that’s a step backwards.” Pause. “Drag racing turned its back on me a long time ago,” he mused. “Now it’s my turn to my back on it.”

“People are afraid of progress,” he says, perplexed. But not in the outback of Twentynine Palms, apparently, where folks intuitively understand the obvious: History only happens once. And history is being made right now in the California desert. Jocko’s moment in history is NOW. It’s our loss if we can’t recognize a defining moment in history as it’s going down.

(Originally published 1997)

September 29, 2008


Yeah, Yeah, Yeah. I know, I know: You are young, beautiful, and you live in Babylon Hills, California, 90210. You are trying to get a handle on this Grand Guignol play aka “life.” You are frustrated, misunderstood, beat up by the pain of being alive, and at the same time you are seeking out the proper mode of expression, the milieu that trims your foliage. You are seeking your muse, but at this point will settle for a job. Even that pursuit, however, is frustrating and futile. It seems that the kooky global economy means that the chirren’ of upper-middle-class honky imperialism are lucky to get a gig at the local Brazier Burger (although one can immediately begin careering in the dynamic, engrossing, gravy-train fields of distressed property repossession, telemarketing, West L.A. parking enforcement, stuffing envelopes at the regional IRS depot, ad blahseum).

You are boxed into a corner. Blocking the only exit out of this dead-end lifestyle and cash flow cul-de-sac is a riot squad of non-inhaling, bleeding-heart liberal do-gooder politicians who are in cahoots with constipated “fiscal conservative” billionaire robber barons. Together, they are asphyxiating the job market, kowtowing to the whims of Alan Greenspan and the Federal Reserve, leaving the young adults of the U.S. of A choking on the exhaust fumes from opportunities headed down yonder way. Between NAFTA, GATT, and the Third World Population Bombs in the neighborhoods, not to mention the greed of ravenous senior citizens cherry-picking Social Security entitlements (with the yunguns providing the credit base!) until it’s barren as the salt flats and I’m gonna grab my gee-tar and tell my troubles to the world! Ooh, you poor suffering, sniveling, shiftless, ingrate, trust-fund fuck…

I think I hear my bullshit detector ringing louder than a smoke alarm at an AA meeting. The truth is thus: the denizens of White Flight, California comprise of complainers, bellyachers, cable teevee fuckoffs, and pampered bourgeoisie bongheads, indifferent and/or oblivious to the fact that there is fuckall to give their dreary lives meaning. If there is something that can breathe some fire and moxie into the simpering spirit of this slice of failed humanity (and I maintain there is—read on if you dare), this society chooses to ignore it.

Perhaps because of the ubiquitous presence of teevee (both “interactive” and merely passive), kids today are bored, jaded, and unlike, say, our youth-gone-mad predecessors of the 1960’s, not terribly motivated. They demand that their entertainment is served to them—they don’t seek it out, and certainly do not create it. I know, I know: “Tell me what can a poor boy do, ‘cept to play in a rock ‘n’ roll band.” Oh god, not that shit, again—smash a fire extinguisher against my skull before I have to listen to another Silver Lake indie rock band regurgitate Paleolithic minor-mode rock riffs whilst some “riotgrrrl” vocalist atonally spews out whatever passes for vitriol these days (probably some half-baked rant against the vaguely monolithic White Male Power Structure, while we know that on L.A.’s Day of Reckoning—April 29, 1992—she had hauled ass out of the city on the I-10 East in her pre-owned Honda Accord, to be nestled safely in the confines of Mom and Dad’s cushy condo at Big Bear. While her City of Angels burned like Dante’s Inferno, she was channel surfing, a remote control device in one hand and a Diet Coke in the other, scrolling through the televised coverage on cable, hoping the darkies did not torch her band’s rehearsal studio in Echo Park)…

Bullshit rock bands aside, these kids don’t get a whole lot accomplished—at least nothing tangible or relevant to the human condition. (This is just my opinion, of course; I do not consider the creation nor the consumption of, say, the Paisley Dorktones’ new interactive 10” Dolby CD-ROM (encoded in Bi-monophonic SurroundSound!) particularly interesting, exciting, fulfilling, or invigorating. I would rather watch a nitromethane-guzzling dragster explode and disintegrate at 300 miles-per-hour; now that’s entertainment!).

(The whole notion of a “slacker” society, I’m sorry—I just don’t get it. Not only to choose to blame our insufferable indolence on a lack of cash flow, resources, and opportunities, but to wear the insignificance of life in the 90’s like a badge of honor… What? Tell it to the Serbs (now there is a resourceful bunch!) and the Croats, rivethead. We are privileged peoples, livin’ large in the Land of the Eternal Sun.)

Yep, the kids of the 60’s were some busy buckaroos. That’s right: hippies were more ambitious than you! What with campus demonstrations, love-ins, extended holidays in Southeast Asia, multi-media slide shows projected on the likes of Nico and Edie Sedgewick, riots on Sunset Strip, and a whole lot of consciousness expansion—who had time to complain about the futility of existence?

If all that was not enough, there was another cultural renaissance occurring simultaneous to the Electric Kool-Aid Acid Tests and the Summer of Love. For, back in the day, the kids were also shakin’ some action at the local drag strip. This was where the young gearheads displayed their gumption, bravado, and intellect. They showcased these attributes in machinery they crafted themselves (generally speaking)—contraptions that resembled a spaceship as much as anything else. These were formally known as “rails” or “dragsters.”

“Drag strips,” “rails,” “dragsters.” What the hell is drag racing, you may wonder? It is a socio-technological phenomenon that is louder, faster, and more primal than either grindcore or the Big Bang itself, that’s what.

Drag racing was born at the dry lakebeds and the abandoned military airstrips of post World War II Southern California, and these locations remain a staple of hot rodding. The mood and vibrations at these exhibitions of unbridled horsepower are very primal, chaotic, and apocalyptic. Despite the clouds of smoke and fire that might obscure the action, a message cuts through the haze and fumes–a message the gearheads and hepcats and kittens intuitively understand: speed is a metaphor for freedom.

The premise of drag racing is simple: two cars race in a straight line for a distance of 1/4 mile (1320 feet). The first car to the finish line is the winner. And although the premise is linear, by as early as the 1960’s the approach to these contests became increasingly surreal, bizarre, and abstract. Drag racing became an art movement.

Aesthetics aside, miles-per-hour is the real objective here. And in order to satiate their voracious thirst for speed, speed, and more speed, out-of-control mechanical savants sculpt strange looking combustion-driven time bombs—y’know, “dragsters”. To complement the car’s unorthodox yet minimalist appearance, the motors and the fuel are equally exotic–your basic Chrysler engine is now supercharged or injected, and the fuel (the engine’s blood) is either maximum octane airplane fuel, methanol, or the highly volatile nitromethane (a fuel classified as a Class A Explosive by the Department of Defense).

So how does this relate to the problems of the Age we live in? In an era of fiber-optic saturation, of sensory overload, of electronic bombardment, if you are not going to build and race a dragster, then what is a valid mode of self-expression? Going to USC Film School for six years so you can end up directing infomercials or rock videos (which are basically the same thing, now that I think about it) after deluding yourself into thinking you would create your generations’ On The Waterfront, or 8 1/2, or Five Easy Pieces, but hey man, if your career catches a break you can still direct a “Feature Film” (ooohhh!), like the sequel to Reality Bites—the working title is Reality Swallows—and in this film Winona Barrymore plays an affluent Melrose chickee reduced to a South Central crack whore after her hip lifestyle collapses due to her incompetence at the West Hollywood post-modernist coffee klatch/tattoo parlor/performance art gallery (where she worked as a curator’s assistant until she was fired after summoning the rent-a-cops—played by Corey Feldman and Eric Estrada in hil-ar-i-ous cameo appearances—to oust Cher’s conceptual artist/nouveau beatnik boyfriend from the premises when he shat on a lava lamp statue of Socrates—turns out this was just Act 1 of a “performance piece” that Mr. Cher had entitled “Judge Ito” (tragically, our young heroine mistook the “artist” for a common homeless guy defecating in the foyer); but to complicate the plot of Reality Swallows Congressman Sonny Bono—that’s right, the previous Mr. Cher (as himself)—finagles a deft political power play with fellow Republicans Jesse Helms (Charlton Heston), Phil Gramm (Clint Eastwood) and Bob Packwood (Don Knotts) that destroys National Endowment of the Arts head honcho Jane Alexander (as herself) (this after this GOP Gang of Four uncovers evidence that Ms. Alexander green-lit the controversial “Ito” piece, forcing her to resign in disgrace); which then capsizes her lifestyle into a downward spiral that finds Alexander estranged from High Society and ultimately a street person, walking the streets of Compton, where she reunites with her estranged daughter—you guessed it, Winona—and the two of them pool their only marketable talents in Post-Reagan America, re-uniting as tag team of mother and daughter strawberries), or, a more realistic career opportunity (after depleting your parents nest-egg because you insisted they pay for your education)—yes, even more degradingly, you wind up schlepping as “production assistant” on a dubious gangsta’ rap video, pampering that insipid no-talent “director” fuckwad in the “DreamWorks” baseball cap while on location at Florence and Normandy as AK47 recording artist MC Cinque lip-synchs his “catchy” militant anthem “Colonel Sanders is the Joseph Stalin of My ‘Hood”? Do you really want to base your life on a career and a subculture as dehumanizing as all of that?

Another option, perhaps, is to start a post-punk rock’n’roll combo, but man is that tired.

And boring.

On the California cultural horizon, not only are there entirely too many indie rock bands and student filmmakers, there is an intolerable glut of twelve-stepper tattoo emporiums, performance art fanzines, and waitresses auditioning for a bit part on “Baywatch”…

So what is a poor SoCal riot boy or grrrl to do? You want sensory overload? You want to rage against the machine, mall-breath? You want to blow shit up?

Well check this out: Drag racers blow more shit up on any given weekend than Timothy McVeigh’s Michigan Militia, the SLA, and the Hezbollah combined. And they do it righteously. If you want to get radical then smash your television, get a job laying bricks (assuming you’re not getting fat off your parents’ morally dubious mutual funds) and sink all of your cash and free time into running a race car at the local drag strip. The hep thing about this endeavor, race fans, is that it’s completely Karl Marx approved—Anyone can do it! It’s totally DIY! You can borrow your granny’s grocery-getter and run ‘er down the ol’1320–they have a class for you at the local drag strip (it’s called “Stock Eliminator”). Or you can build your very own dragster from the ground up (or, if you aren’t much of a backyard tinkerer, commission one from a professional chassis builder). An even doper scenario is to purchase an old front-engine dragster (most of these “rails” were built in the ’60s), shoehorn betwixt the frame rails an early Chrysler hemi engine (recently liberated from an ‘58 Imperial rotting at the local Pick-Your-Part), and GO! man, GO! Whatever your decision, be it the more labor intensive and paycheck-siphoning dragster route, or the decidedly more financially-benign street-legal “stocker” or “doorslammer” reality, the drag strip has a place for you. But before you make your decision, remember the rule of “cubic dollars” which is stated as thus: “Speed costs money—How fast do you want to go?” If you want to go 200 mph in the 1/4 mile driving a dragster, it is gonna cost some dead presidents—but nobody at the drag strip is gonna tell you you can’t run a race car. Only you can tell yourself that. To put this another way, in drag racing all limitations are self-imposed. Drag racing is of, by, and for the people (kinda like punk rock used to be, remember?).

Sure, you could get killed in a race car… but to hear you Gen X’ers tell it, you got nuthin’ to live for anyway because life is banal and pointless, right? So dumpster that hopelessly out of tune guitar, quit your feeble “low-fi” indie-rock band, (or drop out of art school, ripcord on your nowhere “modeling,” “acting,” or “documentary filmmaker” career), shitcan your trendoid threads, and get some grease under your skin. Live the American dream, goddammit. For about the same amount of money and gumption necessary to “self-produce” and press a 45 Rpm 7” record, you can create beaucoup smoke, noize, fire, and thunder by running a race car at your local drag strip. This is a much more noble and glorious mode of expression than being in a band. (Indeed, one would be hard-pressed to find a more boring and pointless outlet for the psychosis and angst of life than banging out more tired barre chords on a shitty guitar. Punk rock, actually music altogether, died with Sid Vicious. Show some respect for the dead, will ya? Quit.)

So if you are mad at the world, or just plain bored—quit yer yappin’. You and your buddies can pool your resources and run a dragster. Just get it together, or shut up and fuck off. The local drag strip is the only logical cafe society for today’s real dissidents; it is our Tiananmen Square. It is a place where the stakes and envelopes are pushed (things explode and people do get hurt), and that always makes for interesting art. And until that Silver Lake “riotgrrrl” climbs into a maximum-horsepower dragster, I will consider her pose as a tortured artist completely innocuous, irrelevant, and rather pathetic.

(Originally published in Bikini Magazine, 1995)

July 18, 2008



by Cole Coonce

(excerpted from the collection TOP FUEL WORMHOLE)

It is Friday, day three of the Winter– nationals, around noon. Me and my pal Catfish are having breakfast burritos at a taqueria behind the timing tower. My acquaintance has never been to the drag races, but he is curious about the Top Fuel cars.

We are talking when his cell phone rings. In an act of decorum, he excuses himself and walks outside the restaurant to take his call. The door closes behind him and a pair of A/Fuel Dragsters blubber off the start line and then roar down the dragstrip.


The restaurant door reopens just as soon as the run climaxes.

“My cell phone was cut off right when those guys stepped on the gas,” Catfish says, a weird look on his face. “Not that I could hear what was being said anyway.”

“It is probably all those electromagnetic frequencies due to the tremendous amperage in the magnetos,” I explain.


“Nitro is hard to light It is a cool fuel that doesn’t produce any vapors – and you can’t burn liquid. So the tuners throw enough electricity at the spark plugs to kill an elephant.”

Another pair of A/Fuel cars weep and wail down the track and rattle the taqueria’s windows, serving as a sort of punctuation. Catfish looks like he sort of understands, so I tell him that the weird thing about nitromethane is its hypergolic nature.

“See this bowl of salsa? If it were gasoline and I dropped a lit match into it, the vapors would catch on fire. If it were nitromethane, it would extinguish the match. But if I hit it with a hammer, it would detonate and explode. BOOM.”

“Why is that?”

“Nitromethane is a kind of monopropellant. It carries its own oxygen – like the rocket fuels that the Luftwaffe used during WW2. It can kind of explode on contact.” “Like these breakfast burritos.”

I nod. He’s beginning to understand.

We pay our bill, make our way into the Pomona Fairplex, and cruise the fuel pits. Our timing could not be better. Nitro Alley, drag racing’s corollary to Tin Pan Alley, is in full song.

With every step we take, nitro motors are lighting off as if they are the orchestra and we are the conductor’s baton.

Crewmembers look for leaks and seat the clutch and WWHHHAAAMMPPP!!! Twist the throttle linkage and my companion almost lumps out of his socks.

We seek shelter in Dean Skuza’s pit area. Skuza and tuner Lance Larsen put on their masks and prepare to light off their Funny Car. At the first sound of spinning the blower, a thousand nitromaniacs gather around the Skuza pit, like moths to a flame or lemmings to a gorge.

Gack-Back-Back-Back-Back-gack-gack– gack-gack-WWHOOOMMPPPP!!! Gack-Back-Back-gack-Back-gack-Back-gack– gack-WWHHHOOOMMPPPP!!!

Nitro clouds waft through the compound, getting into our clothes, hair, eyes, and quintessential being.

“I feel like I’m in the eye of an atomic bomb,” Catfish yells in my ear between whacks of the throttle linkage.

Larsen then staffs a towel in the injector hat, they unhook the fuel supply, and everybody applauds.

That night, I get an e-mail from Catfish. It reads:

Hi Cole …Thank you so much for my first time at the “Real” drag races.After returning to Hollywood, I wanted to get rid of some of the smell from Skuza’s pit. I took a shower, came out, and realized most of the smell was still in my clothes. I decided the best thing to do was burn them. I tried igniting them with my butane barbecue igniter with no success. This pissed me off so much I threw the clothes down on the patio pavement, where they exploded upon impact.I now understand the principle of nitromethane as a fuel in drag racing.


The next day, after qualifying has ended, I go into the pressroom. I run into Andrew Cowin’s publicist. Cowin, who scored a ride with the Carrier Boyz two weeks before the Winternationals, has DNQ’d. The publicist is scratching her noggin with a pencil and looking at a blank piece of paper.

“Why the bemused look?” I ask.

“I can’t find an angle for my story.”

“Why not?”

“Well, we didn’t qualify.”

So, in an act of chivalry, I begin to write a lead for a story on Andrew Cowin. Extemporaneously. Out loud.

“DATELINE: POMONA – There is a saying in drag racing: ‘If you can’t be fast, at least be spectacular.’ At the 43rd running of the Winternationals, Andrew Cow-in, driver of the Carrier Boyz Top Fuel car, managed to be both.

“After a timing malfunction prevented the Carrier Boyz machine from recording an elapsed time, the Carrier Boyz were forced to turn up the wick…

“Unfortunately, that resulted in an apocalyptic top-end explosion on Friday as the tremendous fuel volume pushed out a head gasket and oil and nitromethane oxidized and combusted, creating a pyrotechnic display worthy of Dodger Stadium on the Fourth of July.

“With two qualifying passes left, including the first round of the Budweiser Shootout, the pressure was higher than Bernoulli hisself having an aneurysm.

“Unfortunately, during the staging procedure of the first round of the Shootout, crewmembers noticed a gusher effect out of the left cylinder heads. The culprit? Loose bolts on the valve cover. The result? NHRA Chief Starter Rick Stewart running his left forefinger across his throat to and fro, signaling Cowin to kill the fuel supply.

“So there they are: First-round loser of the Shootout and not qualified for eliminations going into the final qualifying session for Sunday’s prestigious eliminator. Unfortunately, that pass led to another photo opportunity, but not the desired result.

“Yes, drag racing is a sport of ‘shoulda, woulda, coulda The timing system shoulda worked, the motor woulda stayed together, and the Carrier Boyz coulda gone racing on Sunday. But for now it’s on to Phoenix…”


She looks more confused now than before I started riffing.

It’s one thing to write somebody else’s story for them, but I had promised ND’s editor 1,500 or so words of my own, and I spent four days wandering the pits, the staging lanes, the bleachers, and the pressroom looking for an angle.

What’s going to be the back story here?

I think back to Thursday. There was Robert Reehl in his fire boots with his suit zipped up only to his waistline. The Harry’s Gava King entry has the name “Yuichi Oyama” stenciled into the side of the race car, but Yuichi, after a runner-up finish at the Finals here in November, is sayonara, mama san. Is there a story here? Does Oyama’s involvement with Top Fuel represent the broadening of drag racing’s appeal into more multicultural demographics? Why is he MIA? Rheel is noncommittal about Oyama being conspicuous by his absence, saying only that this isn’t his car but he is out to “play with it”

“We hope to put a number up (during Thursday’s qualifier) and then park it until Sunday.” And they did.

Other surprises in the staging lanes included the presence of Melanie Troxel (in the Frahm Dodge fueler) and Jim Head, who has been in absentia from this circuit for a couple of years. Why is he back, I asked. “Because I miss this bunch,” he says. Troxel and Head’s participation here is cool, but it isn’t key. It isn’t THE story.

Meanwhile, I notice Dale Funk, of English, Frakes & Funk fame (infamy), tightening Dzus fittings and wiping the magnesium body panels on John Mitchell’s CARQUEST fueler. We strike up a conversation, he laughs and tells me he is “the oil pan cleaner for Mitchell,” and we talk about old front-motored Top Fuel cars of yesteryear. Funk’s old fueler, dubbed the “Kentucky Moonshiner,” was a serious East Coast and Midwestern hitter that came out west to compete at the Winternationals and the old Supernationals in Ontario. Funk confirms the legend that this team never left the shop for the West Coast races without a jug of moonshine.

Speaking of back east, I figure the most noteworthy angle at the Wintemationals was the presence of Clay Millican and the Werner Enterprises fueler.

They went UNDEFEATED in the IHRA circuit last year, and here they were, trying to get some respect on the NHRA circuit, where the competition is much stiffer.

On Thursday, before the fuelers run for the first time, I ask Clay about the fiscal realities of competing in both circuits, the IHRA full time and NHRA part time.

He responds, “I love what I do. If it were up to me, we’d run everything and be broke all the time.”

Then he explains they have to be businesslike, that there has to be a method to the madness in order to sustain this whole deal. He doesn’t want to quit because of running out of money, he explains. “I want to retire from this at an old, old age. I want to race until I draw Social Security.”

On Friday, after they posted that jaw– dropping 4.52, he rebel-yells, “Not bad for a buncha hillbillies!” This guy Millican is the real deal, I say to myself.

On Sunday, after a semifinal loss to Larry Dixon, I ask Millican to name his favorite Clampett from the old Beverly Hillbillies TV show.

His answer surprises me: “My favorite Clampett is Milburn Drysdale because he controlled the money. He is the one who is gonna let the hillbillies go drag racing.”

I figure my story should end here, but after that quote, I make my way into tuner Mike Kloeber’s way and chat him up about the team’s modus operandi.

He tells me that despite sweeping every round at the IHRA meets last year, the team -has reinvented its approach, which it unveiled here.

“We changed everything,” Kloeber reveals. “The car, the engine location, the driver location, fuel-management system, timing. We went from the old mags to a crank-trigger ignition.”

I tell him the crowd was stunned by his car’s 4.52. Professional pundits haven’t been this disturbed since the New York Jets won the Super Bowl in 1969.

“This old girl will run,” Kloeber confirms. This car will run better on seven cylinders than our old car would run on eight That’s the difference in an NHRA tune-up.”

It is fitting that the. tuner for these North Carolina hillbillies ends our conversation by paraphrasing Civil War savant Nathan Bedford Forrest, a Southern General whose methods were rumored to have been studied by Rommel and informed his concept of blitzkrieg: “Last year, we came to these races with a very sharp knife,” Kloeber says. “Over the winter, we bought a gun.” –30-

May 22, 2008


by Cole Coonce

(excerpted from the collection TOP FUEL WORMHOLE)


(photo by Dave Kommel/Auto Imagery)

Despite the inevitable encroachment of Corporate America into a once idiosyncratic sport, one man still burns the torch of individualism in contemporary Top Fuel drag racing.

In the nether regions of the Pomona Fairplex (home of the NHRA World Finals), far beyond the cozy confines where the Fortune 500 park their 18-wheelers, one could find the seemingly innocuous, inconspicuous Arley Langlo, Jay Roach, and their Titan Xpress race team in their pit area. A ramshackle trailer, a 10-year old short (260-inch wheelbase) Top Fueler, an anti-matter black 1967 Dodge camper, and a race crew whose uniform consists of straw cowboy hats and stark white coffee-stained T-shirts, are the elements which define their existence, at least tangibly. Dwarfed by a phalanx of massive transporters, race teams with matching polyester uniforms, not to mention the copious off-the-shelf spare parts, all of which are de rigueur for modern day multi-million dollar operations, Langlo, Roach, and cohorts looked like they made a wrong turn on Fairplex Avenue in 1984, got lost in the Mojave Desert, mistakenly entered the vortex of the Twilight Zone, blinked, and somehow wandered back into Pomona, only to find ten years had elapsed. It was now 1994, but somehow the mayonnaise and the baloney in their Styrofoam cooler had not spoiled. In reality, no matter how anachronistic these guys were, their presence at the Winston Finals could not be ignored, nor swept under the carpet.

Sure, a lot of the hullabaloo was focused on the culmination of superstar Don “the Snake” Prudhomme’s “Final Strike” tour, Shelly Anderson’s dramatic 4.71 Low E.T., and Kenny Bernstein’s shocking 314 mph blast in his indomitable Budweiser King. I maintain that all this was anticlimactic, however, compared to the incendiary, apocalyptic exploits of the Titan Xpress bunch. Indeed, among Arley Langlo’s attempts to “qualify” into Top Fuel Eliminator at Pomona were a pair of the most curious, surreal meltdowns ever perpetrated on the ol’ 1320.

Langlo and Roach probably had no hope of “getting into the show against these store-bought dragsters,” as Arley put it, but the World Finals did provide an excuse for them to “test the new fuel pump.” (This fuel pump, like virtually every piece of kit on their dragster, is homemade by Jay Roach in his hard-to-find J&S East Valley Garage, reclusively nestled in the hills of Santa Barbara County.) At the end of the weekend, whether the new fuel pump worked satisfactorily or not seemed entirely beside the point—although a point was made by the Titan Xpress at the NHRA Finals. What that point was, however, is subject to serious interpretation…

During Top Fuel qualifying on Thursday and Saturday, Langlo demonstrated some genuine human characteristics that are conspicuously absent from modern Top Fuel racing—specifically driving skills, i.e., how the driver responds to the nuances of an unrestrained technology gone gloriously amok. Traditionally, that is the drama of Top Fuel: It is about man and machine and their relationship to each other. Unfortunately, it is an increasingly rare occurrence for us—the gearheads and the punters—to feel overwhelmed or inspired by the exploits of the driver; when Bernstein goes 314, when Shelly runs 4.71, when Don Prudhomme feebly breaks traction and spins the tires on his “final strike,” these runs were about the dynamics of technology—the drivers were merely passive. Anderson’s clutch management system had been programmed brilliantly. Prudhomme’s, on the other hand, had been set up erroneously—therefore the car overpowered the drag strip, the tires smoked ferociously but momentarily, and fluids puked out of the cylinder heads feverishly as the car shut itself off. That was it: dragster interruptus. Having been emasculated, Prudhomme limped impotently down the drag strip, naked and vulnerable. The shame of this “not with a bang but a whimper” finale, however, was the onus of Prudhomme’s crew chief, the esteemed savant Wes Cerny, not the “Snake” himself. Likewise, the bravado and chutzpah requisite of a 314 mile-per-hour salvo are the machinations of Budweiser King crew-chief Dale Armstrong, not driver Kenny Bernstein who merely stomped on the go-faster, hung on, and then dumped the laundry before he ran out of real estate. Lowly Arley Langlo, however, laid down the gauntlet; this time, just once, it’s gonna be about the driver.

On Thursday Arley fired what could only be interpreted as the first of two salvos of civil defiance. It started innocently enough with a nice smoky burnout—so far, so what. He gingerly and methodically staged the car, just another of 30 Top Fuel cars trying to qualify for Sunday’s eliminations. As soon as the light goes green and he drops the hammer, however, something goes very wrong; the car lurches spastically, the sound of the motor changes pitch in an ill glissando, and a ball of flame the size of the Manhattan Project shoots out the back of the race car, scorching a big chunk of Parker Avenue. This is all within the first 60 feet of the run.

Arley feels the car nose over; he should shut ‘er off, right? He should abort the run—something is amiss—cut his losses, see ‘ya tomorrow, Mr. Amato. But au contraire and let the pyrotechnics begin. Arley kept the throttle nailed, even though the head gaskets hydraulicked as soon as he swapped pedals, allowing the billowing fuel and oil to feed an inferno that ballooned into a 30-foot mushroom cloud by half-track. Langlo stubbornly refused to void the run (even though he later acknowledged “it was a little on the rich side”), and he stopped the timers at 5.65 seconds—not bad for an experiment gone horribly awry—but the hijinks continue because this massive fireball burned off his parachutes. The ticket-holders are shaking their heads in disbelief, trying to come to terms with what they are witnessing, but ol’ Arley methodically rides the hand brake, milking what is left out of the hydraulic brake fluid that has not been boiled to molasses by the inferno—he does not disengage the clutch lest the car pick up more velocity, preferring instead to let the torque of the motor slow the car down. The car decelerates under power, and Langlo swerves to avoid the catch net while wrestling the slightly yo-yoing fueler onto the border of the Fairplex parking lot. O-kay…

Come Friday the fuel pump is still “too rich.” No boom-boom this time, and the car leaves hard, but Mr. Langlo shuts it off at half-track as it starts dropping cylinders, the hyperactive fuel pump frothing so voluminously that the spark plugs are being extinguished from the torrent of nitromethane. The next session ditto. There is one qualifying session left, and Jay and his acolytes are thrashing maniacally to rebuild the motor that has been stripped to the cylinder heads. Meanwhile, a bemused Langlo drawls, “We’re progressively leanin’ it out.”

So it is last call for Top Fuel qualifying, newly crowned NHRA champion Scott Kalitta is clinging to the bubble with an eleventh hour go of 4.88 and who is strapped into the last dragster rolling into the staging lanes? None other than the Ayatollah of the Automotive Apocalypse hisself, Arley Langlo, replete with a new eleventh hour “leaner” tune-up. He and his accompanying East Valley Garage Hezbollah are faced with the daunting challenge of trying to compete with the Uber-fuelers on their terms, not only bumping the NHRA champion out of The Show, but also sorting out this damn fuel pump. The quickest the Titan Xpress has run was a 5.28 at Palmdale; a potential 4.87 that would bum Kalitta’s trip seemed highly unlikely, but who knows?

As soon as the tree flashed green, everyone in Pomona knew. An epiphany crystallized in the collective craniums of everyone assembled: bleacher bums, track officials, National Dragster paparazzi, the racers themselves (especially Scott Kalitta), and even the hot dog vendors—this was not about “qualifying.” Once again, instantaneously, in a virtual doppelganger of Thursday’s horrific absolute-zero flameout, Langlo kicked out the head gaskets as soon as he stomped on the throttle, creating another comet of fire that mushroomed exponentially as he rocketed down the quarter-mile. Amidst the terrified and confused looks of the spectators, Langlo once again ignored anything as banal as logic and refused to shut off this missile of the millennium, once more burning off his ‘chutes and boiling his brake fluid into an ineffectual muck.

No, this was not about “getting into The Show.” This was about the nobility of experimentation, freedom of expression, and the recapturing of the spirit of Zen anarchy vis-à-vis the manifestation of the Chaos Theory—which is what I thought Top Fuel is all about. It was a paean to all resourceful Americans everywhere who, if they can not afford a “store bought” fuel pump, will build it themselves, thus enabling the Titan Xpresses of this world to exist on their own terms, not Kenny Bernstein’s. For these are the true beacons of “Go! Fever” in this wonderful sport, not some Stepford yuppie automaton for whom “driving ability” is a euphemism for how well they can splutter “I’d like to thank all my sponsors: Joy Jelly, Scientology, and the Trilateral Commission blah, blah, blah…” on TV—hey man, we see these names painted on the side of your car, we’ll give all these people our money if you just shut up, okay?

Drag racing could stand to benefit from an influx of experimental, outside weirdos like Messrs. Langlo, Roach, and friends. And that was no mere oil fire, my friends. Arley Langlo was carrying the torch of freedom for all of us. Someday soon the drag strips will be ours again…

(Originally published in Super Stock & Drag Illustrated)