Posts Tagged ‘’71 Grand Prix’

HESITATION KILLS (West Los Angeles, 1996)

November 3, 2008

“Hesitation kills,” Cuz’n Roy said, and laughed.

It’s a Friday afternoon in Los Angeles; we are weaving through stop-and-go traffic on the San Bernardino Freeway and at that moment I negotiate a ‘71 Grand Prix through carnage comprised of upscale Westsiders in Lexuses, various sport utility vehicles and mini-vans, all of which had been snagged in a collision with a freaked and crying gaggle of immigrants in a chipped, varicose blue 1982 Toyota Corolla.

I see the pileup continue to metastasize so I punch the throttle, aiming the massive 2-ton projectile of Detroit steel bang on into the center of the chaos, which now resembles the entrance to a dark star. The eyelids on all four barrels of the carburetor open like the mouth on a porn queen and begin guzzling gasoline faster than a desert dog. Sundry automobiles continue careening and fishtailing, orbiting away from the spinning Toyota and its initial point of commotion as if by centrifugal force, creating a hole the size of a small crater that is plenty big enough for us to pass through unscathed.

In our wake I see disturbed yuppies already on cell phones to their insurers, lawyers and Immigration, speed dialing before their vehicles had fully reached a dead stop. Airbags distend like bulbous pimples and car alarms cycle in a discordant and paranoid arpeggio. Stalled automobiles point in five directions, the petals of a broken flower. Pieces of steel, plastic and colored glass litter the interstate and I keep the hammer down, with twin puffs of burnt blackie carbon punctuating our exit from the scene of this massive pileup.

“Man, this is like a bad day at a stock car race. Shouldn’t we stop?” Cuz’n Roy half-chortles.

We both know the question is rhetorical. “What?” I reply. “And get caught up in that bureaucratic nightmare? Is that what Junior Johnson would’ve done at Daytona?”

We are en route to speed trials in the Black Rock desert, northeast of Reno. With that freakshow behind us, we can concentrate on the prodigious amount of ground we are to cover on this eve. Along the way, we will partially retrace the steps of one Craig Breedlove, a land speed racer who had built the first Spirit of America jet car in his dad’s backyard in Venice in 1961. In the 1960s, Breedlove became the first guy to officially go 400, then 500, and finally 600 mph. These speeds were verified by stiff suits from a French organization, whose job description is to sign off on such esoterica. Now Breedlove was out at Black Rock, trying to reclaim the Land Speed Record from some Brits, who had held the title for over a decade. It feels right and patriotic to travel the roads Craig had taken to Bonneville in 1963, when he first achieved international notoriety and fame, stunning the motorazzi and the world at large with the first official 400 mph clockings. His goal is now 700 mph and beyond, ultimately puncturing the sound barrier itself. Mach 1. The Speed of Sound. There is no time for dicking around with cops, lawyers and insurers.

“Punch through the turbulence,” Cuz’n Roy acknowledges. “It is the right course of action at the first sign of trouble. Otherwise you’ll spill your beer.”

Punching through the turbulence. It is a time honored approach to overcoming the pitch, roll and yaw of any journey with a potential for doom and immolation. Become at one with outrageous, incomprehensible velocity and use it as your guide. Once upon a time around 50 years ago, in pursuit of Mach 1, ace fighter pilot after ace fighter pilot lost control and stuffed sophisticated military airplanes into oblivion in the Mojave desert; conversely, Chuck Yeager commandeered a Bell X-1 rocket airplane and kicked in the joystick towards the first successful supersonic flight (which is to say, he lived) by this approach: when things get weird and jittery, yank on the go-faster for more thrust. Damn the demons of chaos and instability. If you don’t you are a footnote to history and mere allegory; if you do, you bask in glory…

“Hesitation kills,” I repeat to myself. In an age of the neurotic, the paranoid and the self-absorbed, now more than ever definitive action and decisiveness are the only methods towards glory. Cuz’n Roy and I are on our way to see a guy attempt to turn Mach 1. In a car.

PICK YOUR PART (Southern California, 1999)

November 3, 2008

“One day I found myself sitting in a physics class trying to understand how to calculate the instantaneous acceleration of some particle inside the nucleus of the atom, which particle may or may not even exist, and I didn’t even care if it existed or not because all this horsefeathers had nothing to do with engines or anything else that I cared about even in the slightest, teensy bit.” — EJ Potter, MICHIGAN MADMAN.

“Just to know that you were going to a hard top track was a thought that acted like a supercharger on the jets of that mental carburetor called the brain. But this nuclear-physics jazz was — well — not exactly for the birds, but certainly for the new type of square that the scientific age was producing. The old-type atom buster was a kind of beatnik who neglected the barbershop and dribbled shreds of pipe tobacco into his beard. The new model was apt to have a clean crew cut over an Ivy League lab jacket…” — Philip Harkins, The Day of the Drag Race, 1960.

BZ catches me as I am out the door. It’s a Friday in the second week in March and my quest for information on something known as Infinity is taking me to Bakersfield to interview an old timer known as “the Goat.”

In a rare twist of meteorology, it is actually cooler there than it is in L.A. where Santa Ana winds blow hot and caustic like some sort of cosmic halitosis and the masses of people — including my pal BZ — are stupefied by the preternaturally scorching heat and are acting strange as vaporlock.

He is calling from a pay phone on the corner of Tuxford and Glenoaks Boulevard, down the street from the gates of the Pick Your Part in Pacoima where he has just been fired. They cut him a check during lunch and sent him home. He tells me he is in no mood to talk about his former job.

“So tell me about Bakersfield and this search for Infinity.” He exhales into the tinny mouthpiece. I can hear the sweat on his forehead.

Bradford Ramon Zukovic — BZ to his friends — is the son of Slavic emigres (“Where Nicky Tesla was born,” he told me) and has an uncommon command of advanced mathematics as well as an atavistic appreciation of Americana, most specifically its coefficients of automotive culture and technological enthusiasm… His math theory is a little more together than his sartorial sense, in that his belt makes it through all the loops, but there is something off about the way his pants fit. Before he worked at a junkyard, he was a science teacher at a junior college in Glendale, whereupon he seamlessly insinuated his own ideas about bleeding edge theoretical physics on his English As A Second Language class, mixing it in with classic Newtonian theory.

(I thought this was slick. His employers disagreed apparently…)

He abhorred the dumbing down of the curriculum at Glendale Community College. Because of his thorough dissatisfaction with the feel-good and self-helpish tone of contemporary academia that ignored Classic Theory in any discipline (the 3 r’s as well as science), BZ ended up working a forklift at the junkyard in Pacoima. This career switch came down after vehement opposition from faculty and administration. There would be no more of his foisting of nanotech and quantum mechanics to unsuspecting English-as-a-second-language types who just wanted to get through enough General Ed to score a job behind some cosmetic counter at the Galleria in Eagle Rock…

“The search begins in Bakersfield at the US Fuel and Gas Championships. ‘The Smokers Meet.’ The drag strip is out in the orange groves just north of Bakersfield.”

I then tell BZ that the Goat had promised to give me the skinny on Glen Leasher, the driver for the Infinity jet car, an ill-fated (and mostly forgotten) LSR project that had crashed with tragic consequences at Bonneville in 1962. (Leasher had driven a AA/Fuel Dragster for the Goat months before his ill-fated Land Speed Record attempt; I had tried interviewing the Goat over the phone, calling him at his speed shop in San Francisco, but this proved futile as he was an octogenarian drag racer and, by extension, rather hard of hearing. Even with all the noise, I decided it would just be easier to just yell into the old man’s hearing aid at the drag strip…)

Just as an automated operator interrupts to tell him his allocated time is up, BZ asks me to pick him up by the taco truck on Glenoaks. Over the tremolo effect of more nickels being plunked into the coin slot, I say I’m on my way.

Once he gets in the car he opens up and starts talking about his latest former day job, telling me that the junkyard had let him go for reasons of subterfuge, insubordination and malingering, as he was caught having parked his forks behind the shade of a towering pile of crushed Gremlins and Pacers in the American Motors section of the scrapyard. He tells me that when he should have been loading a 1950s luxury car onto the piledriver, the boss man found him reading a book about a drag racer who changes careers and becomes a wrench on an atom smasher (“The Day of the Drag Race”) instead.

“Check this out,” he says, pointing to the dog-eared hardcover that got him fired. “I found it in a dumpster outside the library at Glendale Community College.”

“My god, they were throwing that away?” I am appalled. “Is every vestige of hot rodding culture going to be trashed in some sort of do-gooder save-the-planet purge?”

“Probably. You should read this book sometime before they do. It proves that even in 1960 some folks knew that the real r&d was going down in atom smashers and not at the drag strip.”

This re-ignited an ongoing argument between the two of us as to what was a cooler proving ground: Particle accelerators or the drag strip.

“Atom smashing. Sounds like great work…. if you can get a government grant. Which not even you can get nowadays, eh?”

He ignores my question about government grants for a minute or two. Perhaps he was absorbed in a moment of self-awareness, brutally cognizant of how remote the possibilities are of ever milking the teats of Uncle Sam when one is wearing an oil-stained blue jumpsuit, slurping on an horchata and carrying a sackful of greasy tacos while riding shotgun in a ‘71 Grand Prix that needed the upholstery replaced. He processes these thoughts and begins dealing with them tangentially…

“That’s the great paradox, isn’t it?” he deduces. “If books like The Day of the Drag Race were part of the curriculum on even a Junior College level and were to show kids that hot rodding can hone one’s math and science skills — or better still that the real hot rodding is going on at the speed of light, then I’d be in a white coat right now trying to find out what happened to the particles of anti-gravity that were necessary to keep the galaxies from collapsing on themselves moments after the Creation of this Universe…”

“There is more than one kind of white coat.”

“Look, if our government has one purpose, it is to cut checks to the people who are trying to separate the bay leaves from the broth in the great cosmic, primordial soup.”

We eat ceviche and lengua tacos and wash them down with horchata while I drive. We have ample time to discuss both the cosmos and Infinity before we got to the drag strip in Bakersfield; as much as anything, however, we discuss the philosophical and utilitarian ramifications of working at a scrapyard. I tell him that I wondered how he had been able to live with himself while under the employ of Pick Your Part, and that crushing abandoned and surplus automobiles was beneath his dignity, particularly when it means the destruction of irreplaceable gas guzzlers of yore. I say this was, karmically speaking, somewhere between a book burning and replenishing the poison at a gas chamber at Dachau. If he hadn’t been fired and had continued “… ‘just following orders,’ if you will,” someday the vehicle he carted to its demise might be the very ‘71 Grand Prix that he was cruising in right now, confiscated by agents of the Air Quality Management Department and crushed to neutrinos, as a symbol of profligacy and as an incorrigible gross polluter.

“You know there is a government program to destroy these things so an oil company can get particle emission credits,” I tell him. “They pay folks 500 bucks to get non-operational beaters off of their front lawn, figure how much carbon dioxide the vehicle would have contributed to the smog theoretically, and then allow the oil company that much more leeway with pollution from their refineries. ‘Remove the filters and stoke the furnace.’ Pardon the pun, but it’s an utter shell game.”

BZ agrees. “It’s a bureaucratic rimjob.”

The casualty in this bureaucratic flimflam was the American muscle car. He tells me of the litany of endangered classic luxury and muscle cars that he had recently carted that much closer to their ultimate extinction: A ‘59 Chrysler Imperial. A 1960 Dodge Polara. Desoto Adventurers. A ‘62 F-85 Cutlass. Buick LeSabres. Pontiac Bonnevilles. A ‘58 Nash Ambassador. A 1950 Olds Futuramic 98 with a whirlaway hydra-matic drive.

The scrapyard was a museum, he says, and some of these forgotten automobiles were pieces of sculpture. To relegate these arch, epic pieces of American iron to an industrial-strength compacter was an abomination against preservation and decency…

“No matter how decrepit the vehicle, the thought of their imminent destruction always made me well up.”

I just listen. I think he mistook my silence as some kind of rush to judgment…

“Look, besides the fact that I needed the cash, I took the job to get next to the contours of those elegant machines, okay?” He pauses for a second, searching for the right phrase. “There is a certain existential beauty in their corrugation and decay as they rust and rot in the excruciating heat of a summer in the forgotten wastelands of the San Fernando Valley. Everything is temporary. Even triumphs of engineering and art. Even triumphs of the intellect.” He looks out the open window at the freeway offramp where the LAPD once beat the living chicken livers out of Rodney King, tosses out his straw and plastic lid and then takes a last drink from the dregs of his horchata, which leaves a crescent rice milk moustache on his upper lip.

We ride in silence for awhile…

“So what happened today?” I finally ask, and then turned my head, my gaze distracted by roller coasters as we motor past an amusement park in Valencia. “What finally made you snap?”

“They told me to load up a trashed ‘57 Pontiac Star Chief on to my forks and take it out to get crushed. I couldn’t. The tailfins alone were entirely too majestic — I just refused to be an accessory to its destruction. So I hid it out by the Pacers and Gremlins in the AMC section. Nobody goes there except the — and when I say this, I mean it with respect — the kookiest of car collectors. You know the type: the ones who think the push buttons for the transmission were a neat idea. Lupe Garou. Phhewwww,” he whistles and then pointed his forefinger at his noggin and rotated it counterclockwise.

“So while I was kicking back, one of the other fork operators saw the tailfins through the glass bubble of a Pacer and reported it to the dispatcher.” He exhaled and sighed. “Christ, they were pissed off, yelling at me in both Spanish and English. I told them to fuck off and that this was Pacoima, not Nuremberg.”

“At least you got fired.”

THE VELOCITY OF A STEAM JET

November 3, 2008

We continue to climb. As we blaze up the Grapevine the temperature gauge on “the Batmobile” (BZ’s pet name for the ‘71 Pontiac) slowly creeps onto the warning track. The higher the elevation the thinner the air density, the hotter the Batmobile runs.

We stop for petrol, carbohydrates and radiator water on the Gorman exit. As we gas up, I let some pent-up steam out of the radiator, gingerly easing off the cap with a couple of delicate quarter turns, a task performed with a deft touch worthy of a safe cracker. Or so I thought. The cap was really fucking hot, however, and the pressurized steam ultimately overwhelmed my sense of finesse and just as BZ set off the Junior Food Mart’s binging and bonging photocells on his way out of the store — BHHAAWHHOOSSHHH — a geyser of boiled and excited ethylene glycol baptizes the parking lot.

In the adjacent bay, a mini-van full of dapper, rather well-to-do Middle Eastern immigrants are genuinely spooked by the ferocity of the discharge, recoiling reflexively as they watch me dive for cover away from the molten volcano of anti-freeze. Theirs was a look of contempt and concern, not one of appreciation for how Nixon-era gas guzzlers such as my ‘71 Grand Prix fueled the development of a leisure class in whatever oil baron country they emigrated from in the first place.

After things cool down and the radiator is flushed, we motor onto I-5. BZ is showing some concern about the thick heat and the thin air. “You need to get the radiator re-cored on this beast. That might let it run cooler.”

“These things came out of the factory running hot… I’ve tried everything: re-coring the radiator, cleaning the water passages, a bigger fan, a smaller fan. Nothing works. This chunk of Detroit steel is always going to run hotter than a blowtorch.”

He looks dubious. Even with a dried, pasty rice milk moustache.

The windows are down and we both eye the temperature gauge with minimal conversation. I could see BZ getting rather edgy, leaning over the console and drawing a bead on how precarious the radiator situation really was. I began trying to calm him down by inserting some levity into what was a dicey situation. I knew there was no guarantee we would make our destination and could end up stranded 4000 feet up on the Grapevine.

“Let’s pretend this is a rocket car and we are monitoring the thrust.”

“What for?”

“We can just pretend that we have a hot water rocket engine under the hood, not unlike the Neptune rocket car that Walt Arfons ran back in ‘66.”

I knew that Arfons’ steam rocket had been based on the principle of water superheated and pressurized in a closed container and then flashing into vapor and escaping at the vent, which acted as a venturi and produced a supersonic flow of steam… Pressurized steam and “action and equal and opposite reaction” and all that…

“Yeah? What happened with that car?”

“They ran it once on an air strip in Akron, Ohio.”

“And?”

“Uhhh, it crashed on its only test run.”

“You might want to find a more positive example, sir.”

I thought of Max Valier. I say nothing.

CLASSIFIED JET ENGINE (YOU CAN’T HAVE IT) (Akron, Ohio, 1964)

November 3, 2008

“He even tests that jet engine in the backyard. You can’t conceive of it unless you’ve seen him do it. At first, he’d strap it to two big trees. He burned a 60-foot channel in his woods that way, and he blew a chicken house right off the face of the earth. He’s the coolest guy I’ve ever seen in my life. When he’s got that engine going on afterburner and I’m 50 feet away, I’m scared to death that it’s going to blow to pieces — they do sometimes, you know — and he’s right alongside it making adjustments.” Firestone tire rep Harold “Humpy” Wheeler, “Enemy in Speedland,” Sports Illustrated, 1965.

After Gorman the Batmobile begins to overheat again. We drive 90 mph over the entire Ridge Route, my rationalization being that the faster we drive, the less time the motor has to warp. We crest the Grapevine, begin our descent into the oil fields of Kern County and the temperature gauge finally calms down. A little.

Even though the biggest load on the motor was behind us, BZ still looks disturbed and squinches his eyebrows in disapproval.

“You know I won’t be able to pull a pair of cylinder heads for you now.” He wipes his brow with an oily rag.

I nod. I had used him as a source for various generic parts to replace broken or stolen pieces for the Grand Prix — an electric rear window from a ‘72 Monte Carlo, a headlamp fixture and a carburetor from a ‘73 Bonneville station wagon. I’d request what I wanted and he’d toss the pieces over the fence, to the bewilderment of the portly Mexican gal who ran the taco truck. Those day were over now that BZ lost his job.

Reminiscing about pilfered parts pitched under chain link fences reminded me of an anecdote about Art Arfons. I tell BZ about a phone conversation I once had with Art concerning the time he had scored a classified fighter plane engine from a military surplus boneyard in 1964…

Art Arfons told me that he knew back in 1964 that there was only one piece of hardware that would have enabled him to satisfy his jones for unbridled adrenaline and also reclaim the LSR from Craig Breedlove — a General Electric J79 jet engine from a Lockheed F-104 Starfighter. He acquired his for $625. “I got it when it was still classified,” he said. “It had been scrapped because of foreign object damage. I had hit all the scrap yards and said, ‘If you ever get a ’79, I want it.’ So a guy called from Miami and he said, ‘I got one.’”

Arfons then called GE and asked for an owner’s manual, in essence sending a smoke signal to a GE whistleblower. With something rotten in the Rubber City, a colonel from the military paid Arfons a visit. “He said, ‘That’s a classified engine, you’re not allowed to have it,’” Arfons remembers. “And I said, ‘Well, here’s my piece of paper (receipt). I bought it after you threw it away.’ I said, ‘You can’t have it.’ Two years later, they declassified it.”

As I replayed the phone conversation back in my mind, I visualized how Arfons chained his military surplus monstrosity to a tree in his back yard and — to the horror of his neighbors — began purging the afterburners, searching for harmonic imbalances. “There was a special wrench to take them apart,” he had said. “I knew a man who worked at Wright Patterson (AFB) and he got me the tool I needed to fix it. He would sign it out and drop it by the fence for me. He’d check it out in the morning and I’d get it back before he had to turn it in that evening. I had to do that to take it apart and I had to do that to put it together. The blades were all damaged, so I just removed every third one. Never did balance the thing. I just put it back together that way and it ran fine. It had all the power I needed.”

“He was armed with the biggest gun in town once he got that J79,” Craig Breedlove told me in 1997 at Black Rock, laughing. Breedlove was just as smitten with the concept of thrust unlimited as his compatriot from Ohio. Cheap, abundant jet power enabled both Arfons and Breedlove to dominate the Land Speed Record scene throughout most of the 1960s. Others didn’t fare so well…

THIS SYSTEM IS OBSOLETE IN LIGHT OF NEW KNOWLEDGE (Twentynine Palms, CA 1996)

November 3, 2008

Working out of a school bus in Twentynine Palms, CA, Jocko Johnson is feverishly sorting out the prototype of something he calls the PoweRRing 3-cycle, an engine which has very few moving parts, a remarkably petite cubic inch displacement and, according to Jocko, is capable of both serious power and tremendous fuel economy. It is completely revolutionary and the size of a crock pot.

It is nanotechnology as applied to an internal combustion engine. It could change the automobile as we know it.

Twice I attempt to interview Jocko for a feature article I was doing on him for HOT ROD Magazine; the first time the ’71 Grand Prix overheats while stuck in a traffic jam just west of Pomona. I am forced to use the pay phone from a hamburger stand on Foothill Boulevard as I sheepishly explain to Jocko why I couldn’t make it to his shop in Twentynine Palms, California. Here he was, building an experimental radial motor with very few moving parts (no crankshaft, no connecting rods, no pushrods) and I was pulled over on the side of the surface street with a temperature gauge cooked to 12 o clock and steam pouring out of the radiator’s catch can.

(In a V-8 engine, Jocko tells me later, one cylinder does work, while the other 7 work against it. No wonder it overheats… )

The next week, before traffic gets bad, I try again.

The dirt roads to Jocko’s crib in the desert are wide open vistas, the kind of roads that seem to confirm the existence of the mysteries and magnetism of the desert. Even the paved roads have very few motorists, and even fewer state troopers. The kind of road the clears the mind and senses of any sclerotic gunk. Invigoration.

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 couple or three coyote howls from Jocko’s digs, a cat named George Van Tassel built — “through 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 site 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. FFFFFWHHOOOSSSHHH!!! I haven’t even arrived at the mad alchemists and my senses are already overwhelmed by free-form Teutonic theater in the desert.

Jocko shows me the mock up of his new streamliner, the Spirit of 29 Palms, a name he had just come up with. “This town needs some local pride,” he says.

The mock-up is a set of contoured bulbs with a needle-thin fuselage bridging the two sections. I point at one end. “The driver goes here?” I ask. “NO, the engine goes there,” he says. We walk to the other end. “The driver goes here, then?” “Exactly,” Jocko answers with pride. “C’mon, let me show you the PoweRRing.”

We migrate towards a school bus.

“Current engine design,” he says as we walk towards the bus, “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.” I nod my head. “This system is obsolete in light of new knowledge.” I cock an eyebrow. “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.”

Jocko’s PoweRRing 3 Cycle has eighteen 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 like the idea of a radial engines because it would have the lightest weight per cubic inch and they are easiest engines to cool. (“Amen to that,” I think to myself.) 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.

As we talk a military helicopter on maneuvers flies over us with two or three guys in uniform hanging on a ladder. SCHUTTT-SCHUTTT-SCHUTTT-SCHUTTT-SCHUTTT-SCHUTTT... Jocko doesn’t even look up.