Posts Tagged ‘AA/Fuel Dragster’


November 3, 2008

May 31, 1959, Riverside Raceway: The Russians dominate the heavens with Sputnik, a satellite designed to determine the density of the upper atmosphere and return data about the ionosphere via a pair of radio transmitters.

It’s Memorial Day weekend – when the US of A honors its war dead – and Eisenhower/martini-shaker America is having enough problems coming to terms with the Russkie’s satellites that continue to buzz the stratosphere whereupon an Ozzie & Harriet-type couple is motoring down the surface streets near Disneyland and they encounter what looks like a spaceship strapped-down on the back of a flat, open trailer, being towed by a 1956 Chevrolet station wagon.

In the front seats of the Chevy are a couple of beat looking young men, “Jazzy Jim” Nelson and “Jocko” Johnson. In the back is a lone black man, pit man Eddie Flournoy.

As the couple pass the spaceship-time machine looking thingie, they do a double take. The Harriet-type drops her jaw. The Ozzie-type scratches his crewcut. As disturbed as they are about the Communist threat of interstellar superiority, they are unsure if these are the guys they want on “our side.”

After Jocko and Jazzy unload their streamlined dragster off of the trailer, the world stops in its rotation: On this day, the Jocko’s Porting Service entry, a rear engine dragster blanketed in aluminum lovingly hand-formed by Jocko, sets a 1/4 elapsed time record, as driver “Jazzy Jim” stops the clocks in 8.35 seconds. To Jocko, it is an empirical display of the equation wot says: horsepower less drag equals an ungawdly acceleration. His stealthy car slithers through the slipstream and into the history books.

In a direct contrast, at an Air Force base in Kansas, Glen Leasher in the Sullivan, Martin and Leasher AA/Fuel “rail” claims a 1/4 mile speed record of 185 mph the day before…

Dragster were called “rails” or “railjobs” for a reason: They were either sedans stripped of all body work or were purpose built chassis that were nothing but tubing. Jocko’s Porting Service was different: The damn thing looked like it was from another planet, but was influenced by various land speed record setters such as the Bluebirds of Malcolm Campbell, George Eyston’s Thunderbolt and the Railton Special of John Cobb, which, at the time of Jocko and Jazzy blasting into the record books, held the Land Speed Record at 394 mph for over a decade.

(To avoid confusion, it helps to remember that the Land Speed Record is the average speed between two timers set exactly one mile apart. This is after a running start of as much as six miles. It is the average speed of two timed runs, back-to-back within an hour, run in opposite directions. Conversely, drag racing records are measured by timing lights triggered 66 feet before the finish line and 66 aft, for a total distance of 132 feet, which is 1/10th of the distance of the race course (a 1/4 mile equaling 1320 feet.)

Because the drag strip runs are more of a sprint and less of a marathon, the use of nitromethane – a highly destructive fuel – was used by drag racers such as Jocko Johnson, whose specialty was “porting” the cylinder heads’ combustion chambers for burning nitro, a rather delicate science as the porter had to re-engineer the heads on an engine designed for a passenger car that would normally burn gasoline. Johnson had “porting” down to a science, but he was the first drag racer to also factor in the science of aerodynamics, which had previously been the domain of the Land Speed Record guys and aerospace.

Although the LSR crowd had tapped into decreasing both wind resistance and drag, they did not utilize exotic fuels in the rather prodigious amounts that the dragster guys did, who had no fear of “tipping the can” with the “yellow stuff” or “liquid horsepower.”

The LSR competitors made horsepower another way: with gobs of cubic inch displacement, via engines that had come out of fighter planes. To see these giant, beastly machines blubber down the Salt Flats of Bonneville with massive puffs of black smoke billowing out of the exhaust was a truly unique spectacle.

(In the 30s, the Germans had burned nitro with an automotive, streamlined vehicle, albeit with tragic results: Berndt Rosemeyer, a national hero of the Third Reich, was killed while racing on the autobahn at a speed of 280-something mph in the Auto Union GP, whose design pre-saged that of the Top Fuel dragster (supercharged engine, with nitromethane as a fuel) by a quarter of a century . The Auto Union GP was ultimately co-opted by the Third Reich, much to the consternation of Ferdinand Porsche, the car’s designer, who ultimately shuttered the project, as a political gesture as much as anything else… )

But the salient point among all of the digressions is the reality that Jocko Johnson had created a package that had the best of both worlds: a streamlined dragster that had plenty of downforce without much drag (the opposite of thrust) and aided by a powerful badass hemi, huffing on nitro.

Streamlining rarely paid off on the drag strip. The weight penalty of the added body work negated the benefits of slipping through the air stream.

The Jocko’s Porting Service ‘liner is history’s exception.



November 3, 2008

”… the professional hot-rodders — such as the Petersen magazine syndicate (Hot Rod Magazine and many others) and the National Hot Rod Association — have gone to great lengths to obliterate the memory of the gamey hot-rod days, and they try to give everybody in the field transfusions of Halazone so that the public will look at hot-rodders as nice boys with short-sleeved sport shirts just back from the laundry and a chemistry set, such an interesting hobby…“ — Tom Wolfe, The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby, 1963.

“So tell me about this Infinity,” BZ asks again, no doubt as a ploy to distract himself from worrying about the Batmobile overheating again.

I didn’t know what to tell him or where to start, except at the beginning, which was 1962 or so. I begin a rambling monologue on how the Infinity Land Speed Record project arose out of the success of the Untouchable (a jet dragster cum high velocity daredevil act that stunned the drag strip crowd) and featured many of the same players: Glen Leasher, a Type A type driver weaned on jalopies in Wichita, Kansas; “Dago,” a welder who worked out of the Oakland Airport and whose christened name was Romeo Palamides; Harry Burgdt, the track operator at Vacaville Raceway (a podunk strip out among the pastures and stockyards northwest of Sacramento… Vacaville translates to “Cow Town”); and a young, fast, scientific type named Vic Elisher, a Hungarian kid who, when not wrenching on deconstructed jet engines, was dabbling in academia and beatnikdom at Berkeley…

The partnership thrived on appearance money accumulated with the Untouchable as it toured the race tracks of California and the Pacific Northwest. San Gabriel. Fontana Drag City. Bakersfield. Half Moon Bay. Vacaville. Fremont. Kingdon. Cotati. Medford. Portland. Puyallup, Washington.

To put the exploits of the Untouchable jet car in context, I tell BZ that this all happened in an era when the “official” movers and shakers of drag racing were trying to shed the unkempt, greasy image of drag racers as hot rod hoodlums hell-bent on chemical anarchy… If drag racing could clean up its act, its leading sanctioning body, National Hot Rod Association, could cozy up to the deep pockets of the Automotive Power Structure in Detroit, who had no use for home-built cars with aircraft engines stealing the thunder and the headlines from the accomplishments of real automobiles on the drag strip proving grounds…

It would be quid pro quo: The Big Three, General Motors, Ford and Mopar, could market, advertise and exploit its performance and accomplishments on the official proving grounds sanctioned by the NHRA… in exchange, the Detroit’s purse strings loosened and cash began to trickle its way into the NHRA’s coffers…

Jet cars were not only unsafe, they were bad for business. In 1961 they were banned by the National Hot Rod Association.

No matter. Up and down the Left Coast the yokels paid their money to see the Untouchable jet car badda-bing, badda-boom down the drag strip, reaching seemingly unfathomable speeds approaching 220 mph. In comparison, in those days the AA/Fuel Dragsters cackled mightily and would clock speeds of 190 or so, but it was like they were standing still compared to the sturm und drang of the rolling pyrotechnics display wot was the hermaphroditic jet car as it went BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! loud as the Wrath of God and then whooshed down the drag strip quicker and faster than anything else on wheels. Each pass was a supreme test of a man who dared to test fate on a 1/4 mile slab of asphalt. The paying customers ate it up like saltwater taffy.

How could they not? It was righteous entertainment. It was loud. It was dangerous. It was dirty and noisy. And it was officially verboten by the NHRA…

The strips that hosted these exhibitions — Kingdon Air & Drag Strip near Sacramento, as an example — were, often as not, rinky dink and unsafe… at Kingdon the Chrondek timing lights were portable and during the course of the speed meet had to be wheeled off the runway to accommodate the occasional aircraft seeking to land there… There weren’t any grandstands, so spectators lined the strip and eased up as close as they dared to the fire-breathing machinery, and whenever a car got loose the spectators would scatter like rabbits…

It was under conditions such as these that Palamides and cohorts made their dough. Beyond pocketing a little coin for living expenses, the money from the Untouchable was funneled into the construction of Infinity, a much more sophisticated jet car with a target speed of 500 mph, speeds sufficient to take away John Cobb’s Land Speed Record, set in 1947. Speeds twice as fast as those reached in the Untouchable

So yeah, at its most innocuous, the Untouchable and its Midwestern counterparts, Walt Arfons’ Green Monster and Art Arfons’ Cyclops, were drag strip curiosities showcasing brutal and brazen shards of fiery horsepower that melted the mental faculties of those assembled and frustrated the Powers-That-Be and their attempts to bolster drag racing’s reputation as a test bed for automotive technology as well as a marketing tool (‘Win on Sunday, Sell On Monday!’) for this year’s model…

I am trying to explain all of this to BZ, but he kept interrupting with questions about the junk yards in Arizona where Romeo Palamides and Vic Elisher got the J47s for Untouchable and Infinity

“Yeah, I’ll get to that. Really though, you gotta’ take the taxonomy of this whole Infinity quest back to Bakersfield in 1962 and the Smokers Meet. I maintain that Glen Leasher never would have died in a jet car on the Salt Flats if he hadn’t been jobbed at the final round of Top Fuel that year — after that he quit the Gotelli Speed Shop Top Fuel car and began driving the Untouchable. After that, Infinity…”

THE FUEL BAN (1959-1963)

November 3, 2008

”FBI agents descended on a Texas auto racing track last month looking for evidence that Timothy McVeigh bought a large quantity of powerful racing fuel before the Oklahoma City bombing, ABC reported Thursday night.

”Employees of VP Racing Fuels told the FBI that a man resembling McVeigh in 1994 paid $2,700 cash in Texas for nitromethane, ABC said.

”The chemical is an accelerant the government now believes may have been used to detonate the bomb that killed 168 people.“ — AP WIRE REPORT, 1996.

Even before jet-powered dragsters entered the mix, some independent track operators and the NHRA made no secret of their feelings about drag strip speeds getting out of control. The AA/Fuelers were unsafe.

The offender? The volatile fuel they burned: Nitromethane. Generically known as “Fuel.” Pop. Cackle. Liquid Horsepower. Joy Juice. The Yellow Stuff. The Sweet and Sour Sauce. CH3NO2. As acrid as it is punishing, when it reaches its flash point nitromethane is an angry serpent of a hydrocarbon and its practitioners are snake handlers who have taken it on faith that they won’t get bit — but they often are. Nitromethane is a monopropellant, which is a fancy way of saying that it carries its own oxygen, and therefore once it is lit or merely compressed it is as volatile as a downed high tension line dancing to and fro across the highway.

Ironically, unless under pressure, nitro is surprisingly docile as far as exotic fuels go, capable of taking out unsuspecting railroad boxcars only if under extreme duress. Mishaps off of the drag strip are rare, even when one factors in an incident of domestic terrorism a few years ago. But because of its instability (and the questionable stability of some of its handlers), nitro has developed quite an epic history and mythology, beginning with Italian rocket scientists and their experiments with it as early as 1929, followed by Russian rocket design teams testing a combination of kerosene and a nitromethane derivative a year later.

I tell BZ about the bizarre exploits of Jack Parsons, and how he would invoke pagan spirits before a rocket launch in the once-deserted, arid hills of Pasadena in what is now the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. As early as 1937 Parsons already had listed tetranitromethane as a possible rocket propellant and by 1945 the company he helped charter, Aerojet, was seriously considering nitromethane as a fuel source for their rocket engines, but demurred in deference to hydrogen peroxide.

Beyond issues of safety, it could be argued that this kind of chemical warfare in an internal combustion was a little outside of the image the NHRA wanted to present to its corporate suitors… Violent explosions, speeds that scared the insurers. Nitromethane was banned.

So at NHRA meets dragsters burned gasoline instead of the devil’s hydrocarbon. Was this a red herring? Was this an excuse to cozy up to Sunoco as the official supplier of gasoline for the dragsters?

Not unlike the jet cars later, after their banishment from the NHRA the Top Fuel dragsters flourished at “outlaw” and unsanctioned tracks, where they proved to be wildly popular, case in point being the Smokers Meet, which began in 1959 and was the most popular event of them all…

The Fuel Ban. In fact, amidst cries and caterwauling of “collusion,” independent trade papers sided with the outlaws and mocked the drag strip establishment as “Druids.”

The Fuel Ban was an exercise in futility and beyond: Not unlike the theorem that states in order to make a bigger bang out of a firecracker all one has to do is wrap it tighter, the prohibition of exotic fuel in drag racing created an entire new scene that thrived and flourished on the contraband fuel. And it boomed loudest and burned brightest just north of Bakersfield…

If guns are outlawed only outlaws will own guns could be paraphrased as if nitromethane is banned, only the banned will race with nitromethane… and they did… just another manifestation of the “outlaw” culture insinuating itself into Eisenhower America and its forgotten nooks and crannies… while the Hell’s Angels Motorcycle Club took over podunk California farm towns like a Mongol horde; similarly, under the sanction of the Smokers Car Club, the renegade fueler guys gravitated to an abandoned surplus airstrip north of Bakersfield, known as Famoso. Nitro drag racers came there from all four points of the Continental US. The “Smokers Meets” were so wildly successful that the money was loaded in 55 gallon drums and the ticket booths ran out of tickets and began exchanging toilet paper for admission…

The vox populi had spoken with wallets. They wanted their nitro. (By 1964 NHRA reversed its position on the Fuel Ban.)


November 3, 2008

I can feel a pinch deep in my solar plexus as we crest the Grapevine, heading north on I-5, just a few markers shy of the Highway 99 junction. The closer we get to Bakersfield, the tighter the tug upon my very psyche, id, and spirit. In the basin below lay the wide expanse of the San Joaquin Valley, encompassing Bakersfield, a gearhead’s Garden of Euphony, and its corollaries of honky tonks and greasy spoons, many of which were demarcated by gaudy tubes of neon: Zingo’s. Milt’s Coffee Shop. The Wool Growers.

The wind is hot and stinks of oil, dung and oxtail soup. It smells of history. It summons the taste of too many cold ones in Oildale. Lefty Frizzell on the local AM radio station owned by Buck Owens. Merle Haggard growing up in a converted railroad boxcar. Famoso. Nitro. AA/Fuel Dragsters. Friggin’ Nirvana.

Blazing past the “Rain for Rent” billboard that graces the east side of the 99 in Oildale and the radio is on. A female country singer that I didn’t recognize burbles that:

“A girl must live by the light in her soul… The world is spinning out of control…”

“That’s what I love about proper honky tonk, BZ. Three or four chords and no bullshit. There is some greater existential truth in the simplest lyric. Nothing convoluted, straight to the point, like a drag race. Or a ray of light.”

“Do you really think a country singer knows anything about the path to the truth?” He reaches over and turns down the radio. “The difference between mankind and a molecule,” he explains, “is that a ray of light knows the correct path to minimize the elapsed time between Point A and Point B.”

He goes on to explain how on a quantum level, the quickest path between points are two straight lines connected and bent at a pivot point… the folly is in ignoring the pivot point… he then goes on about the convergence of parallel lines, etc…

“I still think this song is right, BZ. She’s saying if you follow the light in your soul, you too will know how to minimize time.”

“Ahh, but is minimizing time actually maximizing time? By minimizing time do you gain a glimpse into the infinite and the eternal?”

I turn the radio off altogether. Sometimes the truth can only be expressed in action not words. Still I have to ask.

“So what is Infinity?”

“I don’t know what is infinite, but I do know what is finite. What is finite is our time on this planet.” He pauses. “Life is not only finite, it is also rather mundane and fucked up. We find a way to get passionate about things — like these men who dedicate their lives to conquering the Land Speed Record — as a means of not only getting through Life, but of getting a glimpse into Infinity.”

I turn the radio back on. In all its simplicity, country music would provide a respite in the conversation, and an opportunity for me to digest the philosophical implications of Infinity.

BZ would not wait for me to catch up. He was having none of this. He was on a roll. His response was to riff on the notion of infinities within infinity, something that is constantly being debated in higher mathematics and string theory…

“There are infinite points in spacetime — from the Big Bang until the Big Crunch and the constant tug of war between gravity, dark matter and Einstein’s cosmological constant which has created ‘events.’ Moments in spacetime have definite signatures, definite markers.” He takes a beat. “But what about the moment between each moment? That, my friend, is infinity. The moments between the moments, which can be chopped into never-ending and finer hash marks…”

I struggle to keep up with BZ’s riff about the infinities within infinities and how therein lies Infinity. I tune it out for a half a minute as I realize that each attempt at the Land Speed Record was somehow analogous to the watershed moments in spacetime that BZ mentioned. But I knew this whole trip was about seeking the moments between the moments: Infinity.

When I came back into the conversation, he has wired his notions of Infinity into a discourse on particle physics.

“On a quantum level,” he says, “there is a point where a wave becomes a particle and that point can be quantified. Beyond that, there are potentially infinite sub-particles or strings that vibrate and resonate within each particle. It is mind boggling how infinitely small you can slice this stuff upon which everything — jet cars, beer cans, and the radio waves that carry the sound of country singers — is built on.”

I look out the window and stare at an oil derrick slowly and methodically cornholing terra firm. It looked like a perpetual motion machine fueled by the entropy of the Universe.


November 3, 2008

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Boredom will send anybody in search of kicks. Testosterone-addled motorheads living in the prosaic plains of Wichita, Kansas can only cruise the drive-in malt shop on opposite sides of town for so many revolutions before the dreariness of repetition sends them into orbit, and they scatter and burst like a meteor shower across some kind of cosmic chalkboard.

These are the mad ones, the men with hyperactive souls. Hyper-intense. Hyper-real. Hypersonic. Men who can’t understand the monotony of why the Earth spins in a circle when there has to be a direct route to wherever it is we are headed.

In Wichita Kansas, Glen Leasher fought the banality of human existence anyway he could, whether terrorizing the movie theater with his motorcycle or racing jalopies round and round the bullrings of the County Fairs on a Saturday night. He raced the jalopies furiously, like he was trying to hasten the earth’s rotation. True, it was small time and mercenary, but the payoff was manifold. In addition to the chump change, it also provided Leasher with experience behind the wheel of a hot job, a cache of expertise that would bolster his confidence enough to leave the flat lands in his rear view mirror and Horace Greeley it to the drag strips of California.

Before bailing all together, Leasher hitched his wagon to the mechanical prowess of “Kansas Al” Williams, driving his Hypersonic AA/Fueler. In 1959 they lit the up the automotive trade papers with reports of a 1/4 mile Top Speed of 185 miles per hour — the fastest ever on a drag strip. And although this feat was performed on a race track improvised on an Air Force base in Kansas, the spit-and-bubble gum nature of the venue was not enough to taint the credibility of this momentous accomplishment. Leasher’s star was rising and Kansas would soon be in his rear view mirror.

His résumé now read “Fastest Man On A Drag Strip,” and Leasher finally motored to the Left Coast, more specifically to San Mateo in the South City of San Francisco where he found gainful employment as a bonafide, rootin’ tootin’ Top Fuel driver. His bossman was an ill-tempered Italian who answered to the handle of “Terrible Ted” Gotelli. Aka “the Goat.”

Gotelli and his boys, the Organ Grinders, were formidable drag racers. The Goat, in specific, had accumulated a pronounced reputation for generating prodigious amounts of horsepower using nitromethane for a fuel and supercharged Chrysler hemi as a powerplant. In Leasher Gotelli found his natural foil, a young cocksure ramrod with a heavy right foot.

“Leasher was as go cat wild with his right foot as Gotelli was with his nitro percentage,” I say.

BZ nods.

“When he climbed into that jet car, it was like Space Age America was a tiger that Leasher grabbed by the tail,” I tell BZ.