Posts Tagged ‘Bakersfield’

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.”

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…

BAKERSFIELD AND THE CORRECT PATH TO MINIMIZE TIME (1999)

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.

AMERICAN HONKY TONK (1999)

November 3, 2008

We can see mecca. There is smoke on the horizon as we head east, the plume of smoke emanating from the burnout box way up yonder. This is a portent and a promise of some seriously high-octane hot rod action, and a chance to get the dirt on Leasher and Infinity from the Goat.

BZ and I are not alone in our pilgrimage: A bottleneck of hot rods, economy cars and motor homes crimp Famoso/Wasco Road, from the west off of the Highway 99 offramp and from the east off of Porterville Highway.

I find a Lefty Frizzell song on the AM radio. It was the one about “She’s Gone, gone, gone…,” anchored by a ton of reverb and a lo-fidelity fuzz bass. I didn’t need the numbers on a road sign to tell me we were getting closer to Bakersfield.

“Ahhh, this is real American honky tonk,” I say.

“Yeah…None of this modern county music that sounds like it was recorded at a super collider in Switzerland.”

I think I understand what he means, and I agree with him. As usual.

DRAG STRIP RIOT (1962)

November 3, 2008

This is the moment that Leasher has been waiting for. Gotelli and Leasher enter the car in the Smokers Meet, as the klieg lights circle among the grapevines and the corn fields, heralding a showdown between the titans of outlaw drag racing.

Never before have so many Top Fuel dragsters congregated at one chunk of asphalt. It is an orgy of beer cans and nitromethane of Bacchanalian proportions. It is pure decadence manifested in the guise of the raw pursuit of horsepower.

Word of this gathering has spread to all corners of the US of A and this clarion call is magnetic enough to lure spectators and participants from across the continent. As competition progressed through the weekend, a pile of empty bent, crumpled beer cans begin aggregating into impromptu pyramids between two 1/4 mile lengths of chain link fence that has been used to separate the bikers and the bleacher bums from the competitors. It is an utterly ineffectual safety barricade.

The Smokers Meet is utter chaos as dragster guys prepare their mounts. This contest of speed and debauchery has spontaneously morphed into the most prestigious gathering of outlaw men and machinery in the United States. The 2000 horsepower, blown-on-nitro railjobs’ fuel consumption is matched only by the thirst of the menacing mass of humanity who have gathered to get liquored and dosed by the burning nitromethane used to propel these cars to ungodly speeds.

By Sunday, the last day of competition, the show could only be described as a bad scene — a hot rod rumble, a drag strip riot of Kern County bikers and rough trade, as well as motorcycle clubs from ‘Frisco to ‘Berdoo (the Hell’s Angels, Gallopin’ Gooses, Heshians, Satan’s Slaves, the Pissed Off Bastards of Bloomington and others). The mob’s collective rapacious thirst for suds is only half the story. If you wanted to urinate, you had to kick your way through the empties and the other biker-types and nitromaniacs to find a porta-potty that wasn’t thoroughly thrashed. There is a fight that starts at 11 in the morning and doesn’t reach a decision until 3 that afternoon.

And there you have it, a three day festival of speed lubricated by nitromethane and 80 weight motor oil as well as a couple of tanker’s worth of Budweiser, Miller, Schlitz, Brew 102, various malt liquors, all of which were coursing through the veins of tattooed leather boys who were in the mood for speed and whose only possible surrogate for that sensation was raw violence…

And as the sun began to set on Sunday evening, the elimination ladder for the fuel dragsters wound down to a showdown between the last two contestants, the Gotelli Speed Shop entry out of South City, San Francisco and the notorious Fuller-Zueschel-Prudhomme machine from Los Angeles.

Finally, as the sun went down Sunday night there were two Top Fuel gladiators remaining in competition. It was decided by the Smokers that during this final round of eliminations that no false starts would be tolerated. Indeed, this would be grounds for immediate disqualification. The mood was foul and the tension was as thick as motor oil.

Both drivers jump the start. Only Leasher is disqualified.

That summer Don “the Snake” Prudhomme would be touring the country and taking on all comers as the driver who won Top Fuel at the March Meet. Glen Leasher would be dead.