Posts Tagged ‘cuz’n roy’

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.

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VESUVIUS (Pomona, 1996)

November 3, 2008

En route to Black Rock, and with the motorized class struggle in our rear view mirrors, we continue to fight our way through the crosstown traffic on the San Bernardino Freeway, arguably the most constipated thoroughfare in Los Angeles. As we pass through East LA, traffic is really beginning to tighten up and the radio man says that just beyond Pomona the freeway was an absolute parking lot. Cuz’n Roy and I take a slight detour. We go drag racing.

Top Fuel cars are running out at the drag strip in Pomona that same day, which is pretty tough for us to blow off: aye, getting dosed by nitro-powered projectiles reaching a terminal velocity of 300 mph in 4 seconds, the ground shaking like Vesuvius, buckets of raw, liquid explosives seeding the ionosphere like the Devil’s cornfield. It sure beat sitting in traffic, watching the temperature gauge needle weld itself to the red line. Once the sun set in Pomona traffic would thin to a tolerable density and we could ball the jack into San Berdoo and Barstow and continue to retrace Breedlove’s steps at night, as least as far as Tonopah, Nevada, out by the missile silos and the proving grounds of Area 51. All things considered, an afternoon at the drag races seemed like the perfect overture for a trip to the desert…

The detour makes sense on many levels, not the least of which being that Breedlove himself had raced on this very chunk of asphalt back in early 1962, shoeing a railjob propelled by two small block Chevies with pump gas for its fuel. It was a deconstructed machine known as the Freight Train, and as part of the race team’s schtick, they often wore railroad engineer’s caps in the Winner Circle. Breedlove drove the car only for a couple of weekends as a prelude to his initial Land Speed Record attempts, and well before the choo-choo hats became part of the wardrobe…

Indeed, throughout the 60s and early 70s, Breedlove used the drag strip as a test bench for various aerodynamic theories and propulsion systems, but whenever the fastest man in the world returned to the 1/4 mile asphalt, one got the feeling he was really slumming and passing time until all systems were “go” for another crack at the Land Speed Record out on the Salt Flats.

Cuz’n Roy and I park the ‘71 Grand Prix at a taco stand that stood behind the drag strip’s timing tower, hoof it a couple of blocks into the pit entrance gate, then grab some track steaks and a couple of beers and cop a squat on some aluminum seats near the finish line. Top Fuel cars come roaring by our perch in pairs at speeds of 300 mph or so (“WHHHHAAAAAAHHHHHHUUUUUUHHHHHNNTT!”) and as often as not – due to finicky track conditions and an envelope of smog that was starving these rapacious dragsters for oxygen – blow up overamped engines and propel shrapnel into altitudes of absurd elevations (“PPPOOOFFF!”). The dragsters pound the pavement with such ferocity that car alarms are triggered in the parking lot after nearly every pass. The explosions are a great spectacle, but the car alarms bum our high.

“When does that fucking noise stop?” I blurt. “Is that constant squeaking, squealing and honking the soundtrack to our entire existence nowadays?” It is the noise of fear, dread and neurosis, and it had invaded the otherwise peaceful confines of an afternoon at the drag races. It was one thing to hear the sounds after an accident on the freeway, but quite another to have it interfere with our enjoyment of gratuitous explosions at the drag strip. I take a hit off of my paper cup and tried to block the shrill sounds from the parking lot out of my consciousness.

Another fuel dragster blazes by on fire, the crew chief having miscalculated the fuel mixture and atmospheric boost levels, the infernal roar drowning out any superfluous noise from the parking lot. As flak rains from the heavens I tell Roy I feel like Robert Duvall in Apocalypse Now, dodging fragments of molten metal while trying to maintain a cogent discourse. In this instance, rather than debating Duvall’s take on whether or not the Red Chinese used surfboards in Vietnam, the conversation is about the strange turn the land speed record took once Breedlove shunned the traditional internal combustion engine used by both passenger cars and Top Fuel dragsters in favor of jet propulsion that was, in essence, liberated from the trash bins of the military industrial complex.

THE FLYING CADUCEUS

November 3, 2008

As track workers mop up the space age detritus from the last failed attempt down the drag strip, Roy goes to take a piss and I hang on the fence thinking about guys other than Breedlove who did second-hand shopping from military boneyards: Dr. Nathan Ostich, who showed up at the Bonneville Salt Flats in 1960 in a contraption he tagged the Flying Caduceus, a needle-nosed machine shaped like a tightwad’s pencil and sporting a J47 jet engine as a propulsion system; Walt Arfons followed suit with his Green Monster, a jet car that looked like an armadillo run over by tractor tires and used a Westinghouse J46 engine out of a Navy fighter for power. Then there were more: Romeo Palamides’ Infinity; Gary Gabelich in Bill Fredrick’s Valkyrie; Art Arfons and HIS Green Monster. For a brief instant in the early 1960s, there was a small battalion of gallant, courageous men out at Bonneville who had strapped such devices onto rolling frames of steel, albeit with mixed (and sometimes tragic) results…

POMONA SEX MACHINE (Pomona, 1996)

November 3, 2008

Nearby a couple of old time railbirds are smoking nails and have overheard Cuz’n Roy and I ruminating about the dueling topics of a) the absurdity of these race cars stressing a pushrod engine to 8000 rpm in four seconds; and b) the Spirit of America. One of the bleacher bums – the more portly of the two – is sporting a t-shirt with the caption, “This Ain’t A Beer Gut…This is a Fuel Tank for a Sex Machine.” He asks if we need tickets for the races for the rest of the weekend as he had extra. We tell him thanks but no thanks as we were just passing through, en route to see Breedlove attempt his supersonic record runs out at Black Rock, Nevada. We tell him that we would be on the road right now if the San Bernardino Freeway wasn’t so bollixed.

The skinnier guy chuckles, takes a pull off of his beer and relates how he and his partner knew Craig from the old days of car club gatherings on the Westside of LA, as well as when Craig himself was running dragsters out here all those years ago, back in the days before there were very many freeways, when the hot rodders congregated at hamburger stands like The 19 in Culver City (“… on the corner of Jefferson and Sepulveda,” the skinny guy said, “named after its 19 cent hamburgers”), the Clock Drive-in (“Sepulveda and Venice, across the street from the Shell Station”) or the Foster Freeze on Hawthorne Blvd. On a Saturday or Sunday afternoon they took surface streets to the sundry drag strips such as Saugus, Santa Ana, Riverside, Fontana Drag City or Pomona – that is, if they bothered to take it to the drag strips at all…

“One night at the Clock, Craig Breedlove was draggin’ it out in some guy’s 3-window deuce,” the skinnier old timer says. “Craig crashed out by the railroad tracks and just about broke his friggin’ neck…”

“He went through the roof…”

“…We thought he was dead until the guy who owned the deuce called the police and an ambulance.”

“… I can’t believe none of us went to jail.”

“After that, Craig took it to the strip,” the sex machine says. “Eventually, he ended up driving for John Peters and Nye Frank for awhile, in 1962. Two blown and injected small block Chevies. They called the car the Freight Train. The whole crew wore engineer’s hats.”

Both bleacher bums chuckle at the memory of the train engineer’s get-up.

“Craig didn’t drive the Freight Train very long,” the fat man says as he exhales on a butt and pitches his cup. “It probably wasn’t fast enough for him.”

NOTHING IS STATIC (The Great American Southwest, 1996)

November 3, 2008

The journey continues. Night has fallen and a cassette tape of Link Wray rumbles on the car stereo. Cuz’n Roy and I burn down a rather deserted stretch of desert in time with the music, the swanky and ferocious beat acting as a syncopated counterpoint to the soothing thrum of the Pontiac’s smoothly percolating 400 cubic inches of internal combustion. These are the only sounds to permeate the mute omniscience of the California moon and interrupt the stillness of the surrounding darkness.

I pull on a styrofoam big gulp of jake, thick as motor oil and twice as sour. The brackishness of the caffeine is exacerbated by the faux liquid creamer, which has a consistency and overbite reminiscent of a night in Akron, Ohio. Despite the brutality of the acidic bile in my styrofoam cup and the realization that if I didn’t drink this stuff we would never reach Black Rock, Nevada in time for Breedlove’s record runs, nothing could harsh the mellow of a night that seemed to be in harmony with the cosmic consciousness.

“The sound of a well-tuned V8 is the sound of the universe at peace with itself.”

Roy agrees. “It is the perfect rhythm section for a twangin’ guitar,” he nods, reaching to crank up the volume pot on the tape player.

Like Link Wray, Roy is a North Carolina boy and he grew up around the souped-up V8s of stock car country. He is a strapping, towheaded country mouse with a build informed by a generous helping of corn beef hash. Neither of us are particularly mechanically inclined, but we both have a profound appreciation for an internal combustion engine and all of its trappings, not the least of which was the different ways one can sound depending upon fuel type, air/fuel induction system and cam grind.

Roy can find harmonic overtones from a variety of fountainheads, but he has a real penchant for picking out the symphonies buried in thermodynamic sources… He knows that machines are part of the great cosmic om. Many times at the drag strip as I fought for elbow room amongst the bleacher bums and professional photographers Roy would just stay in the parking lot and recline in the front seat of the car, content to kick back with a sixer and listen to the different types of drag racing machines gear up and wind down across the pavement. It is music to his ears, like the sound of bird calls to somebody in the Audubon Society.

“It sounds like you are down on compression in the number seven cylinder,” he says during a lull in the cassette.

I am colored impressed. Roy’s appreciation of the sonic qualities of an eight-cylinder internal combustion engine makes sense when one factors in that his birthplace, Ranlo, is not more than a three beer drive from a triumvirate of company towns whose main industry nowadays is stock car racing and its spinoffs. In recent years, surrounding cities such as Charlotte, Hickory, Rockingham, Winston-Salem, Spartanburg, South Carolina et. al., have all blossomed and roared with commerce as garages, shops, wind tunnels, checker flag themed coffee shops and other havens for horsepower research and development for stock cars replaced or supplanted the region’s rather moribund textile industry. Each of those cities is a point on a circle that envelops the modest digs of Roy’s childhood in the podunk burg of Ranlo.

The conversation turns to North Carolina and its recent history. We talk about textile mills and relatives with missing fingers; we talk about how Link Wray and how North Carolina has changed since the days of rockabilly and moonshine. We talk about the jail terms of the first wave of stock car racers.

Ahhh, the checkered history of stock cars in the Crimson State. The phenomena that became stock car racing as an industry transpired the moment when federal revenuers and local Good Ol’ Boy law enforcement were empowered by the sudden ubiquity of inexpensive radio technology in the 1950s and 1960s. This finally allowed them to stop (or at least stem) both the rampant bootlegging of corn liquor and its co-efficient, tax evasion. Sure, a hot headed soda cracker moonshine runner could out drive the local sheriff’s deputies, but good luck in outrunning radio transmissions carried on modulated electromagnetic waveforms that travel at the speed of light. So the daredevils who were at one time runnin’ shine and who were the object of hot pursuit from law enforcement became stock car drivers. Many had gone to jail at one time or another (and another), but these days they are respectable businessmen and/or tooth-capped spokesmen for boxes of Corn Flakes and laundry detergent, pitch men racing for maximum exposure on the boob tube and catering to the needs of the racing crowd and its Fortune 500 sponsors, their tawdry occupation of outrunning the law now firmly excised in life’s trail of exhaust.

“A bonafide hillbilly guitar player can’t get a job in county music no more,” Roy muses. It seems the landscape had been gentrified with corporate stock car bucks and Starbucks, he says and in reference to the motorsport that was once the domain of moonshine runners, he adds that, “and all of those famous stock car boys can’t talk about their vacations in the big house neither.”

Stock cars in the Deep South. Corn liquor squeezin’s. Hillbilly guitar players. None too shabby a cultural backdrop for life east of the Mississippi, but for Cuz’n Roy these trappings were not enough. As a kid, he had been exposed to the surf and drag culture of California via exploitation films and sound recordings. Throughout Roy’s youth it was, by day, surf guitars mixed in with hillbilly honky tonk on a dime store phonograph or transistor radio and, by late night under the blue cathode glow of a rabbit-eared teevee set, beach movies with gratuitous dragster crashes shoehorned into the plot and then the world fell into a sine wave and a test pattern. This imported culture shaped and informed Roy’s appreciation of California and fired up his sense of wanderlust.

(Early in our friendship while watching the vintage surf and drag trashploitation flick Bikini Beach on videotape, he told me in solemn tones that, “Every time I went to a drive-in movie theater in the deep South and I saw these beach movies with dragsters racing alongside those majestic mountains, or whenever I heard a song by the Beach Boys on my AM radio, I knew there was something going on in California I needed to experience.”)

Back in those days, for kids in the hinterlands, pop culture – late night television, AM radio, surfing and drag racing magazines, etc. – taught its impressionable viewers that California was not just a place on the map, it was the end of the line for the Manifest Destiny. It represented an ideal, opportunity, the last stop on the trail that began at the Gateway to the West, a logical extension of the last chunk of real estate within the borders of the Continental US. In fact, it is where the pavement ends and where vision begins for passengers riding the American Dream, a notion encapsulated in the idiom of Breedlove’s choosing, “the Spirit of America.”

As a transplant, Roy is the natural guy to tap into what that meant, i.e., to figure out what resonance and deeper meanings, if any, could be summoned from the whole Spirit of America ethos – as a phrase, as a concept, as an approach to life. It is 1996. California had changed; America had changed… all of which is natural, as life is nothing, if not change.

The drive continues. California became Nevada. Posted speed limits are ignored. The conversation dies and the mix tape of surf music spools out. I eject the cassette and scroll through the dial of the AM radio. We find a rock and roll station out of Reno, which through a quirk of electromagnetism, is able to transmit all the way to I-15 east of Stateline, Nevada with minimal fritzing. Late night radio in the American Desert is truly freeform and tonight the screed from the deejay in Reno is particularly temporal and metaphysical…

“… Nothing-uh is static-uh,” the voice from the radio says through some static, while a disjointed organ solo section of a vintage Pink Floyd space instrumental meanders in the background. “Things move both forward and backwards, as a function of space and time, but things move, my friends. Stars move, galaxies move, everything moves away from everything else. And the further away they get-uh, the faster they move, which indicates the universe is expanding and constantly changing. Only when something ceases to move, does it cease to exist. Can I get an amen-uhh?”

We lose the station not long after that and drive more or less in silence for the duration of the trip. And so it goes into the black vacuum of the Nevada desert. Vegas. Beatty. Tonopah. Hawthorne. Reno. By 3 AM, all are road signs in our rear view mirrors. Nixon. Little Nixon. Black Rock. We spend the night in Gerlach, Nevada, with me on a pool table and Roy on the floor of a joint called Bev’s Miner’s Club, whose back door is a crack in the lip of the dry lake bed. This next morning we drive out onto a ridge overlooking the dry lake bed, share a batch of campfire coffee with some backpacking survivalists, brush our teeth with salt and bottled water, and then spit the wash on gypsum dust white as the fossils of time.