Posts Tagged ‘Glen Leasher’

AFTERBURNERS AU GO GO (1962)

November 3, 2008

The assault on the 400 mph barrier cranks into high gear via the intrusion of some wily Americans who sully what theretofore had been the sanctified sandbox of European aristocracy. After the shootout between Eyston and Cobb concludes, the Yanks begin kicking up dust storms on the Salt Flats in contraptions so stripped down, coarse, and primitive that the Brits kinda’ viewed them as uncouth tinderbox folk art.

Perhaps most emblematic of this mindset is Akron, Ohio scrap yard scavenger Art Arfons, a drag racer who terrorized the strips with Allison aircraft engines until the National Hot Rod Association pulls the rug on both his ingenuity and his aircraft engines, and tried to relegate Arfons to a circus act. In retaliation, Arfons doesn’t get mad, he just turns up the boost on a mighty mastadon of mutant machinery that he has christened Cyclops, and aims his crosshairs on the Salt Flats, leaving the drag strips in the rear view mirror of his memory. “I had an Allison (aircraft engine) for ten years and I couldn’t get to 200 in the 1/4 mile,” Arfons recalls about the ’60s. “I wanted more horsepower.” It is difficult to ascertain what was the bigger monster at this point: the race car or Arfons himself.


“I had three children by my twenty-first birthday,” remembers Breedlove, reflecting on the transformation of the LSR tableau from the domain of Euro high society to working class ‘Merican motorheads like himself. “I was financially strapped. Even if you could afford the Merlins (aircraft engines) or what have you, the costs of developing the transmissions and the gear trains and so on and so forth were really prohibitive. When I saw the jet engine, I went, ‘Oh boy – there’s no way we can go wrong with that.’ In ‘61 we located a J47 engine at Airmotive Surplus down on Alameda Street in L.A,” he continues. “They had a whole batch of ‘em coming in that were Korean War vintage. The engines were being scrapped out for $500. I had a sponsor, Ed Perkins, who had an aircraft fastener company. I talked Ed out of 500 bucks and that became the first engine for the Spirit of America.

But the prodigious-yet-cost effective horsepower that aerospace technology provides to the salt flat racers did not come without a price: And in 1962 drag racer-cum-jet setter Glen Leasher pays it – in full. While driving the J47 powered Infinity at maximum velocity, the jet car veers off course. Glen corrects at full burner and the stress and torque loads the suspension, precipitating a possible wheel or axle failure; the motor explodes and scatters its remains – as well as Leasher’s – across the measured mile of Bonneville potash.

Regardless of Leasher’s fate, however, the fuse of the paradigm shift has been lit. Taking bald exception to the stateside jet set, however, is the progeny of Sir Malcolm himself, Donald Campbell. Piloting an immaculate, brand new turbine-engined, axle-driven re-invention of his old man’s Bluebird streamliner, Campbell is caught in an awkward transition, as he sets a water speed record with a jet engine, yet rigorously maintains that any proper heir to the LSR throne would not be thrust driven like the abominations Breedlove and Arfons were disgracing the Salt Flats with; By 1960, Campbell sinks over three million dollars of other people’s British Pride to ensure that the stateside vulgarities never triumph. And this was just startup lucre; by 1963, after a spectacular 500 foot hurtle across Bonneville, the venture capital doubles. As Bluebird is humpty-dumptied back together, Campbell seeks a new venue for his mission. He takes aim in Lake Eyre, Australia.

Meanwhile, Breedlove petitions the FIA to sanction his impending incursion on the LSR but the FIA sniffs its nose and harrumphs at Breedlove’s request, noting that the Spirit of America a) is not wheel-driven; and b) only has three wheels, therefore it is a motorcycle, not an automobile. Craig shrugs his shoulders and shrewdly summons the FIA’s kid brother, the FIM (Federation Internationale de l’Motorcycle), seeking its approval and timing resources. The FIM is down with the SOA’s request, under this criteria: Breedlove’s cigar-shaped streamliner fits the description of their “Unlimited Sidecar” category (!), and they will happily sanction the record runs if Craig adds thirty kiloliters of ballast to one side of the vehicle, as to mimic a sidecar sans passenger (!!). Done. Spirit of America cranks out a two-way average of 407.45 in the summer of ’63 to reclaim the LSR. Breedlove is officially the first man to travel at over 400 mph on land – all accomplished in a “motorbike” with a virtual sidecar. Brilliant.

Amidst the controversy and hullabaloo over the SOA, Campbell continues to sojourn in his Bluebird, albeit with mixed results. His Australian expedition is hammered by monsoons, weather conditions that enable Breedlove to score the LSR uncontested back in the States. Indeed, the weather in Australia was so disheartening that Campbell’s benefactors begin to view this whole land speed record thing as a multi-million dollar boondoggle and yank their sponsorship. Finally, on Friday, July 17, 1964, Campbell goes 403.1 – twice – with a backup pass so brutal that it rips the wheel from out of his hands. Both Campbell and the FIA claim the de facto record runs went down in Australia, that this was the “real” LSR. Latter day pop psychologists would refer to this way of thinking as “denial,” for history remembers Breedlove’s run not as a bogosity on a tricycle, but as triumphant; it remembers Campbell’s run as valiant as Paul Bunyan, but unfortunately a day late and a few quid short. There indeed had been a changing of the guard in the 1960s at the Salt Flats, as it became not only the domain of new technologies with godawful gobs of horsepower, it also becomes distinctly American.

Equally important, Breedlove has trumped the FIA, who were now sucking hind teat as far as sanctioning prestige goes. With its ego bruised, the FIA swallows its pride and allows jet technology into its competition, opening the floodgates for folks like Arfons, “the junkyard genius of the jet set,” the man who set out to conquer the LSR in a post-modern mongrel contraption that featured a ’37 Ford truck axle, depression-era Packard steering and a top secret fighter plane engine. Breedlove, Arfons and their ilk were now legitimate.

How legit? Even as the FIA and the hot rod set thumb their noses at the exploits of a tricycle that strapped a military surplus jet just on axis of where the sidecar should go, the Beach Boys write and record an eponymously monikered B-side about such an endeavor. So… What is more relevant? The approval from pop stars that sold more records worldwide at that time than Beatles or the signing off from a French bureaucracy?

INFINITY OVER ZERO by Cole Coonce: PART TWO: PICK YOUR PART

November 3, 2008
Bob's Pawn Shop (photo by Cole Coonce)

Bob's Pawn Shop (photo by Cole Coonce)

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…

BAD FOR BUSINESS

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…”