Posts Tagged ‘gotelli speed shop’

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…

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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…”

THE GOAT

November 3, 2008

The Goat ran a Top Fuel car for the a couple of decades, with a tune-up as hot and volatile as a poached egg on the highway. The Gotelli Speed Shop machine, eponymous tagged for Gotelli’s popular high performance emporium in the South City section of San Francisco, was powered by an engine out of a ‘58 Chrysler New Yorker.

The Goat felt that a pushrod actuated, piston-driven mill like the Chrysler (with hemispherical-shaped combustion chambers) was the only prudent way to make horsepower while burning nitro, which was a delicate operation.

Gotelli was among the baddest tomatoes when it came to extricating copious amounts of power out of a Chrysler engine burning nitromethane as a fuel.

The partnership was perfect symmetry. Gotelli had an ax to grind (the San Francisco drag racers felt they were given the bum’s rush by the Los Angeles-based “Petersen magazine syndicate”) and Leasher was his blade.

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.

IT WAS A BUNCH OF SHIT

November 3, 2008

I stick the cassette of the interview with the Goat in the Batmobile’s tape deck and play it back to distract BZ.

“How did you know Glen Leasher?”

“He used to work for me. He drove my trucks. He was getting ready to go back home (to Wichita). Some guy said, ‘Why don’t you give this guy a chance to drive your car.’ I said, ‘Sure, go ahead.’ He drove the car and the first meet we were in, we won it.”

“So tell me about the Top Eliminator run in ‘62…”

“It was a misunderstanding, we should have won the race. They said that we fouled. We pulled up at the starting line and the front wheels went over the line so we pulled ‘em back and Prudhomme was still coming down. He hadn’t even been there yet and they disqualified us.”

“So you were on a single run?”

“When he (Prudhomme) come he rolled the lights and they said, ‘Shut if off.’ About a half hour later they said, ‘you’re disqualified because you went over the line first.’ It was a bunch of shit.”

“You’ve had a lot of crackerjack drivers in your career. How would you rate Leasher?”

“He was one of the best drivers I had. He knew if the car needed some weight here or weight there. Really sharp guy.”

“How did you feel about him driving jet cars after he quit driving for you?”

“I tried to talk him out of driving that big coupe. He wanted to go 500 mph. He didn’t make it. I didn’t want him to go, but he went anyway.”

“So you were pretty hurt when you heard he was killed in the Infinity?”

“I don’t feel too bad, because I knew that was going to happen. Anything that Romeo Palamides built was a bunch of crap. He was going down the strip at 300 and some odd mph and pulled off that black line — you’re supposed to follow that black line. He pulled off and he tried to correct it and then it blew. It flipped over and killed him.

“He said, ‘I’m going to drive that car up there at Bonneville.’ I said, ‘Oh? It’s up to you. If you go up there, you are not coming back alive. Not with Romeo’s stuff.’ They built that car and they should have tested it. But they didn’t test it. Anything over 300 mph and you lose. That is just the way it happens.

“He was saving his money so he could buy a roundy-round car. He was a helluva’ driver. That sonofabitch Palamides didn’t have enough decency to bring him back in a box…”

“How do you spell his name?”

“Leaser. L-e-a-s-e-r. Some made a mistake. It don’t make no difference anyhow. He was a good driver. Nobody could beat him.”

“Unless they have some home town refereeing…”

“Prudhomme is a big asshole, that is all he is. He goes around bragging that he beat us. He didn’t beat us. I got no use for the guy. They didn’t let us run.

“After they disqualified us down there, we were all down at the starting line. So I told the starter, I said, ‘What went wrong? We didn’t do nothing. He went over the line too.’ ‘Yeah, but he went over the line first.’ ‘We went over the line? The front wheel just touched it and we backed up. The people went crazy over that, they threw rocks at him, at Prudhomme, and everything. Everybody wanted to see us run him. We beat everybody, cars better than his. There was no money in it. It was 4000 bucks altogether. I got so damn mad that I took my pocketbook and t’rew it on the floor. There was four guys, the guy who built the car, the guy who built the motor and everything. And I said, ‘I put up all my money. We run. If I win, then I take back my money. If I lose then you can have all of my money in my pocket.’ I had about 3 or 4 hundred dollars in my pocket. They couldn’t come up with any money.

“It was a bunch of shit. ‘You four guys, if we turned you upside down we couldn’t come up with a nickel. You guys are nothin’ but broke.’ That’s why they called me ‘Terrible Ted.’”

“Were the spectators as pissed off as you were?”

“People went crazy. When he went out to make his run they were t’rowin’ beer cans at him. They were t’rowin’ rocks and everything at him. We had to make a run too — just for the fun of it and everybody stood up and were going, ‘Hooray’ and all that shit. ”

“It was a bad deal… Prudhomme… that sonuvabitch.”

Click.

We never saw a highway patrolman all the way home from Bakersfield.