Posts Tagged ‘Jocko’s Porting Service’

FELLOW TRAVELERS

November 3, 2008

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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THE BLUE FLAME AND THE DATING GAME

November 3, 2008

You’re saying that The Gas Company people were in Oklahoma City in ‘68 when you guys set the drag strip record?

PETE FARNSWORTH: Right, and we signed a letter of intent with the natural gas company contingent upon the fact that we could get tires from Goodyear that were capable of very high speeds.

The Blue Flame was designed to go 1000 miles an hour structurally and aerodynamically, we thought. You know, that’s speculation…

You start getting into and beyond transonic and supersonic regions and all kinds of…

PETE: Well, we wind tunnel tested the model, at Ohio State University’s wind tunnel. (We did) subsonic, transonic, supersonic (tests). And uh, so anyway we signed this letter of intent. Suba was going to be the driver. He was a super personable guy, very knowledgeable, smart as a whip, this guy was General Manager of the repair department of the biggest Buick dealership in Evanston, Illinois when he was 19 years old. Really sharp.

But anyway, two weeks after he set the 1/4 mile ET record, he jumped into a friend of his top fuel car at Rockford Dragway, to try to figure out why they had a handling problem. They couldn’t straighten it out and he got out on the edge of the drag strip and they had a 55 gallon barrel marking the end of 1/4 mile – marking the edge of the track and he clipped that with the front wheel and then totaled it.

That’s asinine.

PETE: Asinine of him to run the car that way. He didn’t know, it was only a couple of days or weeks or so after that that we got the okay about the land speed record driving and he never knew about, I mean he knew about it, he was part of the idea but the fact that we had actually gotten it.

That is so brutal. So now, so now the search is on for somebody to shoe the car and you’re thinking target speed, 850 to 1000 miles an hour.

LEAH: And the gas industry at that time, when Chuck died they wanted to pick out a driver, someone who would do TV interviews and be Mr. Gas America, it had to be someone dynamic that was going to be in favor of, they really did cooperate in the search for someone else.

Okay, so Reaction Dynamics was kind of an umbrella corporation that would exempt you guys from liability if something weird happened with a car and also maybe tax reasons too…

PETE: Tax reasons too. But um…

So the search is on for a driver, how did that go?

PETE: Well, we Dick Keller and I, both knew (Top Fuel racer) Don Garlits real well. You couldn’t ask for someone who was more knowledgeable or observant of things that was going on with a car, so he was the first choice – he was the only choice at that time, we never even thought about anybody else and Don agreed to drive it, so months went by and we got further along with the design and we were going to have a press conference with the Gas Industry in Los Angeles for the announcement – the driver and the project – and just before that happened Don called us up and said he had to back out of the deal. He said he had sponsor pressures or something, that they didn’t want him to risk his life driving this car and he was making pretty good money at that time with his various sponsorship deals and as I remember it that was mostly why he had backed out if it.

So all of a sudden here we had the press conference scheduled and nobody to drive so we quick made up a list of people who we thought might be acceptable and Danny Ongais who raced for Mickey Thompson at that time was the first one that we thought of, he was pretty versatile and a nice guy. Art Malone was on the list and Craig Breedlove and we made up a list of ten, Gabelich who we had met because he flew out from Los Angeles, he wanted to run the X-1 rocket car, after we weren’t going to run it anymore.

After we interviewed him we realized he had done an awful lot as well and he explained he worked at North American Aviation as a test astronaut and had done high altitude sky diving with the power capsule, done all sorts of stunt stuff, you know diving off Hoover Dam. He was a genuine…

… Was diving off Hoover dam was that part of his duties with North American?

PETE: No, no that was strictly a…

He had a weekend off?

(laughter)

PETE: He was an adventurer. In fact he drove the Beach City Chevrolet funny car, (note: which burned to the ground.)

He drove the Valkyrie (jet dragster).

PETE: The Valkyrie. He had run the Moon Eyes Invader, I believe at that time, the Allison-powered car that belonged to that guy who could port headwork, Jocko’s Porting Service…

Jocko Johnson – yeah.

PETE: Yeah, he drove that car out on the Salt Flats. So he had this tremendous background of experience behind him and that tying in with the Space thing, he was (Mercury Seven astronaut) Wally Schirra’s exact size and he did a lot of space checkout for Wally Schirra.

It was explained to me by somebody basically that if Gabelich survived it then it was okay for the astronauts to try it. (laughter)

PETE: Well, that may have been.

I mean, you can’t have one of the Mercury Seven getting killed before lift off…

PETE: Gabelich was a very personable fellow. Good with people, likable and uh, not a bad looking guy either. He was on the Dating Game TV show, the kind that gets the girl and he did get the girl.

LEAH: He was his own product.

PETE: Later on he became the subject on the Dating Game and the girls vied for him. So he’s already in with the TV stuff and all that stuff. We personally went to Breedlove and figured he had the experience out there. He didn’t want anything to do with it because he didn’t build it and I’m the same way…

That’s just the confirmation I’m looking for because Craig told me that you guys went to him and somebody else said that he was not even in the loop.

PETE: Oh no, (after Garlits) he’s the first one we went to.

Excellent. So was his Goodyear sponsorship a conflict of interest?

PETE: Well, the way he explained it that he didn’t design and build the car, he didn’t want to drive it. And we had no idea what he would want in the way of money cause he had already been running you know, he had held the record at that time, why should he break his own record, you know there was all sorts of reasons.

But that was part of Shell Oil and Goodyear’s thing, too, you know “you’re the first to go 400, 500, 600 mph; you haven’t reaped the benefits of the 400, 500, 600 yet.” He explained to me it would be prudent for him, because he wanted to go Mach 1, his car was called Sonic One at the time and – it would be beneficial for him to have an adversary who took the record away – and then…

LEAH: He could get the sponsorship to come back with his own glory instead of ours…

PETE: So anyway he basically turned it down. Next we went to Mickey Thompson to talk to (funny car driver) Danny Ongais and uh, Mickey wouldn’t even let us talk to Danny.

“My guy.”

PETE: That’s right, he never contacted me, you know, that’s it – so we never did talk to Danny and so here we are, we’re out there in Los Angeles, no driver, so we called Gabelich. Gabelich was just tickled pink. He loved to do it. Didn’t take him long to accept and so we presented that to the Gas Industry and they met him. They decided yeah, this guy can handle the job as far as the p.r. end of it, from there we had our press conference and we all went back to work and Gary was our driver.

I remember the Purple Gang Top Fueler that he drove with the big purple plumes and kind of the feathers coming out of the crash helmet.

(laughter)

PETE: Say if you don’t mind I’m going take a couple of more pieces…

(TAPE ROLLS OUT)

FELLOW TRAVELERS POSTSCRIPT (1959)

November 3, 2008

Two weeks after the Jocko’s Porting Service streamliner knocks the drag racing world off its axis, it implodes. Reasons given were “downforce versus insufficient substructure.” Besides being the only streamliner that ever really accomplished something profound on the drag strip, really, the Jocko-liner had ALL the elements: Completely avant garde, yet thoroughly functional. A hep cat driver named “Jazzy Jim.” Low ET of the Universe. Cover of DRAG NEWS. Then it self-destructs two weeks later.

I mean there’s your folklore. So ripe it can make one itch.

FROM THUNDERCAR TO DRIFTWOOD (Southern California, 1964)

November 3, 2008

After he set a Top Gas record in 1964 with Thundercar, an Allison-powered streamliner – a machine that defied convention (fully enclosed, contoured and tapered body, motivation by an aircraft engine) except for the fuel it burned, pump gas – Jocko Johnson retires from the digs, popping in occasionally to port heads for some hitter engine builders in both drag racing and sports car racing.

He shutters Jocko’s Porting Service and assumes the life of an artist. His hair, couture and lifestyle become more bohemian. The hippie revolution is germinating. Jocko appears equally at home with the now-withering beat movement as well as the hippie gag, as he becomes a wood sculptor, creating art pieces out of driftwood.

BALL OF FLAME

November 2, 2008


A writer for RACER magazine sees me in Bruno’s with a “Jocko’s Porting Service” t-shirt on and comments on it.

I tell the guy from RACER that I had done a feature on Jocko for HOT ROD and was a big fan of his. I then add that Jocko had been nominated into the International Drag Racing Hall of Fame.

Jocko had called me and ran his acceptance speech by me. He says he was to take the podium dressed in a tearaway tuxedo. He would begin his speech with the words, “I’m really honored to be inducted into Don Garlits’ ‘Mall of Blame’… I mean ‘Hall of Shame’… I mean ‘Ball of Flame’….” while he gradually tore away the tuxedo and stripped down to a “Jocko’s Porting Service” t-shirt.

“Jocko’s not going to be in the Drag Racing Hall of Fame.”

“Sure, he is. He called me up and read me the first paragraph of his acceptance speech. Jocko’s in the Hall of Fame.”

“Not anymore. He changed his mind.”