Posts Tagged ‘john cobb’

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.


JOHN COBB’S NITRO (STUFF WAS STILL GOOD)

November 3, 2008

“1965 at Bonneville, I made friends with the Mobil Oil guy, and mentioned we needed some nitro. He said, ‘I have some.’ There was a corrugated tin shed in back of the Texaco station that he had a key to, he gave me the key and said ‘help yourself to what you want.’ I had Bob Knapp’s Chevy pickup and when I opened the door, there was about 60 drums of fuel in the shed left over from John Cobb’s land speed run. I thought about all of the racers that parked next to the shed over the years and never knew what was in it. Seeing as how he said to help ourselves and I was by myself, I found a stack of pallets, I put one down and rolled a barrel onto it, then up onto two and so on up to the bed of the truck. I got two drums of nitro and one alcohol, before I could no longer move… Stuff was still good from 1948.”Chassis builder, drag racer and land speed racer, Kent Fuller.

D-Day becomes V-Day, and more attempts at cracking 400 mph transpire. John Cobb resurrects his unique 4-wheel Railton ‘liner (now coined the Railton Mobil Special), a sleek manta ray of a streamliner with independent suspension and a Napier-Lion 12-cylinder aero-engine mounted in each curve of the S-shaped chassis. At Bonneville on September 16, 1947, John Cobb lays down a scoriating two-run average of 394 mph. Asked to describe the runs, one of which tripped the timers at 403 mph, Cobb exercises the British gift for understatement when he says, “Everything happens quite quickly.” Yes, things do happen very quickly at those speeds. Empirical proof? Cobb is killed attempting the water speed record at Loch Ness in 1952. He never cracks the 400 mph barrier; his record remained unplucked like a grape on a vine until…

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?

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…”