Posts Tagged ‘March Meet’

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)

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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.”

THE FUEL BAN (1959-1963)

November 3, 2008

”FBI agents descended on a Texas auto racing track last month looking for evidence that Timothy McVeigh bought a large quantity of powerful racing fuel before the Oklahoma City bombing, ABC reported Thursday night.

”Employees of VP Racing Fuels told the FBI that a man resembling McVeigh in 1994 paid $2,700 cash in Texas for nitromethane, ABC said.

”The chemical is an accelerant the government now believes may have been used to detonate the bomb that killed 168 people.“ — AP WIRE REPORT, 1996.

Even before jet-powered dragsters entered the mix, some independent track operators and the NHRA made no secret of their feelings about drag strip speeds getting out of control. The AA/Fuelers were unsafe.

The offender? The volatile fuel they burned: Nitromethane. Generically known as “Fuel.” Pop. Cackle. Liquid Horsepower. Joy Juice. The Yellow Stuff. The Sweet and Sour Sauce. CH3NO2. As acrid as it is punishing, when it reaches its flash point nitromethane is an angry serpent of a hydrocarbon and its practitioners are snake handlers who have taken it on faith that they won’t get bit — but they often are. Nitromethane is a monopropellant, which is a fancy way of saying that it carries its own oxygen, and therefore once it is lit or merely compressed it is as volatile as a downed high tension line dancing to and fro across the highway.

Ironically, unless under pressure, nitro is surprisingly docile as far as exotic fuels go, capable of taking out unsuspecting railroad boxcars only if under extreme duress. Mishaps off of the drag strip are rare, even when one factors in an incident of domestic terrorism a few years ago. But because of its instability (and the questionable stability of some of its handlers), nitro has developed quite an epic history and mythology, beginning with Italian rocket scientists and their experiments with it as early as 1929, followed by Russian rocket design teams testing a combination of kerosene and a nitromethane derivative a year later.

I tell BZ about the bizarre exploits of Jack Parsons, and how he would invoke pagan spirits before a rocket launch in the once-deserted, arid hills of Pasadena in what is now the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. As early as 1937 Parsons already had listed tetranitromethane as a possible rocket propellant and by 1945 the company he helped charter, Aerojet, was seriously considering nitromethane as a fuel source for their rocket engines, but demurred in deference to hydrogen peroxide.

Beyond issues of safety, it could be argued that this kind of chemical warfare in an internal combustion was a little outside of the image the NHRA wanted to present to its corporate suitors… Violent explosions, speeds that scared the insurers. Nitromethane was banned.

So at NHRA meets dragsters burned gasoline instead of the devil’s hydrocarbon. Was this a red herring? Was this an excuse to cozy up to Sunoco as the official supplier of gasoline for the dragsters?

Not unlike the jet cars later, after their banishment from the NHRA the Top Fuel dragsters flourished at “outlaw” and unsanctioned tracks, where they proved to be wildly popular, case in point being the Smokers Meet, which began in 1959 and was the most popular event of them all…

The Fuel Ban. In fact, amidst cries and caterwauling of “collusion,” independent trade papers sided with the outlaws and mocked the drag strip establishment as “Druids.”

The Fuel Ban was an exercise in futility and beyond: Not unlike the theorem that states in order to make a bigger bang out of a firecracker all one has to do is wrap it tighter, the prohibition of exotic fuel in drag racing created an entire new scene that thrived and flourished on the contraband fuel. And it boomed loudest and burned brightest just north of Bakersfield…

If guns are outlawed only outlaws will own guns could be paraphrased as if nitromethane is banned, only the banned will race with nitromethane… and they did… just another manifestation of the “outlaw” culture insinuating itself into Eisenhower America and its forgotten nooks and crannies… while the Hell’s Angels Motorcycle Club took over podunk California farm towns like a Mongol horde; similarly, under the sanction of the Smokers Car Club, the renegade fueler guys gravitated to an abandoned surplus airstrip north of Bakersfield, known as Famoso. Nitro drag racers came there from all four points of the Continental US. The “Smokers Meets” were so wildly successful that the money was loaded in 55 gallon drums and the ticket booths ran out of tickets and began exchanging toilet paper for admission…

The vox populi had spoken with wallets. They wanted their nitro. (By 1964 NHRA reversed its position on the Fuel Ban.)

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.