Call it fate, but on the day that Kirk Alston set his record at El Mirage, he disappeared. I kind of know what happened. Even though a lot of people witnessed it, they still refuse to believe.
But I do.
My name is Andy “Pops” Gilbert. I am part of the Safety Crew for the SCTA. I’ve been a member since ’39 and have driven the ambulance since ’53. Although I’m in my upper seventies, I’m still pretty sharp. No sight loss, hearings a little off (due to a lot of years working on uncapped engines), a bit overweight but I am agile and my mind is alert, so I know my story holds weight. It all began the Sunday prior to the opening of racing season.
Kirk was an interesting kid and he had a lot going or him. He kind of reminded me of a cross between Vic Edelbrock, Sr. and Barney Navarro, a real master of wringing horsepower out of anything. Nowadays, kids tend to play with Camaros and Mustangs for V-8 thrills, or worse yet, Japanese crap boxes with thundering stereos. Kirk leaned more toward the older engines: Flathead Fords, Hudson sixes, old Hemis, Rocket Olds engines and so fourth. Hell, he even had a literature collection that would make the archives at Peterson Publishing jealous!
Kirk always wore a fresh flattop haircut a T-shirt with jeans or a set of old coveralls. A nice kid really, anyway….
He was really working hard on his roadster, preparing the 296 inch Flathead for the spring meet. I didn’t see the boy much during this time. Most of his preparations he did himself and he rarely called except to give me a hard time about Dale Jarrett losing a race.
Things are hectic the night before racing season takes off and sometimes-peculiar things happen. Well, I had just finished watching NASCAR Tonight when the phone rang. Somehow, I knew it would be Kirk. Jarrett had taken third behind a smarmy Jeff Gordon and Mark Martin had won, so I did not expect to have Kirk give me to hard of a time. “Hello?” I said, and then Kirk was there, as if speaking from far away it seemed. “Pops? This is Kirk, Can…Can ya come by my place?” I spoke, “Sure son, what’s the—” But he cut me off in mid-sentence, “Just come by.” He then hung up on me.
My mind raced. He surely didn’t need mechanical help. Hell, even the guys who’d been around for awhile went to him for odd questions. So, nothing mechanical, so maybe it was his family? That had always been a mystery to me. His mother had died while giving birth and his father had fallen into the bottle shortly after. He bounced from Uncle to Aunt and then finally ended up in foster care till he was 18. Then he set out on his own, living off of a trust fund his grandparents had set aside for him when he was just born, thus, money wasn’t a worry for him. I felt bad for the kid, really. He did not associate that much with kids his age, so us older guys invited him to shows and such to give him a social life of some kind at least.
As I drove toward his house, I thought about how much of a whiz he was with an engine. A natural, really. A strong confident fellow and that is why the call bothered me. He did not sound sure of himself.
I pulled up his driveway, things looked normal. There sat his ’49 Olds 88, a ’34 Ford truck cab sat waiting the finishing touches on the chop he had started and a set of Deuce rails were leaned up against side of the garage. A light spilled out of the crack beneath the garage door and bled across the concrete.
He called for me to come into the garage. As I entered I saw his ’27 “T” Lakester on jack stands. He was sitting on the workbench against the far side of the garage, looking like the cat that had just caught the canary.
“Pops, how ya doing old man?” His voice was sprite and mischievous. I remember Stu Hilborn talking to me the same way on the day he unveiled his fuel injection set up way back when. Cautiously I prodded Kirk, “What, you discover a speed secret to top them all, Kirk boy?” His eyes narrowed and his grin broadened. “That’s only the surface, Pops.” He scooted off of the bench and motioned to me to follow him to the engine stand that sat at the front of his Lakester.
The mill itself was under a grease stained canvas tarp. Kirk smiled and whipped the tarp off of the engine. The engine was obviously the 59 L block I had given him awhile back, but the heads were something else. They looked like a set of Ardun’s, but had an exotic look like that of anything running at Le Mans today. Closer examination answered one question, but raised many more.
The heads were a dual overhead cam design and the induction system was similar to Hilborn’s idea, except this was a reverse firing engine and had electronics involved! A dual coil ignition setup was evident and there were two plugs per cylinder. Amazing and very impressive. Then I saw something that stopped me dead in my tracks. Pop riveted to the back of one of the immense valve covers was a brass SCTA timing plaque, which read as follows:
This certifies that Kirk “Allspeed” Alston went 207.156 MPH at El Mirage Dry Lake, April 17th, 1953.
I read the plaque again and again trying to figure it out. Then I stepped back and let my eyes take in the engine that was before me. It was a bastard really. A mixture of old and new. It was so scary to look at that I kept rubbing the green engine to assure me that it was real. I looked at Kirk and I could tell by his facial expression that the novelty of his phantom engine had worn off and he was looking for real answers. Answers that I knew I could not provide.
I spoke, “How can it be?” He cleared his throat. He had been staring at the engine but then tore his eyes from the thing and looked me straight in the eye, then spoke; “Since the beginning of last week, I have been having some pretty realistic dreams. I have been living another life in my sleep, building this engine with the likes of Duntov, Bill Kenz, Stuart Hilborn, Vic Senior and others.
We’ve tested and combined ideas from today’s technology and yesterdays. And, well, this is the final product. Dean Moon wanted me to run it in his ’32 Sedan, but I told him I wanted it for my “T”. So, last night they all gave me that plaque as a gift of sorts to put onto the engine and they told me Kenny Howard would have a surprise painted for me on the nose of the “T”. Sure enough, this morning I went out and across the front of the car was this.”
I walked up and saw with my own eyes, a pinstriped and lettered nosepiece by the master himself, Von Dutch. It read The Mirage Catcher. I looked at the bright red striping and lettering on the steel blue colored lakester. It looked sharp, really sharp! It was probably the cleanest machine I have seen since the Pierson brothers unveiled their ’34 coupe years ago.
He was trembling, and again looked at me for answers. So, I spoke. “Ya know, Kirk, there are a might bit of strange things that happen in this world, and a lot of others, like yourself, look for answers that cannot be found. I say this, if it feels right then why worry. There’s a plan for you and this here creation you have here. Godspeed, Kirk. And no worries.”
He smiled back at me. I nodded and made for the door. It was late and I didn’t want to get in his way as he lowered the engine into his roadster. He again thanked me and went to work. He worked best alone he had always told me. So I walked out to my pick up and headed home. As I drove home, I thought about that phantom engine again. Could it be true? Did all of my friends from long ago reach across time and help a lonely hot rodder in building something that was both new and old? A cool chill ran up my spine. Maybe so……
Next day at the lakes was dry and hot. The sky was a steel blue color with no clouds at all. I sat at my post and watched the cars all run. It was smooth sailing all day long with no incidents at all. As I watched I smiled to myself and thought how wonderful this all was. The teamwork, the camaraderie, the cars. Being here beneath a sunny sky and watching guys who have put their souls into a piece of tin, attempt a personal glory: nothing has changed.
Be it a Riley four port or a computerized Rat big block motor, the same drive to obtain higher speeds with a given design has always been there. I closed my eyes and listened as a “B” class roadster blazed passed. I then determined that when I would die, that here, right here in the high desert of California, I would have my ashes strewn.
This is all about hot rods you see. I love them. Always have, always will. At about 1:05 it was Kirk’s turn. My radio popped to life and a voice squawked “Hey Andy, this is your boy, ain’t it?” I smiled and hit the button. “Just close your eyes and let your senses tell you what is going on.” was my reply.
The Lakester began to wind up as he took it through the gears. The strange hybrid motor growled and sang. It seemed to hypnotize everyone present as it resonated throughout the valley. Kirk entered the traps kicking up a huge rooster tale of silt as he sent his car sailing.
Inside the timing booth a buzz was growing into a roar. The kid was going to set an incredible record! Across my two-way radio I listened as excited voices shot back and forth. He really was going to do it!
Then I saw it. A mirage began to spread across the desert floor. It was almost alive as it seemed to spread like a cloud’s shadow across the desert floor. Wavering and silver in appearance, it seemed to coil like a snake waiting for its prey. The whole valley was nothing but sound now. Radios, the distant murmur of the spectators and the roar of that amazing engine.
The mirage then leapt off of the desert floor and wavered in front of Kirk. A person could see into it, actually. It was clearer. The sky seemed bluer. The haze of today’s modern California sky, one has grown accustomed to was not there.
The mirage was fast too. I watched with horrendous fascination as It raced alongside of Kirk’s Lakester and open even wider. Without slowing Kirk entered the mirage. Full bore. Then Kirk, the car and its amazing engine disappeared.
As the rooster tail dissipated, the seriousness of the situation became clear. Where were the driver and the car?
Now the radio was alive. Everyone; barking and yelling trying to get the most information on what had happened. As a safety crew member I have seen it all. Bloody, bruised, ugh, even death. This was beyond any of that. For there was nothing. No traces of the car or Kirk. Most of the folks out there that day claim that Kirk left. He drove off of the course and just flat out left town. I knew the truth. You see, he had caught a mirage. Simple as that.
That evening, on a whim I looked through my old magazine collection. I grabbed a stack of 1953 Hop Up’s and out of the stack, one fell and hit the floor. I stooped to pick it up and froze as I stared at the cover.
There on the cover was Kirk with his Mirage Catcher. Across the top of the picture was the caption- Mysterious Kirk “Allspeed” Alston and his amazing Mirage Catcher” I stared at the magazine for a long time before putting it away. I did not want to read it.
Around me time was changing. I knew that I would not sleep that night. As I finish writing this, I can hear traffic growing with the rush of the oncoming sunrise and I wonder what things will be like today at El Mirage.
—Written by Mark Karol-Chik September, 1996