Laguna Seca

Sporty car racing began on the Monterey Peninsula in 1950. The Pebble Beach road races ran on the Del Monte Forest Course for five years. The event was enormously popular and by 1955, the crowd of spectators had grown too large for the picturesque venue. A group of local businessmen calling themselves “SCRAMP” (Sports Car Racing Association of the Monterey Peninsula) negotiated a lease with the Department of Defense to use a portion of Ford Ord’s vast property. A nine turn, 1.9 mile permanent course was constructed and operational by 1957. Only amateur races were held initially but when the venue turned professional, luring the biggest names in the sport, enthusiasts showed up in droves.

San Josean Gene Burgess was a sporty car guy and in 1965 he grabbed his eldest son, “Duff” and endeavored to spend a day at the races. Their outing was so successful that the following October, Gene chauffeured all three of his sons and their friends (ranging in age from nine to thirteen) to the inaugural Canadian American Challenge Cup races at Laguna Seca Raceway. I was lucky enough to be included and the experience changed my life.

I don’t remember too many specifics from 1966. We watched the action from a hillside in the infield and were a pretty good distance from the track. I do remember watching the two white, high-winged Chaparrals pace the field (It was the only time that ever happened). I remember a lime green car owned by Dan Blocker of Hoss Cartwright fame. I remember a yellow car sponsored by Ronald Reagan for Governor! I remember a woman on horseback dressed like Lady Godiva (promoting…something) working the crowd. I remember taking a bath when I got home because I was filthy! As I lay in the bathtub, my ears were still ringing! And I was in love with auto racing.

Due to popular demand, Gene escorted us again in 1967 but this time we attended on Saturday rather than Sunday (race day). My buddy Drew thinks we drove down in the family wagon- a powder blue early sixties Plymouth Valiant. I remember that we parked inside turn two which was the fastest part of the course and only a flimsy green cyclone fence obscured our view of the action. I remember the early morning practice session when Jim Hall crested the hill in his Chaparral. My brother Scott (Duff’s guest) called it out and in unison we all turned to look. It was so iconic, elegant, beautiful and my brother’s favorite. I fell in love with the new entry of New Zealander Bruce McLaren, a more aerodynamic, wedge-shaped racer painted a brilliant yellow orange. McLaren’s car was quick too; he qualified fastest and won his first Can-Am the next day- leading Hall by a country mile.

I968 was last year Gene provided transport for the crew- it had been an amazing run for which I will forever be grateful. We again attended on Saturday which was the smart choice as it rained from flag to flag on Sunday. ’68 was the year Canadian John Cannon won in an upset (I told that story in the Dec. ’20 issue of R&RNW entitled: One for the Little Guys). I was oblivious to Cannon’s effort watching the practice and qualifying sessions that year however as by now, I was a devoted Bruce McLaren fan. He didn’t disappoint either putting his latest creation on the pole. I distinctly remember watching the final session from the famous “Corkscrew” that year as forty big bore machines jousted to improve their starting berth or simply earn a spot in the field. The racing was frenetic, wheels slipping off course kicking up plumes of dust, and the engines twisted into submission. When the checkered flag fell, we panted our approval. Heady stuff!

A new kid named “Mike” moved onto my street about this time and he too was a race fan. His father was a member of the Mustang club and they attended the pony car races (Trans-Am series) at Laguna as well as Sears Point. I received an invite to my first race at Sears Point in September of 1969 but they declined to include me in their plans to attend the Can-Am at Laguna three weekends later. Naturally I was devastated but Mike was thoughtful enough to buy me the official program. 1969 was a year of total domination by Team McLaren. They won all eleven races that year and Laguna was no exception.

I vowed not to miss another Monterey Grand Prix and began working on my own father in 1970. As he had no interest in racing, it was an uphill battle. I’m sure guilt played a big role in my strategy and I think my mom actually helped my cause in the end. Ultimately my dad agreed to take Drew and I down. I think we took his Olds 442 and parked inside turn two- not a bad spot if you’re stuck in one place. Not only did my dad refuse to walk around but he sat in the car all day! He read the program, dozed, whatever, we didn’t care. We were happy just to be there. Dad read an article in the program about Jim Hall’s “sucker car” and predicted it would win. It probably would have but it blew its engine in the final warm up session and spun off course right in front of us. My hero Bruce McLaren had died testing their new car in the off season and that left the team in the capable hands of fellow kiwi Denny Hulme. He won the race that day but was chased all afternoon by Brit Jackie Oliver in the Ti22- a lightweight new entry built largely of titanium.

In 1971 my brother Scotty and I endeavored to make the trip. We stuffed my Kawasaki mini bike in the trunk and headed south. What transpired that day has become my favorite childhood memory of my late brother and me. We stopped to have breakfast at a restaurant on the peninsula and just happened to choose the same spot as the Ti22 Team. Their racer was on an open trailer out front and I couldn’t get over how small it was- like the coolest toy ever! When we arrived at the track we unloaded the mini bike and away we went. We went everywhere that day, exploring each vantage point and nobody said “Boo!” to us. That year Peter Revson began driving for McLaren and crossed the finish line trailing smoke. Jackie Stewart gave chase in the factory Lola.

1972 was the year Roger Penske’s Porsche 917 team came to the fore. They were the first cars to topple the McLaren dynasty and I wasn’t happy about it. Painted in the L&M cigarette livery, I didn’t like those cars and didn’t push to attend that year (I regret it now). As predicted, the Porsches finished first and second while both Team McLaren cars failed to go the distance. Somehow I still acquired a program.

By 1973 I was a sophomore in high school and finally could drive myself to Laguna Seca! So Drew and I piled into my 1961 Beetle with two other pals and we were off to the races. Making the journey was a rite of passage, really. For the first time there was no factory McLaren team to root for. Penske returned with a new Porsche 917, “the 30T” and painted in Sunoco colors, it was the most beautiful racecar I’d ever seen. Beautiful and dominate, with Mark Donohue behind the wheel, nobody could run with him. We had a great day- Little did we know we were watching the end of an era. The Can-Am series fell apart the following season and didn’t return to Laguna Seca.

Again I thank Gene Burgess for the indoctrination and my late father and brother for enabling me. The original Can-Am series has become legend and over the years I have met few that can claim to have seen it with their own eyes.

West Coast Wheelman

He and his brother Richard began racing at San Jose Speedway in 1956- the same year I was born. The Hardtops were before my time. The guys were racing Super Modifieds when I first visited the Speedway in 1968.

Yarimie was driving the “Triple Deuce”, a car that had local history and had been raced competitively by Al Toland, Ken Shirley and Kenny Van Blargen. It was the first race car I’d ever seen with a three digit number and had playing cards painted on the airfoil. I thought that was cool and he became a favorite right away. He was a good guy to root for because he typically qualified well and rarely crashed. He would win a heat race from time to time and usually made the Feature.

1970 found Yarimie piloting #56 (the ex-Steve Chambers #8). This was a cool little hot rod and a step up to a more competitive mount for Larry. He ended the season with no less than five heat race wins, two Semi Mains, one Trophy Dash and four “A” Main top fives. Traditionally Yarimie wasn’t a points chaser but this would prove to be his most consistent season, garnering a twelfth in the overall standings. Sadly, ’71 would prove much more challenging.

While Yarimie struggled just to make the program, fellow veteran Ed Hopper and racing partner Dick Cinelli introduced a lightweight new Super that was competitive right out of the box. The new #54 had a unique rounded off coupe body that included little triangular windows on either side of the cockpit. (It was so popular in fact, that the Speedway used line art of the racer in their weekly display ads.) The car elevated Hopper to a potential winner and he finished out the season second in points. When Yarimie and his team had the opportunity to purchase the car, they jumped on it.

In 1972 a replica of the San Jose Speedway was constructed in the central valley. The new Madera raceway was the same length as San Jose (1/3 mile) but had less banking. Yarimie and his crew participate with their new racer (christened the Eaton Bros. Chevy) in the Copper Classic then held in Salt Lake City and drove all night to make Madera’s Sunday Opener. Yarimie arrived just in time to qualify but easily made it into the program. In front of five thousand enthusiastic fans, Yarimie ran down local favorite Lloyd Beard, taking the lead on the sixth canto. On June 25th 1972, after fourteen years of competition, Yarimie claimed his first victory and $465 in prize money. He would finish second the following weekend at the same venue.

Opening day 1973 back in San Jose found Yarimie in Tony Casho’s potent #44. He finished second behind legendary Howard Kaeding in his heat, placed third in the Trophy Dash, fifth in the Final heat and won the Feature outright. It was a satisfying win for Casho as well as Yarimie and paid $610. Unfortunately, the accomplishment was overshadowed by a last lap spectacular involving Kaeding and Nick Ringo-neither driver was injured. Most that were in attendance that day recall the smash up (captured by numerous photographers) rather than Yarimie’s second career win.

In the years that followed, Yarimie continued to campaign the ex-Hopper car with varying success. The livery changed (from blue with flames over the nose to gold) and the numbers changed (from #92 to #5 to #4) but Yarimie never won another Feature.

By 1978 the Speedway had closed and Super Modified racing moved to the dirt track at the fairgrounds. Like many, Yarimie did his best to convert his asphalt car for dirt competition. At the biggest race of the season, the Johnny Key (8/5/78), Yarimie transferred out of the Semi Main to start at the back of the Feature. In the one hundred lap grind, he strong-armed his straight axle car to a respectable seventh. He was paid $310 for his night’s work and at the end of the season was crowned Semi Main Champion. As far as I can tell, at forty four years of age he retired from racing. I wouldn’t meet Larry face to face for another sixteen years.

In 1994 I was strolling through a small automotive swap meet in Auburn, CA. On one of the tables among the auto parts was a wooden planter made to look like a Sprint Car. I remembered the planters being sold at the Fairgrounds Speedway. “You get this down in San Jose?” I asked. The crusty older gentleman smiled and pushed the straw cowboy hat back on his forehead. “Yeah, I used to race in San Jose,” he replied quietly. “What’s your name,” I inquired. “Larry Yarimie,” he said offering his hand.

Within the blink of an eye I reverted back to my childhood. I became a ten-year-old “fan-boy” standing in front of one of my idols. I wanted to tell him that he’d won many races in the Hot Wheels I’d assigned to him…but I refrained. I did run home to retrieve my album of Super Modified photos. He spent twenty minutes or so going through it page by page, commenting. It was awesome. He was totally humble but I think he could tell that he had been (and still was) a hero to me.

After I’d moved to Oregon I met another former San Josean who had crewed for many of the “old guard.” He had known Yarimie and shared with me what he remembered. He said he thought Larry had been a truck driver by profession and wasn’t a wealthy man by any means. He thought he was a better racer than the stats would suggest. He thought Larry had lost a son in some sort of accident, he was shot. He didn’t know what the circumstances were, but the death had devastated Larry. “He never was the same after that,” he said.

I had sensed a profound sadness about Yarimie when I met him. Today I wish I’d told him about all the races he’d won on my bedroom carpet. I think it would have put a smile on his weary face.

NOTE — Most of the photographs for this article were provided by Loel Burt—a lifelong fan and friend of Larry Yarimie

One for the Little Guys

On the eve of the 1968 Monterey Grand Prix, Seattle’s Don Jensen kneeled in a smoke filled motel room. One hundred percent chance of rain was forecast for tomorrow’s race so he was cutting thick grooves in his tires. Somewhere nearby, Portlander Monte Shelton was seething. He had been promised a special set of tires for his closed cockpit Porsche Carrera 6 and his tire distributor had let him down. Now any advantage he may have had in his under-powered sports racer had vaporized.

Canadian John Cannon may have been in the worst frame of mind of all. He was broke and so he had agreed to sell his three year old McLaren to a group of enthusiasts for $7,000. They would take delivery at the conclusion of the series. The former pilot in the Royal Air Force had been trying for a decade to make it as a professional race car driver. He had won some races but mostly it had been a losing proposition. The McLaren’s small block Chevy engine was scabbed together with old parts and Cannon did well to qualify mid-pack against his high dollar, large displacement competition. In desperation he took a knife to his goggles, cutting slits to allow them to drain. If the race was to be run in a downpour, he would need to be able to see.

Then on race morning Cannon got a break. He had done some testing for Firestone and his friend on the tire truck had a set of rain tires for him. A formula car driver had ordered them for Saturday and they had gone unclaimed. Cannon mounted them on his car for the morning warmup session and noted a marked improvement. Perhaps even more encouraging were his goggles which worked like a charm.

Misfortune beset some competitors before the green flag was displayed. Second fastest qualifier Jim Hall’s winged Chaparral refused to fire. The new McKee of Charlie Hayes which was slated to start a couple rows ahead of Cannon; was also forced to scratch. The race was started in a deluge and there was an immediate reshuffling of positions as some of the front runners tip-toed around the course. Cannon, able to see, began passing cars in his sure-footed McLaren. Fast qualifier Bruce McLaren led the first lap followed by Peter Revson in a 427 Ford, McLaren teammate Denny Hulme and Mark Donohue in Roger Penske’s entry. Cannon had advanced to eighth and by the seventh lap had passed the foursome in front of him.

“It was just bloody incredible,” reflected McLaren after the race. “Cannon was driving as if the track was dry!” Dan Gurney report that when he saw Cannon pull alongside, he thought it was a hallucination.
There were other drivers that performed well in the wet. George Follmer, who had started the race on Firestone “intermediates,” clawed his way up to second before spinning off into the ice plant. Another Canadian George Eaton, piloting a car very similar to Cannon’s, started 18th and quickly advanced into the top ten.

By lap fifteen, Cannon had lapped all the cars up to eighth place. McLaren (who hung on to second in the early going) continued: “He could go around a whole pack of people in a corner and make it look routine. I couldn’t believe it.” Within a few more laps, Cannon had a thirty second lead over the marque’s namesake. Though he was undoubtedly enjoying himself, the same cannot be said for his competitors. “Everybody went off course at least once,” remembered Shelton. Drivers stopped in the pits for replacement goggles; some just pulled over to the side of the track to clean theirs.

By the thirty fifth lap Cannon had lapped the entire field and continued to pull away. Eaton meanwhile was up to fourth. “All Canadian drivers are good mudders,” he explained after the checkered flag “We dash about in the worst kinds of weather without really knowing any better.”
In the second half of race, Cannon’s dominance continued although there were a number of close calls. Hulme (a native of New Zealand who had also done his share of racing in the rain) advanced to second and Eaton ran third.

“My only problem,” Cannon related later, “was that we didn’t have very good pit equipment. We just had a blackboard and in the wet, it wasn’t very good. Then one lap I came around, there was a real pit board with information on it!” Turned out that Team McLaren rival, Jim Hall had taken over direction of Cannon’s race.

At the finish Cannon was one lap plus five seconds ahead of Hulme in the factory McLaren effort. Series rookie Eaton held on for the show position. In spite of the many off course excursions and fender crunches, twenty of the thirty starters completed the grind. Jensen finished five laps behind the winner in thirteenth but tied Hulme, Eaton and five others for the fourth fastest race lap. Sheldon was scored nineteenth-a full twelve laps behind Cannon.

Later that evening at the victory banquet, Cannon received a standing ovation from his fellow drivers (and a check for almost $20,000- a huge purse for that time).

“I’m going to get a tribe of Indians to do a rain dance at every race!” the jubilant winner chirped. And in 1968, no one would have had a problem with (him saying) that.

Indy’s “Scientifically Streamlined” Catfish

Considered ugly by some, the Sparks/Weirick “Catfish” was claimed to be America’s first racecar designed using wind tunnel testing. Stanford University aeronautics professor Elliott Grey Reid (assisted by Ulysses Arnold Patchett) drew up the plans for the groundbreaking vehicle and former Harry Miller metalworker Clyde Adams executed the construction. Beneath the bulbous bodywork which featured a large dorsal fin on the tail tank, was a state-of-the-art 220 c.i. Miller racing engine, wire wheels and a chassis built of recycled Miller, Ford and Chrysler parts. Los Angeles based Gilmore Gasoline agreed to sponsor the racer.
Owners Art Sparks and Paul Weirick hired California hot-shoe Stubby Stubblefield to pilot the car and promptly headed to Muroc Dry Lake(beds). Equipped with Moon disk wheel covers, Stubblefield set new records at four different kilometer and mile distances. When they arrived in Indianapolis for the 1932 Sweepstakes, their reputation preceded them. The Catfish was indeed quick on the straightaways and had a faster average going during qualifying than the pole winning car until the fourth lap. (A rear tire began to separate so Stubby backed off.) They easily made the show but would start twenty fifth in the thirty three car field. On the third lap of the 500, Stubby was sideswiped by his teammate Al Gordon and the collision ruptured his fuel tank. He nursed the Catfish back to pits where his crew spent over an hour making repairs. Stubby returned to the race and was flagged in the fourteenth position; a full hour behind the winner.

At the following race in Milwaukie the Catfish qualified second and finished fourth. Two weeks later at Roby Speedway (near Chicago) the Gilmore team totally redeemed themselves with Stubblefield first and Gordon second. In his last ride for Sparks/Weirick (July 2nd) Stubblefield placed second at Syracuse (NY). Indy winner Fred Frame was impressed enough with the car to purchase it from the Gilmore team and made it part of his two car effort. He barnstormed around the country with the futuristic looking Catfish which always drew a crowd. In October Frame set up a three heat match race in Abilene (TX) in which he put George Souders in the car and drove his own Miller powered Duesenberg. The promotion was a huge success as Frame won all three heats over the favored Catfish.

In March of 1933, Frame and Indy entrant Harry Hartz hauled the car back to Muroc intent on beating all of Stubblefield’s Class C world speed records. The Catfish now bore sponsorship from Union 76; the #15 was removed and under the hood snarled a 255 Miller marine engine. With relative ease Hartz broke the records for one kilometer, one mile and ten miles. He then proceeded to shatter the five kilometer record by twelve and one half miles per hour. Not to be outdone, Frame then jumped in the car and smashed the five mile mark by fourteen mph!

The Catfish was absent at Indianapolis that year but returned in 1934 as part of a three car team with Johnny Seymour up. Frame wrecked his car in practice, Rex Mays qualified the Duesenberg twenty third and Seymour just squeaked into show in the final spot. In the Memorial Day Classic the Catfish (now numbered #33) lost the rear end on the twenty second lap.

Meanwhile a closed cockpit Mercedes driven by Italian Rudolf Caracciola (and supported by the Nazi party) had eclipsed all of the Catfish’s land speed records. The car returned to California and became a popular entry on the dirt track circuit. Stubblefield even returned to share in the driving. Eventually Frame sold the car to a Charles Worley.

In 1936 the Catfish reappeared at Indy as “Abel’s Auto Ford Special”. The power plant was a Model B Ford (shown as a Cragar); numbered #52 with Frank McGurk listed as the driver. McGurk out qualified his predecessors and started the race from the twenty second spot but snapped the crankshaft at quarter distance and was scored twenty sixth.

Before the ’37 Classic Worley sold the car to driver Frank Brisko who procured sponsorship from Elgin Piston Pins and renumbered the Catfish #21. The Ford Model B was replaced by a six cylinder boasting 271 c.i. but rookie Duke Nalon couldn’t get her up to speed. Nalon was replaced by veteran Dave Evans who wasn’t able to complete his qualifying run and for the first time, the Catfish failed to make the show. (Interestingly, Wilber Shaw won the race that year in a car sponsored by Gilmore Gasoline and clearly inspired by the Catfish’s aerodynamic styling).

Brisko installed conventional coachwork on the car for 1938 and entered it as a second with Emil Andres driving. The Catfish (with six seasons under its belt) set its fastest qualifying time which by now was only good enough for twenty eighth on the grid. On the forty fifth circuit, a wire wheel collapsed and Andres crashed out. When interviewed at a later date Andres didn’t hide his disdain for the Catfish. He called it “a monstrosity” and accused it of nearly killing him. He then went on to say that the car was totaled at another venue and subsequently scrapped.

When I met Speedway historian Donald Davidson I asked him about the Catfish specifically. He confirmed that the car no longer exists.

Jack’s Specialty Parts

If you’ve attended an automotive swap meet in the last thirty years, you’ve seen this guy. He stands about five foot nothing, dresses in a navy blue shop coat and wears his hair in a crew cut. Generally he slouches; hands deep in the pockets of his jacket and in front of him are a train of six foot tables. On the table are boxes containing new old stock; carburetors, distributors, starters, generators and what have you.

Lately, there haven’t been too many swap meets but that doesn’t keep Jack Corley from going to work. Five days a week (though he is pushing ninety) he patrols the long aisles of his Gresham warehouse. There are thousands upon thousands of parts here- mostly stuff for older domestics. He doesn’t have to check the computer to know whether or not he has your part. Actually, there is no computer…the inventory list is in his head.

Corley started in parts business working for a Kaiser dealership. As the last Kaiser rolled off the assembly line in 1955; that was just a few years back. He bounced around some; his longest stint was with Niehoff Ignition Company (almost twenty years). He also ventured into auto racing and became a distributor for numerous high performance lines.

Yeah, Corley’s bread and butter is NOS auto parts but if you’ve never been to his warehouse, you owe it to yourself to go. He still owns the Offenhauser Midget he raced in the sixties and the steel bodied ’32 with the Hemi engine he used to terrorize the streets of Portland back in the day. Walking into his warehouse is like stepping into a time machine. There is an extensive assortment of oil cans, race car toys, car club plaques, old calendars, posters, pennants and automotive displays. There are walls in the office covered with framed 8 x 10 racing photos. It is truly one of the most impressive collections of automobilia in the Pacific Northwest.

But don’t forget why you came! Whether you’re restoring a concourse vintage car or scabbing together a rat rod, Jack Corley is your man. Don’t look for him on the Interweb cause of course, he isn’t there. The physical address for his warehouse is: 909 NE Cleveland Ave., Gresham, OR 97030. The phone number for Jack’s Specialty Parts is: (503) 667-1725.

Recommended Reading

We are all spending more time alone these days and it is easy to slip into a funk. Perhaps what you need is a good read. Fortunately I have assembled my own library of hot rod and racing books to help me through these dark times. I have chosen five books to recommend that I found humorous as well as entertaining. Enjoy!

They Call Me Mister 500 by Andy Granatelli (1969). This is among the oldest books on my shelf and one of my favorites. It was given to me by my Aunt Ruthie who was very supportive and encouraged anything her nieces and nephews were passionate about. Interestingly, this book was published the year Granatelli won his first Indy 500 but ends at the conclusion of the ’68 racing season. So we learn all about the Granatelli brother’s early days; growing up in Chicago, opening a garage, becoming a distributor of speed equipment, promoting races and finally competing in the Indy 500. Would you believe they drove their first entry from Chicago to Indianapolis? The story of Andy attempting to qualify the racecar himself is an absolute classic- I still laugh about it. The chapters regarding his efforts to resurrect the Novi marque and revolutionize the sport with his turbine cars are very informative yet heart breaking. As corny as it sounds, this book changed my life in many ways. I recommend it to everyone.

Stand On It by Stroker Ace (1973). Yeah, this was made into a bad Burt Reynolds movie but if you hold that against it, you’ll miss out. This fictional story (written by Bill Neely under an alias) is based on the true to life exploits of Curtis Turner, Joe Weatherly, Linda Vaughn and others. It was a time when big money was just beginning to permeate the sport but political correctness didn’t yet exist. This book is raunchy and dated, but fun. It’s fiction but if you know the history, it isn’t much of a stretch.

Cannonball! by Brock Yates (2002). I know! Another bad Burt Reynolds movie! But the story of this cross country race is true and Yates was a participant. In fact, he won it in 1971 in a Ferrari Daytona partnered with professional racer Dan Gurney. Yates published the story of his maiden voyage in Car and Driver that year when I was a wee lad/subscriber. When I read his report, it blew my mind! I loved the story so much I gave a speech on it in my middle school English class. Yates raced again in ’72,’75 and in the final edition held in ’79. The book covers the entire history of the event and though it didn’t make me laugh out loud, I smiled throughout. Yates also wrote the screenplay for the original Cannonball! movie and to his credit wanted Steve McQueen to star. I think we can all agree that it would have been a different movie with McQueen rather than Reynolds at the controls.

Sunday Money by Jeff McGregor (2005). I wish I could remember who recommended this one to me because it made me laugh the hardest. McGregor is a racing outsider that purchased a motorhome and followed the NASCAR tour when it was at the peak of popularity. Obviously well-educated and highly literate McGregor takes it all in and shares his observations with the reader. Sometimes he is critical about what he sees but I think he is fair. He doesn’t simply slam your average, working class fan- he digs deeper. He seems to understand why people become passionate about auto racing. At times his musings are downright poetic.

Cages Are For Monkeys by Kevin Olson (2016). The title refers to a transition in Midget car racing for safety reasons. When Olson began racing Midgets only a simple roll bar (or hoop) behind the driver’s head was required; today’s drivers are completely surrounded by a roll cage and it’s changed the way they drive. My first exposure to Olson was in Open Wheel magazine. There was a photo of him published repeatedly in which he was dancing with a Christmas tree. Apparently it was taken at an awards banquet at which he got drunk and made a spectacle of himself. Years later he became a columnist for Sprint Car & Midget and I discovered that there was much more to him. His essays were sometimes nonsensical but other times serious and quite thoughtful. The book is the story of his life and it turns out that he is an accomplished racer…And he tells some funny stories. In the end, racing and family are the two things that matter most to Kevin Olson. I can hardly argue with that.

One of One

It began as a dune buggy class. When the track operator eliminated the road course and insisted everyone race on the quarter mile dirt oval, it called for a new vehicle. Established chassis builder Jim Belfiore produced a dozen frames and sold them for $800 apiece. One of his creations powered by a four cylinder Datsun mounted up front captured the 1983 track championship.

Energetic racer Bruce Kranak, never one to follow the crowd, had a different idea. He owned a Volkswagen performance shop in San Jose so his choice of power plant was no surprise. What was unique was the configuration. Whereas Belfiore had opted for the traditional Sprint Car layout, Kranak flip-flopped the major components. He positioned the fuel tank in front of the driver and tucked a hot rodded Rabbit engine up under the tail. It remains to my knowledge, the only upright rear engined Sprint Car ever built. It was truly “One of One”.

There was a mad thrash to complete the car in time for the early May season opener. The fiberglass skin was unpainted and the chassis was bare metal but the car was fast! Kranak bowed out before the checkered flag fell but emerged from the cockpit ecstatic- He knew that he had a potential winner. Throughout June research and development continued and Kranak put together a string of top five finishes. Finally on the first of August after a race long battle with a pair of Belfiore cars, Kranak achieved his first win. It had to be a gratifying moment and rewarded the team’s outside-the-box thinking. Throughout the remainder of the season, Kranak either finished third or fell out. (I recall an issue with universal joint failure- This situation was remedied when the team installed u-joints procured from an Indycar manufacturer.) In the final points tally Kranak was ranked fifth overall.

When the 1985 season rolled around the team was loaded for bear and Kranak captured the Opener. After placing second twice more in May he won his third feature with the car on June 21st, taking over the points lead for the division. In spite of a couple more top five finishes, Kranak lost the lead when he took his family on vacation in late July. Then at the final points meet of the season, the likeable veteran wheel hopped another competitor and struck the cement retaining wall upside down. The roll cage of the unique race car was crushed in the accident and Kranak was extracted complaining of neck pain. He was stabilized and transferred to a local hospital where his injury was diagnosed as a broken neck. Sadly the crash ended Kranak’s racing career and the wrecked racecar was set aside.

During the off season Kranak made a deal with fellow VW enthusiast/racer Dion LeBeau for the purchase of the car. LeBeau rebuilt the roll cage and worked out an arrangement with Kranak wherein the business owner became primary sponsor. Personality-wise Kranak and LeBeau were polar opposites. Whereas Kranak was a loquacious extrovert, LeBeau was sullen and introverted. Nonetheless, he was a capable mechanic and a veteran driver in his own right. LeBeau put together a two car effort that included newcomer John Brumund piloting an older conventional buggy (also Rabbit powered).

At a Sunday April season opener, the new team served notice to all that they were serious competitors for the title by both placing in the top five.
LeBeau won his first feature with the car on Memorial Day weekend 1986. He ran consistently throughout the year and finished second in the point standings. At the end of season 2-day challenge race against the Nevada competitors (Quincy, CA), LeBeau placed fourth. It was second highest of the California based entries.

In 1987 LeBeau announced that the car was for sale but planned to race it until a buyer came calling. Though he captured numerous heat races, he didn’t win another feature that year. Still, a string of consistent placings (ten top fives during the regular season) earned him his first championship. One night in July, fearing his mount had a terminal engine problem, LeBeau switched cars with his teammate Brumund and Brumund became the third different driver to win a feature with the car. When the team made the long tow to Quincy at season’s end, LeBeau led the California contingency with a solid fifth place finish.

Without a potential buyer on line, LeBeau decided the campaign the car himself in 1988 in what turned out to be his home track’s last year of operation. On May 27th he won his second feature with the car and repeat on June 10th, tying Kranak’s record. Unfortunately LeBeau crashed the car heavily a month later and finished the season sixth in the points. In post season action the car was cobbled back together but crashed again on October 15th and couldn’t be repaired in time to make the annual trip to Quincy.

At the conclusion of 1988, a new club for the four cylinder Sprint Cars was formed (SORA) and a traveling schedule assembled. LeBeau chose to participate only in the events relatively close to his San Jose home- two at Antioch Speedway and two at Watsonville. By now his racer had five full seasons of wear plus three grueling crashes in its lifespan. LeBeau qualified fourth fastest at Antioch and finished fourth in the feature but the highlights reel ended there. In 1990 LeBeau kept the car at home.

In 1991 LeBeau made his final appearances with the car. The records show that on July 20th at Antioch LeBeau was scored tenth in the B Main. Five weeks later the car was fifth in one of three Heats, earning a transfer to the feature but likely didn’t take the green flag. After that, I never saw LeBeau or the unique car again.

In a perfect world, Bruce Kranak’s successful brainchild received the ground-up restoration it deserved. With seven feature wins and one championship to its credit, it certainly deserves some recognition.

A Race of Two Worlds

The image captured my imagination—a photograph taken on the white, high banking at Monza. A rolling grid of fifties-era Indy roadsters and bringing up the rear was a pair of D-type Jaguars. I was probably ten years old but it was clear to me even then that something was wrong with this picture. How did I know D-types? Because I owned a Matchbox car of one and it was a favorite.

A match race pitting Indy roadsters against European Grand Prix cars had been volleyed about for years. During the summer of 1956, USAC Director of Competition Duane Carter sat down with Italian promoters and hammered out the details. Tire wear was a huge concern as the Firestones being used at Indianapolis weren’t designed for the amount of downforce the roadsters were likely to encounter. As a result, a new tire was developed and Firestone headed to Monza with their test mule and veteran pilot Pat O’Conner. In short order O’Conner was clocked at 170.8 mph, beating World Champion Juan Fangio’s track record by nearly 10 mph!

The news spread like wildfire and soon after the factory Ferrari and Maserati teams withdrew from the event citing that it was “too hazardous”. Germany’s Mercedes Benz and England’s BRM team followed suit and it was starting to look like only American iron would participate. Then two weeks before the event, an entry was filed by the Scottish Ecurie Ecosse Team for three Jaguars. The Jags had finished first and second at LeMans that year and though underpowered in comparison to the roadsters, accepted the challenge.
Tony Bettenhausen broke the one-lap qualifying record in the Novi at 176.826. He was followed by the nine other Indy cars (seven of which shattered Fangio’s record). The Jaguar’s best speed was 151.635- a full twenty miles per hour slower than most of the roadsters so they filed in at the back.

The 500 mile contest was divided into thirds, each of sixty three laps. There was to be an hour break after the first and second segment to allow for servicing of the vehicles. Bettenhausen brought the field around for the green flag and hesitated, expecting the starter to wave it vigorously. In Europe the starter need only “display” the green flag and seeing this Englishman John Fairman pulled his Jaguar out of formation and motored around the stumbling roadsters. He was first to hit the banking and a check of his rearview mirror revealed that no one else was in close pursuit. You can imagine the response of the crowd when the days’ slowest qualifier led the field coming down to the start/finish line.

It took a full lap around the 2.6 mile course for the Offenhauser engines to clear out and the Novi plummeted backward outside the top five. Then the roadsters exploded past Fairman with Eddie Sachs snatching the point followed by Troy Ruttman and Jimmy Bryan. On the second lap Bettenhausen’s Novi awoke, powered by the Jaguar and ran down the leaders. The popular Novi led the third circuit then headed for the pits with a throttle linkage problem. Bettenhausen returned to the action and gave the crowd a thrill before retiring for good with a broken sway bar.

Bryan won the first segment followed by six roadsters and the three Jaguars. During the hour long intermission major repairs were necessary to keep the roadsters in the fray. The Indy cars were bottoming out coming off the parabolic curves- frames were cracked and fuel tanks developed leaks. Meanwhile the Jaguar crews casually swapped tires and topped off their fuel- no repairs were necessary.

Only the Novi failed to make the start of the second segment. The sway bar was replaced but the fuel tank could not be. The rest of the roadsters were cobbled back together and eleven cars took the green flag. Cigar chomping Bryan was again the leader when the checkered flag fell. He was followed by three other roadsters and the Jaguars in fifth through seventh. The other entries fell out with mechanical problems. The drill between the second and third segments was much the same but this time only eight racers made the call. One roadster was late due to the replacement of engine bolts.

The final segment was won by Ruttman but Bryan was second and Johnny Parsons was third. Due to attrition Fairman finished fourth followed by both of his teammates. Bryan (with the sleeves ripped free from his driving suit) was declared the overall winner and received nearly $35,000 for his efforts. Fairman was awarded fourth with the other D-types in fifth and sixth respectively. They didn’t receive much for their days work other than the respect and admiration of their fellow competitors. The Ecurie Ecosse Team was formerly invited to partake in the 1958 Indy 500 but regrettably, they declined

California Dreamin’

In the late sixties, when Indycar racing was at the height of its popularity, a group of businessmen endeavored to build a replica of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in California.

Construction began in an Ontario vineyard in September of 1968 and was completed in time to host the inaugural California 500, Labor Day Weekend less than two years later. The Ontario Motor Speedway was the most technically advanced racetrack of its day with computerized timing, scoring and display and a state-of-the-art sound system. It was the same length as Indianapolis (2½ miles) but an additional lane wider all the way around. Best of all, the infield was free of obstructions enabling the spectators to see the entire course from any seat in the house.

The OMS Board of Directors read like a celebrity Who’s Who: actors Kirk Douglas and Paul Newman, race team owners J.C. Agajanian, Parnelli Jones, Briggs Cunningham and Roger Penske. Even comedian turned racer Dick Smothers was involved up to his eye teeth. Two time Indy 500 winner Roger Ward was hired on as Public Relations Director.

180,000 attended the first race making it the largest crowd to witness a sporting event in California history. Among those in attendance were actors Glen Ford, Robert Stack, Werner Klemperer and James Garner. Senator Barry Goldwater was on hand as well as (then Governor) Ronald Reagan. President Richard Nixon did a fly over!

By all accounts, the race itself was a barn burner. Popular Texan Lloyd Ruby paced the thirty three car field but ’70 Indy winner Al Unser forged his way to the point on lap two. Unser was driving the iconic Johnny Lightening Special owned by Parnelli Jones which proved to be the dominate car that season. Unser and Ruby tussled for the opening ten laps before Unser secured the lead and led until the first round of pit stops. California racing legend Dan Gurney and New Yorker Peter Revson each led briefly but Unser was in command throughout most of the day. Then with fourteen laps remaining Unser’s turbocharger failed and he handed off the lead to Stock Car ace Leeroy Yarbrough. Yarbrough’s reign lasted only five rotations before he succumbed to a blown engine. That passed the baton to capable Oregonian Art Pollard who battled tooth and nail with Jim McElreath (in A.J. Foyt’s backup car) to the finish. Pollard revealed later that a slow leak in one of his tires allowed McElreath to best him in the final four laps and fewer than two seconds separated them at the flag. From a guaranteed purse of half a million, McElreath collected $146,850. – By far the biggest payday in his twenty five year racing career.

OMS hosted three other major events in 1970- the NHRA Super Nationals, a 500 mile NASCAR Stock Car race and a non-points event for Formula One cars. Though the attendance for each event was substantial, it was not what the promoters had projected. In 1971 the 250 mile Champion Spark Plug Motorcycle Classic and the California National Air Races were added to the schedule. Over the next decade major rock festivals were hosted by the speedway as well but nothing seemed to give them relief from the tremendous debt they had incurred in building the facility. OMS was built at a cost of $25.5 million and financed with interest bearing bonds. As time went on (and attendance at their promotions declined) the management was unable to meet the $2 million a year interest payments. By 1980 the speedway was upside-down but conversely the land on which it sat, had gone up in value expeditiously. Chevron Development Company wanted the land and got it by paying off the bondholders. First order of business was tearing down the ten year old “Taj Mahal” of racing facilities. Sadly, nothing remains of it forty years later.

Roger Ward predicted that whoever won the inaugural California 500 would achieve immortality- like Ray Harroun did in winning the first Indianapolis 500. Jim McElreath’s victory was hard fought and no fluke. Unfortunately it was achieved at a magnificent racetrack that is virtually forgotten today.

The Little Engine That Did

I’ve always referred to it as: “My hot rod motor”… To call it “junk” or a “junkyard anything” would be inaccurate. From the beginning, it was built with decent parts… it just wasn’t “race stuff.”

The iron block may be the first V-8 I ever owned. Something my volunteer builder procured when he was assembling the engine for my first Modified around ’94. Or it could be from the complete engine I bought off the bulletin board at Knecht’s in Cottage Grove, OR. “Hear it run on the dyno!” the index card proclaimed. It was built as a backup by some IMCA racer’s dad. I guess they didn’t need it. I’m quite certain the rotating assembly came from that IMCA motor. The iron “202” cylinder heads were a sponsorship from Roger’s Automotive in Auburn, CA. The Vertex mag was purchased directly from the manufacturer when I worked for Competition Specialties.

I managed to land an engine sponsor my second year in a Sprint Car and the hot rod motor was relegated to a spare. I’m happy to say that my race engine (built by Rick Guest aka R&G Machine that advertises in this paper) never missed a beat so the spare sat idle for the next five years or so. It wasn’t until my buddy stuck it in my Super did it breath life again. I ran the car a couple times in Banks, OR (there were non-engine related issues) and again it was mothballed.

In 2007 my neighbor and fellow Sunset competitor Tommy Moreno was making a run at Rookie of the Year with a talented Stock Car graduate piloting his Sprint Car. Pat Canfield had won a Feature about mid-season and was well ahead in rookie points when the team barfed their only engine with two races remaining on the schedule. I volunteered the use of my hot rod motor and Moreno and Canfield didn’t hesitate. They extracted the engine from my Super and plugged it into their Sprinter. The following weekend at Sunset, Canfield peddled to third or fourth in the Main Event and within a week or two had a similar finish over at Madras. The team was able to clinch top rookie honors and wound up with a top five in the overall point standings as well. Afterwards Moreno cleaned, wrapped and returned the engine to me. It sat on the end of my workbench for another eight years.

In 2015 Bernie and Jimmy Voytek prepped my Super for competition with West Coast Vintage Racers and reinstalled my hot rod motor. Unfortunately the club had moved away from dirt track racing by the time I was ready to participate. The Voyteks convinced me to give asphalt racing a try so I towed the Super to Roseville, CA for the West Capital Alumni Assn. races on Halloween of ’17. We had a blast that weekend but battled overheating problems each time I took to the oval. Bernie suggested I might have a cracked cylinder head and sure enough that turned out to be the case.

I ended up buying another vintage race car for the full on racing engine that came with it. Bernie located another set of iron cylinder heads, similar to what I had, and installed them on my hot rod motor. I brought the engine home and slid it under my workbench. This time it wouldn’t sit idle for long…

The 2019 edition of the Wingless Sprint Series was winding down when I received a call from a friend whom I know from the NW Old Time racers group. A biker friend of hers, “Rhino” was crew chief on a Sprint Car and they had blown their only engine with two events remaining. Turns out I know Rhino and his brother-in-law Lance Hallmark. I explained to Hallmark exactly what I had and told him he was welcome to use it. One of the races remaining was the HPP Wingless National – A two day show at Cottage Grove with an inflated purse. It was imperative that the team participate in that as well as the season finale at Willamette, if they hoped to maintain their ranking in the points. Hallmark picked up the engine the night after we spoke. He plugged it into his Sprint Car the next evening and Friday night called me from the racetrack in a panic. He had adjusted the valves and the engine would not fire. He had already missed warmups, qualifying and his heat race- all that remained was the Feature. In frustration, Rhino had already thrown in the towel and taken a seat in the grandstands. Fortunately I was able to get ahold of Bernie and put him in direct contact with Hallmark. With the valves reset to Voytek’s specs, the hot rod motor sputtered to life and Hallmark joined the starting field in the 22nd and final starting position. In short order, Hallmark familiarized himself with the limitations of his new power plant and began to move forward. By the conclusion of the race he had broken into the top ten.

I decided to attend on Saturday night when the big money was being offered. Hallmark had continued to make adjustments in gearing and engine cooling throughout the day, to improve the marriage between his car and my engine. He gave us a thrill before dusk by winning one of the three preliminary heats. Based on that win and Friday night’s finish, he was slotted seventh for the fifty lap Feature. Race sponsor Mark Herz grabbed the lead at the drop of the green flag but within four cantos, Hallmark seized the point. He had clearly adjusted his driving to maximize his car’s potential- limiting his slides through the turns to maintain forward momentum. Before long he had opened up an insurmountable lead and no one was closing. Then disaster, a back-marker got upside down in turn two bringing out the red flag. We figured our Cinderella Story had ended as only a couple of lapped cars separated Hallmark from some hotdogs up from California that had threaded their way through the field. But when racing resumed, Hallmark again began to pull away and it was easy to see why. He wasn’t scrubbing off speed in the corners or breaking the tires loose on the straightaways. By contrast the second and third place entries were at opposite lock coming off the turns and fishtailing on the straights. When the checkered flag fell, Hallmark was again leading by a large margin.

Modest in victory, Hallmark called my engine a “Torque Monster” and revealed had he’d never turned more than 5,900 rpm! He and his crew invited me to join them on the front straightaway but I declined. Hallmark deserves all the credit for his win. Bernie Voytek just smiled like the Cheshire Cat. He estimates that my engine has a lowly 11 ½ to 1 compression ratio and makes between 400 and 420 horsepower! If more people had known our secret, I’m sure the celebration in the pits would have been larger.

Race engine builder Brian Crockett was attempting to assist Hallmark when he discovered that the motor had a hydraulic lifter cam. After he congratulated Hallmark he remarked: “You guys just set race engine technology back thirty years!”

But then again, it isn’t a race engine… it’s a hot rod motor.