Second Time Around

Earl-Veeder

I never had the privilege of racing against the legends of the Northwest.

Guys like Art Pollard, Bob Gregg and Palmer Crowell were finished by the time I started racing…but I did get to compete against one of their contemporaries. I remember meeting Earl Veeder Jr. (and his son David) in the pits at Sunset Speedway around 2000. They’d stroll up mid-sentence, offer unsolicited advice, critique your set up, etc. Man, could they talk! I remember thinking, “Who the hell are these guys?”  Earl says, “Well, I’ll be out in a couple weeks…” I’m thinking these guys are all talk but a couple weeks later they show up with this clean ‘ol  Tognotti sprinter and away we went.  Neither of us were front runners so we ended up racing each other a lot. There were a couple of incidents on the track and Earl stormed my pit afterward. If I were one to throw a punch, I’m sure he would have returned fire! Mostly we just exchanged threats. Then in 2003, Earl showed up with a new Wolverine chassis and became a contender. On July 10th (on “Back to the Fifties Night” appropriately enough) Earl captured the fast car Trophy Dash. At season’s end he won the track’s Hard Charger award.

When I raced with Earl he was just beginning phase two of his driving career, a career that began in the late fifties. Earl’s first laps were taken in a family owned midget but he soon became a veritable gun for hire. Guys would show up at the track with their midget, big car, hard top or roadster and there was Earl with his gear. He might strap into two or three different cars before choosing the fastest one to qualify. If he could win a heat race and muster a top five in the main, he and the car owner made money. The purses were decent in those days and the split was typically right down the middle. The best rides had assigned drivers of course, so many of the cars Earl raced were of questionable pedigree. It was a dangerous vocation to be sure, in an era that placed little emphasis on safety. Earl had a reputation for getting the most out of mediocre equipment and survived to tell about it.

In the early sixties Earl bought a midget of his own—a sweet little Eddie Kuzma creation. He painted it canary yellow and numbered it “25”. Earl couldn’t afford a state-of-the -art  Offenhauser so instead he installed a Triumph TR-2 sports car engine. The chassis was a proven winner but the English power plant gave him nothing but grief.

Earl soldiered on until reaching a crossroads in 1968. Just as he was preparing to follow his dream back east, his young wife passed away. Twenty five year old Carole Veeder collapsed while spectating with her husband at the now defunct Salem Speedway. A valiant effort was made to revive her but it was all in vain. Now Earl was left with an astronomical medical bill and two children to raise on his own. He was forced to abort his racing plans and get a regular job.

For the following decade Earl raced sporadically for other people until another change came to pass. By the late seventies, car owners were expecting their drivers to help with expenses. At that point Earl threw up his hands. “I couldn’t see paying for something I used to get paid to do,” he told Bill (Scoop) Poehler in an interview. With few exceptions, Earl didn’t race again until he could field his own entry. It took him over twenty years.

After a dispute with the promoter, Earl parked his sprint car and returned to his first love- midget racing. He was driving a sharp little Chevy II powered car for owner Bob Farwell. On February 3rd 2007, under yellow flag conditions, Earl made contact with the crash wall at the Salem Indoors. EMT’s worked on him for twenty minutes before taking him to Salem Hospital where he was later pronounced dead. Earl had crashed approximately one mile from where his first wife Carole had collapsed forty years earlier. He was seventy years old.

I don’t like clichés but whoever coined the expression: “He died doing what he loved”, must have been referring to someone like Earl. Since his demise a memorial race has been held each year in his honor.

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Earl & son David proudly present the new Wolverine sprint (circa 2003).

Regular Joe

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Jerry Grant was just a “Regular Joe” in many respects.

He had always been a burly man and he felt a little self-conscious about that. Worse was the premature baldness! What’s up with that? He spent his whole life wearing bad hairpieces. In the pits, he’d roll up his balaclava and wear it like a beanie to conceal his dome. But behind the wheel of a race car, Grant was nothing but self-assured. It was confidence that stemmed from years of experience.
Born in Seattle, he started racing as a teen. When he grew bored with drag racing he began entering his hot rod Fords in local road races. Though his cars weren’t particularly well suited for that, he showed enough talent to attract the attention of a car owner named Dick Hahn. Hahn purchased a 3-litre Ferrari for Grant to pilot in 1960, this proved to be a marriage made in heaven. Over the next few seasons the duo won thirty eight races including the 1961 and ’62 Rose Cups. Though Hahn eventually upgraded to a newer model, rear engined sports racers with American power became the preferred weapon so Grant naturally gravitated toward those. With sponsorship from Ole Bardahl, Grant was able to field a competitive car. Typically he would qualify well, run up front but fail to finish.

Encouraged by his peers, Grant ventured to Indianapolis for the first time in 1964. He climbed into the Watson roadster of Fred Gerhardt but failed to make the show. Another non-qualifier that year was rookie Pedro Rodriguez who had crashed Kjell H. Qvale’s third entry. These were Joe Huffaker built, Lotus inspired cars with Offenhauser engines that proved very competitive for years to come. For 1965, Grant brought his Bardahl sponsorship to this entry and easily made the program, qualifying right smack dab in the middle of the thirty three car field. Sadly on Memorial Day, Grant completed only thirty laps before his engine soured.

Somewhere in this time frame, it may have been at Indy or at a west coast sports car meet, Grant struck up a friendship with Dan Gurney. Gurney recognized Grant’s ability and did much to bolster the big guy’s career. At the ’66 500, Gurney was introducing his Champ Car version of the successful “Eagle” Gran Prix car. A quartet of the Ford powered racers was entered and Grant was assigned one of them. Bringing along Bardahl as well as Pacesetter Homes for sponsors, Grant easily put his Eagle in the show with tenth best qualifying time. 1966 was the year of the eleven car debacle at the drop of the green flag but only Gurney’s Eagle was eliminated. Joe Leonard, Grant and Lloyd Ruby soldiered on and were awarded ninth, tenth and eleventh respectively.

!966 was also the inaugural year of the storied Can-Am series. Grant’s Lola T70 was state of the art and without a doubt, one of the sharpest looking cars in the paddock… but not particularly fast. When the season ended in November, Grant had two sevenths to his credit. His association with Gurney afforded Grant the opportunity to race sports cars all over the country and in Europe. Eventually he moved to southern California to be closer to Gurney’s Costa Mesa headquarters.

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Gurney’s focus remained on building cars for Indianapolis and in 1967, no less than seven Eagles made the program. New Zealander Denny Hulme fared best, bringing Smokey Yunick’s entry home in the fourth spot. Grant fell out after 162 laps with engine trouble. Then in 1968, Gurney accomplished his goal with Bobby Unser winning the 500 in an Eagle. Gurney himself finished second and Hulme again was fourth in a team car. It was a great day for Gurney’s Eagles but not so much for Grant. He had qualified his privately entered Bardahl Special mid-pack but fell out with only fifty laps completed.

Grant’s reputation for being fast but hard on equipment likely prevented him from procuring a first class ride for Indy in 1969. “Grant, you’re gonna have to learn how to finish (races),” Roger Penske advised. Grant had known Penske since the early days and he took those words to heart. Rolla Vollstedt gave him a shot in his back up car but for first time since his rookie debut, Grant failed to make the show.
Determined to turn things around, Grant entered his own Offy powered Eagle in 1970 and slipped into the lineup in the 29th slot. On race day he drove conservatively, pacing himself and when the checkered flag fell, he was scored sixth. Sadly, no one seemed to notice and Grant again found himself chasing a competitive ride for 1971. He turned his own car over to Sam Posey to try but failed to get the Norris Industries #92 up to speed.

Then in 1972 Grant’s old buddy Dan Gurney introduced a new generation of Eagles to the Brickyard. Bobby Unser was assigned the primary car but there was a beautiful blue violet (yet unsponsored) sister car for Grant to try on. This Eagle proved to be one of Gurney’s finest efforts, an absolute rocket ship right out of the box. Unser broke the track record putting his car on the pole; Grant played it more conservative qualifying 15th. On race day Unser was off like a shot, leading the first thirty laps before he succumbed to ignition problems. Popular second generation driver Gary Bettenhausen looked poised to win his first 500 for Penske until he too was sidelined with eighteen laps to go.” So who’s leading this thing?!” people wondered.

Grant (fully aware that he’s got his best chance ever) couldn’t resist reverting back to his old hard charging ways. He’s leading the race but he’s used up his tires and most of his fuel. By now everyone is talking about “The Mystery Eagle”, the car that remained unsponsored that no one gave a serious shot at winning. He has to pit with a dozen laps remaining and the lead is handed to Mark Donohue in another Penske car. Grant returns to the race but not enough laps remain to catch the leader; they’ll have to settle for second. Later it is discovered that Grant was refueled from Unser’s tank (illegal) and they are disqualified. They are awarded 12th place, the last lap scored, the last lap completed before the pit stop. The difference in prize money is about $72,000!

Grant drove for Gurney again the following year and for others through 1976. He finished in the top ten in 1974 but never again came close to winning. In the end, what Grant was proudest of was being the first man to drive an Indy car in excess of 200 mph on a closed course. He accomplished this at the now defunct Ontario Speedway.

On his first timed lap with unlimited turbo boost, breaking the tires loose in every gear.  Just a Regular Joe… an overweight, bald guy who loved to stand on the gas.

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Recipe for Failure

Joe-Salvadore


This season’s broadcast of the Daytona races were accompanied by a documentary called “Untold Stories: Daytona.”

Contained within were excellent profiles of Mario Andretti and Sterlin Marlin but of greater interest to me were segments on Smokey Yunick and the Aero Wars of the late sixties.

Yunick, the film established, was not a cheater but a great innovator. It was for the free thinkers like him that the rules were written. In the story about the cars themselves, the ways in which NASCAR influenced the auto makers (and vice versa) were discussed. It was an exciting time of growth for the series, to be sure but competition-wise, it wasn’t that great. When one team has a distinct advantage over the others, the racing isn’t close and there are few surprises.

Today people complain about restrictor plate racing and “cookie cutter race cars” but in reality, the competition is closer than ever. Now everyone has virtually identical equipment so advantages must gained in other ways like pit strategies.

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Many enjoy romanticizing about the “Run watcha brung days” but truthfully, a lack of rules rarely results in close racing. Left unattended, “open competition” type racing in destined to fail. Let me give you a good example: Some of the races I attended as a teenager were foreign stock car events on a dirt road course. It was basically entry level racing and there was a separate class for the guys that wanted the freedom to hot rod their cars more. This class mostly consisted of VW bugs with over-sized racing tires and pumped up engines. By the time I started racing myself, the “Super Sedans” as they were called, were already in trouble. They had moved from the road course to the 3/8th mile oval and sprouted sprint car style wings. They were fast but that speed came at a hefty price. By the mid-eighties the division was down to a half dozen regular competitors. The class of the field was a Karmann Ghia with an alcohol injected, turbo charged engine. Mounted high above the motor was a long megaphone exhaust pipe that generally trailed about three feet of blue flame! Pretty spectacular.  A cool race car… as they all were, but expensive to keep running.

Gary Dillard had raced Super Sedans in the early seventies and had moved up to V-8 powered sprint car style Super Modifieds. When he crashed his Super, he pulled all the components out of his damaged chassis and hung them in his new Super Sedan. This car was significantly lighter than the Volkswagens thanks to a tube frame and a formed aluminum body. For power Dillard turned to a talented local builder named Mark Rohrman who built him an exotic V-4. It was literally half of a fuel injected small block Chevrolet, still displacing three liters. Interestingly, when Dillard got it wound up, it thundered just like it had all eight cylinders. The car debuted on May 3rd 1985 and promptly swept the program. When the V-4 returned a week later, Dillard captured his Heat and the Trophy Dash but broke in the Feature. And that was the way his season went.  When the car stayed together, it destroyed the competition. It competed in nine  of the twelve programs that year. It won six Features and broke down in the other three. It was truly a magnificent racecar. It was legal because essentially, there were no rules. I think most everyone appreciated what Dillard and Rohrman had created… except those who had to race against it. The VW guys got together and the V-4 was banned for 1986.They were back to racing each other (just the six of them on a good night) for the next couple of seasons.

When the racetrack closed in 1988, all of the participating classes were invited to follow the Race Director to different venue within a couple hours’ tow—Everyone except the Super Sedans.

Sadly, for them the final checkered flag had fallen.

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A Winning Combination

Sunset-Speedway-Kuzie-Kuzmanich

Marine “Kuzie” Kuzmanich is a party guy. He’s been throwing parties for himself for as long as anyone can remember.

Used to be that he’d prepare all the food for the party too, but at eighty nine, he now leaves that responsibility to others. Today he is confined to a wheelchair and has little mobility; still he enjoys being the center of attention. It is hard to imagine that fifty some years ago, behind the wheel of a stock car, he was virtually unbeatable.

Kuzmanich and Donald “Duck” Collins met as teenagers. Both attended Benson technical high school in Portland and became fast friends. After the war, Collins pieced together a roadster and joined a group of grass root enthusiasts out at the Portland ½ mile oval. Initially, Collins planned to pilot his creation himself but when his buddy was able to circulate a second and a half a lap faster, Kuzie became the designated driver. In their first outing, Kuzmanich hustled the roadster up to second place in the fifty lap Feature before a front tire disintegrated. After quickly replacing the wheel, they reentered the fray and finished seventh. It was out of the money but still deemed a success and a partnership was born.

The late 1940’s and early fifties were filled with low key circle track events (and even some drag racing) primarily at Portland and nearby Jantzen Beach Arena. In the mid-fifties, stock cars became the rage and the team assembled a ’48 Mercury to compete in the Early Model division. All the while, Kuzmanich and Collins worked fulltime jobs and raised families. To them, racing was just a hobby yet they were always competitive and won their share of races.

Stock car racing continued to grow in popularity and after Kuzie captured the Late Model Championship in 1958, the racing community really began to take notice. Saavy businessman Bud Meadows who owned the Pontiac dealership on Sandy Boulevard, was one who’d had his eye on the duo. Meadows first became interested in racing while watching his daughter (Merit) wheel quarter midgets. Merit Meadows was a talented enough racer to win back to back state championships and in 1959 claimed a national title. At sixteen years of age she hung up her helmet however, so her father was on the lookout for his next racing venture.

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With a full understanding of the adage: “Win on Sunday – Sell on Monday”, Meadows chose to align himself with Kuzmanich and Collins. He put Kuzie on a flight to the Midwest to pick up their new racer; a flat, sleek looking Catalina. The Pontiac was purchased with a 389 c.i. engine. It had dual four barrel carbs and NO options. Norm Zaayer who was an original crew member on the team, laughs “It had glass in it and that was all! No heater even, so Kuzie about froze to death driving it home!” Once back in Portland it was gutted and prepped for racing. On the hood it boast 333 horsepower (apparently Bor-A-Car did some of the machine work) and “Little Beaver” adorned the front quarter panels.

The Pontiac was fast right out of the box. In an early season contest that included several NASCAR hot dogs up from California, Kuzmanich came out on top. First he lowered the track record in qualifying then led every lap of the Feature. Many of the five thousand plus in attendance that day said it was the finest race they’d ever seen. Kuzmanich completed the 175 laps in one hour and twenty two minutes. The race was run without a single incident. When NASCAR brought west coast Champion Eddie Gray up from Southern California for a 250 lap race he had his hands full with local talent. Portlanders Art Watts and Carl Joiner both gave Gray a run for the money but it was Kuzie in the Pontiac crossing the finish line in second. By the conclusion of the ’60 season the Bud Meadows team had broken several track records, won numerous races and garnered third in the overall O.A.R.A. (Oregon Auto Racing Association) championship.

For their 1961 entry, Kuzmanich and Collins only had to drive as far as the dealership. This model (a “Ventura” procured from one of their salesmen) too was a winner thanks to Kuzie’s skill behind the wheel and Collins’ race prep and maintenance. Rarely did they not finish a race and as a result, they improved their championship standing to second. They liked their ’61 car so well in fact, that they elected to run it again it ’62. While their competitors were busy sorting out new mounts, the Meadows team won three of their first four races. By early Fall, they were O.A.R.A. Champions. And as if to prove this was no fluke, they repeat as champions again in 1963.

At some point during the ’63 season, a new Pontiac with stacked headlights was introduced. This racer, perhaps the most handsome of the lot, was painted black with only the roof and rear quarter panels in white. It boast 405 horsepower from its 421 c.i. mill and had a huge numeral “1” emblazoned on the doors. At the end of their second championship season, it was announced that a new “Tempest” would be built to defend their titles but apparently this car never materialized. Instead the ’63 car (now renumbered #28) was campaigned again in 1964 and though competitive, it was not the winner the 1960 or ’61 cars had been.
Shortly thereafter, Meadows decided to pursue other interests and the team was disbanded. Collins shifted his focus to open wheel cars though he and Kuzie remained the best of friends. Kuzmanich’s last race was likely a NASCAR Winston West meet in Monroe Washington on July 4th, 1968. He is credited with finishing eighteenth.

Today Kuzie’s room at the retirement home is devoid of racing mementos. His family tells me that he doesn’t like to be reminded of things he can’t do any longer. I can tell you that no one looks forward to the Old Timer’s picnic more than Kuzie Kuzmanich- He still likes to party.

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The Dan Gurney 200 INDY Comes to S.I.R.

Dan-Gurney

Fifteen years before the first Indy car race at Portland International Raceway, Seattle hosted an event called The Dan Gurney 200.

This came about through the efforts of a man named William Doner, then newly hired General Manager of S.I.R. Doner became acquainted with Gurney years earlier while acting as Sports Editor for a newspaper published in Gurney’s hometown (Costa Mesa, CA). Doner was a huge fan and the pair became friends. Once given the opportunity to run a racetrack, Doner jumped at the chance to bring the USAC Championship Cars to the Pacific Northwest.

The year was 1969 and the profile of professional auto racing looked very different than it does today. Nationally, Indy car racing was more popular than NASCAR and USAC itself was much more diverse. The Indy car series consisted of twenty four events. There were races on ovals and road courses. There were races on dirt tracks in which upright, front engined cars competed. Even the Pikes Peak hill climb was included in the schedule and awarded points toward the championship. Doner had taken a chance booking his race in late October but in all fairness, he probably didn’t have a choice. The season began on March 30th in Arizona and concluded at Riverside (So. CA) on December 7th.

In all, twenty two cars arrived to do battle on the 2¼ mile road course. A.J. Foyt and Gordon Johncock had taken a pass but most of the big names were there. Of particular interest to spectators, many of the entries had a Northwest connection. Jerry Grant, who had cut his teeth racing sporty cars at S.I.R., was there on behalf of Webster Racing. Oregonian Art Pollard was there piloting a stock block Plymouth powered Gerhardt for Andy Granatelli. “Barefoot” Bob Gregg had procured a Portland built Vollstedt and dropped in a Chevrolet. Max Dudley hailing from nearby Auburn, WA wasn’t quick enough to make the show at Indy but was assured a starting berth here. Bardahl Manufacturing of Seattle had supported Indy car racing for twenty years. They finally had a race in their own backyard and 1968 Indy winner Bobby Unser was their chauffeur. If there was a dark horse in the field however,  it had to be Rolla Vollstedt’s current entry with underrated John Cannon at the controls. Cannon was the current track record holder and in fact, had proven his prowess at foul weather racing the year prior at Laguna Seca. In a veritable downpour, amidst a field of international stars, Cannon had rocketed from mid-pack to a convincing win.

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#6 A.J. Foyt salutes race winner Mario Andretti after his 1969 Indy victory. The pair qualified first and second fastest and battled for the win until Foyt pit to replace his turbocharger. (Jay Koch Collection)

The weatherman cooperated on Saturday during qualifications. First defending Indy champion and point leader, Mario Andretti shattered Cannon’s track record. Andretti, also racing for Granatelli, was driving the same Brawner Hawk he’d used to win four other races so far that season. Next Albuquerque’s Al Unser bested Andretti’s mark in a Lola Ford entered by Parnelli Jones. Finally in storybook fashion, the race’s namesake Gurney cut the quickest lap at 1:14.1 and garnered the pole position. Much to his credit, Gurney drove a car of his own design and manufacture- an Eagle/Westlake Ford. Bobby Unser qualified fifth in the Bardahl entry, Cannon was seventh, Grant was tenth, Pollard was fourteenth, Dudley was sixteenth and Gregg would tag the field after experiencing engine problems.

Sunday’s race was held in two 100 mile heats.  Heat one started in the dry but it didn’t hold for long. Andretti blasted away from Gurney and led flag to flag over Al Unser. Gurney finished third one lap down ahead of a surprising Sam Posey in a third Granatelli entry.  Interestingly Posey’s mount was a 4WD Lotus formerly powered by a turbine engine (now Plymouth). Cannon was fifth, Dudley tenth, Gregg rebounded for eleventh, Grant nine laps off the pace in thirteenth. Both Bobby Unser and Pollard crashed out. One writer report that everyone got off course at least once! I believe that everyone starting with Gurney, probably did.

For the second heat Andretti elected to stay on slick tires while Al Unser started on treads. After the flag dropped and the rain returned, Unser passed Andretti and won by a sixty six second margin. Unser was awarded with the overall win (for some unknown reason) and due to another stellar drive in round two, Posey was credited with third (he would comment years later that his performance in the Gurney 200 was perhaps the best drive of his career). Gurney himself wound up with fourth place money, after hasty repairs Bobby Unser was fifth.

At the press conference that followed the race, runner up Andretti was asked about their decision not to start the second heat on rain tires. “After you win a race you get over confident,” he shrugged. “You are afraid to make any changes.” In the big scheme of things, it didn’t really matter. Mathematically Andretti already had the ’69 Championship won- even with two events remaining.

After the races Doner announced that he was he was going to try to reschedule “The Gurney” for mid-summer in 1970…but it didn’t happen. Unfortunately sometimes all you get is one shot.

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Andretti prepares for another ride in the Brawner hawk. Builder Clint Brawner is in the straw hat with his arms akimbo. Mechanic Jim McGee eyeballs the photographer. (Jay Koch Collection)

Sema Show & Tell: My Five Favorites

The first car I ever owned was a ’61 Beetle.

I’ve owned three more in my lifetime as well as couple VW powered race cars. I’d never owned a VW bus but I always liked the way they looked…then I had to drive one for work. If I was going to describe any vehicle I’ve driven as a “death trap”, it would be that bus. For one thing, you sat with your face dangerously close to the windshield. For another, it was grossly underpowered for the amount of weight it was trying to push. There wasn’t a gear in the gearbox low enough for driving uphill. And it was noisy.

This bus however, is really fun. The builder took the design elements I always liked and exaggerated them. It’s like a cartoon drawing brought to life. If I had to drive it for work, I might not like it either. As a creative piece of automotive art though, it rocks. This (nearly) scratch-built bus was manufactured in Utah by Ron Berry Creations.

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Looking like an extra from the Speed Racer movie, this DeTomaso P70 Barchetta was actually built to compete in the Can-Am series. In 1965 Carroll Shelby ordered a half dozen of the Ford powered sports racers from Italian coachbuilder Alejandro DeTomaso. Unfortunately by the time the prototype was complete, changes to the engine rules had made it obsolete. Shelby canceled his order and DeTomaso was livid. He responded by creating the Mangusta (Mongoose) to sick on Shelby’s Cobras, a prophecy that went unfulfilled. DeTomaso’s Pantera introduced in’71 did however enjoy moderate success with over 7,000 units sold in its twenty year production run.

The Barchetta represent classic European mid-sixties styling and it is a wonder that it survived it’s tumultuous past. It was raced only once then used as a show vehicle briefly before being rolled into the corner of a warehouse in Modena where it languished for decades.

DeTomaso-Barchetta

I’m a sucker for any race car I was lucky enough to watch compete when I was a kid. Ronnie Kaplan’s 1969 AMC Javelin fit the bill at SEMA this year. The factory supported Javelin team had raised many an eyebrow in the Trans-Am’s maiden season. They hadn’t won any races but had placed second six times, briefly led Ford in the point standings and finished every lap of every race they participated in. For ’69 Kaplan ramped up his engine program and the AMC’s took on a musclebound appearance. Over the winter the Javelins had grown massive fender flares and a huge hump in the hood. Unfortunately with their tweaking, the team had sacrificed reliability and now they couldn’t finish races. (I think we witnessed this car’s best performance which was a seventh at Laguna Seca.) Still, I was a huge fan. The red, white and blue livery made it look like a frozen confection and it seemed particularly threatening as it barreled around the course. The fact that Indy car regular Jerry Grant was behind the wheel, wasn’t lost on me either. I certainly knew that name from the Memorial Day broadcasts.

What I didn’t know was that Roger Penske was probably already in negotiations with the folks at AMC. For 1970 the cars were painted red, white and Sunoco Blue and the incomparable Mark Donohue was lead driver. Under Penske’s management the Javelins became winners but they lost me as a fan. Seeing Kaplan’s/Grant car was like a three dimensional snap shot for me. I got misty.

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I have to credit my new car buddy Jim Estes for my next selection which was the 1963 Corvette split window. Estes had just finished reading a feature about it in the current issue of Hot Rod and apparently commit most of the article to memory. The race car was significant for several reasons; numero uno was it had featured the first appearance of Chevrolet’s 427 big block. Next was the list of automotive icons that had been involved in the project: Zora Arkus-Duntov (the father of the Corvette) had given it his blessing. Mickey Thompson had prepped it for racing and Smokey Yunick had built the engine.

You’d think a car with those credentials would be unbeatable from the get go but that turned out not to be the case. Stock car ace Junior Johnson was the assigned driver for the Corvette’s Daytona debut and stuck it on the pole. He wasn’t comfortable in the car however, stating that it was probably capable of qualifying twenty miles per hour faster with the proper set up. Johnson climbed out after morning practice and was replaced by road racer Bill Krause in the 250 mile contest. Krause braved rainy conditions to bring the evil handling machine home third. After Daytona Chevrolet withdrew their support, Yunick took back his engine and Thompson sold the car into private hands. The new owner installed a 327 small block and raced it out on the west coast. Eventually it was parked, went into storage for a few years, even lived outside for a while. Finally, it received some much needed TLC in preparation for the Monterey Historics. Once there, it was swarmed by Corvette enthusiasts which led to the rediscovery of the race car’s colorful origins.

Now it has been restored to its former glory with the inclusion of the Yunick big block. It isn’t flashy… it’s all business. It’s a thoroughbred. And when you think about the people that came together to build it… Man!

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Making my fifth and final choice was difficult but as I scrolled through my photos, something became glaringly apparent. I take a picture of every late 40’s/early 50’s C.O.E. I see… and I don’t mean just at SEMA. I’ve taken a photo of every C.O.E. I’ve seen everywhere, for years. I have a collection of about twenty of them. I like them all dolled up and I like them rusted out. I like the Fords as well as the GMC’s and Chevies. I just like ‘em all- I think someday I’d like to own one.
Of the four trucks I took pictures of at SEMA, this was my favorite. It was constructed by Dan Hogan of Hogie Shine—a paint and body shop in Phoenix, Arizona. And of course it didn’t hurt to have a bad ass, Bonneville inspired, 1930 Model A riding piggy back. The cab of the truck is ’53 Ford C750 but it’s mounted on a Dodge chassis. Beneath that bulging bonnet was the biggest surprise of all- a Cummins twelve valve! The same engine that powers my dually.  Never a shortage of grunt with that Cummins.

If that ol’ VW bus is at one end of the power spectrum, my ’98 Dodge 3500 is at the other.

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Once a Racer. . .

Bob-Bondurant-2015

Former Formula 1 racer Bob Bondurant is still quick.

I glimpsed his profile in passing and had to chase him back to his booth at SEMA. He was there to promote his school of high performance driving and though I respect his business savvy, I’m more interested in his previous career— that of a professional race car driver.

Is it common knowledge that Bondurant drove a Ferrari to ninth in the U.S. Grand Prix of 1965? (He was fourth the following year at Monaco in a BRM.) Do people know that he was hand-picked by Carroll Shelby to drive the original Ford Cobra? And that partnered with Dan Gurney, he finished first in class at Le Mans in ’64? These achievements were accomplished just prior to my introduction to road racing. Fortunately, I did witness Bondurant contest the 1970 Can Am series and that was what I chose to talk with him about.

Can Am historians will tell you that Team McLaren dominated the series from its inception through 1971, but they did face formidable competition. Bondurant choose the series to promote his fledgling driving school business and to showcase his driving ability. Under the banner of Smith-Oeser Racing, a two year old Lola T160 was prepared for the challenge. It was lightened and heavily modified with swoopy coachwork. Giving up little in the horsepower department, they installed a fuel injected 427ci Chevy for propulsion.

Bondurant took the controls one race into the season at St. Jovite (Canada). He struggled with engine problems in qualifying and fell out of the race with less than half the distance covered. Two weeks later when the tour made its first appearance stateside (Watkins Glen), Bondurant soldiered home fourteenth. This is a better performance than it seems as the field swelled with an influx of closed cockpit, enduro cars that compete in their own race the day before. Then it was back to Edmonton, Canada where the team put forth a solid qualifying effort. Bondurant started the contest from the eighth slot and ran well…until his engine expired with twenty laps to go. Mid-Ohio was nothing to write home about; twentieth in qualifying and an early retirement, this time due to electrical woes.

Finally in the sixth race of the season, Elkart Lake (Wisconsin) the team put it all together. Bondurant tied Team McLaren driver Peter Gethin with fifth fastest time and ran up front all afternoon. When the checkered flag fell, Bondurant was second, only one lap down to Gethin. On this Sunday he’d held nothing back and defeated among others, Peter Revson in the Lola factory entry. For the remainder of the 1970 campaign, Bondurant continued to qualify well (seventh fast at Road Atlanta, sixth at Laguna Seca and twelfth at Riverside) but his fragile Lola could not go the distance. It was easy to surmise that Bondurant was capable of running with the best and even capable of winning. If only he had the car…

For 1971 Bondurant teamed with privateer Lothar Motschenbacher and his chances for a positive result improved dramatically. Motschenbacher was a wealthy car dealer/professional racer who purchased Team McLaren’s cars at the conclusion of each season. Other than a fully tested factory effort, there were simply no better cars available. The new team underlined this point by qualifying fifth and sixth at the season opener in Mosport (Canada), and finishing the race in third and fourth place respectively. At the second outing at St. Jovite Bondurant was a tick slower than Motschenbacher, starting ninth but failed to finish the seventy five lap contest. At the third round they returned to winning form, again claiming side by side starting berths in the third row and again Motchenbacher finished on the podium. This time however, Bondurant lost oil pressure and retired at twenty laps. Spirits were sagging by the fourth round where the team could manage no better than seventh and thirteenth starting spots. It got worse in the race as Motschenbacher crashed out on lap seven. Bondurant actually finished the race in sixteenth position, a full nine laps off the winning pace. Before the fifth race of the season, the racing partnership had dissolved and only one Motschenbacher entry appeared on the grid at Mid-Ohio. It was very likely the McLaren Bondurant had driven in his last outing.

Bondurant did not return to the Can Am but continued to race professionally for another decade. When reminded of the Can Am days, a smile spreads across his face and a gleam appears in his eye. “Those cars were fun,” he asserts.
Once a racer, always a racer.

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Cool Briz

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Rarely did I receive Gregory’s undivided attention. He was four years my senior and in all honesty, a closer friend to my older siblings. From birth until I was ten or so, he lived right next door to us. Gregory was smart, creative and extremely motivated.  And he could build stuff. I mean; he could build anything it seemed to me when I was a kid, from robots to rocket ships. His parents forbad him from removing the engine from their lawnmower so he simply incorporated the whole mower in his design! He was building crazy bicycles by the time we moved away but customizing cars was in his future.

I think Mark Brislawn had to have been a kid like Gregory. He bought his first vehicle when he was fifteen—a 1930 Model A pick-up. Fifty years later, he’s still at it. Smart, creative and also extremely motived, I doubt that there is a project or build that Brislawn would shy away from. Everything is “do-able.”

The Vancouver, WA native was able to parlay his knowledge of all things mechanical into a career with a company called Precision Equipment. Brislawn spent twenty years as an estimator and sales manager for the outfit that specializes in hydraulic and mechanical repair.
But of course the founding of Briz Bumpers in 1985 is what most people identify with Brislawn. “I picked up a set of 1937 DeSoto bumpers at a swap meet in Chehalis (WA),” he relates. “Before I left, I had three guys trying to buy them from me!” So the demand was pre-existing. Next Brislawn took the beveled bumpers to one of his fab shop customers to find out how difficult they would be to duplicate. He was told: “No problem.”

Brislawn decided to have a few sets made up. “Initially, I just wanted to make my investment back,” he explains. But when hot rod guys saw them, they went nuts! Clearly he had a hot commodity on his hands. Brislawn chose a marketing expert as his business partner and they were off and running. They set up a table or booth at all of the relevant swap meets, cruise-ins and car shows throughout the Northwest. They utilized print advertising extensively to reach potential customers outside of their area (Remember that the internet would not be viable for another decade or so). Soon Briz Bumpers were being sold internationally. Over the years other products were introduced but the original DeSoto knock off remains the cornerstone of their business to this day. In 2002 Brislawn sold his share of the company to his partner. In 2015 Briz Bumpers is a one man operation, providing a second income for the ex-partner’s son. Meanwhile, Brislawn has moved on.

In his shop there are several projects at varied states of completion. Brislawn gets to choose what he works on next. “My grandson is really into this show called Forged in Fire,” he tells me. “The other day he turned to me and asked why don’t we make a knife?” Predictably Grandpa didn’t have to be asked twice. Within a few hours Brislawn had roughed out the blade and his grandson was grinding on the wooden handle. Regardless of the outcome, it’s the process that’s important. This is quality time together creating something from an idea. It is an experience that his grandson will probably always remember. Mark Brislawn is his “Gregory.” He’s a lucky kid.


RIP Radkes

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I could always tell when Merlin was there. He would park his faded Astro Van directly in front of the entrance, half on the curb, half in the parking lot. I would say my hellos and get started. Merlin would totter over, grinning. He was always dressed the same, baggy shorts and a threadbare t-shirt. His glasses up on the top of his head. We talked about different products we sold, his visits to the doctor, his failing health. The last time I saw him he was lucid and in good spirits.
Pam would run me a stock order but I still took a physical inventory. That was how my predecessor did it and that was what they liked. Generally I was there for a of couple hours, every other Tuesday for the last year they were in business.

Used to be that when you wanted to hot rod your car, you paid a visit to the local speed shop. In the late seventies a national chain called Super Shops sprung from southern California. With 165 locations, they were able to buy Edelbrock by the boxcar, making it difficult for the independents to compete. Next came the mail order catalogs, another old concept but tailored specifically for the performance shopper. Soon guys were carrying their Summit, Jegs or Speedway catalogs with them, right into the speed shop! Everyone knew (about) what things should sell for and anyone could buy for less than retail. Finally, the internet drove the nails into the coffin. Now anyone with rudimentary computer skills had all the information at their fingertips. Everyone became “an expert” and the brick and mortar speed shops were doomed.

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Radkes had a humble beginning, starting out as a Gilmore gas station in 1933. Merlin’s father Julius was mechanically inclined and attended tech school to fine tune his skills. Soon a three bay garage was built in which to perform repairs and eventually a parts store was added to further facilitate the expansion. Merlin returned from the Korean War a twenty one year old high on hot rodding. He began to buy performance parts from the manufacturers in multiples, one for sale and two for stock. Initially this was kept a secret from his parents who regarded hot rodding with skepticism, fearing it was a passing fad. Merlin became entrenched in the local racing scene and advertised extensively all over the Pacific Northwest. Soon word got around that Radkes had “the goods” and customers came from as far away as Canada to buy them. The speed shop segment of the business grew to the point where they had to build a larger store right behind their existing one. By the mid-sixties, Radkes employed four men full time just to accommodate their performance customers. Another growing, family owned auto parts chain by the name of Baxter initially bought all of their performance accessories from Radkes.  An estimated 6,000 patrons attended their first parking lot sale.

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While the performance market was still ascending, Radkes opened additional stores but ultimately these satellite locations failed to get a foothold. The decision was made to pull back and refocus on the original St. John’s location and for many years, business thrived.

Radkes never stopped caring about performance parts or being able to sell them at a competitive price. What changed was the way in which their customers shopped for them.

If there is a Roddin’ and Racin’ Northwest Hall of Fame, Merlin Radke certainly deserves inclusion. Vaya con dios, old friend.

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Spanaway Speedway Reunion

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Former Stock Car racer Don Hall hosted this event in 2014 and outdid himself this year. It is a day set aside to remember the now defunct ¼ mile paved oval, once located near Tacoma, WA. Built by the Boness family in 1956, the facility was in continuous operation for almost fifty years. 1990 Daytona 500 champion Derrike Cope and Tom Sneva (an Indy winner in ‘83) had both been regular competitors there. In fact, NASCAR and USAC (now IndyCar) had sanctioned races at the venue for decades. Today a housing development is built on the former site and all that remains of the speedway are memories. Hall helps facilitate those memories with his impressive collection of memorabilia. There are also dozens of photos albums laid out and accessible to all. And then there’s the racers themselves who are always happy to share a story or two. Even Dick Boness, the man that built the facility and was there to the bitter end, attends this annual celebration.

A bonus to this scribe was the appearance of a surprisingly large turnout of midgets– vintage and contemporary. Lastly, Dave Craver and Darrel Hedman unveiled their new Jerry Day built retro-roadster. This Ranger aircraft engined monster is without question one coolest vehicles I have ever had the pleasure to inspect.


It was a great day with lunch and dessert provided pot-luck style. All indications are that Hall will host again next summer so make plans now to attend.

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