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Jul 4, 2005

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By Phil R. Elliott

Recently, I was flat on my back for about ten days. Following the major illness part of what the doctors later decided was viral pneumonia, my stamina remained at an all-time low. So, when I'd go home early from my normal job, I read a few books. What else was there to do?

My good friend Dave Wallace sent me several things out of his "storeroom." It was actually a trade out for some work I did for him a year or so ago, and I would have eventually purchased these books anyway. His company, Hot Rod Nostalgia (hotrodnostalgia.com or call 209.293.2114), carries many interesting titles, including many hot rod and drag race titles, videos, artwork and posters from a few different artists, photos from several sources and a whole bunch of other cool goodies.

When The Hot Rods Ran ($24.95, Auto Book Press, 1991) is a journal of a day in the life of many of the originators of hot rodding and dragracing, compiled by William Carroll. The date was May 15, 1938, and the scene was Muroc, the dry lakebed SoCal rodders frequented before strips of asphalt or concrete were found. It was a time when everything American was simpler, and the war that would take this lakebed from these men, and these men from their own beds, was still just a few headlines of some far-off madness.

The perfect bound book of memories includes entries, performances and even the rules of the still fledgling Southern California Timing Association (SCTA) that already included over 450 members from 23 car clubs in the Los Angeles area. The book also includes breakdowns of everything from types of cars to engine modifications of these early land speeders.

The author wrapped these stats around a group of about 100 photographs he took on that day, using a miniature camera loaded with black and white film. The images are for the most part outstanding. They depict everything from towing accidents to groups of fans and racers huddled under blankets in the dark, cold morning. And of course there is plenty of action in the pits and on the course.

Carroll also describes very well the early timing system designed and built by Merle Finkenbinder that included trip wires that each car had to run through at the beginning and end of the speed "trap." It was ingenious for the day and was later proven to be accurate within 1/1000 of a second in 24 hours!

I fully enjoyed sharing this day in hot rod history with Mr. Carroll and will pick up the book often I highly recommend it to old-timers who hope to relive the scenes and times, as well as to younger folk interested in reading about from where all of our present day performance came.

Next, I waded into Richard L. Railton's, Just A Drag! ($22.95, Self Published, 1998) Right up front, I'll explain that it is written journal-style, and not always perfect in grammar or punctuation, and the pictures scrap-booked throughout are copy-machine quality black and whites. But what it lacks in artistic excellence, Just A Drag! over-compensates for in substance, and covers approximately six years of craziness.

You know all of those benchrace sessions among elite racers that you've heard about? You've always wished you were a fly on the wall during certain moments? You wanted to head on one of those crazy roadtrips? Here's your chance.

Railton was a Bay Area racer. You can tell this quickly when you see that Pete Ogden writes the Forward and the Introduction is by Andy and Sue Brizio.

Just like all benchrace sessions, some of the stories are probably embellished though I won't try to guess which. Still, the entire piece gives a very accurate image of the evolvement of racers from buzz-boxed Model As with flatheads to professional dragsters with blown nitrated Chryslers. And this book not only covers the racing sections of life, but living, partying, building and reaching the tracks.

You've seen pictures of Cadillac engines in modified coupes and roadsters, here are the snippets of how some of them got there. This includes the many local auto parts outlets and speed shops used, all of the drive-ins and hangout, and the trouble gotten into betwixt and between.

The names involved are an incredible who's who of NorCal racing - Jim Davis, Roy Thode, Ted Gotelli, Rich Guasco, Dale Emery, Dave Jeffers, George Santos, Sammy Hale, Paul Sutherland, and dozens of others. And, if the author somehow forgot any of his circle's names, their nickname is there anyway.

That Mr. Railton crossed all of these paths over a few years is impressive indeed. Furthermore, he developed friendships that have lasted and shares all of it inside Just A Drag! And, if Railton developed a less-than-friendly relationship with one of the list, he elaborates that as well, calls that person a few names, and we share the whys. It is very refreshing.

As time evolves, many of the local NorCal racers toured up and down the coast (and further) and made names for themselves. Others went to work at some pretty famous spots. Then they headed for events like the March Meet, the Winternationals and Nationals, and added such innovations such as "zoomie" headers to their cars. We ride along on all of it. Did you ever want to know how touring racers washed and maintained their parachutes on the cheap? It's in there too.

Just A Drag! is a superb accounting on the formative years (about 1958-1966) of dragracing and a whole bunch of experiences by dozens of true characters.

In the end, Richard L. Railton explains why after a few-too-many heartbreaks on and off the track, he headed for other ventures. I enjoyed every paragraph and certainly many other readers will find that the many adventures parallel their own.

I also read Michigan Madman ($29.95, Self Published, 1999) by EJ Potter. I feel sorry for the youngsters out there that never saw this man perform or at least saw photos and read captions about this self-proclaimed nutcase.

Although similarly fashioned as a diary to the other two, this book is professionally turned out. And, here's a bit of news to us geezers, it is all in large print - we don't need our cheaters to read EJ's exploits.

Here is a story of a kid that went way too far with his experimenting - like the one on your block that blew up the family basement with his chemistry set - then went even farther. Amazingly, though he tries very hard several times, Potter is not killed during any of his "mad" doings. All of them are covered in Michigan Madman.

In case you didn't know, EJ Potter scabbed a small block Chevy engine and a motorcycle frame together into a vehicle so gruesome that it soon earned the fatalistic name "Widowmaker."

The story shows how EJ began tinkering at an early age, learned the hard lesson of losing the tip of a finger to a motor scooter, and instead of watching others achieve during his recovery time, read a bunch about engines. A few years later, he tried motorcycle racing and street riding, and traveling in tired old machinery on no money. He then took odd jobs before discovering a valuable lesson that would continue to be his motto: Do Not Work for Anybody (else), Period."

The V-8 motorcycle was far from an overnight engineering success. He and his ride were way beyond street attempts and were pretty much scoffed off the local strip. Finally, after many failures, the promoter offered him a $1 for each mile over 100mph EJ could turn. After many runs of about 115mph, and a jump up to 125mph with a final drive change, the machine finally began to come to him. After a 136mph run that left a thick black track in the shape of a long, shallow "S", the local promoter said no more, sending EJ looking at other places for his special brand of wackiness. It took a verbal push from Art Arfons that put EJ on the exhibition trail. That push was a little less subtle than the one EJ got from his friends each time he ran the bike - the engine was hooked directly to the rear tire and was run up to a high RPM before being literally shoved off its kickstand!

With thoughts to touring, EJ began to clean up his act and came up with a self-start scheme.

Note that Potter's book has huge full-page photos with major captions. All the type is large, for us old fogey types that need glasses.

Over the next few years, EJ Potter criss-crossed the world with a series of Widowmakers that tried their best to live up to their name. Other machines became part of his repertoire, including a jet-powered trike and an Allison-powered 57 Plymouth. But most of his reputation came from the bike, which eventually put EJ into the mid-eights at 180mph! Then, he took his Allison engines "pulling" and the book continues on for a few more wild chapters.

Of all the antics EJ pulls, I think my favorite may be when he fired up a huge J-79 jet engine on its shipping pallet - in his carport! The fuel system consisted of a small tank of kerosene and a hose, and EJ operated the throttle with a pair of visegrips while he lay on his back under the engine. I'll let you read what happened when Potter reduced power, then quickly revved that 17,000 horsepower up again, a tactic not recommended by General Electric or other jet engine manufacturers. Let me just say that over the years, EJ Potter did not endear himself with many of his neighbors.

Michigan Madman is a hoot from start to (almost) finish. It is written in a sarcastic, self-effacing style that constantly made me laugh. I wondered often where this man with all of the inspiration for mechanical mayhem had acquired such a high degree of writing talent.

For those that noticed that parenthetical word ("almost") at the beginning of the previous paragraph, I didn't enjoy the last couple chapters where Mr. Potter visits several foreign countries and shares his political cures to their problems. But I'll forgive him these liberties. After all, it was his soapbox. And the rest of Michigan Madman was so thrilling I didn't really care how he finished it. Also, the photos throughout the book are of an assemblage of what the initiated might consider machines from some theater of the obscure.

And, before you ask, it has taken many weeks to return to any semblance of wellness and energy. But I have enjoyed catching up on my reading immensely.

Thanks for checking out the PhilZone portion of Draglist.com. If you have accolades, complaints, comments, questions, or if you want to share a story, please feel free to post it on the PhilZone Message Board. Phil


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