The Surfers: 96% Blue
by Dan Himmel
Any student of fuel drag racing history will tell you that
the ‘60s were the pinnacle of the sport. The height of this
"frenzy" was the years 1965, 1966, and 1967. Over one hundred fuel
dragster teams ran two or three nights a week in southern California alone.
One of the best loved, and most successful, was a team called The Surfers.
Bob Skinner and Tom Jobe had been racing together for a
period of years prior to being joined by Mike Sorokin. Together the three,
students at Santa Monica City College, turned the collective heads of the
drag racing community, and changed the course of fuel racing history.
Skinner and Jobe began building their
dragster in a garage space at the Red Apple Motel where they collected parts
for their car. In Jobe's words, "Every day after work we'd hit all
the garages…ask some questions ‘til they'd throw us out and then we'd
go down to the next one. We (finally) found out enough stuff because we had
to build the whole thing ourselves; we didn't have any money to buy
anything." (Coonce, Cole. The Epic Saga of the Surfers. Petersen
Publications Fifty Years of Drag Racing, 1999). Upon completion of the car,
they began their search for a driver.
Their early efforts were not successful, and the team
became the object of scorn by other local racers. After a succession of
drivers, Mike Sorokin was tabbed, thus "The Surfers" was born.
Sorokin showed no fear in the cockpit, and soon the team
began to enjoy success on the track. Mike had no interest in the mechanical
operations, a fact the competition found unnerving, which was heightened by
the team's ability to ready the car quickly, then spend their time amusing
themselves in the pits riding skateboards. Fans and the media, however,
loved their antics, and The Surfers gained a following.
Tom Jobe didn't like that the hydrometers used to
measure the specific gravity of the fuel mixture were inaccurate, leading
him to discover ways to run a fuel mixture of nearly 100% nitromethane, thus
increasing horsepower. "Our mixture of choice ended up being 96% nitro
and 4% toluene (with a drop of blue food dye just to mess with the
folks)." (Jobe, Tom. "Running that 98% Part 2". 30 Jan.1999.
Online posting. Header Flames. 30 Jan. 1999 http://www.nitronic.com/headerflames/). Such high percentages of nitro were
generally used only in last-ditch efforts to increase power, often resulting
in destroyed parts. For example, prolific match racer "TV" Tommy
Ivo normally ran nitro content as low as forty percent. Parts attrition was
a problem that rarely plagued The Surfers.
The culmination of their efforts came in March of 1966 in
Bakersfield, California, when Sorokin drove through a sixty-four car field,
including such notable racers as Don Garlits, Connie Kalitta, and Art
Malone. He ran an all time low 7.34 second elapsed time, and defeated James
Warren in the final, thus The Surfers became the first independent team to
win the prestigious "March Meet".
On Labor Day weekend, 1967, they stunned the drag race
world, suddenly selling their entire operation. Skinner and Jobe turned away
from the sport and never campaigned a dragster again. Sorokin continued to
drive for a variety of owners until, on December 30, 1967, he was killed
when his clutch exploded, cutting the car in two, slamming him into the
unforgiving track surface.
Briefly, a team of "bucks down" racers was the
brightest star in drag racing's sky.
Their technological insight was responsible for a shift in
the paradigm. Soon after their discovery, methods of running high
"loads" became the norm, and the course of drag racing's history
was forever changed.
About the author:
Having grown up in the hinterlands of Montana, there
wasn't much in the way of drag racing. I didn't attend my first race until
1973. It was at a small, local track in Glendive, Montana called Hustler's
Dragway. In the fall of '72, I began to gain an interest in the sport, and
when I saw the 25th anniversary issue of Hot Rod Magazine, I was hooked.
Once I smelled nitro for the first time, the hook was set, and I am a fan to
I build models, almost exclusively of dragsters, and the hobby has given me
a chance to become almost intimately familiar with the subjects that I am
modeling. To this point, my proudest achievement in modeling is my model of
one of the cars that was featured in that anniversary issue of Hot
Rod...Dick Kraft's "The Bug". The model is now a part of the
collection at the Don Garlits Museum of Drag Racing.
The Surfers story is, to me one of the most compelling in
the history of drag racing. I was assigned a short paper in a college comp
class, and chose to write of The Surfers. This is that paper.