NHRA - National Hot Rod Association

Be true to your school

17 Sep 2008
Phil Burgess, NHRA National Dragster Editor

Voted most likely to become a drag racing editor?

We didn't have a drag racing team, so I had to settle for volleyball. That's me, number 5.

This weekend, while I'm in Dallas getting a big charge out of covering the O’Reilly Super Start Batteries NHRA Fall Nationals presented by Castrol Syntec, I’ll be missing my 30-year high school reunion, which will take place Saturday in Culver City, Calif., where I grew up.

The Venice High School class of 1978 will get together to  renew acquaintances, mourn lost friends, chuckle to themselves about their classmates' thickening bellies and thinning hairlines, and probably realize that a lot more of them will be missing by the 40th reunion.

I was part of a huge graduating class – 972 strong – that set off into the world to make our ways and our fortunes, and I'm sure that many of them have succeeded wildly. I was a B-plus student yet ranked just 172nd in the class, so you know we had some smart cookies. Our class name was Asahi, which is Japanese for Rising Sun (although there were plenty of jokes about us being named after the then-popular beer); it was the dawn of our adult lives, and I can’t help wondering what the class clown, the street racer, the all-city jock, the cheerleader, the Romeo, or the valedictorian did with their lives. Did they shine brightly, or did the sun set on their lives too soon? Would my old high school girlfriend still have a soft spot for me? Would my best buddies recognize me?

I'm not all that broken up about missing the deal. I remember the first and last reunion I went to, our 10th, in 1988. I had been the editor of National DRAGSTER for just two years but was quite proud of myself and my fast rise into the position, but 20 years later, I can still remember the sarcastic tone of said girlfriend's voice when we exchanged business cards. "Oh, great; if I ever need a story about a dragster, I'll be sure to call you." Ouch.

Serendipitously, I've spent a great deal of time lately "living" in the year of my birth, 1960, working with "T.V. Tommy" Ivo on tales about his nationwide tour that year with young crewmember Don Prudhomme and researching and conducting a host of interviews about the late Leonard Harris, the 1960 Nationals champ who was tragically killed just weeks after his triumph.

Even though you can still find it via Google Maps' Street View, Albertson Olds (and later Chevrolet) closed several months ago.

Harris was a Venice High grad – class of 1950 – and a national champion gymnast before he became a superstar racer, and I'm learning a whole lot more about my old hometown. Harris' car, owned by Gene Adams and Ronnie Scrima, was sponsored by the Albertson Oldsmobile dealership on

Sepulveda Boulevard
in Culver City, less than a mile from where I grew up. Many was the time I bicycled past Albertson Olds and its trademark parking-lot rocketship as a teenager on the way to Wheel World so we could customize our Schwinn Stingrays or a few years later sat just a block north on Sepulveda enjoying a burger at Johnny's Pastrami after a long night cruising the town, not knowing that someday it would hold a place of esteem in my heart as having been the sponsor of a big-time racing team.

I didn't realize that less than a half block down Sepulveda, at its intersection with Washington Boulevard, once sat the Piccadilly Drive-in, Culver City's answer to Burbank's Bob's Big Boy, home of the Road Kings of Ivo, Prudhomme, and crew. Alternatively, a few miles south, at the corner of Sepulveda and Jefferson, was Nineteen, named for its 19-cent burgers. From either place, it was just a short ride to long, juicy straightaways like Jefferson, which ran a mile and a half from Centinela Avenue to Lincoln Boulevard in front of the Hughes Aircraft plant, or up Lincoln Hill to Pershing Drive, which ran behind Los Angeles Int'l Airport and offered a near-mile-long run between Imperial Highway and World Way West devoid of side streets and innocent civilians, a site that was still a popular "proving ground" for tramps like us in the mid-'70s.

Despite its slightly goofy-looking mascot – the grinning Gunther Gondolier – a mildly insipid inspirational motto -- Rowing Not Drifting -- and the fact that it doubled for Rydell High in the sappy film Grease, I'm not sure any high school could match the all-star lineup of drag racing stars who received their diplomas from this hallowed institution, which opened in 1911.

John Peters, who raced his way into your hearts as owner of the twin-engine Freight Train Top Gas dragster, and his late partner, Nye Frank, are Gondo alumni, and Peters' wife, Bev, assembled for me a list of known drag racers who attended our school.

How's this for a list: Mike Sorokin, driver, Surfers Top Fueler (class of 1957, according to his son, Adam); drag racing pioneer "Jazzy Jim" Nelson; drag racer and land-speed record holder Craig Breedlove; Junior Fuel racers Hank Bender and Ron Hier (Hier was classmates with another famous VHS alum, Apollo VII astronaut Walter Cunningham); Bill Adair (Fox-Holding-Adair AA/FD); Walt Stevens of Odd Couple twin-engine gasser fame; Frank "Root Beer" Hedges, whose A&W-sponsored AA/FD Stevens drove; gas dragster ace Mickey Brown, who, like Harris, was killed at Lions while test-driving an unfamiliar car; gasser driver and chassis builder Ed Weddle and his partner, Marshall Nicols; Jim Boyd  (Red Turkey AA/FD); Lester Zerbel (A/Gas Willys); Roland Dove (Street Stock); and Tom and Joe Masek and Rick and Rickie Snavley (Pro Street).

(In addition to a strong drag racing legacy, Venice turned out some pretty good athletes, especially in football, including former San Francisco 49ers cornerback Dana McLemore [a classmate of mine], former Oakland Raiders linebacker Larry Atkins, two-time L.A. Rams/Cleveland Browns Pro Bowler Leon Clarke, and Buffalo Bills quarterback J.P. Losman. Two current college stars, USC tailback Curtis "Moody" McNeal and UCLA wide receiver Jerry Johnson, are recent grads under coach Angelo Gasca, who was the starting QB at Venice during my years there. VHS also produced Arizona Diamondbacks pitcher Doug Slaten, 1948 Olympic gold medalist Clifford Bourland, actors Beau Bridges, Gary Collins, and Myrna Loy, singer/songwriter Teena Marie, and legendary Disney animator Les Clark, one of Disney's Nine Old Men.)

"We had a helluva group of guys," Bender told me recently during our interview about Harris. "The Piccadilly was the hotbed for hot rodders from everywhere. You have to remember, too, that Edelbrock and Isky were in Culver City, and Engle and Quincy's automotive were just a few miles away over in Santa Monica."

Stevens recalled that he and Sorokin used to cruise both Picadilly and the Nineteen or the S&W Root Beer stand or The Clock drive-in, then head over to Culver Boulevard or by LAX to watch the street races. Custom-car designer George Barris was a Piccadilly regular and holds an annual Cruisin' Back to Culver City car show each May. Dick Kraft, whose The Bug is called by many the first dragster and now resides in the WallyParksNHRAMotorsportsMuseum, also reportedly hung out at the Piccadilly.

I missed those golden years, and although my buddies and I did our best to uphold the city's fine hot rod heritage, slapping headers, shift kits, fat tires, and big carbs on our parents' hand-me-down vehicles, it just couldn't have been the same.

The Texas Motorplex is different, too, since my first visit there in 1986, and the race cars different from my first trip to the drags in 1970. I'll be missing my high school reunion but enjoying my regular reunion with my other longtime friends at the drags.

Well, your favorite drag racing storyteller (I am your favorite, right?) and my hero and his, Tommy Ivo, are a little red-faced after evidence came to light that "T.V. Tom's" reception was a little fuzzy when he shared with us photos of Concord Drag-O-Way, some of which, it turns out, were actually from Roanoke, Va., and the track where he almost went off the cliff was in Ohio, not North Carolina.

(Above) Ivo and the Concord poster. (Below) Ivo needs a filing system.

The harsh light of reality was shed upon the subject by Lee Martin of Atomic Pinup, who sent the photo at right of Roanoke, and former Concord Drag-O-Way strip operator Bill Garland, who also created the neat pencil-drawn posted pictured below, which was not actually posted around town as Ivo remembers but was an insert into their weekly mailing called Quarter Notes

"The picture of the shed where we inspected the cars is correct, but his description of the dragstrip itself and the photo supposedly being the Concord dragstrip is greatly in error," wrote Garland. "My strip was better than this; we did not have telephone poles for guard fence posts. Our spectator fence was first class for the time and far better than any other strip. It was 110 feet back from the strip and was woven-wire fencing on correct posts. Although the shutdown was uphill and only about 800 feet of it was paved, there was 500 feet of well-maintained dirt past the paving that we kept clear and smooth.

"The picture showing what is labeled as the Concord track is actually the Roanoke strip where Ivo ran the previous Sunday. The pictures of Ivo's car over the embankment was an outlaw place where Ivo agreed to run on Friday night on his way to my strip on Saturday.  When he and 'Snake' got to my place, they were late (after dark), and the car still had red mud all in the front wheels and nose from running off the end of that so-called dragstrip. We actually had running water (imagine that) and provided them with a hose, etc., to clean up the car with some of my strip crewmembers."

"Well, what can I say? Right church, wrong pew?" wrote Ivo. "Here's a picture of the 35mm slide box I had labeled sometime after we came home from the tour, when I had the pictures developed and had time to file them away. That's what I was going by. By the time I got around to labeling and filing away the pictures, I had the [My Little] Margie series going, Tommy Ivo Speed Specialties chassis shop going, the four-engine car running back East with [Ron] Pellegrini, running with the Ivo-Zeuschel fuel car, plus my father had just passed away, leaving me the 'head of the household.' Instead of being the kid my parents couldn't get to move out -- well, I owned the house. After Zeuschel was bouncing so many parts off my helmet, it was no wonder I became dazed and confused. 

"We were at Roanoke on that trip as well, so that adds up. Boy, am I red-faced!"

Red-faced or not, good memory or not, I'm still eager to hear "T.V. Tom's" tales about his 1960 tour with Prudhomme. I'm not about to let the facts get in the way of a good story!

I'll check in with you guys Friday from Dallas.