A farewell to Tom Jobe: The last of the Surfers
There’s never going to be another Top Fuel team like the Surfers, the trio of West Coast pals whose approach to nitro racing in the mid-1960s was unknown and befuddling to their peers. Pictured from left, Bob Skinner, Mike Sorokin, and Tom Jobe had a relatively nondescript car that was the terror of the country in 1965, won the Bakersfield March Meet in 1966, and, having done all that they set out to accomplish, was gone by Indy 1966.
And now, with the passing last Saturday evening of Jobe, the last remaining “Surfer,” they’re reunited at that Big Dragstrip in the Sky, but their exploits and the sheer, unabashed admiration and cult following they had on Planet Earth undoubtedly will live on. Just Google “The Surfers” or any of their names. There’s a dedicated Facebook page run by Bob Higginson, a 51-part (!) YouTube video documentary lovingly put together by Bill Pitts (starring Jobe and Higginson), fan pages, Pinterest postings, in-depth print and video interviews with Jobe, and more photos than you could expect to see for a team that only existed as a racing entity for three years.
Much like the singing Beach Boys, of which only one, drummer Dennis Wilson, actually surfed, Skinner, Jobe, and Sorokin weren’t really surfers. The drag media came up with the nickname primarily because of where they were based --, the Southern California beach community of Santa Monica, where Skinner’s mom owned the Red Apple motel, where she allowed them to keep and work on their dragster -- and for their penchant for wearing what in the day qualified as surfer apparel: Pendelton shirts, jeans, and sneakers. All of them tried but never excelled at or pursued surfing, though they did play the part to the hilt by riding skateboards in the pits, mostly to mess with everyone's heads. Assuming the identity hung upon them was all part of their strategy; if the peers thought they didn’t know how to tune a car or that their car was put together all wrong or that they were just a bunch of nitro gremmies, they let them think that. Then smoked them on the 1,320.
I didn’t start this out to be the definitive Surfers story –- there’s no way to top what drag racing’s poet laureate, Cole Coonce, wrote on the Top Fuel Wormhole blog a decade ago, a nearly-9,000-word deep dive into the Surfers’ zeitgeist –- but, hey, you know me, right? Mine won't be anywhere near that long (it's going to weigh in at about 4,000,), but -- bonus -- you'll hear more from Cole at the end of this column.
:: THE RIGHT MIX ::
In one way the Surfers were just like any of a hundred other Top Fuel teams of an era where three or four buddies could pool their paychecks, yank an old 392 or 354 out of some junkyard wreck, and go Top Fuel racing with a low-buck chassis. Nitro was still cheap back then, other than for the chaos it caused on parts, which is where the Surfers were decidedly WAY different than most of their peers.
Everyone burned nitro, it was how you burned it that matters. Jobe and Skinner had met at Santa Monica High School, and hung out together in the local cruise spots, and went to the drags together, including their first trip to Bakersfield in 1958. Both were insatiably curious about all things mechanical, but especially cars.
Jobe’s older brother Al raced an H/Stock ’57 Chevy -- he won class with it at the 1961 Winternationals -- so Jobe got a first-hand education on engines, but later, as a mechanical engineering student at Santa Monica City College, he also had a thirsty mind that he quenched by poring over technical manuals in local libraries, where he read everything there was on nitromethane. And when rail cars loaded with nitro began exploding, he wrote to the government and to nitro manufacturer Commercial Solvents Corp. to get their white papers on why this was happening and how to avoid it.
"They published a lot of good information on their tests," he told me a few years ago. "They looked into the effects of every possible thing that could have been in the tank cars to contaminate the nitro to see how these contaminants could have sensitized (or desensitized) the nitro. They devised a very scientific method to test the effects of every possible contaminant at 5 percent by volume, which gave us a good way to evaluate what we should be putting in our fuel to make the starting reliable at night and help suppress the detonation which would kill our nice junkyard 392 Chryslers.
“I worked hard on learning about everything we needed to know more about nitro, and I got the professors at school involved in my problems to help keep me straight on the theory as we went. A study of the energy available from nitromethane (combined with a fixed amount of air) showed us that it was absolutely foolish to run anything less than 100 percent nitro unless practical issues required using less. It also revealed that we needed to burn the nitromethane and not detonate it if we were ever going to be successful at drag racing.”
He probably knew more about nitro -- the chemical and fuel -- than anyone in any pit area, which is how the Surfers could run upwards of 100 percent while their peers were dosing their mills with 50-70%. Using smaller jets, they ran 200 pounds of fuel pressure when everyone else was in 60s and 70s and atomized the fuel with smaller jets. And because he knew what nitro does and doesn’t do inside any engine, Jobe was able to construct a tune-up that almost never hurt parts.
It was truly the math problem that is drag racing that appealed to both Jobe and Skinner. As Jobe told Elana Scherr in this great Hot Rod Magazine interview from 2014, “It was just a really free environment, very creative. There were no rules. You didn’t need to be rich, like in sports car racing. There was so much opportunity, and Skinner and I were on the same page to see what we could do there.”
With Jobe as the master mixologist, Skinner the sometimes eccentric but endless-idea man, and a talented wheelman in Sorokin it’s no surprise that they were so good. For the record, Sorokin was not the first Surfers driver. He had been preceded by old hand Roy "Goob" Tuller, Bob Muravez, and even sports car driver "Lotus John" Morton, who had worked with Skinner at Carroll Shelby’s shop. Sorokin even came and left once, but returned to the fold not long after to help the boys continue to drive everyone nuts. Sorokin just had the supreme will to do it and the skill to back it up, He had been toiling in relative obscurity in altereds and his own injected fuel dragster itching for a shot at a blown fuel car, and was so hyperactive that he routinely drilled people on the Tree and, much to the delight of Skinner and Jobe, Sorokin had no interest in "helping" tune the car. He just wanted to drive. That's all. He was perfect. (It's worth noting, too, that another friend of theirs, Jim Crosser, was briefly involved in the car before anyone else drove it, and even had visions at one time of driving it. He left the team soon after Sorokin started driving.)
Their dragster was purpose-built to do one thing –- run hard and run forever –- and there probably wasn’t an extra part on the car –- save for their trademark yellow air scoop –- that didn’t need to be there, including an idler pulley for the blower belt. They didn't run lettering on the car because they knew that nitro would eat it away anyway. And what they couldn’t afford to buy, they found a way to build themselves.
Naturally, they built their own car, too, using one of Chris Karamesines' early cars as a pattern and military surplus 4130X chrome moly for material, and, because neither of them wanted to drive, Jobe and Skinner made sure to build the cockpit small enough that neither would be tempted to drive it and/or as a built-in excuse as to why they couldn’t. They also had to make it short enough to fit into the motel garage, which later became a problem as they lengthened it, a problem they solved by running the push bar through a hole in the back of the garage. It exited into the motel's courtyard, between a Coke machine and a water faucet, and left many a motel patron puzzled.
The Red Apple Motel was located at 2711 Wilshire Blvd in Santa Monica, Calif.; it should be on the National Historic register. Today, a Chase bank sits there. Skinner lived there and his mom gave what amounted to “inconvenience” discounts to people who rented near the racecar garage so they didn’t complain. She also told them, “If you don’t like what’s going on here, take a hike.” She also reportedly got them the money to build their first car, taking out a $5,000 "furniture loan" -- not one dime of which went towards anything remotely resembling furniture. We should all have moms like that.
:: THE SURFERS SOUND ::
"Another thing that came out of those nitromethane studies was the critical need to atomize the fuel better in order to burn it (rather than detonate it), so we ended up running lots of tiny homemade nozzles with at least three times the fuel pressure anyone else had," Jobe continued. "These were some of the advantages we had that no one could see or figure out, which might help explain why no one else had the 'Surfers sound' (or the reliability that went with it)."
"The "Surfers Sound" was as much a part of the team's mystique as anything, and it was widely understood that their car sounded like no other.
"At Pomona in the 1960s, you push-started along the back property line and made a sharp left turn out onto the dragstrip," Jobe remembered. "The spectators could hear the cars running before they would see the cars turn onto the dragstrip, and when we would push down and make the turn onto the dragstrip, the people in the stands would already be up on their feet chanting 'Surf's up.' The sound of our car was distinctive enough that everyone knew it was the Surfers before they ever saw the cars. It was quite a sight because no matter who we were racing, the crowd was always cheering for us, anywhere we raced."
:: IT'S ALL IN YOUR HEAD ::
Week-in and week-out, Jobe and Skinner not only dissected their own successes and failures, but that of their opponents. To say that they were deep thinkers is to say that Picasso was pretty good with a paint brush.
They played mind games with their opponents, heaping praise upon the other teams about how smarter they were than their own team. They mixed blue dye into their fuel just to mess with people who were watching Sorokin pretty much pour the label, cap, and full contents of the nitro drum into the tank. (For the record, Jobe attests they usually maxed out at 94% percent nitro and rounded it out with 6% toluene, because: a) The thing didn't like to start on 100% nitro and b) toluene burns better than alcohol, which is full of water.) Sometimes they’d do their five-minute maintenance at the top end instead of the pits and then go skateboarding, leading opponents to be sure their car would never stay together. It almost always did. They'd often head to the races thinking, "How else can we mess with their heads this time?"
On the rare occasion that the Surfers did wound their engine, they were ready. One 1965 night at a UDRA meet in Fontana, Calif., they broke a connecting rod in winning their semifinal race, which also took out a big chunk of the block. The team figured they were done, but other teams pitched in. They rolled the car on its side, washed off the oil on the block with acetone, and taped over the gaping hole with a piece of cardboard, but not before galling the cylinder to prevent the dead piston and the remainder of the rod from slipping down for bore and taping and clamping the associated crankshaft throw to prevent it from oiling. It actually lived for about 900 feet in the final before expiring again.
As mentioned previously, their high point was the ’66 March Meet, where they defeated the 64-car field Saturday and set low e.t. of 7.34, then got to sit out Sunday’s 32-car field and raced the winner of that field, hometown hero James Warren, for the overall event title. The surf was definitely up and they wiped out Warren.
:: THIS IS THE END, MY FRIEND ::
Nothing lasts forever, especially the perfect wave. You don't need to be a surfer to understand that, but Jobe and Skinner did. As Jobe once said, drag racing to them was about "Making progress and not going broke. It was a juggling act," and when those scales began to tip and the ledger that Skinner ran mostly in his head began to tip unfavorably, it was time to ride the last wave into the shore, pack up the board, and head somewhere else. The days of three buddies being able to do this were disappearing as do-it-all guys like Don Garlits and Don Prudhomme began to display their dominance and their budgets. Parts were not living up to their longevity standard and people were getting killed. Jobe and Skinner didn't want any part of that; they'd already rode the tallest wave without a single wipeout.
So even though they had built a beautiful new full-bodied car for the 1967 season, they sold it to the Bandel brothers and paddled into the shore after the 1966 U.S. Nationals and cast their eyes towards new challenges.
Despite the pleas of Jobe and Skinner, Sorokin saw it differently and kept on "surfing." He drove for "the Old Master," Ed Pink, and for Blake Hill, and even briefly drove a second Hawaiian for Roland Leong (where, unlike with the Surfers, he actually had to measure the fuel load, right), then caught a ride in Tony Waters' dragster while he and fellow SoCal Top Fuel racer Paul Gommi worked on a new partnership. It was in Waters' car, at Orange County Int'l Raceway on Dec. 30, 1967, that the wave finally caught up with Sork. The clutch gave way, as so many had, cut the car in two, and the resultant wipeout that the Surfers had always dreaded but avoided claimed Mike Sorokin at a too-young 28.
Skinner went to work on a Can-Am car with old pal Cannon, and Jobe joined him for a while. Jobe also worked bending tin with master craftsman Tom Hanna and, later, with Nye Frank, helped build the body for Mickey Thompson land speed car before returning to Can Am scene and multiple other motorsports where his sharp mind and nimble hands were assets, and then a long tenure with Honda Racing.
The trio were inducted into the International Drag Racing Hall of Fame in 1997. Mike Sorokin wasn’t there to see it, but his legacy lives on in his son, Adam, who was just one when his father died. Adam, who has gone on to become one of the pre-eminent drivers on the Nostalgia Top Fuel circuit, driving a front-engined rail just like his dad, winning the March Meet, just as his dad did, was appropriately there in his father's place to accept the honors from Bob Post alongside Jobe and Skinner. (Check out Skinner's choice of attire at the semi-black-tie affair; he was never going to conform.)
Skinner died August 15, 2015, passing away while working on his truck. He was 74. Thomas Henry Jobe died Sept. 7, just a week after his 79th birthday.
:: THOSE WHO KNEW HIM ::
I got to meet Jobe in 2010 at a get-together at Don Prudhomme's shop, but we had been exchanging e-mail for a long time before that. He was unceasingly kind, patient, and thorough with his answers to my many questions, but it was truly an honor to finally meet him. (To get a better sense of the brilliant, funny, delightful, accommodating gentleman that Tom Jobe was, check out this video and this one, long extended interviews with him that were both filmed earlier this year, and the previously-linked YouTube series.) Although we were longtime email pals, I'm in no position to tell you about him.
I'll leave that to Adam Sorokin and Cole Coonce.
As his last true connection to his father's Surfers career, Adam Sorokin, naturally, was close to Jobe, pictured here with Sorokin, right, and Sorokin's team owner, Bob McLennan.
"Tom Jobe was very, very important to me in my own life," Adam told me earlier this week. "He was the only Surfer to ever talk to me about who my dad was and tell me stories about him. He also talked to me about racing and how to conduct myself on the track and off. I would quiz him relentlessly on which drivers he worked with were his favorites and why. He enjoyed success in every form of racing he was involved in (Top Fuel, Formula 5000, Can Am, Land Speed, Indy cars, Off Road, and motorcycles to name a few). He could flat-out explain something to you and reduce it to its most fundamental components -- to where it all just made complete sense. You could talk to Tom about almost any subject (and we often did), and there was not a more humble, more knowledgeable man in the room.
"He wasn’t a guy that wanted to be your dad or anything, but I looked up to him, absolutely. We didn’t spend a lot of time with each other when I was a kid, but we spent a lot of time with each other after 1997, when the Surfers were inducted into the Hall of Fame. I started driving around that time, and he really tried to talk me out of it. I wouldn’t have any of it; I wanted to drive, and I was going to! When he realized I wasn’t gonna listen to him, he switched from trying to talk me out of it to cheering me on, and really talking to me about that stuff. As my own career started to happen, I purposely made sure I didn’t use my dad or the Surfers to further my own career. I wanted my driving to stand on its own. I think Tom maybe liked that.
"He lived a very full life and looked at his impending trip away from the living world as a new adventure. No fear, just 'let’s go!' Godspeed Tom Jobe, there will never be another quite like you."
No drag racing journalist that I know was closer to Jobe than Cole Coonce. In addition to the aforementioned Surfers manifesto, he has shot multiple video interviews with Jobe, including two that l linked above and another, shot in the parking lot where the Red Apple used to stand, as he works on a 10-part motorsports documentary series called Go! Fever.
Last Sunday he was on his way to see Jobe at hospital when he was told that he had died the night before. I asked him to share his thoughts with you.
Tom Jobe cut this mortal coil and surfed into the cosmic foam about the same way he quit drag racing all those years back: That is to say, quietly and with dignity. When the Surfers quit drag racing not long after winning the 1966 March Meet — the race that had more Top Fuel cars entered than any other meet before or since — Jobe and his partner Bob Skinner gave no real indication that they were done.
When they won Bakersfield in ’66, it was quite possibly drag racing’s first instance of the “revenge of the nerds.” Initially, nobody understood what they were doing, and the story I got was that they had problems even getting the car started at first. But they were so far out there with an edgy tune-up that Jobe knew would work. When they got it going, they were unstoppable.
In fact, in 1965 on a summer match race tour across the country racing everywhere from Amarillo to Atco, they were nearly invincible. Regardless of the actual stats, the point is that the Surfers dragster was as dominant as Greer-Black & Prudhomme a year or two earlier, as well as Don Garlits at any of his nearly-unbeatable streaks or Prudhomme in a Funny Car in the mid-to-late ’70s.
Because of Tom’s radical tune-up, this car really thumped … in those days, if somebody wanted to get pinned to the back wall from outrageous sound pressure levels, one could see Jimi Hendrix at the Monterey Pop Festival with a stack of Marshall amplifiers or catch the Surfers at Lions Drag Strip with the biggest fire out of the pipes that anybody had ever seen.
The Surfers were loud, and they were fun. It was total rock and roll.
In those days, Tom Jobe’s hair was longer than Frankie Avalon’s but shorter than Jim Morrison’s. But that look was enough for his team to be associated with the beatniks and the hippies. But that classification doesn’t really hit the mark: They were college students, engineers, hipsters, and nerds.
But when it came to racing, Jobe and Skinner were also fiscal conservatives — albeit with a counterculture spirit and attitude.
Skinner’s thoughts were that as long as the racing expenses penciled out with a purse, they would keep doing this. Skinner kept a meticulous ledger. Then there was that fabled weekend at San Fernando Raceway where the Surfers won an eight-car Top Fuel show and ended up showing something like a five-dollar loss. Skinner and Jobe quietly decided to find another engineering challenge and competitive endeavor where if you won, you didn’t necessarily lose money.
But at the same time, they had also built a second Top Fuel car that was absolutely gorgeous. But to the confusion of their legion of fans, they sold both cars and then disappeared from the scene, resurfacing in a whole another dimension, which was sports car racing. At the peak of their success, Jobe and Skinner found that it made more sense to go Can-Am and formula-car racing — more as consultants than owner-operators.
Like I said when racing wasn’t fun and when it didn’t pencil out, Tom Jobe just moved on without any fanfare.
And now 55 years later, Tom Jobe’s illness was also a very well-kept secret. Next to nobody in the drag racing world knew about it. He did not want treatments, and he did not want to be a burden. So he plotted his exit quietly without alarming people. But in the same way that drag racing didn’t make sense to him anymore in 1967, his continuing on with a body hammered by chemotherapy or radiation treatments also didn’t pencil out — financially as well as existentially. It wasn't fun. So Tom Jobe quietly passed. And once again, it’s up to the rest of us to attempt to catch up to him.
Almost as an aside, Cole told me that after reviewing some of the photos that he sent to me, "I now realize we have lost drag racing's Feynman," a reference to brilliant American theoretical physicist Richard Feynman, and I honestly can't think of a better reference. Tom Jobe was brilliant and, like Feynman, able to share his brilliance in an understandable way with those who asked.
The last of the Surfers may have paddled out to the great beyond, but we'll be forever hanging 10 on their legacy,
Phil Burgess can reached at [email protected]
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