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TEENAGE DRAG RACING IN 1960s LOS ANGELES

by Stephen Les 9 months ago in racing

A personal account

A PERSONAL ACCOUNT OF TEENAGE DRAG RACING

IN EARLY-TO-MID 1960s LOS ANGELES

I was a teenager in the early-to-mid 1960s in Los Angeles. In those days drag racing was a big part of my life.

My uncle owned a sheet metal shop with my dad. So after school I would go over there to work for a couple of hours. I started that when I was 11 years old--building things in the shop. Cars became a passion. I didn't get to buy my first car until I graduated when I was 18. But when I got my drivers license I had access to my uncle's vehicles for the sheet metal shop, and that included a 1953 Chevy station wagon.

In the evenings I would just walk over to my aunt and uncle's home, which was right next door to the sheet metal shop, and ask them if I could borrow one of the cars, and then off I would go on one of my many adventures. I used those cars to go to drive-ins, and to date girls.

The joke among us was that all the cars that weren't very fast were turkey cars. So we called all the cars that we had that weren’t very good “T-cars”, because they were turkeys. They didn’t go very fast but we still raced them, and beat the hell out of them.

I actually raced the 1953 Chevy station wagon. This was not at the drag strip of course. This was out on the streets. And also, at about the same time, California was building or expanding its freeways. And one of the freeways that was being built was the Hollywood Freeway. It initiated out of Hollywood and went all the way up north through the San Fernando Valley. And one of the overpasses that they were working on was on a street called Magnolia, which was very close to us in North Hollywood.

It didn't go anywhere, because the construction had only proceeded so far, so there was no traffic. But there was an on-ramp that we used to get up onto the freeway. We painted a stripe in two different places on the ground to indicate a quarter of a mile. And then, since no cars were coming onto the overpass two cars could race down the two fast lanes of the freeway uninterrupted.

383 DODGE POLARA

My friend Tom was a year ahead of me in school, and he had a 383-cubic-inch Dodge Polara, which was the second largest engine that you could get at the time, in the Mopar world. The Dodges and Plymouths were more the two race cars, and Chrysler was more the staid family car.

Tom bought it with a Muncie four-speed transmission. And we switched out the rear-end gears. The original gears were 3.30s, and we switched them out for 3.90s, which made the car much faster off the line. And then he put headers on it also. He never ran anything other than a single quad carburetor, but it was a very efficient quad, and it ran really well. It was a relatively fast car for the streets. He could do the quarter mile in the very low 14s--14.10, 14.12, right in that range, which was quite fast.

He won a lot of races. One evening he even raced a Dodge with a 426, and I didn't think Tom would have much chance. This was one of the times when I actually got out of the car, so I could eliminate my weight in the car. And he beat the guy by about three quarters of a length, so Tom’s Polara was fast.

Tom was a good racer and he drove that car really well. And it constantly performed well. I think that the whole time we had it we only had to put one clutch in it. It was a well-made vehicle.

Occasionally I would get out of the car and I would start the race. And then I would run across the other three lanes of the freeway down the berm and jump over the fence, which was part of North Hollywood Park, and I would wait to see if I could tell who won. And afterward Tom would jump off the freeway, and come back down through the park and pick me up, and we would either celebrate, or commiserate over the fact that he missed a shift or something and didn't win.

1963 PONTIAC TEMPEST

About a year later, when I was 18, I got a Pontiac, a 1963 Tempest. And it had a three-speed in it. They never made a four-speed for that particular year, but it did have a rather large engine. It was a 326-cubic-inch engine. I tricked it out a little bit. I put headers on it, and a modified cam in it, and tri-power--three two-barrel carburetors. I raced it occasionally, and did pretty well. But it wasn't as fast as Tom’s car. It would run in the high 15s. So it was a good second-and-a-half slower than Tom’s car. It had a transaxle, so I used to break axles all the time. And it was more a pain in the butt.

THE POLICE CHASE

Initially we never had too much trouble with the police. But by the time I had graduated high school and had my own car, the police had gotten wise to it. So we had to be careful. One time we had pulled up to the starting line. It was Tom's car that was racing and, in this particular case, I stayed in the car.

I was starting the race by waving my arm out the window and saying “Go.” And as quick as we started off, the lights came on behind us. What had happened was that a police car, unbeknownst to us, had come up and was parked about 50 feet behind us. And there was no light, so you couldn't see them. So when we started racing, they just threw on their red lights and started chasing us. And so, where that part of the freeway is, after the quarter mile, you have a choice. You can either stay in the two left lanes and stay on the Hollywood Freeway, or you would take the right two lanes and swing over onto the Ventura Freeway. We swung over to the Ventura Freeway, and the other guy stayed on the Hollywood Freeway.

And the police chased us going east on the Ventura Freeway. The first off ramp that you come to is Cahuenga. And so the police were probably still about a quarter-of-a-mile behind us. We were doing, I don’t know, in excess of 100 miles an hour by that time, and Tom swung over onto the off-ramp. And as we came down the off-ramp the light turned green for us. So all he did was race across Cahuenga and right back up the on-ramp and kept going down the freeway. And as the police came down the ramp, the light turned red, and cars started crossing in front of them and they had to stop, and we made our escape.

VAN NUYS BOULEVARD

Usually the races weren’t that close. Occasionally there were bets made, but generally it was just bragging rights. But there were a few times where a guy would say he was willing to put down money, twenty-five or fifty bucks, that kind of stuff. But when it really came to it people would get a little hesitant.

But if that was the case, then there would be somebody from both race groups at the finish line just to keep everything on the up-and-up. Occasionally we would do that. There were a few times where Tom got, as we said, chosen. You know, “I'm choosing you off, man,” meaning “I want to race you, and I've got money.” And that would often happen out on Van Nuys Boulevard, because that was one of the cruise areas.

Back in my day you would start your cruising at Bob's Big Boy in Toluca Lake on Riverside Drive, and you would cruise that for a little bit, and then you’d jump on the Ventura Freeway and drive out to Van Nuys Boulevard, and get off at Van Nuys, and you’d go north on Van Nuys, and you would cruise it for two things--either girls, or races. And you would go all the way to the north end, where there was an A&W Root Beer stand. That would be your turnaround point. So you would go through the parking lot there, and then you'd come back down Van Nuys and go through the Van Nuys Boulevard Bob’s Big Boy. And if you were still looking for something you would come out and go back up the street again.

And so you'd be driving along and some guy would pull up next to you and say, “You want to race?” And we'd go, “Well, yeah,” and they’d go, “Well let's do it at the next light.” But, no, you don't want to be racing like that on Van Nuys Boulevard. The cops were out, and they were always bagging people. And so we would say, “Well, let's go back to the place that we know,” which is the Hollywood Freeway.

And then sometimes we would pull over to take a look at his engine to see if the guy was sandbagging. The guy could tell you, “Yeah this car, it's got a 327 in it,” but he's got a lock on the hood. So you say “Well I'm not going to race until I see the engine.” So the guy would grumble and unlock it, and open it, and it turned out to be a 427, not a 327. Everybody would bullshit everybody else. Generally, if you didn't have a good car, you would try and bullshit it up, and if you did have a good car you would bullshit down, just to try and get somebody to race with you.

And oftentimes those would be the races where money could potentially change hands. The idea was that if we’ve got to go all the way back to the Hollywood Freeway to race, then it’s got to be worth somebody’s while. Sometimes it was as little as ten bucks--gas money. And sometimes it was more. I think it was only a couple of times that it went to $50. I was told that there were lots of races where people would race for pink slips, which none of us was crazy enough to do. If you raced for pink slips and lost the other guy would get your car. And there were people that would race for a couple hundred dollars, and they would also race for gears.

Racing for gears means that you would race for every gear. It was ten bucks a gear. And so if you were ahead when you shifted from first to second you got ten bucks. Theoretically, you could win forty bucks at the end of the race. If there was a question about how quick a car was, in comparison to how fast it was, then some people would race for gears because they knew that the car was quick enough to win a couple of the gear shifts, but not fast enough to win the end of the race.

There was a lot of “what ifs” and “ands” that went along with all of this racing that people had to just be aware of, so you didn't get burned. But usually it was just good fun.

TRUE RACE CAR

My Tempest continued to break axles, as I mentioned, and that’s one of the reasons why I ended up actually getting my true race car, which was a 1937 Chevy Business Coupe that was all tricked out purely for racing.

I had seen this car advertised in the newspaper, and I thought I would run down and take a look at it. It was in Long Beach. I knew I couldn't afford it because the guy was asking $2900 for it--and this was in the early part of 1965. At that point in time I was making $3 an hour. So you can imagine having that kind of money to be able to spend, which was out of the question. But I thought I'd go down and at least take a look at it. I never had a problem with going and talking with people about vehicles, and I would usually end up getting a chance to do a test drive in it, or have the guys give me a run so I could see what it was like. I got to see all kinds of cars that way, all over the all over the greater LA area. It was really a lot of fun.

When I got there this guy was talking to another fellow. The guy that was selling the car and the other guy were arguing. And I just kind of stood back listening, and it was something about the car not being worth it, and this, that, and the other thing. Finally, the guy selling the car said, “Well if you don't want to pay for it then leave.” And so that guy got in his car and left.

And the guy turned around to me, and he was pissed, and he said, “Well, what do you want?” I said, “I just want to take a look at the car.” And he goes, “Yeah, well, go ahead. Take a look at it.” And so I was walking around and admiring it, and making comments about everything, and he said, “Are you interested in buying it?” I said, “Well I'd love to buy it, but in truth all I've got is about $650, and this car is worth a lot more than that, so I wouldn't even insult you by suggesting that you would take that.” He said, “Yeah, I couldn’t do that.”

And this car was amazing. It was truly all set up for racing. It had big M&H Race Master tires like you would find on a slingshot dragster. I think they were 14 inches across. The car had been raised up. It had a Pontiac drive train. The engine was a 372 that had been bored and stroked out to 393-cubic-inches. It had dual quads, a highly radical cam, headers, and it had a 5.12 locked rear end, which was amazing. And it had a highly modified Hydro automatic transmission in it. The tires would bite so well that they had to put latticework support from the axle, all the way up to the front of the frame, so that the wheels wouldn't get out of whack, trying to drive the car down the raceway. The car also had traction bars that minimized the possibility of doing a wheelie. Wheelies created a lot of control problems, which is not what you wanted when racing. Although there were some drag race cars that specialized in doing wheelies for the fans.

It did not have a starter motor on it. This was a true race car. It had a little five-gallon Moon tank in the back. The regular gas tank had been pulled out. The whole interior had been stripped. He had aircraft seats in it, and he had put in a stainless steel dashboard with all Smith and Warner gauges. I mean the thing was amazing.

And so, I hung around and he finally cooled down. And while I talked to him another guy came along, and that guy wanted to pay him, I think it was $1100. And he told the guy to take a hike. And so the guy turned around to me and says, “You really like this car, don't you?” and I said, “Yeah.” And he said, “Give me your $650 and it’s yours.”

So I ended up with this amazing race car that was just a kick in the pants. I couldn't drive it home, because with such a low rear end in the thing, the engine would overheat just from driving it. And so I said, “Okay, but I'm going to have to go back and get somebody to help me.” And so I had to go back and get one of the pickup trucks that my uncle owned and drive it down there. This was on a Sunday. And so I managed to get it back to my house--I was still living with my parents at that time--at about eight o'clock at night. I owned it for about a year, and just really had a fun time with it.

I won a lot of races. I raced it out at the San Fernando Raceway. I raced it at Lions, which was down in Long Beach. I never took it to Pomona, and I never took it to Irwindale. So it was just those two places that I raced it.

It was street legal, but because the rear end was so low, and it was locked, it wasn’t practical to drive on the street. You had to make really wide turns in it and everything. But I took it out on the street a few times. I had these big enormous headers on it, but I could bolt on a little piece of exhaust pipe, and then a muffler on either side. But it was still louder than hell. Inside you could get a headache real easy. I mean, it was truly a race car.

When I took it to the drags for the first time they had to inspect it, and they qualified it as a B-Gasser, because the engine had been set back. It couldn't be just Modified, but what they considered a Gasser, which was a higher level car. The fastest Gassers were double A's. Then there were A’s, double B's, and then B’s. So, I was in that category. That car would do the quarter mile in about 11, 11.8, 11.82 seconds. It was very fast. And that's with the automatic transmission.

THE ENGINE SET BACK

The engine was set back by 10%. 10% was just enough to help counterweight the car. In those days, the front of the car would be lifted up a little bit to supply more traction to the rear wheels. And shifting the engine back by 10% also gave it more weight towards the rear, which would help with the traction of the tires. You could have a stock vehicle, or you could have a modified vehicle. And as you modify it, then it gets more radical. Gassers have a 10% setback. I believe the Altered’s used to have a 20% setback on their engines, based on the engine’s original position.

I'd deflate the rear tires from the towing pressure of 25 or 30 pounds down to seven pounds. And I would fire the car up, and then I would get out to the starting line. And I would stage the car. I would creep into that starting block area where the little red lights go on that would identify the fact that you were in gate. And once I got into that gate then I would just put my foot down hard on the brake and hold it, and then slowly bring the RPM up to 3000. And I could hear the tires squeal in the back as they were turning--just kind of slowly grinding into the ground. Doing this little slow grinding got the tires roughed up so that they’d adhere well when I took off.

And then, when the green light turned on, I just slipped my foot off the brake and the car would leap out of the gate. It would go from 3500 to 6500 RPM, which was my red line, and I would shift--it would do that in less than two seconds with the first gear. So it was literally, you hit the gas, then shift. And then you would go into second gear, it would last about three seconds and you'd shift into third, and third would last about six seconds and you'd shift into fourth. As soon as it hit that red line I’d just bang it into the next gear. Because it was an automatic you just move it forward to second gear, then again to third gear, and then to fourth. I mean it's like bang bang bang, and I won a lot of races that way.

The only races that I would lose would be if somebody could catch me at the end--because that car was so much faster off the line than anybody else with the 5.12 gears.

THE BLOWING UP OF THE TRANSMISSION

It was a fun car until finally at Lions when one night I was in a timing race. Rather than categorize you as a B-Gasser they would categorize you based on elapsed time. So you would qualify by racing the car two or three times. And then they would take the mean average of that. And they would put maybe two or three tenths of a second on either side of it. So, if my car ran at 11.8 seconds, they would put me up against cars that ran from 11.6 seconds to 12.0 seconds. And they would stagger the start by the difference of the two tenths of a second. So it became much more about the driver at that point.

So one night I was in a timing race and the transmission in my car blew up. And when it blew up it lifted the car up, and dropped it down sideways on the track, and they actually clocked me at 114 miles an hour sideways, as I slid through the timing area. I thought the car was going to roll, but it never did.

I did have a roll bar in the car, and I also had a helmet on. And I had one of those five-piece racing seat belts. Also, the tunnel, where the transmission sat, had a scatter shield on it, for the possibility of it blowing up.

But anyhow, the car slid to a stop. I started to get out, and I realized that my foot was stuck. The scatter shield had cracked and had blown the tunnel upward, and trapped my foot on the gas pedal. I had a kill switch, so as I was sliding sideways I had hit the kill switch. But when I stopped I couldn't get my foot out until I took my foot out of my shoe. And then I could get out of the car and see what it looked like.

I'd skidded sideways for so long that my M&H Race Masters had flat spots on the bottom. So when my friends came with the truck to tow back it, it would go along, and it would go ca-clunk, ca-clunk, when it hit that flat spot.

The scatter shield was built around the bellhousing. It was made of two pieces of steel about ¾ inch thick, and you would bolt them together with aircraft bolts, and that was supposed to hold it together. But there's a lot of energy in one of those when it goes, and when this one went it cracked the scatter shield. It didn't allow any of the parts to go, but it just literally split it down the middle--ruptured it.

AFTER THE EXPLOSION

So, I was so upset over that. I pulled the transmission out of the car and took it down to the guys that built those transmissions, Art Carr Hydros, and they gave me another one for free. They were big into racing, and they didn't want to take a chance on getting some negative attention, based on the fact of me having blown it up.

So I put it back in, and I went racing, but after that I was always kind of afraid the thing would blow up on me again. So one time I was down at Lions, and this guy came up to me and was admiring the car because he found out that I had a Pontiac drive train. And he says, “Well I've got a GTO that I'm tricking out.” This was a ‘64 GTO. And he says, “How about if I trade you? Would you be interested in having a four-speed?” meaning a manual four-speed. And I said, “Yeah, as a matter of fact, I would,” because that was really how I had raced prior to this. I had never had an automatic transmission before the Business Coupe.

I said, “I'll make you a deal. If you pull both of the transmissions out, and you just give me the other one, I'll put mine back in--but I don't want to take mine out of my car.” And so that night, instead of racing in Lions, the guy had my car up on jack stands, and pulled my trans out, and he pulled his trans out. And he gave me the new four-speed. And we towed my car back. I think that I got his bellhousing, and his clutch and everything too.

But at that point the drive shaft was too short--because the Hydro was longer than the four-speed--so I had to go to a place that modified driveshafts, and they made one for me. After that I continued to race the car as a four-speed, but I lost about a second-and-a-half off of my time--so instead of running at 11.80, I would run at 11.95, to about 12 seconds.

The automatic transmission was just that much faster, and the gearing ratio of that automatic transmission was built for the drag races, where a standard Muncie was built just to drive in the car. And so it had different ratios throughout the four speeds. But I still had the 5.12 rear end, and I could still beat anybody off the line. I never regretted it.

But by that time I had become very serious with my girlfriend, and we had started planning our wedding. And I just felt I couldn't have a race car around, so I ended up selling it. Back then they had a magazine that was just about race cars. It was sort of like the Pennysaver for race cars. Every ad had something to do with either cars, or parts, or something like that. And so I placed an ad in there, and this young kid came out with his dad, even younger than me at the time. I was 20 by that time. I fired it up and let him run it up and down the street, and then turned it off, and he said he wanted it. I sold it for $1500. It was one of the few cars that I made money on.

The really sad thing was that about two months later I was looking through one of those magazines again, and my old car was listed in there without the engine, and it was pretty obvious he had raced it and blew it up.

But it was really a neat car.

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Stephen Les

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