Dry-lake racing before and immediately after World War II was likely the purest form of automotive motorsports. The comparatively loose rules fostered a sort of run-what-you-brung movement; if someone wanted to prove their ideas, the unsupervised lakebeds northeast of Los Angeles were the greatest places to do it.
The Southern California Timing Association (SCTA) established four distinct classes upon its creation in November 1937: cars with very large-displacement or supercharged engines ran in the unlimited class; ones with purpose-built aerodynamic bodies ran as streamliners; stripped-down topless production cars ran as roadsters; and cars with highly modified roadster bodies fell into modified, a class that sort of bridged the roadsters and streamliners.
Numerous streamliners and modifieds made history in the few years before and after the war, but two in particular stand out. One is Stu Hilborn's streamliner. Black, sleek, and devoid of any creature comforts, it served as a test bed for one of the first automotive applications of fuel injection, arguably one of the greatest innovations the automotive industry has yet seen.
Danny Sakai's history isn't as familiar as Stu's but it doesn't mean his legacy is any less important. One of the most promising racers before the war, Danny set numerous fast times at various meets and as a result earned his club, Walkers, considerable points. In fact, if there's any reason Danny's name isn't familiar, it's because of his tragic death at the beginning of his potentially illustrious career.
These two cars stand out for a few more reasons beyond Stu and Danny's station in history. First, they're both Jim Lattin's cars. Second and what may seem unlikely to make such cars noteworthy, they're both recreations. Rumor has it that the originals both exist but a very extensive, decades-long search has only led to dead ends. Finally, though, it's impossible to judge the absolutely most-handsome race car, they're two of the better-built, better-looking cars of their time.
Stu Hilborn's Streamliner Recreation
As is the case with most noteworthy historical race cars, Stu Hilborn's famous race car didn't start life as Stu's. Until he bought it on Dec. 7, 1941, Stu's car was Bill Warth's. In fact it was Warth's second car.
What Warth did was apply his ideas proven on the first car to his next. Rather than spanning a pair of '24 Chevrolet framerails with crossmembers, he welded a '37 Ford front axle and Model A rear axle directly to it. He committed the earlier car's shape to metal and achieved a 132-mph run with a Chevy engine topped with a three-port Olds head before selling it to Stu. Only instead of giving Stu the car's engine, Warth offered the following caution: a V-8 wouldn't fit in the narrow frame.
Stu wasn't a name yet but he was far from inexperienced. The father of his pal, Eddie Miller Jr., was the senior Miller of Duesenberg fame. Guided by the senior Miller and helped by the junior, Stu wedged a V-8 between those unforgiving 'rails and clicked off a 134-mph run before the government canceled all official race meets.
The war may have suspended Stu's activities but during his stint as a gunnery instructor he developed the ideas that Miller Sr. planted, among them solutions to the fuel-distribution problems that plagued flatheads. His reentry into racing after the war gave him more food for thought: though Stu's engine benefited from the improved fuel distribution that Miller Sr.'s unique four-carburetor manifold provided, the zinc-bodied carburetors bolted to it tended to dissolve and plug up in the presence of methanol.
With the understanding that fuel injection would solve the problems in one swoop, Stu set to work; however, with few tools, much less the applied knowledge of how to make a fuel-injection system work, he admitted progress didn't come easy. Ironically, some of the greatest resistance he faced was from the people who stood to benefit most from his labor, the hot rodders of the day.
But the ultimate resistance Stu met was the hard-packed El Mirage lakebed at the Aug. 10, 1947 SCTA meet. The wire wheel at the left-rear corner of the car collapsed at speed and sent the car into a tumble. The car's lack of rollcage-one of the shortcomings that killed early streamliners-meant Stu's head and shoulders bore the brunt of the car's hurtling weight.
According to Stu, Miller Jr. repaired the car without telling his convalescing pal or taking a cent of compensation, a real accomplishment considering the body's resemblance to a wadded-up paper ball. But repair it he did, and the following year on an unpublicized run Stu proved at least to himself and a few friends that his system did in fact work by using it to urge the car to at least 120 mph. A follow-up run at the July 18 SCTA meet with Howie Wilson at the helm of the car officially vindicated Stu: the car claimed the title as the first to transcend the 150-mph milestone.
Stu's newfound fuel-injection device immediately made him the darling child of Lou Meyer and Dale Drake, then stewards for the Offenhauser dynasty. Their dynamometer tests removed what few doubts remained about Stu's system and within a very short time hardly a race car without one of Stu's injectors remained competitive.
Once again Stu called on the streamliner to advance his career, albeit in a less-auspicious way: after quitting his steady job to start his injection business, he sold the car to Gerry Grant, owner of Grant Piston Rings. According to photos, the car resurfaced as a would-be dragster at an NHRA meet in Edna, Kansas. Though the Miller manifold still exists on Doc Parson's T roadster, many believe that a subsequent owner dismantled if not scrapped Stu's car.
But not all was lost; under the guidance of hot rod pioneer Stu, Hilborn and Miller Jr.'s son, Jim, and Jim Lattin built a faithful recreation of the famed streamliner. We say Lattin built it, but just as it takes a village to raise a child it took a team to build the car. Tom Drissi created full-scale posters of the car from photographs. Lattin didn't go it alone, though-Rick Peterson, Bill Lattin, Richard Lux, and Santos Garcia merged the once anonymous parts into an animated version of hot rod history.
Danny Sakai's Modified
Born in America to Japanese immigrants, Danny Sakai's story is unique to the times. Like other nisei, or second-generation Japanese-Americans such as the Morimoto brothers, Yam Oka, Mino Kamimura, Ernie Murashige, and even the father of the Stingray, Larry Shinoda, he earned the respect of his peers on one of the more level playing fields of his generation: parched lakebeds.
According to Lattin's research, Dustin "Dusty" Campbell built the modified-class racer in 1939. Powered by a succession of engines, first a Model B and later a Flathead V-8, the car consistently crested the century mark at various timing events before Danny bought it.
Danny retained the entire body, including the '39 LaSalle grille and shell, but replaced the Kelsey-Hayes wheels with 17-inch-diameter snap-ring accessory Firestone wheels. Also new to the car was the front belly pan, dark blue paint, and headers that paired the leading and trailing cylinders from each bank into one 2-inch pipe and the center two cylinders into another. Each side of the car boasted the number eight, Danny's place standing in SCTA points for the year.
Though the car was arguably more handsome and probably stronger than before, most notable from a racer's perspective was the Mal Ord-built Flathead. With it Danny transformed the car from a 100 mph also-ran into a bona fide runner. As reported in the June '41 issue of Throttle magazine, Danny ran 118.27 mph-6 mph faster than even the fastest streamliner-at the May 25, 1941 Western Timing Association meet at Harper dry lake. On June 15, less than a month later, he once again ran the fastest time: 125.52 mph at the SCTA meet at Muroc. On July 20 at the SCTA meet at Muroc he triggered a 121.89-mph pass. Though his 126.58-mph run at the September 28 SCTA meet at Muroc was the third fastest of the day, it was good for Danny's fastest time and yet another record.
In fact everything seemed to be coming up roses for Danny until Oct. 17, 1941. Riding fellow Walkers Club member Bob West's motorcycle, he reportedly swerved, hit a telephone pole, and died on contact. As premature as his death was, Danny had set at least four records and earned numerous trophies and points for his club. The obituary Throttle published described Danny as one of the most well-liked members of the club.
What exactly happened to Danny's car remains a bit of a mystery. He reportedly worked on the car at the Cadillac agency owned by Tommy Lee, a claim that seems plausible as Lee basically assumed ownership of Danny's race car after his death, according to Lattin. He noted that during the war Lee ran it at private lakes meets, and in 1943 Danny's old car ran an unofficial 125.52 mph with Bobby Strahlmann at the helm. Upon Lee's death in early 1950, Lattin noted that Willet Brown assumed ownership of a considerable chunk of fortune, including Danny's old car. An avid collector, Brown maintained Danny's car as part of his collection; however, according to Lattin, someone possibly stole it sometime in the '70s.