We asked five pioneering land speed racers to go back 65 years and recall an event that changed everything for hot rodders. Just a snippet of five days at a place that was heretofore off-limits. But thanks to some forward thinking, rodders like Hot Rod magazine founder Robert E. Petersen, Marvin Lee, Lee Ryan, George Prussell, George Radnich, and Wally Parks, they were instrumental in breaking down the door—that off-limits mentality that only the very wealthy racers were invited to compete at. The door was Bonneville.
There was no other place for the pedal to the metal racers to run except the dry lakes of Mojave Desert. When the word got out about a gigantic salt-type lake bed with a perfect surface, nothing short of a mean girlfriend, wife, or boss with a ball and chain was going to stop them from hitting the road. It became an adventure just getting there!
This Pacific Coast Racing Association tag, dated 1937, that Kay has kept all these years,
It was "getting there" that this story is all about when few, if anyone, living along the route knew what a hot rod was.
I asked Rich French, Chuck Hersom, Kay Kimes, Otto Ryssmanand, and Alex Xydias to take us back to August 1949. In no way am I attempting to write in depth about these pioneers, just simply a smidgen of time when they headed off to a faraway place called the Salt Flats.
Wally Parks, former editor of Hot Rod, wrote in the Oct. 1949 issue that "The Bonneville Speed Trials would become one of America's greatest events." And, it surely has Wally.
While Kay couldn’t remember the specifics in acquiring the Sprint Car he frequented the sa
Rich French, of Burbank, California, 79 years young as of this writing, lived about three blocks from SO-CAL Speed Shop on Victory Avenue. "Little Rich" was 14 when he went to Bonneville: "I started hanging out at SO-CAL when I was 12 years old," Rich began. "My job, as time went on, was to clean pistons when they took the heads off the Flathead motor in the belly tank and polish them. I didn't get paid but Alex took me to El Mirage a number of times.
"Alex talked to my mom about going up to Bonneville with his group. My folks had to get a notary signature on the application for me to go because I was 14. (Anyone under 21 had to have their parents sign, agreeing to accept all responsibilities for injuries or otherwise.)
"I rode in the back seat of the 1941 Ford; there were four of us in the car. We were towing a trailer with the barrel of fuel, a spare engine. (We're talking Flathead power in the 1941 here, folks.) I remember we got a late start because Valley Custom was still working on the streamliner that morning, so we didn't start until 2 or 3 in the afternoon. We got up to Bishop about 11 o'clock at night. There were only three gas stations in Bishop in those days. We ate bologna sandwiches the whole way, so we didn't really stop to eat."
Now Bishop was/is cattle country, no one in the gas station had ever seen anything like the streamliner that Dean was towing, so it gathered a crowd even at that time of night: "Almost all the people looking at the streamliner were convinced it was a boat! They kept looking under it for the propeller and rudders," Rich laughs.
“It was an old Ascot Sprint Car that ran before the war. I don’t remember what I paid for
"When we were coming into Ely at sunup we could see skid marks going back and forth. Dean's car was backward on the other side of the highway with the streamliner in the ditch but still on the trailer. The streamliner's aluminum nose was caved in. We went into Ely to a body shop. The shop owner, after looking at the damage, said it was beyond his ability to fix it. Dean called Neil Emery of Valley Custom; Neil told Dean how to repair the caved-in right front corner. Luckily Neil had left a body dolly inside the wheelwell so we had something to pound it out with.
"I had $25 for the whole trip to eat on," Rich laughs, "so I had the cheapest thing on the menu for dinner, plus a box of cereal for breakfast every day. There wasn't enough room for everybody to sleep in the motel, so they drew straws to see who I was going to sleep with."
The Hersom Brothers
Chuck Hersom (born 1930) grew up on his parents' 110-acre sugar beet farm in Compton, California, attending Compton High School. "My older brother, Gene, and I helped our parents work on the farm. (Compton had a rich farming history in its early days). We were close to the railroad to ship whatever was grown on the farm," Chuck says.
Before Kay acquired a car trailer, the Sprint Car followed behind on a tow bar to El Mirag
"Once we were big enough to reach the pedals our dad taught us to drive his '28 Ford AA flatbed truck that was used on the farm. This was a big mistake because when he was gone we'd see how fast we could drive it down the fields."
"Gene and I went to El Mirage as spectators where we decided to build a race car. We joined a small (SCTA) club with about 10 cars called the Gaters (the club was out of South Gate). Most of the guys were World War II vets, we were teenagers but they accepted us.
"We were in a class at Compton High School called Aircraft Engines that was located in the machine shop, where we made things like a hand pump for fuel pressure. The instructor taught us all about how engines worked. We got a good foundation on what it took to improve the performance of an engine. It all fit together.