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.
"We knew that fuel tanks that were used on the fighter planes were being used in the Streamliner class. Next to our farm was a war surplus yard. They had belly tanks over there for sale for $20 and we bought one. We had a pretty good shop on our farm with welding equipment and all the necessary tools to repair farm equipment, or to build a car. First we put a Model A four-banger in the tank on a Model A frame but the Model A engine was not as efficient as the Model B engine four-cylinders in the 1932 Ford. We found one in a junkyard and put that in. We put sleeves in the cylinders to get the cubic inches to 180 ci so it would be in Class A."
“In those days, everything in Nevada had stopped because of the war,” Alex Xydias explains
The brothers took the family's 1935 Ford farm truck to Bonneville. "We made ramps so we could load the belly tank on the back of the flatbed. We also carried a 50-gallon barrel of aviation fuel. We weren't going very fast up the Grapevine (a steep 5 1/2-mile grade on the way to Bakersfield) when we accidently clipped a tractor trailer. The fender of the truck tore the ropes holding the belly tank and dented his fender. When the big old burly truck driver got out, he was really aggravated, and chewed us out," Chuck laughs.
They hung burlap water bags in front of the truck's radiator to keep the water cool for drinking, and as the truck overheated, for the radiator. However they never tasted the water prior to leaving: "We drank out of the bags and the water tasted awful," Chuck laughs.
"We ate peanut butter sandwiches on the way up and all the time we were there. We slept in sleeping bags in the back of the truck going up and when we got to Bonneville we didn't have the money to stay in a motel room."
Once on the Salt Flats the brothers took full advantage of the week by amassing 17 runs on the 5-mile course. Their top timed speed of 117.03 mph in the elapsed Class "A" Streamliner category was by the Xydias and Batchelor Streamliner record of 156.39, which ran a V8-60. Nevertheless, the brothers were ecstatic with their speed, considering the four-banger never missed a beat.
Kay Kimes The Drive on 395
“When we got to Mojave (Mojave is 114 miles from Bellflower; Wendover, Utah/Nevada, is ano
Later it was "Get Your Kicks on Route 66" but "The Drive on 395" getting to the first Bonneville is what we're about here. When Kay Kimes first laid eyes on Bonneville he uttered only three words, but those three words sum up the Salt Flats then and now: "Oh my God!
"We had no idea until we got to Bonneville what to expect," Kay begins. "We were used to the dirt of El Mirage and when we saw all that white, it was something we had never seen before. The air was clean and the surface was cool."
Kay's father worked at a gas station in Nebraska before moving the family to Southern California in 1942 when Kay was 14. The family settled in Bellflower. "I built my first hot rod in high school," Kay says. "I bought a narrowed 1927 T-bucket and a chassis that had been narrowed as well. I don't know what that frame was from but I got a 1928 Chevy coupe for $15 and took the four-banger engine and trans out of it and put in the bucket. I later replaced the Chevy with a Model B Ford motor. I went all through high school with the car. I joined the Wheelers Car Club right after I got out of high school. I graduated in 1946; I was 17."
While, Kay couldn't remember just how he had acquired a sprint car, he did purchase it to race at El Mirage. Kay recollected the times when he and his friends, plus his dad, went to El Mirage with his Sprint Car following behind his 1941 Dodge stake bed on a tow bar until they reached the bottom of the Cajon Pass. Because the truck had a tendency to overheat, the race car was fired up to help push Kay's Dodge up to the 4,190-foot summit to the High Desert.
What's a teenager doing with a stake bed truck, you ask? Kay followed circle track racing and crewed on friend Bill Finley's track roadster with a four-cylinder Cragar engine. The Dodge was made to order for the job, plus at El Mirage it doubled as a push truck.
After arriving, Kay’s crew didn’t have the luxury of awaiting beds to fall onto in town be
When the decision was made to go to Bonneville, Kay was concerned that if a suspension failure or worse happened to the sprinter using the tow bar was out. The car would be towed on a trailer to Bonneville.
The Dodge's Flathead-six had overheated getting to the High Desert town Mojave with its payload of Dave Ratliff, Julian Doty, and Kay, plus a 50-gallon drum of alcohol, tools, parts, and camping gear.
When they got to Mojave, Kay decided to unload the race car and drive it on highway 395. They drove the sprinter north to Independence, then Lone Pine, through Big Pine and Bishop, then up to Tonopah, both at 6,000-plus feet.
While they took turns driving the race car the whole way they shut it off coming into each small town, pushing it with the Dodge truck not knowing how the local sheriffs would react to a race car passing through their sleepy little settlements uncorked. Remember this was 1949 when hot rodders weren't exactly welcomed with open arms, so why invite an open ticket book.
It had to make quite a stir for the locals to witness Kay's rig and others heading north to Bonneville. That mini parade was confirmed by Bobby Milner, 78, of Apple Valley, California. Bobby grew up in Lone Pine and remembers when he and his school friends would sit out all night long watching and waiting for the racers to pass through town.
"Doty had run out of gas short of Tonopah in the Sprint Car but we didn't know that because we were quite a ways behind him in the Dodge," Kay says. "There was an older couple in a Buick going the other way. They turned around and pushed him into town. Then we put it back on the trailer and towed it into Wendover."
“When we got to Bonneville everything from tire diameter, the plugs, the jets, the speeds,
Otto Ryssman was a member of the Gasketeers and later became one of five charter members of the 200 MPH Club: "Paul Packett and I went up to Bonneville in my A-V8 coupe (Model A with a Ford Flathead V-8); we went by ourselves up there. We had a handful of tools, some carburetors that we could run alcohol in, and a spare distributor in case mine crapped out. I had about a 3.7-gallon gas tank in the trunk, so we carried a 5-gallon jerry can (designed in the 1930s by the Germans for the military) with us. We traveled at night because of the heat going up the summits. We left Fullerton at 6 in the evening. We stopped in Olancha on 395 (population today 192). The gas station owner had a big sign in the garage that read: If you can get it cheaper in L.A. go to L.A. and get it. He came out and said he had a young son who was interested in hot rods. His son was Bill Mathews who had moved to East Los Angeles with his mom when his parents divorced. I later became good friends with Bill. Bill was Al Teague's babysitter when Al was young." Now that's a small world!
"When we got to Wendover we talked to a Mrs. Smith who owned the Stateline Casino, which was pretty small, about getting a room. It was $1 a night. She owned the restaurant where a lot of guys would eat and then slept on cots in the hanger at the disused airbase. The room she put us up in was rented to the railroad crews. They could have kicked us out at any time I suppose. You had to go down the hallway to shower and use the bathroom.
"There was only one other coupe that ran, that was Bill Phy from Temple City, California. SCTA didn't allow coupes to run until Bonneville, that's why there were only two of us there. I only made a single run (113.25) in my coupe because I was working on Doug Hartelt and Chuck Potvin's roadster.
"We went to El Mirage on the way home to run my coupe on Sunday. Russetta Timing Association held the meet and a lot of guys stopped there to run on the way back from Bonneville as well."
Now we can share that special 22nd day of August 1949 when Kay’s inspection slip give the
Alex Xydias (born 1922) coined the term 49ers when he and his wife, Helen, planned the 50th anniversary of the first Bonneville in 1949, making sure that event was a memorable one for the surviving competitors. More on that later.
We know Alex because of his SO-CAL Speed Shop fame, his past editorship at Car Craft, remaining on as staff member of Petersen Publishing for 12-plus years, plus Alex was director of the Petersen Trade Show that evolved into SEMA.
Alex, a hot rodder since the term "hot rod" came to light, was a member of the Sidewinders: "It was certainly an adventure going to Bonneville, I'll tell you that," Alex exclaims. "We didn't have a clue as to what to expect until we got there. We heard at an SCTA (Southern California Timing Association) board meeting that there was all that salt, which was hard, but we were just taking their word for it. We knew about Bonneville from reading about the record holders before the war, but how could there be so much salt in one place? It didn't seem possible. Besides, we didn't think El Mirage would last but a year or two longer, so we were looking at other dry lakes all over California and they weren't any good either. We felt this was the end of our land speed racing unless we found a better place.
"I remember they were working on the streamliner until the last minute before we took off for Bonneville. The Valley Guys (San Fernando Valley) went up through Bishop and we had two or three summits to go over to get to Wendover. Our tow car was a 1939 Ford belonging to Dean Batchelor. We also had a 1941 Ford convertible towing a little trailer carrying a 50-gallon barrel of fuel, all the equipment, and a Merc engine. The 1941 didn't have any power towing the trailer so we made the trip mostly in Second gear.
Most 20-year-olds would take the priceless souvenir program handed out in 1949 and stuff i
"We got up to Tonopah at about 4 in the morning, there was a little old gas station there in the middle of town with an old guy on a chair leaning against the wall with a big light bulb above the station with moths flying around and he had an old dog lying down by him. I thought to myself, this is right out of a Norman Rockwell painting.
"The Streamliner must have shifted because I jackknifed the trailer outside of Ely, which turned us completely around and bent the nose of the streamliner and crunched the rear fender of Dean's 1939. If it had happened in the mountains we would have gone over the side of the road.
"I remember when we got over the last high hill we could see the Salt Flats and it was shining all white. It took a long time to get there … 22 hours, but we never stopped.
"We called to try and get reservations at Wendover. They told us we were going to stay in the same Auto Court that John Cobb stayed in; they didn't call them motels then. When we got to the room, the bed had a little thin mattress sitting on bare springs and the floor was linoleum. A lot of the guys overhauled their engines in the motel rooms, or they took a makeshift A-frame to lift engines out of the race cars.
"We were there in the sun with no sun protection of any kind all week. All they told us to do was to wear sunglasses. We had no kind of canopies or shelters put up for shade.
Until SCTA paved the way, there was no way a couple of farm kids from Compton could have c
"We weren't sure we, or anyone, could go any faster than El Mirage! Otto Crocker (known as "The Clocker") sat down and made a new timing chart for Bonneville that went up to 175 mph. His clocks recorded the time you were in the traps. So when we went 193, Otto had to figure the speed out by hand because we went faster than his chart.
"We were used to running one or two days at El Mirage, here we had a week. We were so elated going home. It was incredible!"
When Alex learned that the SCTA had no specific plans for the 50th anniversary of the event in 1949, he went to work to change that: "My wife, Helen, and I put together a program to honor the guys that ran in 1949. We called them The 49ers."
Alex was no stranger to the staff at Petersen Publishing and approached John Dianna (Petersen Automotive Group President, at the time) with the idea of having a banquet for the guys. Hot Rod sponsored the banquet honoring the 49ers. Alex: "SCTA allowed all of us who participated in 1949 to drive our cars down the course at Bonneville and everyone in the pits, the spectators, and course workers were waving at us. It was quite a thrill."
Cobb’s Railton Mobil Special with its superbly streamlined aluminum body cost thousands to
Sadly we're losing our World War II veterans at an alarming rate, as too the first competitors at Bonneville, many having served during the war.
For those of us who compete at Bonneville, rubbing shoulders with land speed racers from around the world, for the spectators who travel from the four corners of the globe to view the salt with the same wonderment as was experienced in 1949, we can thank those hot rodders who dropped everything to go those 65 years past and make it possible for us to follow. It's been a privilege to write about their experiences.