"That's Amos Torsian and me...
"That's Amos Torsian and me in Reno in May 1946. We've been together ever since. We married girlfriends, had children at the same time, and in fact, Amos has a son named after me, Mike. I was never a smoker, the pipe was just show-off crap," laughed Blackie.
Blackie Gejeian (ga-gee-an) has been traveling the country looking for the crme de la crme for his show held in March since he began in 1958. The man in black personally chooses and invites each and every owner/vehicle to his show in Fresno. It's not just organized, promoted, and run by Blackie-?it is Blackie. And, he keeps it simple; just two primary coveted awards are personally handed out by Blackie: Best Rod and Best Custom.
"There is nobody that does any part of my Autorama show but me. In every year of my show, I have done it all myself," Blackie said. "I pick the cars, I set up the cars; nobody works with me because I'm very particular on what I do. I want to make sure it's right. I have nobody to blame if something goes wrong. I want everything I do to be 100 percent, not 90 percent.
"There's not a major car show in California from street shows to parking lot shows that I have not covered," he continued. "I've walked the Oakland Roadster Show floor since 1949, and now the Grand National Roadster Show every year."
Blackie has been contributing to the progress, development, and growth of everything he has undertaken in life, but his Autorama is only a part of his successes.
A very cool-looking Blackie...
A very cool-looking Blackie with his girlfriend and future wife, Mary Lumas. This ageless photo was taken in 1947 but easily could have been taken today.
When Blackie speaks, listen carefully, because his words come at you at the speed of a Fueler. Age be damned, his passion and enthusiasm are as intense now as they were when he built his roadster after the war. There is no way to do justice to this incredible hot rodder's accomplishments in the limited space of this story, but here goes:
The Blackie Gejeian Story"I used to wear solid black," began Mike "Blackie" Gejeian. "I used to wear black leathers and I painted 'Blackie' in gold letters on the side of my car. Nobody knew my name was Mike ... I mean nobody. The only one who called me Mike was my mother.
"I still farm 40 acres of vineyards in Fresno (the 'Raisin Capitol of the World'). Nobody touches my vineyards. This is my 63rd year of farming my place. Nobody beat me on the tonnage per acre or the quality of my raisins.
"The property went from my grandfather to my dad to myself. The family got there in 1909. All of us kids were born on the property. I remember all we had was a horse and buggy in order to go into town to get groceries. It took all day."
"I still call myself the King...
"I still call myself the King of the Rat Rodders," laughed Blackie. "I built a rat rod in 1945; built it to race, not for show, although I did later. I went to El Mirage with it in 1947, won the Oakland Roadster Show with it in 1955, and still have it today."
Blackie, born in 1926, started driving his father's Model A at the age of 12. At 14, he locked the rearend. "I learned to drive that car better than anything on the dirt roads. I learned to drive it like (daredevil stunt driver) Joie Chitwood."
With a World War raging, Blackie joined the Navy just out of high school. After being discharged in 1946, he wanted to build a hot rod-a fast hot rod.
"In order to do that," said Blackie, "I had to make the car as light as possible, and take everything apart. All I had was a '34 Ford frame, a seat, four wheels, and a motor in front of me. I made a modified roadster. It wasn't an original-bodied car; it was bits and pieces, and all the rest was handbuilt with a fuel tank in the back.
"Every pound you could take off the car made it faster. All the fenders, the running boards, even the upholstery came off. That's how the serape blanket came in. I used my Navy blanket; I came home with it from the service and used it for my seat cover."
"Thank God (C.J.) 'Pappy' Hart (who opened the first commercial dragstrip, Santa Ana, in 1950) and Wally Parks started promoting organized drag racing," Blackie said. "They got guys like me off the streets, because I was one of the top street drag racers there ever was. I challenged everybody from Bakersfield, Southern California, and Northern California.
Here's Blackie's '29 Fordor...
Here's Blackie's '29 Fordor and roadster in front of the family barn. "I'd drive the sedan in front of my high school, tilt it up on its side, and walk it down the road and let it drop down. This was hard to do without a ramp to get the car in the air, but I was running a locked rearend and ran the tires soft on one side."
"We used to drag race on the road that goes to the Famosa Drag Strip. The dragstrip was at the airport, but the road to it is what we used to drag race on. We used to block it off every Saturday and drag race all day long."
The similarities between Gene "Windy" Winfield and Blackie are remarkable. Both lived in Central California and achieved fame because of the show circuit. Gene was as much a serious street and circle-track racer as Blackie, and both ran the lakes.
Gene lived 100 miles north of Blackie in Modesto, and "I wanted to race Blackie on the street with my '27 T roadster but never did," he said. "Blackie claimed to have the fastest Flathead in the San Joaquin Valley, I think I had the fastest one. Blackie had a much bigger engine than I did, but he was geared lower.
"Every time I wanted to race him, he had his engine torn down. Every time he wanted to race me, I had my engine torn down," laughed Gene, "so we'll never know."
The Lakes"We were going to El Mirage in 1947 when a '32 Ford hit one of my friend's cars who was traveling with us. The suicide front end snapped off; it went up into the air and killed him instantly. I was following behind him, and I had a locked rearend in my car, so I stood on it like a race car and threw it into a broad slide to avoid hitting him."
When Blackie was badly injured...
When Blackie was badly injured at El Mirage, he turned his attention to restoring his old lakes car into a show car. "I made a unibody out of my roadster by welding the body and frame together," he said. "That's the first unibody hot rod ever built. For my left foot, in order to work the clutch, I made a drop in the floorboard so my heel went down, giving me more steering room so the steering wheel wouldn't hit my knee."Too bad Blackie didn't think of placing a mirror under his roadster like he did with the Ala Kart. He would have saved himself some Liniment for those sore muscles turning it on its side every hour to show off the mega-chromed undercarriage at the '53 Oakland Roadster Show. It will be forever known as the Shish Kabob Special, for obvious reasons.
Blackie returned to El Mirage in 1948, only to be T-boned by a racer re-entering the pits. "I was going out to make my first run when a car that had already gone through the flying mile developed a miss coming back. He decided he didn't want the time recorded and pulled out of the line. He came behind the pits full-bore. I had a Japanese war helmet and goggles on. I didn't see him, so I pulled into the path of the car. He hit me at the passenger side, right at the cowling. The frame of my roadster was a '34 Ford frame, which was strong, but he still cut my car into two pieces.
"There was no ambulance on hand. They put a sheet of plyboard on the back of a '41 Ford convertible and took me to Lancaster to the hospital. They thought I had a broken back. After leaving the hospital, I learned one of my other buddies was killed at the lakes. I've never been back to the lakes since. I lost two of my close friends. I got T-boned and I said to myself, you don't belong here."
ShowtimeBlackie then turned his attention to restoring his old lakes car into a show car. "When I started building the car back, the big gobs of chewing gum welds were ground out, and I completely leaded the body down to the frame. I leaded all of the cowling in. I made a show car out of it. That was all of 1948 and the first part of 1949.
"In the early days, nobody paid any attention to the undercarriage. Mine was the first undercarriage that was ever chrome-plated. That's why at first we didn't know how to show it at the Oakland Roadster Show. So every hour on the hour, we'd pick it up and turn it on its side so people could walk by and look at it. Who knew how the hell to show the bottom of a car?"
The majority of the spectators walking by Blackie's roadster probably thought he owned a chrome shop. Close! "My buddy, (the late) Bob Martin, started a chrome shop in Fresno. The first pieces that ever came out of that chrome shop were for my roadster," he said. "He had never plated anything before and didn't know how to grind on a piece of metal. Bob asked me if I had anything he could practice with, and I had my rearend apart, so the first piece he ever plated was my rearend. Bob asked if I had anymore stuff, so I took him the backing plates and the center housing. He asked what else I had, and I said, 'Hell, the whole front end is apart.' He told me to bring the axle over. Then the springs. I just kept taking him parts, because it was experience for Bob. He became the best chrome shop in the country.
"Bob did my roadster and the Ala Kart for free in exchange for the publicity. Every show I entered, I put a sign showing Fresno Chrome Plating on the car. Bob never charged me a dime."
Richard Peters' Ala Kart"I met Blackie when I was going to Roosevelt High School in Fresno," began Richard Peters. "I started running around with Blackie when he was racing hardtops.
"In 1957, I bought a '29 pickup and decided to take it down to George Barris and have some minor work done to it. On the way, Blackie and I, with our wives, went to Vegas first, then went to L.A. and met with George. I just wanted to do a paintjob, a few modifications ... it was lowered. I didn't want to spend a lot of money."
Blackie, George, and Richard went to a local coffee shop to kick around some ideas. "George pulled out some napkins and started drawing on them. He said, 'How about this, how about that?' To make a long story short," recalled Richard, "I said, 'let's do it.'"
"That was my one-car garage...
"That was my one-car garage on my packing facility in Fresno," said Richard Peters. "This is the building in which the Ala Kart was built in 1956 and 1957. Blackie and I would take the car apart and put it back together in that little garage. That was its home, until I loaded it on a trailer to go to the AMT Corporation."
At that point, Blackie was ready to eat. "When I looked at the menu," he remembered, "I said to George, 'We got the car's name. Read the top of the menu-Ala Carte.'"
The Ala Kart was a whole new dimension for show rods culminating into the America's Most Beautiful Roadster-twice-plus winning more than 200 show trophies in its prime.
It's been acknowledged over the years that Blackie and Richard were responsible for the suspension/undercarriage on the car. But, few realize the scope and magnitude of their involvement, which is truly a Herculean effort.
When Richard said, "Let's do it," it wasn't simply a matter of delivering his pickup to Barris Kustom Kars and waiting for the phone to ring when the car was completed. On the contrary, Richard and Blackie would invest countless hours and thousands of commuter miles from Fresno to L.A. (lasting a year and a half) before the car was completed.
"Richard and I built the whole undercarriage," said Blackie. "We built the pieces for the frame in Fresno. The front axle was a '32 Ford that I stretched and filled. That was the first stretched and filled axle ever made. Look at the dropped axles today; there is a big deep grove in them where they stretch and drop them."
"Blackie and I took the car to L.A.," continued Richard, "and George kept the pickup bed. While George was working on the bed, we brought the car back to Fresno. We did the frontend work; Blackie and I built the undercarriage, the suspension, and the airbags in Fresno.
"I just wanted a paintjob,...
"I just wanted a paintjob, a few modifications on my roadster pickup," laughed Richard, recalling when he and Blackie went to Barris Kustom Kars to talk to George.
"Every week, we'd go back to L.A. We lifted the body off, left it with George, hauling the frame back to Fresno. We made sure everything fit right. Then, we took it back to L.A.; George put the body on the frame. Barris kept it until he had pretty much finished the whole body.
"Then, George took the whole car apart and painted it, piece by piece. Dean Jeffries did all of the 'striping when the car was all in pieces. Toward the end, we had no building to work in-we were outside-because George's shop burned down (in December 1957), but the flames missed the car. Blackie had a 55-gallon drum filled with wood that burned all night to keep us warm.
"We drove from Fresno to Lynwood every night. I'd pick up Blackie after he got off work; we'd drive down to Barris' place on Atlantic Boulevard in Lynwood. Get there about 7 p.m., 7:30 p.m., and work till 3 in the morning and head back to Fresno to go to work. Hell, I saw so many elephants walking on the road," laughed Richard, "I didn't know whether I was coming or going."
"When we took the Ala Kart to the Oakland show, I wanted to show the undercarriage," said Blackie. "The car was too heavy to turn on its side, like I did mine, to show all the chrome on the bottom of the car. I went to the women's restroom and took the mirror off the wall to put under the car. That was the first mirror that was ever put under a car."
The Golden Age of Drag Racing,...
The Golden Age of Drag Racing, from 1965 to 1980, was wild. The fans loved every ear-shattering minute of it.
Clovis SpeedwayBlackie's promotional skills and hard work turned a failing rodeo arena into the very successful Clovis Speedway from 1960 to 1980. "When I took over the rodeo grounds, it was owned by the Rodeo Association, which was almost bankrupt. They didn't have enough money to bring in the top riders.
"When I started Clovis Speedway, I had, what I called, open competition-like the Outlaw Sprint Cars today. I invited everybody across the United States. Bring what you got and run what you got. I had cars from the Midwest, winged Sprints, non-winged Sprints, you name it.
"We used to qualify 138 cars on dirt, and the track surface held. The drivers from the East Coast had never seen a track hold up running as many laps without getting torn up and being a danger to the drivers. These days, they're lucky to get 30 cars to qualify in any association.
"I did all of the watering and blade work myself. I never saw one race in the grandstands; I was always in the infield with the racers. Whenever they needed something, I was there. My job was to put on a race.
"The promoters today are lacking to give the public their money's worth. They've got to give them more than racing, so the fans can have something to talk about when they leave.
"The things I did at Clovis had never been done anywhere. I went to Alaska and brought in eight teams of dogs that ran nine dogs per team. I had Huskies out there pulling sleds, and each one of the sleds had one of our top radio guys of every radio station we had. I wet the track enough so it was very slick. The fans were pulling for their favorite radio personality, and the place went wild."
Fresno Dragway"I had the Fresno Dragway for 18 years. I was AHRA instead of NHRA because I could run whatever I wanted to run. I was the only one who put on drag races with four dragsters going side by side for the entire quarter-mile. Each of us promoters had a different style of producing drag racing. That was mine.
"It was incredible. I remember one race. Picture four front-engine dragsters with eight streams of smoke from the tires going into the air, and when they came to the end of the quarter-mile they were a quarter of a car length apart from one another. It was a tremendous sight. All you saw was the nose and the motor coming through the smoke. We'd run four jet cars, or four Funny Cars. That was a big draw, running the four at one time.
"We were breaking records over and over, and I had certification on the clocks with certificates to verify the speeds. I'd clean the track with our regular sweeper truck, then take a fire hose and wash the entire racetrack down and put soap on it. We'd suds it up to where there were bubbles damn near six feet in the air. We'd then wash it down and let it dry for a week. Then, I bought these 55-gallon drums that cost $500 in those days and sprayed an adhesive on the asphalt. What we were doing was giving the guys a surface to run on."
His WayOf late, when attending shows that require miles of walking, Blackie reluctantly gets around on his electric cart. "I've got all of these broken parts in me. I've had two hip replacements and I'm on the third on my right leg. I've had two pacemakers put into me with more nuts, bolts, and screws in my body than I can count," laughed Blackie, "but I don't let that stop me."
The buck has always stopped with Blackie. To delegate has never been part of his modus operandi. "I never brag that I've got the best show. If you want to know anything about my show, ask somebody else," he said. "That way, you'll get a true answer. A promoter will tell you anything to get you into his event. I let my events speak for themselves. But, a promoter is a promoter."
Blackie has been a house afire his entire life, juggling his car show, dragstrip, the circle track, plus running his ranch all at the same time. (Blackie also ran Madera Speedway, but we're running out of room.) Suffice it to say, Blackie has been a rousing success at every venture he's undertaken in life. Although, he's never tried to retire, so we think that might be the one he'd fail at.
In 1998, Blackie began an exhaustive restoration on his roadster for the 50th anniversary of the Oakland Roadster Show. "For 40 years, my roadster sat out in the rain in the barn because only about a fourth of the shingles were still on the roof," Blackie recalled. "There is not one piece that was originally on the car, regardless if it was rusted out or whatever, that I replaced with a new part, including the battery cables. I had a rusted-out taillight on the car I had to copper 11 times. I kept buffing it and kept building it up with copper. I had a brand-new windshield frame hanging up in my garage that I could have used, and nobody would have known the difference. Water got in my windshield frame where the glass went into and had rotted it all out. I had to braze it and fill it in. You can feel it if you rub your hand over it, but you can't see it. Somebody had gotten into the barn and put dents in the backside of headlight buckets. I had a brand-new set of King Bee headlights I could have replaced them with, and nobody would have known-but, I would have. I saw cars at Pebble Beach that were over-restored. I wanted the car to look the way it did the day I parked it more than 40 years ago.
"The Flathead is the same as when I first built it. I haven't touched it. Everything is Edelbrock-fuel block, heads, and intake manifold. In fact, in the early days, Vic Edelbrock Sr. used to give out an award for the most Edelbrock-equipped car, and I won every time. It's got four carburetors, yet I can bring the throttle back to where you can count each one of the cylinders as they fire. At the Hot Rod Reunion, Wally Parks brought a whole bunch of people by my car and said, 'Blackie, start the car up; the guys want to hear it run.' Greg Sharp said, 'Wally, the car is running,'" laughed Blackie.
"Vic Edelbrock Sr. ground my crankshafts when I ran the lakes. He wanted to know what gear ratio I was running, at what rpm. I took the crank to Vic at his little shop in Hollywood, where the grease racks were. He undercut the journals and put flash chrome on them. He reground the chrome. I had chrome journals, which picked up 700 rpms."