Don's mind was on racing,...
Don's mind was on racing, rodding, and roadsters instead of reading, writing, and 'rithmetic when his 11th grade math teacher caught him drawing his roadster in class. Impressed with Don's artistry he avoided an F and was encouraged to continue.
Noise and air pollution have always been excessive in the L.A. Basin, but in the '40s and '50s it was particularly prevalent in Glendale (just west of L.A.), where the sound of uncorked racing engines and the smell of methanol permeated the air. Imagine being a kid growing up in the town next door (Eagle Rock) where that pollution got into your system and you weren't able to get it out. Don Zabel was that kid.
The most legendary of hot rodders, racers, race car builders, and speed equipment manufacturers hung their shop coats in Glendale. Their diversity ran the breadth of motorsports like Ed Winfield, whose high-performance Ford Flathead heads, intake manifolds, and cams were the ones that set records.
Winfield was on the same street as famed land speed racer and subsequent tech writer, Barney Navarro, who machined his heads and intake manifolds for Flathead engines as well. Close by, Frank Kurtis, race car designer/manufacturer (Kurtis Kraft), cranked out over 550 turnkey Midget racers and Indy-winning Champ Cars from of his facility. Not far was A.J. Watson who built winning Champ Cars (seven 500 victories) out of his small garage-he built the last roadster to win the 500 in 1964 driven by A.J Foyt. The Justice Brothers Race Car Repair & Fabrication (Ed and Zeke) plus Bob's Big Boy Drive-In, all got their start in Glendale. "We hung out at Bob's. That's when they had the carhops you know," Don reminisces. "Everyone went there." Get the picture?
How It All Began
Going from Eagle Rock to the...
Going from Eagle Rock to the tulies of Palm Springs in 1945 was a bit of a putt (Palm Springs touted one golf course, today there are 85) when Dave "Toad" Bennett's U-joint went south in his '28 roadster pickup. "We found a wrecking yard that had one and we were back on the road in a short time," Don says. (Left to right: Tom Rossetter, John Gunderson, Don Zabel, "Toad", Moe Wilcox, and Chuck Rounds.)
A neighbor took his two boys and 6-year-old Don to the races at Gilmore Stadium in Los Angeles just after it opened in 1934. "He was a racer and did some promoting of races. He turned into a race fan and ended up taking me. Watching guys in the old-time Midgets got me hooked," Don says.
When Don was 12, he came home with his first car, a '14 Model T roadster. "The guy down the street had it," he says, "and had nothing but trouble with it. He finally gave up on it, had it half apart, and wanted to get rid of it. I gave him $5.
"My dad came home that night and found it in the driveway and had a fit. But I found out later he said that I, being a dumb kid, would never get it running and he'd never have to worry about me driving it. But I did get it running. At first I drove it up and down the driveway, then around the block, and ..." Don quickly states with a twinkle in his eye, "I never did nothing illegal you understand," he laughs.
Don's first hot rod was a three-window Deuce coupe. Naturally, the in-thing (then and now) was a roadster: "There was an older guy a couple of blocks away who had a roadster. He was getting tired of the open car. He used to drive by our house all the time; I was still living at home with my folks, and I kind of wanted to trade him cars. He didn't want to trade his whole car because mine was half hopped up messing around, so we decided to unbolt the bodies and trade them."
Don's Deuce was an all-around...
Don's Deuce was an all-around driver. Go to the lakes ... strip it down. Go on a date ... put the top up.
Don went to Eagle Rock High School where he took wood shop, metal shop, and drafting class, "but they didn't have auto shop." While in school, Don was interested in running his '32 at the lakes. He graduated in 1945.
"After the military closed Muroc, we experimented with a bunch of other dry lakes. During the war we went to El Mirage, even though we weren't supposed to be racing. Of course there were Harper and Rosamond. We even went to a place called Bicycle Lake (35 miles northeast of Barstow), but El Mirage was the best of the bunch and they're still using it." (The last sanctioned meet took place at Harper Dry Lake July 19, 1942. All racing was stopped in the United States during World War II.)
Trompers Of Eagle Rock
John (Gundy) Gunderson formed the Trompers of Eagle Rock in September 1945 after returning from the Navy. Don is one of the six founding members. "I was one of the guys who started the Eagle Rock Trompers," Don begins. "We were a bunch of hooligan kids fooling around."