Buellton, CA, 1950: Forget...
Buellton, CA, 1950: Forget the grandstands-the spectators lining the course in their cars on top of the hill could watch the races just fine. That's Don in No. 14. (The track was known as the T Club Speedway sanctioned by the Lompoc Model T Club.)
Hot rodder A.J. Watson, now residing near Indianapolis, had an influence on Don. While he wasn't paid, Don would lend a "third hand when needed." Watson worked at Lockheed Aircraft in Burbank at the time and after-hours, starting in 1947 he built track roadsters. Watson welcomed the help. "Besides Carrell Speedway and Gilmore, we ran the Rose Bowl in Pasadena," Watson says.
Watson graduated to front-engine Championship Cars with fellow rodder Dick Rathmann as his driver at Indy in 1950. To this day Watson is still building front-engine Offy-powered roadsters for vintage racers at his 25-acre farm. "I remember Don in my shop helping out," 87-year-old Watson says, "and I remember being at Don's shop when he was building the Sprint Cars."
Open For Business
The legendary hot rod racers were never content to work for someone else. Art Chrisman, Ak Miller, Jerry Kugel-they all had general repair garages by day, but the lights burned till O-dark thirty on their race cars.
Don next to his friend and...
Don next to his friend and fellow Trompers member Larry Shinoda's Chopsticks Special. Shinoda went on to design the Boss 302 Mustang.
Don and his racing partner Bruce Robinson opened a general repair garage in Glendale in the mid-'50s: Robinson and Zabel Automotive. During the day they serviced their customers but on nights and weekends, "We began building track roadsters. Most of the Ford T bodies we used were the '24-25s, and some of the guys used the '26-27 roadsters, which were more tapered. Most guys grabbed what they could get at the junkyards. We ran them both. We still used homemade chassis, not tubes yet, but rail frames. We started with the bare rails and went from there. We didn't box the frames in those days, we let them flop around. Then I started building Sprint Cars. We built a new one every winter."
Don at Emmett Malloy's Carroll...
Don at Emmett Malloy's Carroll Speedway showing the way to No. 74. An astonishing 19 winners of the Indy 500 got their start driving track roadsters like Pat Flaherty (1956), Troy Ruttman (1952), and Bob Sweikert (1955). Veteran Indianapolis drivers Manny Ayulo, Duane Carter, Walt Falkner, Jack McGrath, and Ruttman were regular competitors at Carroll Speedway. "I raced at Carroll Speedway, Huntington Beach Speedway (eighth-mile dirt track), and a track in Buellton. The spectators just parked their cars around the track, there were no grandstands," Don says.
Don and Robinson's Sprint Cars were well constructed, winning races all over the West and Midwest with Roger McCluskey as their driver. Bob Milliken of Highland Park, California, was part of the crew. "We wouldn't have made half the races without Milliken," Don emphasizes.
When Robinson left the business in the early '60s, Don moved his shop to La Crescenta, California, and continued solo until the property was sold out from under him in the late '80s.
When the City of Los Angeles was looking for journeymen mechanics, Don became their heavy equipment mechanic for 12 years until he retired. We're sure the bulldozers had a bit more oomph after Don worked on them.
"I've been fooling around going to races, air shows, restoring old cars, and building hot rods since I retired 10 years ago," Don says, now living in Tujunga, just north of Burbank, California. Like so many of our first-generation hot rodders, Don has never lost his fire. This 82 years young hop-up has gone back to his roots, building a gennie '32 roadster. Don is coming up on 60 years of being married to his wife, Barbara. "I've known what I wanted to do ever since I went to Gilmore when I was 6 years old. I haven't changed my mind yet." It looks like that pollution is still in your system; Don don't change a thing.