Fifteen-year-old Don in front of his three-window in 1943 with still a hint of that new ca
Derby hats and Navy peacoats became the Trompers' trademark, or club jacket if you will, signaling to the drive-in crowd the Trompers were the guys to beat on the midnight streets of Eagle Rock and Glendale.
"Guys we knew from junior high and high school met at Gunderson's folks' house in Eagle Rock to form the club. Several guys came out of the Navy with peacoats and started wearing them. I didn't even have one ... I borrowed one a time or two. I still have a couple of derby hats," Don laughs.
Don's Deuce was larger than his fellow Trompers' A-bones (Don had the only '32 in the club) leading to his handle. "That's where my nickname 'The Admiral' came from because my '32 was bigger than the Model As in the club so they called my roadster 'The Boat'. So I became the Admiral of the Boat," Don laughs. Consequently, Don was stuck with The Admiral handle.
Don joined the SCTA member club the L.A. Gophers in 1945 ... "because I wanted to run El Mirage" (the Trompers didn't become SCTA members until May 1946). "That's where I got tied up with Jack McGrath, Manuel Ayulo, and Connie Weidell."
Those aren't store-bought whitewalls on Don's roadster, they're painted on babies. Just th
Don's mother discarded his timing tag, however, thanks to fellow hot rod historian Leslie Long, of Anaheim, California, who researched Don's results, Don ran his '32 in Class "C" Roadster as No. 39 at the November SCTA El Mirage meet.
Rather than be drafted, Don joined the Army Air Corps at the tail end of the war. "I always wanted to be a fighter pilot, but because of my eye-I've worn glasses since kindergarten-I became an aircraft mechanic. Officially I wasn't a pilot, but I did fly because we test-hopped those things after we rebuilt them. I've had a private ticket (pilot's license) for years."
Don was discharged in 1949. "I got discharged at Turner Field in Albany, Georgia, and drove straight through to Indianapolis. I hooked up with McGrath, Ayulo, Don Freeland, and Bob Sweikert, a bunch of guys who came from the old California Roadster Association (CRA began in 1945 but changed its name in 1957 to the California Racing Association) who were racing Sprints and Midgets by that time in the area."
Don returned to Bonneville in 1952 with his a 290-inch Merc-powered '32 roadster with a sp
Don then made his way to the first Bonneville Nationals in his '47 pickup. "I heard about it and had to see what it was all about." Don had never seen white salt before and remarked he could see the curvature of the earth his first morning there. Don arrived to see what Tom "Stroker McGurk" Medley called "wild." Everyone there knew it was history in the making.
"I stayed at the Wendover Air Field (where the 'Enola Gay' B-29 that carried the atomic bomb was based) ... the military was gone, but we had permission and were told as long as we left the place clean we could stay there. A couple of blankets, or a sleeping bag if you were high class, was all we needed."
That's Don's pickup in front of Gate 5 (from 1909-73, Gate 5 was the main entrance into th
It was an experience that lasted to this day for Don to be at the first event on the salt visiting buddies like future Sprint Car builder Willie Davis and Clem TeBow of C-T Automotive. But it was time to head the pickup to Eagle Rock.
McGrath and Ayulo cut their transmission teeth at El Mirage, but half-mile Carrell Speedway in Gardena and Gilmore Stadium in L.A. were their stepping stones to the big leagues-the Indy 500 big leagues.
Legends Cars and go-karts are the fast-track for aspiring young race drivers today, but 60-plus years ago it was cut-down Model Ts. Track roadsters proved that hot rods were serious race cars just as the purpose-built Kurtis Midgets.
The Ts were the poor man's open-wheel race car because they were cheap to build. They could be raced on the lakes, the circle tracks, and, yes, the street. Make no mistake, Don, Jack, and Manny were hard-core street racers. Street racing was a way of life in the '40s for its sheer convenience. (Dragstrips, on every corner, hadn't come to town yet.) Don jokingly uses the term hooligans, but they were hooligans to Joe Public.