The Lindsley-LeSage Class...
The Lindsley-LeSage Class B coupe placed First in the 1951 points standings. Just three months after receiving his California driver's license, Burke cranked off 107 mph in his coupe. And for that achievement, the high school student and his '34 graced the pages of Hot Rod. It would be the last race car Burke would own.
Henry Ford kinda started it all, as far as land speed racing (LSR), when he cranked off 91.32 mph in 1903 (the speed of light in 1903 terms) on a frozen lake in Michigan.
Henry and his Ford were land speed racing's stage door for hot rodders, with gobs of mechanical talent, and in the process, stars like Alex Xydias and Ak Miller hit center stage in the '40s.
C.J. "Pappy" Hart, Creighton Hunter, and Frank Stillwell opened Santa Ana, the first legal dragstrip in 1950, causing the door to swing wide open to racers in every part of the country, where dry lake racers Joaquin Arnett and Dick Kraft appeared as drag racing's early names.
Sports car racing took off after the war and many a career was launched on the airport courses of Southern California, where road racers like Dan Gurney and Phil Hill became international driving legends. (Both were involved in land speed racing: Gurney at Bonneville and Hill at El Mirage.)
Burke next to Ron Benham's...
Burke next to Ron Benham's blown four-cylinder Pontiac Tempest-powered Lakester. He got into the 200 MPH Club with that 3.0L powerhouse in 1963. "It handled good up to 180 mph, but with a 110-inch wheelbase it started to wander ... with only 180 ci, I was out of horsepower to straighten it out when it wanted to drift." His two-way average was 213 mph. How's that for a brave heart?
But when the trophies and cases of oil gave way to purses and corporate sponsors, many gifted drivers, who could have gone pro, were happy to remain at the amateur level, like Burke LeSage.
Burke LeSage of Joshua Tree, California (born 1935 in Tonopah, Nevada), attended Cantwell Catholic High School in Montebello, California, where he graduated. (There might have been something in the Holy Water because Cantwell had another future land speed racer, Jerry Kugel, who spent two years at Cantwell before heading to Whittier High.) Burke was raised in Montebello where hot rodder Jerry Eisert, legendary Indy Car builder and Bonneville racer, had his shop.
Just a float bowl of fuel away in Whittier where the hot rodder's hot rodder, Ak Miller, had his garage (Burke would later work at Miller's turbocharger facility as general manager). For a kid with just a hint of that fuel in his veins, it was enough spark to light his fire.
Rosie the Riveter
Rosie was a fictitious young woman who represented six million female factory workers during World War II, replacing the men in defense plants and factories when they went off to war, like Burke's mother, Mary. Mary went to work in a job shop running a drill press for Riley Brett.
Go ahead and call them mail...
Go ahead and call them mail slots. That's Gene Thurman's '27 T with an injected rear engine 331ci Chrysler Hemi that Burke drove at Bonneville in 1955. Thurman was more a builder than a driver, so Burke got the call. "We were in the Competition Coupe Class, the same class as the Chrisman Brother's coupe. I spun it out 170 mph ... I went around a dozen or more times," Burke says. "There was a hatch that opened at the top where I climbed in."
Brett's shop was making parts for the P-38 fighter planes, but prior to that (in the mid-'20s), Brett was involved with early four-wheel-drive race cars for Harry Miller. In the shop sat the "Sampson Special", a Harry Miller V-16 Champ Car that competed at Indy in 1930-31, and in 1932 was driven by Louis Meyer. Being around race cars, race drivers, and mechanics who frequented the shop greatly influenced Mary's decision to allow her young son to race.
Burke drove a '40 Ford coupe to school with a mild Flathead, but because Cantwell offered no shop classes, Burke's only contact with the outside hot rod world was his neighbor Jim Lindsley (15 years his senior), a member of the SCTA Gear Grinders. But boy, what a neighbor. Lindsley, a future Dry Lakes Hall of Fame recipient, took an interest in the young hot rodder and mentored him into becoming an early competitor at the lakes at an age when most teenagers were still learning to parallel park.
Lindsley's home served as the office for the SCTA at the time. It was a busy place in 1949 with Wally Parks, Ak Miller, and Lindsley preparing for the first Bonneville meet.
Fifteen-year-old Burke was given the task of loading freshly painted red and white traffic cones on a truck to be used to mark the course. Meeting the editor of Hot Rod magazine was the beginning of a long relationship with the founder of the NHRA.
Burke hadn't even driven a car on the street when, at El Mirage, Lindsley told the lad to get behind the wheel of the push truck and get his Lakester/Streamliner up to 30 mph before he fired it.