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.
Burke LeSage (at 15) was already...
Burke LeSage (at 15) was already a part of history by not just spectating the first Motorama event in 1950, but participating in it. "That was when I was first affiliated with SCTA when I went with Jim Lindsley and a half dozen Gear Grinders to help Wally Parks and Ak Miller put up the SCTA booth."
Forget about being a paper-boy or a box-boy for a few extra coins while in school: Johnny Price, the World War II fighter pilot and LSR racer (who lost his eye during a combat mission), was the general manager of Weber Cams and got Burke his summer job while in school working for Harry Weber polishing camshafts. (Later, Burke would work for two other pioneering performance manufacturers, Grant Piston Rings in the late '60s and Weiand Automotive in the early '70s.)
The SCTA Gear Grinders met at a bar in Bell, California. Most of the members were 10 years older than Burke, half of whom were World War II veterans when he joined the club in 1951 at the age of 16. As he was under age, the club elected to move their meeting place. Burke was made president a year later, but he was still too young to buy beer! "Here I was," Burke begins, "a kid being president of an adult group!" Burke inherited a '34 Ford five-window coupe from his brother while at the same time SCTA decided to run coupes and sedans at the lakes in 1951.
Drivers today begin racing when their first grade teachers excuse them from class, but in Burke's day it was unheard of to be racing in competition at 16. When the new coupe class was instituted, Lindsley took the engine out of his Streamliner and put it in Burke's coupe. They ran the '34 in the new Coupe/Sedan class.
Plus, Burke fit the mold for a race car driver since the average height of a Formula 1 pilot is 5 feet, 9 inches, perfect for squeezing into a Grand Prix car. Burke, being 5 feet, 5 inches, could slither into a wind-slicing 200-mph-plus pencil with ease. In fact, Dreisbach Electromotive had developed a battery-powered Streamliner in 1983 called the DEMI X-1 with requirements that the driver be no taller than 5 feet, 7 1/2 inches. They tapped Burke on the helmet to become their man.
Here's Burke peeling out of...
Here's Burke peeling out of Mark Dees' 427 Chevy-powered Lakester after completing a run at Bonneville. Dees was another owner who couldn't shoehorn himself into his own race car, seeking out Burke for the job in 1973.
SCTA kept looking for another sweet spot to run after the military declared Muroc off limits when the war began. As far as the racers were concerned, Muroc was the crown jewel because of its expansive 12-mile length. But when the war began in 1941, the dry lake was closed to the general public by the military. That necessitated finding other locations to hold meets like nearby Rosamond and Harper (near Barstow, California). Eventually, and probably reluctantly, El Mirage dry lake, at 6.2 miles long, was settled on, and is used to this day.
Because of concerns for safety at El Mirage with such "poor conditions" as HRM editor Wally Parks wrote in an issue in 1952. SCTA decided instead of scrapping the last meet of 1951 they would try one more location, 75 miles north of El Mirage. Rather than running the normal two days for the last meet of the year, it was cut to one.
It took some tenacity on the part of the competitors to travel on the rutted dirt road just to get to the dry lake, which was only two-and-a-half miles long. "A Search for Safety," wrote Parks in an HRM feature story in January 1952: "The surface turned out to be semi-soft and speeds were somewhat impaired."
Looking every bit like a crumpled...
Looking every bit like a crumpled piece of paper is what was left of a '38 Buick that crashed badly at El Mirage. Burke was asked to drive the tank that had known handling issues at Bonneville, when halfway down course the carnage began. Burke was thrown from the car unconscious when its World War II surplus seatbelt gave way. He was hospitalized in a coma for 10 days.
If the speeds were impaired it didn't slow the Lindsley-LeSage Class B coupe from placing 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 high school student Burke and his '34 graced the pages of that feature story.
Burke underplays his accomplishment by saying, "Since there were no previous records all we had to do was beat the guy in the class and we got a record." Anyone who's competed at the lakes pooh-poohs that notion. One hundred and seven on a "semi-soft" surface plus a "strong headwind" (in Parks' words) was no small accomplishment.
After the meet Burke gave the '34 to Lindsley. The '34 would be the last race car Burke would own.
Burke had just squeaked into...
Burke had just squeaked into a new 160 MPH Club driving Boyd Pennington's blown Chrysler A roadster. His speed was a whisker over 160 by 0.14 mph.
Good Day, Bad Day
What started out as a dream day in September 1954 at El Mirage for Burke turned into a nightmare. Burke simply planned to run his brother Joe's '29 roadster that day where he made two early morning runs in the 130-mph-and-change range, but his reputation as a driver led him to drive the iconic (built in 1949) Pierson Brothers' '34 Ford coupe.
The owner, George Bently, a truck driver, had an unexpected delivery to Fresno at the last minute and offered the ride to Burke who put the coupe in the 160-mph bracket twice that day. That would have been a memorable day, well done, had Burke packed up and gone home.
A heavy, basically stock-bodied and suspended '38 Buick coupe owned by two GG members who ran the Buick at Bonneville didn't like the way it handled. They were looking for a second opinion as to the problem. After rolling the Buick to the start line they couldn't find their substitute driver Don Hampton (maybe he had a sixth sense) and asked Burke to wheel it.
The big ill-handling '38 was so far removed from the swoopy "seasoned" coupe Burke had just climbed from, it should have given him pause. It had run 135 mph at Bonneville and the owners, while not addressing its handling issues, decided a GMC 6-71 blown Nailhead was the answer.
Jim Lindsley's '32 Ford roadster...
Jim Lindsley's '32 Ford roadster with twin Chryslers-one front, one rear. The front Hemi bolted to an in-and-out gearbox with the output shaft driving the front snout of the back V-8. The rear crankshaft was splined with a U-joint attached that connected to the short driveshaft from the front engine (essentially a V-16). When Burke drove the roadster he did so with only the back engine running to 170 mph. Lindsley had gotten into the 200 MPH Club with both Chryslers running.
Course workers noted the Buick was creating a lot of dust on its run, indicating that it was probably sideways at the middle of the course. (A supercharger has little effect on engine performance at low rpm, but when it kicks in 3/4, look out!) When the rear wheels broke loose, the car turned violently sideways near the timing tower and began to roll. The war surplus cotton seatbelt broke, throwing Burke out onto the lakebed.
At nearby George Air Force Base, where he was rushed unconscious, Burke's clothes were so badly shredded they were ripped almost completely off his body. It was determined that his head injuries required extensive hospitalization and he was transported to Montebello. There he lay in a coma for 10 days. Burke still experiences health issues from those injuries.
Just a few weeks after his near-fatal crash, Burke went to Santa Ana Drag Strip to spectate, but his friend Tom Pollard, noticing the look in Burke's eye, offered his roadster saying: "The cowboy always gets on the bronco that threw him." "I made a 100-mph pass," Burke says. "I was back in the saddle again."
The F-100 Ford was SOP for...
The F-100 Ford was SOP for speed shops, garages, and racers in the '50s. It was the pickup of choice to haul engine blocks, greasy parts, and in the case of Gene Thurman's truck, haul butt! Burke peddled the Chrysler Hemi-powered pickup 139.9 mph at El Mirage in 1961.
Here We Go Loop De Loop
Land speed racers don't have the luxury of finding a safe place to practice or test the handling limits of a race car at high speed, many of which take a mile (because of the tall gears) before they can be fired. It's pretty much unload at El Mirage or Bonneville during a race meet, run it through tech to certify it's safe, and push (or pull) it to the start line. When the starter waves you on, all the theory goes out the window.
Remember Johnny Thunder's lyrics? Well that was happening all too often with rear-engine roadsters as far as SCTA was concerned. Burke wheeled Gene Thurman's rear-engined '27 T at Bonneville in 1955 before losing it at 175 mph and kept spinning for a half-mile, which observers said "looked like a boomerang."
Bonneville Speedweek in 1957 saw Fred Larsen literally skidding on the salt with his skull when his rear-engine roadster went sunny-side down and backward. Larsen's helmet was knocked off during the crash, requiring 180 stitches on his head and face.
The salt-in-the-wound, you might say, for both Larsen and SCTA came during Bonneville Speedweek in 1959. Another veteran racer, Bob Summers (of the famed Summers Brothers), spun twice in his Class B Modified (rear engine) roadster at 205.95.
It's what hundreds try for...
It's what hundreds try for and few achieve, reaching and exceeding that elusive number. Burke joined the exclusive Grant 200 MPH Club in 1963.
After a number of attempts at the record, Summers spun again at the three-mile marker. The roadster flipped and slid on its back through the light at 224.85. The car was repaired and Summers "soft peddled" the roadster to a new record of 225.0785 mph.
Rear engine roadsters were banned by SCTA after the 1959 Speedweek when the most competent of drivers couldn't keep the cars pointed straight until suspension technology caught up with the speeds.
Made to Order
The diversity of land speed racing is totally unique in motorsports since there are no two race cars alike. Ninety-nine percent are handbuilt in home shops or garages around the country. "Store bought" spec racing this is not. That's why this form of racing (since day one) attracts hot rodders whose innovative creations know no bounds.
"I got a call from Bob Joehnck,...
"I got a call from Bob Joehnck, who asked if I was going to Bonneville. He said,'Bring your helmet. I'll see you at the start line.' That was my contract," Burke laughs. "He wanted to start the engine at the line, push-truck it a mile before I engaged the clutch, and take off in high gear. He said take it up to whatever it will receive throttle-wise and we have enough fuel to run the full five miles if we want. We ran slow on throttle pressure and went for the best speed between the fourth and fifth mile. That was the smoothest handling of all of the cars I've driven." The two were rewarded with 200-mph-plus runs with three different Chevy engines in Joehnck's '29 roadster in 1971.
Burke was made to order for the job, not only because of his size-he was a quick study as well. He had the reputation of being strapped into unfamiliar race cars that ran the gamut, keeping them and him in one piece, while bringing home a record. That reputation had owners seeking him out.
It was only natural working at Weber Cams in high school and being an early SCTA competitor, for Burke to gravitate toward the speed equipment industry to make a living.
From 1954-63 he worked for U.S. Motors as a fleet service tech. From there, he was in the purchasing department at Grant Piston Ring Company. He made a major leap when he became the first paid employee for the fledging SEMA organization from 1966-70 as its executive secretary. Then in 1970, Burke went to work for Phil Weiand as his sales, advertising, and promotion manager. Three years later he went on to Ak Miller's Garage as his general manager.
Burke was recognized by SEMA in 2005 and inducted in the SEMA Hall of Fame, which is the highest honor the association can bestow on an individual.
Phil Weiand (who lost the...
Phil Weiand (who lost the use of his legs racing at Mines Field, now LAX, in 1934) inspecting raw castings before machining. "Phil [Weiand] was very knowledgeable about sand castings, which is an art," Burke says (paper in hand), who was Weiand's sales, advertising, and promotion manager. "He had the first high-rise intake manifold for Ford Flatheads. The carburetor was 6 inches higher than the intake manifold, moving along the air/fuel mixture at a good rate of speed and not puddling when it got to the bottom of the manifold."
Burke spun at 180 mph in 1990 and left behind the world of deafening headers and the smell of nitro for good. Splitting Whittier, Burke headed for the serenity of Santa Barbara as the proprietor of a 20x30-foot book and gift shop. Called EZ Duz It, his store was filled with the smell of free cookies, candies, and overstuffed chairs. Selling books was almost an afterthought.
He pulled the drag chute to a crawl, retiring in 1993 to the town of Joshua Tree. It's a community of artists, musicians, and retirees in the high desert, far from the madding crowds. "Burke volunteers driving a minister around town," Burke's retired school teacher wife, Jean, says, "who can no longer drive. And he keeps track of me," she laughs. Turnabout is fair play Jean, because keeping track of Burke during his racing and working years was damn near impossible.
Benham and Burke became a...
Benham and Burke became a good fit together. Burke drove Ron's 2.0L VW-powered Tank. "The suspension was very rigid with the narrow tires, and the salt being very bumpy that year, I was having a hard time seeing the course. I was wearing my prescription glasses combined with the Bell helmet face shield; I saw nothing but a blur out of the tilted windshield. I couldn't see the black line clearly, which had faded in midweek. All I could do was sense where the course was. We only went 170."
Benham's slippery Karmann...
Benham's slippery Karmann Ghia with the VW engine borrowed from the belly tank. "At 125-150 mph," Burke says, "I lost all sensation with being in touch with the ground because the front and rear ends seemed to lift."
With Bonneville rained out,...
With Bonneville rained out, Burke coaxed the heavy Streamliner at El Mirage to 132 mph. The project was scrapped after the prohibitive cost of developing a new battery.
Yes, that's Burke's 5-foot,...
Yes, that's Burke's 5-foot, 5-inch frame stuffed in between 12 batteries weighing 1,200 pounds that drove four electric motors. The throttle system was basically a rheostat that controlled one bank of batteries until 3/4 throttle then all 12 kicked in, similar to a turbo.
The hanger in the background...
The hanger in the background close to the salt flats is where the Enola Gay took off headed for Japan, ultimately ending World War II for the United States. The Streamliner, however, never really took off because Bonneville was rained out and the project was scrapped before returning to the salt.