salt flat racers
andy enright pays tribute to dry lake racers of the fifties.
The colours of this motoring nirvana are a brilliant arc-light white and deep cobalt blue. From a point emanating beyond the curvature of the earth, the shriek of a V8 carries across the playa, saline vortices rising from the heat haze. As the speck resolves and coalesces into the vision of the onlookers, doppler shifts the noise into a rolling wave of thrashing gears and roaring exhaust, gone in an instant, consigned to its accompanying tornado of salt crystals, twinkling in the coruscating light.
The touchstone shrines of motor sports are few but evocative. Monaco, Nurburgring, Le Mans, Pikes Peak, Spa and Indianapolis, but for many the Bonneville Salt Flats of Utah remain a venue steeped in history, infused with the dreams, deeds and, occasionally, deaths of a bold few. The salt flat racers of the fifties were a breed forever defined by their era, post-war America's can-do attitude distilled into 350 cubic inches of Detroit iron.
The Southern Californian hotrodding scene of the fifties was marked by a friendly if intense rivalry amongst 'hop-up' enthusiasts. The venue for the first races was Muroc Dry Lake, a desolate lakebed in the high desert 100 miles north of Los Angeles, but the war effort meant that this venue became incorporated into what is now Edwards Air Force base. An alternative venue was found at El Mirage Dry Lake. This was where the Los Angelino racers graduated to after hanging out at local speed shops or drive-ins such as Bob's Big Boy in Burbank or The Green Spot in Pasadena. The venue was far from ideal, being dusty and having a pronounced curve to the track to avoid grassy hummocks. Before sanctioning bodies organised races, many accidents occurred as cars raced five abreast, breaking down on the lake bed at night, often for the owner to return in the morning to find the car cannibalised or with another hot rod parked in it. The rivalry between Chevy and Ford, club versus club was intense but good-natured.
Alex Xydias, founder of the SO-CAL Speed Shop and builder of the SO-CAL Belly Tank car remembers El Mirage fondly. "We were just a bunch of guys out racing. The belly tank car was made from a P-38 Lightning belly tank bought for $5 from a surplus dealer. They were popular with cattle ranchers who cut them in half and used them as feed troughs. Being aluminium, they didn't rust, and we figured that if they were aerodynamic enough to be slung under a plane they'd work for us." The belly tank design was a winner, using modified Ford 85hp and 60hp engines, and went on to set records at both El Mirage and Bonneville, recording a speed of over 198mph at the 1952 Bonneville Speed Week and earning the title of 'Most Honoured Car in the History of Bonneville.'
"It was real noisy in there. The sound of the gears behind your head meant that you were relieved to get out of the car," Xydias recalls. By this time, competition had moved to Bonneville and had become more serious, bringing together racers from across the US. Motel owners in the stateline town of Wendover opened their doors to the racers. "There was a good hardstanding outside the motel rooms where we could rig up an A-frame to get engines in and out and the rooms had a linoleum floor, so oil wasn't too much of a problem." One of the other cars that found fame was Tom Beatty's Belly Tank Lakester; a frequent fixture on the lot of the Western Motel. Being particularly hard on engines, Beatty could often be found stripping his engine in the small hours. "Tom's cars weren't pretty, but they were certainly fast. We tried to make sure the SO-CAL cars looked good to act as an advertisement for the Speed Shop," chuckles Xydias.
The fifties were the golden era of hot rods in the US, the relative simplicity of the engineering options opening the way for many. With the development of the Chrysler hemi and Chevrolet small block engines, and the growing popularity of forced induction techniques and exotic fuels, the sport became more fragmented and elitist. Road racing hotrods to appear at Goodwood include Max Balchowsky's Ol' Yaller II and Ak Miller's Caballo de Hierro. Spanish for Iron Horse, Miller shortened a 1950 Ford sedan, fitted Chrysler brakes, a Cadillac transmission, an Oldsmobile V8 and a 1927 Ford T roadster body. From this unlikely collection of parts came a formidable road racer, competing in the Mille Miglia and the Mexico's Carrera Panamerica, where the car was unfortunately registered under the title "Caballa de Hierro", the Iron Mackerel, surely an injustice to such a pretty car.
The appeal of the cars of this era was their heuristic simplicity. Peter Stevens, design guru, stylist of the McLaren F1 and Muroc Dry Lake Model T owner, has a picture of the SO-CAL belly tank car in pride of place in his office. "The brilliant thing about the belly tank was that it was inherently streamlined and Xydias had an empirical understanding of what was right. It wasn't the product of engineering graduates, it was just guys getting out there and finding out what worked best."
The allure is indeed infectious. Xydias is now 81, but aims to break 200mph in a new SO-CAL belly tank, this time using the drop tank from an ex-Desert Storm F-16 fighter, complete with battle scars powered by two different Ford engines. The 200mph club? "It was just something I never got round to" reflects the old man, "but I'll have to wait until next year." And in the meantime dream in blue and white.