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Bonneville 1954 - 1/12

Bonneville 1954 - 1/12
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Bonneville 1954
Story and photographs by Don Jensen
Editorial and Research by Spencer Simon and Richard Parks

Photographic consultant Roger Rohrdanz
01-12-12

   The Chrisman coupe brought back memories.  My buddy Ron Craven who wrote for a rod magazine in the San Francisco Bay Area told me he wanted to do a story from the Salt Flats at Bonneville, but he had neither the money nor a car that would make it there!  My '40 Ford was in top shape, so I told him, "let's go!"  I doubt we had more than $50 between us, but with sleeping bags, 3 spare wheels and tires, jack and a tool box we left the next day.  We used the first spare in the middle of Nevada, our only flat.  We pulled into Wendover about 10 PM the second day of the meet.  It was jump'n, just like a Saturday night at any good California Drive-in.  Half of all the street cars running at the salt flats were driving through the three blocks of the town; open headers and all.  I spotted a friend, Jim White, from Santa Ana, who arrived about an hour before in a nice '52 Olds 88.  "What's up?" I asked.  "Been huntin' rabbits the last few hours," he replied.  He handed me a flash light and said, "Look under the front bumper." One glance and I saw the whole bottom of his car was gray fur and guts.  It seems on the road up from the South at dark all the Jackrabbits hit the road and as the cars were cruising along at about 100 mph, even a Jackrabbit was not fast enough to get out of the way in time.  They spent the next day cleaning up the car

     On the South side of the main drag was the old Air Force base, lots of block buildings with cement floors and no doors, so finding a piece of cardboard, we swept one out and six of us threw down our sleeping bags for the next five nights; just us and the mice, lizards and horn toads.  The next morning we headed to the salt flats; about 5 miles out there was a BIG noise!  I checked my mirror and pulled to the right of my lane (this was a two lane road at the time) as a liner (I think it was the City of Burbank) came by at about 100 mph warming his oil and water in his tank.  He was on Alky. (I later asked him.)  On the Salt, one of my heroes, Big Bill Edwards, had just drove in.  He had run 150 mph in 1953 on the salt flats with his Cad powered 1940 Ford and I had just finished my new Cad and was running it in a '40.  This year he had it in a new Ford pickup (Barn door).  He had driven it from Los Angeles by himself.  He jacked up his car, put Indy tires on, took the two 4-barrel carbs off the blower and installed six 97's for Alky and then he installed a moon tank.  Edwards removed the tailgate and front bumper, filled the tank and headed to the line.  The car's exhaust went out two Ford torque tubes up the side of the cab, with no mufflers, and driven like that all the way from California.

      Off he went, breaking loose as far as I could see him.  The loudspeaker announced that he went over 150 mph on his first run.  Just one problem, he had a stick in the '40, but a hydro in the truck.  Edwards went though the clocks, kicked it out of gear, shut off the engine and BANG; when the oil pressure dropped the bands and clutches locked up!  Bill got a ride to Salt Lake City and bought many parts, sat on a large tarp and rebuilt the hydro just in time to drive back to Los Angeles at the end of the week.  On the line was a fuel-burning Triumph with a five foot long flat seat and flat bars.  A short rider climbed on with his feet pointing back, in nothing but a Cromwell (pressed paper) helmet and a tight bathing suit.  Going for the clean Aero package (not many rules then).  When he got back he said that at the speed he was going (140+ range) that the only part of him touching the bike was his hands on the bars!  Who's ready to try that?  Bobby Kenton climbed into a fully streamlined bike with the engine running, and two guys running alongside to balance it.  As the bike pulled away from them it starts to wobble.  At about 50 mph the bike goes over, flipping end over end.  They dragged him out soaking wet with fuel, but luckily for him there was no fire!

      Howard Johansen was there with another of his weird dreams.  A twin boom streamliner, two small tubes, about 3 feet apart, one for two wheels and the driver; the other for 2 wheels and the engine, transmission and rear end, only a couple of 3 inch tubes holding them together!  Worked all week with, I think, rear end problems.  I don't know if he ever got a time.  Two more notable cars were there; the Mabee Drilling Company's Streetliner from Texas, which was a sports car built from scratch with an unblown Chrysler.  It went 200 mph, and may have been on fuel.  The other entry was from Clark Cagle and Belmont Sanchez in their 1953 Studebaker.  It had an unaltered body, but was completely gutted and set low.  It had an unblown Chrysler engine, running on fuel and it also ran right at around 200 mph.  Its most unique feature was two (about) six inch tubes that started under the center of the car, passing up at an angle to the rear to exit the car at the low pressure area at the base of the rear window.   This neatly vacuumed the air from under the car (many years before Jim Hall's cars).  This first started me thinking about ground effects.

      In 1954 no one thought much about water.  You might see a car with a canvas bag hanging in the front of the radiator.  We didn't either, but some local service group had donated a couple thousand gallon steel tank on the salt flat that was filled each day.   The waster from the spigot was about 100 degrees, but luckily for about 25 cents someone was selling large snow-cones, so we would buy one and ran over to the spigot and let it run into our cones and then we drank from the straw until the ice was gone!  Those were the days!  Two neat street cars that cruised town at night, both Cad powered, were a '52 Olds and a Cad Coupe DeVille.  Both cars ran in the 135 to 140 mph range.  One belonged to George Cerneys.  There were a lot of cars like these that drove all the way here to Bonneville and then ran on the salt flats and afterwards were used to drive home.  I remember Barney Navarro, sitting on a camp stool, in front of a Coleman stove with a piston on top, gas welding a hole in it.  It was from his blown flathead.  Lots of that was going around then; when racing down the 5 mile long course they would get hot and lean out.  I think we were just learning to run more clearance, bearings and pistons to make 5 miles at full bore.

     There was a chopped '32 coupe, and the car was not fast enough for the competition coupe class, so the driver with 2X4s, cardboard and masking tape (before duct tape) built an addition on the top to go back to stock body class (I don't know if it worked though).  Art Chrisman also ran a '32 hi-boy roadster, #177, as nice as the coupe!  The Bean Bandits ran their dragster.  Ak Miller raced his '49 Cad sedan and his needle nose T roadster, with a 4 foot spun aluminum point in front.  The Kenz-Lesley streamliner had top time, I think, at nearly 240 mph.  I built my twin to run E Lakester class in 1956.  It had a quick change and swing axles, but ran out of money so I changed it to go drag racing instead.