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George Callaway - Part One

George Callaway - Part One
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Hot Rod Hotline had the pleasure of spending time with George Callaway at the Performance Racing Industry Show in Indianapolis the second week in December. Callaway is the Mayor of El Mirage, Calif., a city that is one of the cradles of hot rodding. Callaway, 83, became a hot rodder in the early 1950s and started racing at Bonneville in 1953. We talked to George for about 22 minutes. Part 1 of the interview covers about six minutes of hot rod history.

HRHL: Are you really the mayor of El Mirage or is that just a nickname?

GC: Yes, I really am the Mayor. I have been Mayor for 15 years. It's not easy today. We have financial problems like a lot of other cities, but the Southern California Timing Assoc. (SCTA) has six meets there a year and that helps.

HRHL: You were into drag racing?

GC: Yes, Tom Paxton and I had a rocket-powered drag car in the '70s. It's still hanging on the wall of the NHRA (National Hot Rod Assoc.) Museum in Pomona.

HRHL: What about Bonneville?

GC: My involvement with Bonneville started in 1954.

HRHL: What made you go to the 1954 Bonneville meet??

GC: Hot Rodding was a big deal. Burbank, where I grew up, was the hub of hot rodding back then. So, I got interested in cars. I was working at Lockheed and they brought in this new employee named Ted Worobieff. I was the lead man and I asked him what his work experience was. He said that he used to be a machinist and that he had just got back from Bonneville. I had read Hot Rod magazine and I knew about Bonneville and I asked him, "You just got back from Bonneville?" He said that he had gone there and it didn't hurt his car. He had a '32 Coupe with an Oldsmobile V-8 in it nd he said, "Let's go drag racing." So, we'd go to Santa Ana every Sunday. On the way back, we'd talk a lot. One day, he said, "Let's build a comp coupe and go to Bonneville." So, that's when we built a '34 Ford. That was in '53 and we went to the Salt Flats for the first time in '54 with a '34 Ford running a blown Oldsmobile V-8.

HRHL: How fast did you go that time?

GC: I think we only went 138 mph, but we were just kids. What we did was put four (Stromberg) 97 carburetors and a blower in the car. With a blower we couldn't get enough fuel to it. So, we took the jet wells out and put in fittings for a secondary fuel system. After we got it going, I'd pump it up with a hand pump and open the valve - it was just a quarter turn valve - and it would "bubble" because it was rich. Then, as I got going down the course - I'd keep shutting the valve off until it cleaned itself out and ran. It didn't work for beans, but we were just kids and we didn't know any better.

HRHL: What other early hot rodders did you know?

GC: I knew most all of them, because we all grew up in Burbank. I knew a lot of the early Bonneville guys. Alex Xydias of So-Cal Speed Shop lived right around the corner from me. And so did Kent Eenterly who does the injectors. I've known Kent for years. And Isky (Ed Iskendarian). Way back when SEMA started, I was going to the drag races every weekend. When I went to SEMA I would know somebody in every booth. They were the same people I saw at the drag races on the weekends. I knew a lot of people at SEMA back then. I know nobody at SEMA now. I went there seven years ago and Nick Arias was the only one I knew there. At PRI I know a few more people - some of my old friends and also land speed racing friends.

HRHL: What's the fastest you've ever gone?

GC: I did 191 at El Mirage and 218 at Bonneville. That was in a '69 Mustang with a blown 300-inch Chrysler V-8. The motor was set back to make the car look like a funny car. The motor was under the windshield. But, I haven't raced now in probably 30 years.

HRHL: Tell me about racing at El Mirage in the old days.

GC: Before World War II, the hot rodders used to race at Murac Dry Lake. In September of 1941 the Army Air Force said no to future racing. They were doing secret stuff there. (Note: It became a U.S. Government military aircraft test center and later became Edwards Air Force Base.) Then, World War II came along and there was no racing anywhere. After WWII ended, the hot rodders needed a place to go. They looked at Rosamond and Harper Dry Lake, but they wound up at El Mirage.

HRHL: Tell me about racing at El Mirage today.

GC: We still run a mile and a third the same as they did 60 years ago, so that all the records stay the same. We race six times a year there. We have a two-day meet in May and one-day meets in June and July. Then, we go to Bonneville - which is our Daytona or Indy 500 - in August. We have 550 entries there and have to run four tracks to accommodate everyone who wants to run. Then, we come back in September to El Mirage, before returning to Bonneville for the "World Finals" in October. Then, we run at El Mirage in October and November.

HRHL: What are the differences between Bonneville and El Mirage?

GC: Number one, El Mirage is dirt, and number two, the course there is only a mile and a third. At Bonneville, you have a two-mile approach, then three one-mile segments. So, at Bonneville, you basically run five miles.

(In Part 2 of this interview you'll hear what George thinks about the environmental problems at Bonneville todaya nd learn more about the history of hot rodders on the Salt Flats.)