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George Calloway Interview Part II

George Calloway Interview Part II


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. Calloway is the Mayor of El Mirage, Calif., a city that is one of the cradles of hot rodding. Calloway, 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 2 of the interview covers about six more minutes of hot rodding history. See Part I here.

Another view of George Calloway at PRI.

HRHL: George, a lot of Bonneville racers came here to the 2015 PRI Show to attend a seminar about the future of Land Speed racing. What do you know about the “Save the Salt” problems and efforts to fix them?

GC: Well, when I went to Bonneville for the first time, in 1954, the salt was over 18 inches thick. Ok, so due to the mining, now, after 60 years, the salt is gone. What they do with the mining is that it rains in the wintertime and the salt flats flood and this dilutes the salt. So, they dug a ditch all along there and the water runs into the ditch and then they pump it out across the street (south of I80) in a drying pond. So, after 60 years of doing this, all the salt (at the speedway section) is gone.  

HRHL: What is the condition of the salt on Bonneville Speedway itself?

GC: Well, we’d like to have a 13-mile course to race on. It’s down to seven miles and miles 8 and 9 are just all dirt. For the past two years, we haven’t been able to get on the salt and I have a strong suspicion that if we have El Niño, like they’re talking about, we may not be able to race there next year, in 2016.

HRHL: Getting back to the history of Bonneville, when we were there we bumped into Ross Leslie. He was related to Bill Kenz and Roy Leslie, who were the first hot rodders to go 200 mph in 1950. Since you’re a member of the 200 MPH Club, did you ever meet them?

GC: I knew of them, but I never met them. Don’t forget that I was just a kid when I went to Bonneville that first time. Those guys were already well-known hot rodders. Also, there’s a lot of guys like them that I didn’t get to know at that time.

HRHL: What do you think drove people like Kenz and Leslie, and the other early racers who you did know, to the Salt Flats?

GC: Way back when, they started bicycle races at Bonneville in 1914 or 1915. And then, they did a lot of endurance type things there. Guys were always racing at Daytona Beach for the land speed thing. But, then they got going too fast, so, they needed a bigger, longer, flatter place to race. And that’s how they got away from Daytona Beach and started using Bonneville in 1949. There were 50 original hot rodders who went to Bonneville that year, so they call them the “’49-ers.” And I was too young and I didn’t go until 1953 or race until 1954.

HRHL: How has the experience of going to Bonneville changed over time?

GC: Mostly the speeds are up. In the old days, 200 mph was a big deal. That’s how the Bonneville 200 mph Club got started. But, now 200 mph is nothing. You can just buy your Dodge Charger off the showroom floor and go damn near 200 mph. So, now they have the 3 Club (300 mph) and the 4 Club (400 mph). There’s just a few people in the 4 Club, but there’s a lot of people getting into the 3 Club That’s a club for drivers who average 300 mph   

HRHL: How do they figure the average speed?

GC: When we did it, we went out one day and exceeded the record and we qualified. Then, the next morning, we had to wait and we went out and ran down again within one hour. Then, we had to turn around and do it in the opposite direction. Now, this was all done for the international record. That’s the way the FIA is—within one hour you’ve got to return. And you’ve also got to do it within the same real estate.

HRHL: George, what do you mean by “within the same real estate”?

GC: Well, if you go down in mile 5, you have to back up for five miles so that you’re going the same speed again in Mile 5, but in the other direction. Then, that’s considered a two-way average. So, that’s what we did. We actually made three runs. We went 203 mph down and blew the motor up. We fixed the motor and returned again and blew it up again going back. We were just kids and we built our own fuel injection system. It didn’t work. It kept leaning out the mixture and we lost pistons. So, anyway, we leaned it out going back and we went 200 mph going back. That gave us a 201.58 mph average. That was the first coupe to go 200 mph. It was a ’49 Crosley and we were just kids.

HRHL: It sounds like Bonneville was more about engines back then and less about high-tech things?

GC: Yes that’s true and today the speed is increasing and increasing. Like I said, 200 mph was a big deal in the old days and now, if you’re not going 300 mph . . . But, you will never see a land speed record set out in Bonneville again.

 HRHL: Why do you say that no land speed records will be set at Bonneville?

GC: The Land Speed Record is 764 mph (actually 763.035). It was set by Andy Green and that was done over at Black Rock Desert. Nobody is building 700 mph rubber tires. The original Thrust (Green’s car was called the ThrustSSC) came to Bonneville, before Andy discovered Black Rock Desert. It ran 500 mph on the salt and that broke all the brackets in the car because it’s got aluminum wheels and they ran into harmonics and vibrations in the car. When Andy runs again, it will be down in Africa—South Africa—I think. There’s a big lake bed down there and they’ve got to run in soft dirt because they use aluminum wheels, not tires.

Over 200 people attended the seminar on land speed racing during the PRI Show.

In Part 3 of this interview you’ll hear about George’s experiences with Art Afrons, the Sommers Brothers and Athol Graham. He talks about working for the Southern California Timing Assoc. at Bonneville and about the fleet of ’29 Ford roadsters that he races there today. George also touches on the collectibility of Bonneville and drag racing memorabilia.