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Stormy Byrd

Stormy Byrd
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New Zealand on a smoker. © 2012 Earl Edwards

I was given the name Robert "Stormy" Byrd and was born in December, 1956 to Robert and Mary Byrd in Gardena, California.  I have a younger brother, Tim Byrd, who was born in 1958.  My nickname is Stormy, which I received from my family because of my temper, and is what everyone calls me.  I grew up in the South Bay area of Los Angeles and then moved to the San Fernando Valley in 1969.  My parents were your typical 1950’s couple who met in High School.  My dad would serve time in the Air Force from 1957-60 as a F104 mechanic then after his service he was stationed up at Vandenberg Air Force base to develop satellite spy photos from 1960-61.  Around 1962, he went to work for North American Aviation as a photographer.  Much of the work he did was tedious and boring shooting panels as they assembled the Apollo at the Downey plant for record keeping.  However, he got to meet and shoot all of the Astronauts, The Queen of England when she visited the facility along with other dignitaries such as President Reagan, California Governors Brown and Deukmejian, Chuck Yeager, and Roy Rodgers, the entire cast of Star Trek when they rolled out the Enterprise.   I inherited 30,000 photos and other NAA and NASA memorabilia when my dad passed in March of 2003, just nine days after our mom passed away.  Our mother was just your average housewife and single mom when they divorced after 10 years of marriage in 1966, and then worked as a waitress till the 1980's when she retired.

My father took my brother Tim and I to Lions Drag Strip in mid-1966 on a cool Saturday night.  As I stepped through the grandstands I saw before me a stage which I did not know existed and was introduced to sensory overload as a blown red 1941 Willy's blasted down Lions 1320; the hook was in and there would be no turning back.  I always liked hot rods, growing up I would spend all night assembling plastic model cars at my grandparent's house in Torrance where I could hear the roar of that magical place at 223rd and Alameda Streets on still nights. Lion’s was the greatest drag strip ever.  There was an aura about the beach, especially at night.  It was magical as they would push the cars onto the rollers; this was after the push starts were stopped.  The cars would sit there and the lights would dim as the rollers churned at huge slicks on asphalt warriors.  As the tires gathered speed, drivers would let the clutch out engaging and spinning the engine, you would see the butterflies flick open as they engine built oil pressure and primed the engine with a shot of nitro. You could hear air being sucked into its lungs and… WHOP!  The driver would hit the mag, igniting the volatile mix in the tank.  The driver would pull slowly from the rollers and stop as a crewman put bleach under the rear wheels…and Waaaap!  He would hit the throttle spinning the massive slicks heating and cleaning them though this racer elixir for 20 feet.  Slowly those fire-breathing Leviathans would pull to the line. 


New Zealand after winning Nostalgia Eliminator 1 7.50 index. © 2012 Earl Edwards

I remember standing against the fence in the cool night air, mere feet from Wild Willie Borsch, as he would bring the rpm up.  I remember the warmth of the nitro fumes against my face as all eight candles lit and he sidestepped the clutch. This was one car that literally shook terra firma.  I recall Warren, Coburn & Miller, and the “Ridge Route Terrors” performing the same ballet.  Beebe & Mulligan, Mike Sorokin, Jungle Jim, Leland Kolb, Jack Chrisman, Al Vander Woude, Leon Fitzgerald, Mike Snively, Larry Dixon, Rick Steward, Bobby Hightower, Gary Gabelich, Stone/Woods & Cook, Holy Toledo, The Invader, Red Mountain Boys, American Bandstand, Baby Doll, The Fireside Inn, The Howard Cam Rattler, Magnificent 7, Beaver Hunter, Groundshaker, Goldfinger, Malco Gasser, Aggravation, The Wasp, Special K, The Gas House Gang, Freight Train, Odd Couple, USA1, Green Mamba, Green Monster and thousands more which will live in my memory forever because Lions was a magical plot of earth.  

Starting in 1969 I began racing motorcycles with our step dad Bill Hamilton, who was my fourth cousin and a great guy that my Mother married in 1969.  First I raced a Honda 50 mini trail then a Honda 90 Dirt/street bike, followed by a Sachs 125 'Cross Country.'  They were great desert bikes popular in the early 1970's; Triumph 500 twin, and the Honda 305 Scrambler.  They were raced in the desert along with a 250 Honda Elsinore.  I was an amateur racer in motocross racing venues around the high desert areas, which included El Mirage, Saddle Back, Indian Dunes, and Red Rock Canyon.  I even raced at Muntz's Raceway out in Moorpark in the 1970's.   Look up Earl "Madman" Muntz's crazy history at www.Wikipedia.  Muntz was a radio and TV personality who designed the car 8-track system. 


March Meet 2012. © 2010 Collection of Stormy Byrd

I attended Sequoia Junior High from 1969 through 1972 and then transferred to Reseda High School in 1973, graduating in 1975.  Some of my friends were Tom Garcia, Jim Gray, Kathy Karwosky Gray, Chris Cain, Russell Gifford, Felise Apparis, Lisa Hawkins, Pauly Nelson, Tim Callahan, Bill Castillo, Kristy Scott, and Bob Shea to name a few who I still talk with.  A few of these people were and are car enthusiasts; however none have the full-blown disease that I acquired. I then went on to Pierce College taking welding and completed a two-year auto mechanic apprenticeship under a master mechanic and earned an ASE certification.  I worked for A&R Maintenance with Bill Castillo, cleaning buildings and machine shops in the tenth grade in 1973.  When I was a junior and senior in 1974 and '75 I worked Monday through Fridays from 3 to 10 PM after school at Richard’s Texaco in Tarzana, pumping gas, doing minor repairs, oil changes, etc, and on Saturday from 8-5 PM.  I had two cars, a 1962 VW and a 1965 Ford Ranchero w/built 289 and Top loader 4-speed, a bank account, paid rent to my parents and for my insurance, credit cards, a girl friend and lived the life any 17 year old dreams of. In 1976 I started working for C&F Auto in Van Nuys driving a truck hauling auto parts around town.  I went to work for Henry's German Car Service from 1977 to 1984 where I did a two year apprenticeship and then ran the engine and transmission shop in Canoga Park.  I went back to work for Richard's Auto Service from 1984 to '88 in Tarzana with Dennis Ankenbauer.  I was a front end specialist, brake specialist and Heavy Duty Mechanic for the same owner of the Texaco station that I worked for when I was in high school.  In 1988, I worked for Robert Stapp Automotive as their Manager and A/C specialist and doing engine, transmission and custom cars for our clients.  We specialized in 1966 Hemi Charger, 1962 409 Chevy's, custom trucks, auto's, fabrication, welding, suspension, and rear-end set-ups.  I left there in 2005 to work as a fleet truck mechanic for Prudential Overall Supply in Moorpark, California, as their plant safety instructor, fabrication and welding shop, where I am still employed as of 2014.


Barona Drag Strip, start of a full track burnout to the finish line. Collection of Stormy Byrd.

In high school, I would go through a series of cars cruising Van Nuys Blvd on Wednesday only miles from my house.   I did some illegal street racing along the way but in the mid 1970's I would go legit and race my 1962 VW at the old Irwindale Raceway along with my 1965 Ford Ranchero.  My brother Tim, who has always liked cars and had some customs (a restored 1952 Chevy Custom, a 1959 Chevy Nomad wagon with 348 and 3 deuces, which was our tow car for years), also rode dirt bikes the same time I did and is a fantastic fabricator of anything you can put in front of him.  Tim and I built a 1933 Bantam roadster to race at Irwindale, however that was short lived with the track's closing in 1977 so we cut the roll cage off, glassed the body back in and went back to the street getting the car tagged and legal.   We got the urge to put the big pedal down again, Realizing I would likely end up dead in this street fuel altered, we sold it and I partnered up with my longtime cohort Dennis Ankenbauer.  I first met Dennis at the Texaco station I worked at in Tarzana in 1974.  He was a gearhead and we became friends on the spot.  We would build a series of streetcars, which would include a 1968 Camaro w/built 383 and 4-speed, a 1967 El Camino w/HiPo 396 and Muncie 4 speed, a 1973 Chevy Vega wagon with a 350-ci engine and 3 deuces as a “Street Sleeper.”   These and more would often do battle on the streets unfortunately.

In early 1984, we found and purchased a mid-1960's RCS (Frank Huzar’s Race Car Specialties) rolling chassis which would eventually become “Strange Brew,” a car we still run today, but that's another story in itself with its metamorphosis over the last 30+ years.  About a year into building and running “Strange Brew” I hung up my gloves (actually sold them) and went back to motorcycle racing as I had done since 1969 on and off.  Frank “Ol Man’ Huzar was one of the great characters in drag racing, building dragsters, funny cars and altered chassis out of his Tarzana shop on Oxnard Street which would include neighbors H&H Racecraft (Tin works), Valley Head Service, Continental Tube Bending, Starky’s Porting and more Hi Performance shops.  Frank was a gentleman and employed some of the best names in drag racing to help build RCS cars.


Winning at Barona Drag Strip that day. Collection of Stormy Byrd & Barona Dragstrip.

Then came the day my brother Tim read an ad in the newspaper in early 1985, “135- inch Dragster with full body for sale at $700.”   We went over and my first impression was this was the weirdest and ugliest car I'd ever seen with its full aluminum shark nose on it.  We offered the guy $650, which he accepted and then we threw it in the back of the El Camino and took it home.  Sitting there looking at this anachronism, it grew on me like a wart.  It was different, yet cool; all unto itself.  Fact is I almost cut the aluminum nose off it the first night; thank goodness I didn’t, as this Kenny Ellis masterpiece would be “Revelation's” signature at the track. Within five months I had a small block Chevy with Enderle fuel injection and a powerglide trans between the rails along with updating the roll cage from a 3-point to a 5.  The first time out at my home track, which was Los Angeles County Raceway, also known as LACR, Bernie Longjohn who was the owner and manager, came up and asked me, "So what the hell is the history behind this thing?"  At that point I had little information on the car, but I would soon begin to find out its rich history.   I made 13 passes that day getting my NHRA license and finished it up three weeks later as I broke the ring and pinion on lucky run number 13. Bernie Longjohn had previously run another track back in Massachusetts after a stint with the Air Force.  He came out west to manage a High desert track before taking the reins of Antelope Valley Raceway around 1980.  Bernie renamed the track Los Angeles County Raceway successfully until its closing in July of 2007.  LACR would also become a major player in the renaissance ‘Nostalgia movement.’  Originally built in 1964 as Palmdale International Raceway, LACR also has the distinction of never having a fatality in its 42 years of service to the community.  As a former editorial contributor to Full Throttle News, see my story, ‘A Diamond in the Rough’ at www.savelacr.org.  I continue to write on occasion for Ol Skool Rodz Magazine and have an online column at Nostalgia Drag World.

Once licensed I would find that the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) had no class for my leviathan, so my old partner Dennis and I would flop a roadster body on “Strange Brew” to be the Yin to “Revelation's” Yang.  We matched raced from Carlsbad to Fremont doing our own thing at these Nostalgia events.   The Nostalgia craze had not taken off yet and looking back at what we paid for the car, $650 wouldn't buy one of the Moon wire wheels on the front of my racecar nowadays. During the 1980's I had begun to piece together the car's history, which would include winning at the 1966 March Meet in its class, which was CM/FR.   It was a Drag News record holder in 1966 and when chassis/tinman Kenny Ellis formed the aluminum Sharknose for it in 1966 it was the 'Bell Auto Parts Special' under the owner/builder Bill 'The Sheepherder' Ehrel, who was a La Mirada fireman along with Ellis and current NHRA Big Show owner Big Jim Dunn.  In 1967, Bill would rename the car 'The Rounders' after a cowboy sitcom series he liked on TV.  The car would be put out to pasture in 1969, but not before running a best of 7.69 @ 203mph.  It would sit for years before being sold twice until the movie studios purchased it for the 'More American Graffiti' film project.  However, the car was not needed nor abused when we found and purchased it from that studio person that placed the ad for the car. 


On the set of the Snake & Mongoo$e Movie, Bakersfield. Collection of Stormy Byrd. © 2013 Entertainment Universe,  Courtesy of Snake & Mongoose Movie 

Kenny Ellis was a true craftsman and built chassis, which would include two 3-wheeled front engine dragsters with a single front wheel for steering, one had a Chevy the other a Hemi.  Kenny would become one of the premier aluminum body builders in the 1960’s and '70’s along with driving his car as well as other cars.   His most radical ride was in Duane Lidtke’s twin engine Top Gas dragster that they would eventually run on nitro at events such as the Ventura Drags held on the Airport runway in the 1970’s.

It was in the latter 1980's when Bernie Longjohn began putting on a series of Nostalgia races at LACR that we made the switch from gas to alcohol because gas was hard to tune in the high desert. Once on an alky diet I got the idea of putting a little 'pop' in the tank and went down to the local speed shop in Canyon Country and bought what we called a 'Six Pack.'  It was a cardboard box with six 1-gallon cans of 100% nitro.  We dumped 10% in and we were hooked, eventually running up to 75% in the years to come as we match raced everywhere.



    
New Zealand magazine feature on us going to New Zealand to race, first American Team since 1977. © 2010 Anna Marco, © 2012 Tyler & Jeff Stevens. Reprint Courtesy of NZV8 Magazine # 90. Nov. 2012

It was at the 1997 Pomona Goodguys Nitro Nationals that I would qualify on the 16- car bubble and lose in the first round on Sunday as my weak 60% mixture and antiquated injectors were barely letting me in the field.   “Strange Brew” and “Revelation” would have one more match race at LACR on nitro with “Strange Brew” puking two rods out and oiling Bernie's 1320-foot track.  Dennis was broke and I needed to build a blown engine if I was to be competitive in a class we helped build from just five cars to thirty cars in the Nostalgia Eliminator 1, 7.50 index class.  “Strange Brew” would sit for years in my garage as I only had funds to build one engine. I discovered that the transition from injected to blown was a hard one as the only pieces I could use were the block and magneto.  Once we got it all together however she had new life and “Revelation” was back in the hunt.  Since the switch from injected nitro to blown alky the car has won various local meets.  It has been in dozens of magazines and I booked it to match race at various events and was also in the SNAKE & MONGOO$E movie along with Randy Winkle’s Green Go fuel coupe. On the Snake & Mongoo$e movie, Randy and I not only drove our cars in the movie (see opening credits), but we were the technical consultants and built props. We also were chosen to go to New Zealand for a 2012 American Nitro Tour. For me, this was an honor as there had not been an American tour since Dave Condit took the “LA Hooker” to New Zealand in 1977.  Condit was the nephew of drag racer Gene Beaver who fielded a series of Top Fuel cars in the 1960’s and '70’s and would sell newcomer John Force his first funny car.  Condit was a local So Cal drag racer that would drive for uncle Gene and his series of LA Hooker F/C’s.
    


Anna & I in New Zealand with our poster.  © 2012 Tyler & Jeff Stevens. (c) Addl photos by Pam Conrad & Roger Rohrdanz.

I need to mention and thank all those who helped me in my racing career.  It’s an extensive list and I couldn’t have done it without all the help and support I have received from friends, sponsors and like minded racing fiends because we are all in it together. Forgive me If I missed anyone, it’s not intentional: Tim Byrd (my brother who has helped me since 1985 and his son Brian), Robert Ottis Byrd (my father who got involved with the car in 1990 and stayed with us until 2003), Randy Winkle (friend & racing partner, owner of Famoso Speed Shop, Famoso Mob), Dennis Ankenbauer (my partner and co-worker from 1975 to the present), Dave King (my friend since 1988), John Winters (my transmission guru 1985-90), Art Carr of Art Carr’s Transmission (friend and sponsor and transmission guru from 2005), Larry Ofria,(a dear friend and sponsor and owner of Valley Head Service who helped me since 2009. Also his son Gino Ofria and the VHS team consisting of Ruben, Brian, Alex and Joe 'Spike' Amorelli (a friend of 30+ years and former lead singer and founder of band 'Lil Elmo & the Comos').


Revelation in 1968 as 'The Rounders' BF/MR @ Lions.© 1966.  Collection of Stormy Byrd.

Let’s not forget Joel Gruzen (my team leader and partner for “Strange Brew” since 1995), Ken Lee, my crew chief since 2009, Dave Tuttle (from California Chassis Engineering and is a long time friend since 1988), artist/friend Tom Fox, Dereck Lasmet (driver of “Strange Brew” since 1988), Rod Hynes (AA/FA owner, driver and historian since 1985), Richard Heath (owner/publisher of Full Throttle News, who helped us since 1994), Andy Morocco (friend and sponsor since 2000), Bob and Heather Sanders (friends and sponsors since 2005), Dave Percell (Dave's Gaskets ,a friend and sponsor), Jerry Cantrell of Schneider Cams ( a good friend and sponsor), Anna “Octane” Marco (Back-up girl from 2010 to present), Marshall and Jason of Welding Works (friends for 25 years) and last but not least my cohorts from the Famoso Mob: Dusty Clark & James. And then there are machinists Frank Kristen and Leroy Fox, John Hashim from M&H Tires, friends and past sponsors Joe and Delma Reath, Eddy Flournoy (friend and crew member), Tracy Terry (friend and painter), Tom 'Itchy' Otis (a friend of 28 years who pinstriped the car in 1986 and then again in 2010), Bob 'Homer' Thompson (a friend and letter guru), Rocky Phillips (Friend & Promoter of Eagle Field Drags), John & Blake Bowser, Bernie Longjohn, Joe Hansen (owner of DJ Safety/Deist Safety, a friend and sponsor who's helped immensely), Cliff Wright ( friend of 25+ years and the former owner of 'Wright-On' an A/FA NE1 1923-T Altered. Also big thanks to photographers Darrell & Pam Conrad, Roger Rohrdanz & Lou Hart, NHRA announcers Bob Beck, John Matijasic & Mike English for their endless humor based running commentary on race days. And finally I want to thank Al 'Mousie' Marcellus, our friend for 25 years and who has been giving me parts for my car, including the rear 11-15 Halibrands off the 'Winged Express’ and artist Tom Hunnicutt (friend, crewman, Revelation merchandise artist), Joe Ogel (a friend and sponsor) and last but never least, the man who made it possible and who the car is on loan from.... Jesus Christ. 


My other car 'Strange Brew' we built in 84 with our new driver (2012) Eily Stafford. © 2012 Anna Marco

Recently, “Revelation” ran at Eagle Field airbase up in Dos Palos, California, booked to match race Rich Guasco's “Pure Hell” in a 2 out of 3 event.  “Revelation” took the 2 out of 3 but not before spitting a rod out in the process.  Was it worth it?  Hell, yes.  Meanwhile, I still remember the phone number to Lions nirvana to this day…424-0961.  This car, “Revelation,” has defined my life.  It is my link between that magical place known as ‘The Beach’ and myself, my memories and my calling.  This car is a rare vintage, raised on those hallowed grounds at 223’rd & Alameda and it must be uncorked on occasion and shared.  As long as this car lives, a part of Lions will exist in the Universe; my Universe.

Future plans for 2015 include participating at the March Meet (March 2015, Famoso Raceway/Bakersfield CA), Dragfest #4 (May 2015/Bakersfield), Eagle Field Hot Rod Gathering (May/Dos Palos CA), and ANRA race series (Bakersfield/ April, June, July and August.) I plan to race at Fontana Autoclub Raceway, if noise dates are available and participate at the Montrose car show in July and the Sturgis Motorcycle run in South Dakota. In August, I am booked for exhibition races and will return to Lodi Drag Strip. In September, it’s the Melt-Down Drags (Byron, IL). In October, I will be at Eagle Field /Lions race then back to Famoso for the California Hot Rod Reunion. In December, find me at The Mooneyes Christmas Party & Drags and possibly another tour to New Zealand for the second 'Yankee Invasion' at Taupo Motorsports Park. I am honored to be known as “The Ambassador of Nostalgia Drag Racing.”
So why did I do all this working, sweating and saving for 38 years just to race?  It’s because I’m in it for the duration.  “Drag or Die” is what my tattoo says.  Contact Stormy at: www.facebook.com/stormy.byrd.5

Gone Racin' is at [email protected]