Sunday, June 5, 2016

El Mirage SCTA Races - May 2016

Well, my packing blanket may have done me right in Fillmore, elevation 456, but turned out to be woefully inadequate for camping at the 2900 foot elevation of El Mirage.  I fell asleep pretty quickly, but woke up every hour or so until 5AM when I just said to heck with it and got up.

The first runs weren't scheduled until 7, so I headed back into Victorville to see if I could find a cup of coffee.  The 25 minute ride into town was way different than it had been the night before.  I'd thought I was driving in the middle of nowhere, but there were quite a few patches of houses - small, scrubby desert neighborhoods that looked about like the desert towns I remember riding through as a kid when we went camping back in the '70s.  The dawn light was amazing - it made everything seem like an abandoned set for some Jim Jarmusch film.
I got coffee, a banana and a Clif bar and headed back to the Dry Lakes.  Forty minutes later I was  standing on the lakebed, surrounded by a crazy collection of machinery.

Unlike Bonneville, where each track is set up waaay far apart from the others, the tracks at El Mirage start right next to each other.  This is great for spectators because the racers were all lined up in three or four lines, right by the SCTA trailer, which announced each time (although you could also tune into a hyperlocal radio station for the same broadcast if you were in other parts of the lakes.)  At Bonneville I was sure I'd run into Crosley racer Gerald Davenport, but I never did, because he was running at a track miles away from where I spent most of my time.  That would never happen at El Mirage - everything was pretty tightly condensed.
I looked around for John's car but didn't see anything matching the description he'd given me: a 27-foot-long unpainted aluminum lakester with a big fin.... seems like it would be easy to spot, but I wasn't seeing it.  He called as I was ogling all the other gunk and guided me over to where they were.
I've sorta known John McKnight for almost 20 years, but this was only the second time we'd ever seen each other in person.  I say I 'sorta' knew him because we've been trading emails since the late nineties when I sent him some photos of a Crosley station wagon he'd bought on Ebay.

This was back in the dark ages, when many Ebay listings didn't actually have photos.  A '49 wagon project came up for auction in Guerneville, CA.  I'd emailed the seller for details, but there weren't many; he was selling the car for his friend's widow, and neither knew much about it.  He did say that the car was parked on the side of the house and I could go look at it.

I was mostly interested in the brakes. This was back when I was using my '49 Crosley convertible as a daily driver, and the cable brakes were the bane of my existence.  Swapping to discs (correct for most 1949 Crosleys) was high on my priority list at the time.  Given that the starting bid was something like $150 I figured I couldn't go wrong.  I borrowed someone's 'real' car and drove out to Guerneville, getting good and lost on the way, so I didn't get to the house until just before dark.  I don't remember too much about the car except that it did have discs and seemed fairly straight. I took some polaroids with a flash and headed home.

When the auction ended a couple of days later the car had gone up to about $300.  I bid $350 at the very last second, only to lose the car by $1. I immediately emailed the winner, (you could do that back then - not now) who turned out to be John McKnight. I told him I'd be interested in buying the stock parts if he was planning to hotrod it, and offered to send him pictures of the car since he was in Arizona and had bought it sight-unseen.  He said he wasn't sure what his plans were, but that he'd keep me posted.  Eighteen years later, here we are standing on the dry lakes, still talking about Crosleys.

Crosleys are only a part of John's automotive interest. He's been hotrodding since the sixties, and has been a fan of speed trial racing for a long time.  In fact, the only other time we've met in person was when we were both at Bonneville in 2009.
He's been telling me about this lakester he's been crewing for for a couple of years.  It's a BEAST, powered by a big block Chevy. The car has gone over 225mph at Bonneville, but they are breaking in a new driver so today's goal is just to get some seat-time in and get him familiar with the car.  As a Dry Lakes 'rookie,' the new driver has to raise his times in 25MPH increments, starting at 150.

We stood around, waiting for the racing to start.  I'd heard awful stories about the wind and dust at the Dry Lakes, but it wasn't bad at all.  I knew it would get hot later in the day, but with the wind it was almost brisk, with a bit of moisture in the air, which probably made all the carbureted cars happy.
Around 7:30, an official came out and started making announcements over the loudspeakers, with details about the tracks, notes for drivers, etc.  I got a vivid reminder that SCTA is an organization with roots that go way back: everyone quieted down as a guy in camo shorts offered a solemn Christian prayer, and then they wrapped everything up with an ancient recording of the national anthem.  Took me right back to when I was a kid and it seemed like everything started that way.
People started making runs, and the lines moved along quickly.  There was a wide variety of iron, ranging from streamliners and lakesters, to hotrods, to cars that looked ready for the street.  Plenty of bikes too - neat oddball stuff like stretch bikes, bikes with sidecars and tiny single-cylinder screamers.

John's lakester came up in the rookie line and got the once over from the officials.  The driver was cleared for 175, but no more.  They got him stuffed into the fuselage - a tight fit - sealed the cockpit, and waited for the signal that they were clear to go.  John and the rest of the crew hopped into the push truck and off they went!
Once they faded into the distance I wandered around to check out some of the other machinery.  There was an amazing vintage special parked in the shade of the SCTA box - open wheels, hand-formed body, Merc flathead with header pipes running down the side of the car - just an all-business thing of beauty.  The shift setup alone was just mesmerizing.
I'd never seen the car before, but I guessed it was an original fifties sports car special, built when American racers were obsessed with making American cars to compete with the flashy new Ferraris, Porsches and Jaguars coming over from Europe.  Given that this was an SCTA event, an old sports racer wouldn't be out of place.  I looked it up when I go home, and my guess was correct. The Adler XF/VOT was built in 1952 and was raced at Laguna Seca and Willow Springs back in the day.  (The Gentleman Racer has some good photos and details.)
I poked around a bit more and then headed over to John's pit to see if they were back.  They were just rolling up, surprisingly blasé for guys running a car that had just gone 175MPH.  I guess the excitement happens when you break either the car or a record.

While I've wanted to go to El Mirage for years, there was also an ulterior motive for this trip.  A few years back I'd located and then picked up a Crosley roadster body and frame for John.  After everything had been delivered he realized he didn't need the frame and wanted to run an ad in the club newsletter to sell it - ironically, I'd been ogling the frame when I picked it up, because it had been modified for racing - piquing my interest because that's the plan for my Crosley Super Sports project.  When John found out I was interested, he said I could have it... the question was how to get it back from Arizona.  This trip was a perfect opportunity.
We loaded the frame into my truck and John decided to replace the brakes in his car- he'd noticed a squeal on the way out from AZ and thought it best to replace the rotors before heading back.  It was funny to see someone working on regular street car, completely surrounded by hot rods and full on race cars.

His teammates got word that there wouldn't be time to make another run today, so they started packing up for home.  The wind had picked up and the EZ Ups were flapping - it was time for me to start heading home as well. I said my goodbyes and slowly cruised through the pits on my way to the main road, Super Sports frame hanging out the back of the truck, waving goodbye.


M. Park Hunter said...

Great article and photos, per usual. Just got the Quarterly today with the same photo of your frame. Laughed at Fred's caption!

Anonymous said...

Very Nice Tim!