Why am I even pursuing these topics? Because it’s part of American culture. It’s part of who we are.
In 1961 I graduated from High School in northern Sonoma County, CA. As my academic record did not indicate that I was likely to succeed in gaining admittance to any institution of higher learning, I decided to go to work in a lumber mill. After I piled up a very few bucks, I thought it was time to take the next logical step in advancing my position in the world: I bought the most outrageous hot-rod I could find. Now, you have to picture this. Start with a 1941 Chevrolet Coupe, like this one:
Now, that’s not much of a hot-rod. First picture it painted bright yellow, and jacked way up in the air (even though those were days when most kids were still lowering their cars). Now, to touch it off, you will need a big Woody Woodpecker smoking a cigar just below the driver side window. One that looks like this:
Okay–now it looks like a hot rod, but it’s still just an old clunker. Put in a bored and stroked Corvette engine, with a racing cam, 3 stromberg carburetors, 4-on-the-floor spring-loaded transmission, racing slicks, locked differential (that gives great traction on a straightaway, but sometimes causes axles to twist off going around corners–I got good at replacing them), Now start it up and step on the gas–HARRRUUMMM!!! Kachung–Kachung–Kachung–Yeah, that’s better!
Even though this mechanical vision of in-your-face macho power did not attract any of the women that I imagined would be unable to resist, I soon found that it was good for something even more exciting than sex: drag racing on the freeway. After a hard day’s work at the lumber mill “pulling the green chain,” I would go home to my apartment in Santa Rosa, clean up, grab a bite, and go cruising up and down through the traffic lights on Highway 101 looking for races. And did I ever find them! This is how it goes. You pull up beside an expensive looking late-model car stopped for a light on the freeway–preferably a luxury prestige job like a Cadillac, a Lincoln, or a Mercedes, It’s good if the guy is wearing a business suit, on his way home from work in San Francisco. Yes, there is a little class warfare at play here. Side by side, you look over and You rev your engine 2 or 3 times: HARRRUUMMM!!!–Kachung Kachung Kachung. He (always a “He”–women, dang them, just aren’t interested) Anyway, he looks over and up (You’re sitting up high, remember) and peers into the eyes of Woody Woodpecker smoking a cigar–his eyes widen–the race is on!!! The light turns green, and ROAR!!! Screech!!! You wipe him out through the gears till about 75 mph and wave bye-bye. You never give him the finger–this is a gentlemen’s duel. Fun, huh??? Of course, sometimes there are glitches. The Stromberg carbs sometimes stick and pour out gas. Twice I had to pull over and beat out flames. Once the hood flew up at 50 mph and I was totally blind until I could get it over to the side of the freeway. But fun, nevertheless!
This was never done for anything but the pure pleasure of the race. And what I discovered very quickly is that almost every guy wanted to drag race on the freeway–whether they were driving a big new Cadillac or a little Nash Rambler, whether they’ were teenagers or old geezers, the challenge was very seldom ignored. Suddenly every guy had a chance to be Don Garlits for a few moments. I would get the pleasure of wiping out a businessman in an expensive car I could never afford, and they would get the thrill of racing a kid in a souped-up hot rod. Everybody was happy. Through all of this, I never once got pulled over for racing by the California Highway Patrol. Go figure.
And then one day I happened to pull up beside a kid with whom I had gone to school–a kid from a wealthy family, and he was driving a brand new super-stock Ford with a 406 cubic inch engine. We raced up to 70 mph and he was ahead of me when I hit 4th gear and went by him. But his story was that he had beaten me and shut it down. Ah, the stuff of local legends, which he spread far and wide. But I knew, that I could not compete with the new generation of muscle cars–the Ford 406, the Chevy 409, or the Plymouth Super Stock. I thought something like, “Oh Well!”
In 1971 there was a movie called Two Lane Blacktop starring James Taylor and Warren Oates. It was about 2 guys who traveled up and down Route 66 in a souped up ’55 Chevrolet betting on races. They were really into their car. I mean really. They were sullen and cool. Now there were a couple of losers worthy of serious emulation!
Bruce Springsteen (with whom I do not agree politically) wrote a great song that captures the essence of the daydream romance of “Racing in the Street”–and in fact that is the title of the song. Whereas some guys get “tired of living and die a little piece by piece,” there are blue-collar heroes who “come home from work and wash up, and go racing in the streets.” Yep–this is the romantic macho image I wanted to strive for back in 1961! But best of all, Springsteen sings about meeting some lady “in a Camaro with some dude from L.A., but I blew the Camaro off my back and drove that little girl away….” Ah yes, Sigh. Never happened that way, in my world at least, but what a nice teenage dream!
If only a hot car and a big engine could solve all our romantic problems….
Anybody else have any stories about hot rods or racing in the streets? Don’t we all want to get out there and burn some rubber? ‘Fess up now…..