Friday, October 16, 2009

History All Around Us

It amazes me how modern life can blind us to the historical realities that are all around us. It's not just that we consciously ignore the echoes of the past, sometimes we're just deaf to it. A couple of months ago, my family moved to a small coastal hamlet south of Daytona Beach called Ponce Inlet. Any gearhead worthy of the name will immediately associate Daytona with America's most popular motorsport--NASCAR. Indeed, having grown up near here, and now living within spitting distance, I can tell you that the influence of NASCAR on Daytona cannot be understated. Daytona International Speedway looms large over a newly-paved, eight-lane thoroughfare named "International Speedway Boulevard" where one can find a few of the traditional mom-and-pop tourist joints, but is mostly now lined by national restaurant chains, big box stores, modern hotels, and other symbols of the commercial circus that has become modern NASCAR.

But it has not always been so. Although Henry Flagler and his wealthy norther ilk did make the Daytona Beach area into a playground for rich boys with their novel automotive toys up through the early 1920's, the speed record seekers eventually discovered the Bonneville Salt Flats and rich kids decided to spend winters further down the Florida coast in Palm Beach. When the Great Depression set in, the area was hit hard.

In 1936, Daytona Beach officials attempted to inject some badly needed cash into the local economy and raise the flagging spirits of the citizenry by asking a local resident and former IMCA dirt track champion, Sig Haugdahl, to organize a big race. Haugdahl designed a 3.1 mile course that combined a straight stretch of Volusia County beach and a portion of two-lane Highway A1A, also known as Atlantic Avenue, which ran parallel to the beach on the other side of the dunes. Thousands of people from all over the region attended the event, but it was not a commercial success. Haugdahl tried again the following year and though just as popular the sponsors again saw zero return on their investment. Haugdahl had had enough.

But then a funny thing happened. The owner of a local auto repair garage, who also happened to have a passion for fast cars, had participated in those first two races. In 1938, he decided to take over the organizational and promotional duties for the race circuit, and boldly scheduled two events that year at the one-of-a-kind road course. Both events were profitable, and resulted in three more races the following year, and three more the year after that. The money started rolling in. That young man's name? William France Sr.

France founded NASCAR in February of 1948 and established offices in Daytona Beach, which marked the beginning of a motor sports dynasty that has no equal. Today, NASCAR is still owned by the France family and is chaired by Brian France, grandson of the founder. NASCAR claims that 17 of the top 20 attended single-day sporting events in the world are NASCAR-sanctioned events due largely to the 75 million fans who purchase over $3 billion in annual licensed product sales every year. Many marketers consider NASCAR fans the most brand-loyal in all of sports and as a result, Fortune 500 companies sponsor NASCAR more than any other form of motor sport.

So what does all of this have to do with being blind to history? Well, I'll tell you. Growing up in Central Florida and being a gearhead from a tender young age, I knew that NASCAR had gotten its start by racing on the beach. But I had always assumed that the original road course was located on Daytona Beach, perhaps somewhere near the historic beach boardwalk where International Speedway Boulevard meets the Atlantic Ocean. Today, this area of Highway A1A is crowded with a convention center, hotels, high-rise condos, and large and small shopping venues. One restaurant sports the brightly painted body and chassis of a stock car mounted to the wall over the front door. Surely this is where all of that early history was made.

About ten miles south of the hustle and bustle of Daytona's historic and commercial heart lies the sleepy village of Ponce Inlet--a straight shot down the stretch of coastal highway known as Atlantic Avenue. But the difference in atmosphere is light-years. No 20+ story high-rises. No sprawling, glass-fronted T-shirt shops. No cheesy, Viking-themed hotels. No mini-golf. No convention centers. The view along Atlantic Avenue in Ponce Inlet is all beach houses interspersed with a few condos...but never over seven floors. There's not even any restaurants along the beach, except one.

One-half mile north of our current residence on Atlantic Avenue in Ponce Inlet is a small, rectangular, unassuming, single-story restaurant. It's nestled in between the road and the dunes that mark the edge of the white, sandy beach. It's quite easy to miss if not for the small sign by the edge of the road that reads, "Racing's North Turn Beach Bar & Grille". I had driven by it countless times but had never decided to patronize it. I also didn't think twice about the place's name since the number of businesses with racing themes in these parts is without number.

Then I happened to read a recent newspaper article about the historic races held on the beach, which piqued my curiosity about the location of the original road course. An article I found on the internet describing the course said that a restaurant now stood near the location of the original road course's north turn from the beach onto Atlantic Avenue. I froze. There was a photo accompanying the article showing the sign in front of North Turn restaurant. I couldn't believe it! Not only did that course run right down the stretch of road in front of our condo, but it also ran along the beach where I built countless sandcastles with my kids--oblivious to the history that had taken place on that very spot.

We're talking about the likes of Marshall Teague and his Fabulous Hudson Hornet. Fireball Roberts. Lee Petty. Cotton Owens. Banjo Matthews. Speedy Thompson. The Flock brothers. They all worked their mechanical magic right here in my own backyard, became legends, and helped give birth to a dynasty. The Daytona Beach Road Course--actually located in Ponce Inlet--hosted its last event in 1958. The following year saw the inaugural Daytona 500 held at the sparkling new Daytona International Speedway.

I suppose I shouldn't be so suprised. After all, even in the mid-30's, it would have been difficult to conduct a race in the heart of Daytona Beach due to the development of the beachfront. In contrast, there was next to nothing in Ponce Inlet just down the coast. The town then consisted mainly of scrub palmetto and sand...and miles of pristine, seldom-used, hard-packed beach. I'm not sure when the building that now houses Racing's North Turn restaurant was built, but it is clearly visible in many photos of the event back in the day. A large, wooden grandstand was built just south of the restaurant where spectators could get a good view of the action, where today a non-descript block of condos quietly sits as a testament to the implacable forces of time which shield us from our own past. But now that I know what really happened here on my doorstep so many years ago, I'll never look at a visit to the sandy beach across the street quite the same way again.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

The Lure of Speed

I've recently gotten hooked on the wildly popular (among gearheads) BBC-produced show "Top Gear." One of the reasons why the show is so entertaining is the deliberate sense of drama and excitement that they manage to write/edit into each segment. Realizing that visual hyperbole is what drives the show doesn't detract much from its entertainment value. One of the more well-known dramatic sequences featured host James May driving the mythical Bugatti Veyron along the 5.5-mile level straight of Volkswagen's own closed test track in an effort to reach the car's top speed of 253mph (you can view the video on Top Gear's web site here). May waxes eloquent about the car's brutal, 16-cyclinder, quad turbocharged, 1,000hp engine and the impressive, 21st Century engineering that went into the $1.4 million supercar. In the segment's introduction, he says, "The Veyron is about pushing the outside of the envelope. It's about doing things that people said just were not possible." The segment hyped May's top speed attempt as something almost as dramatic as the first moon landing. Visceral. Perhaps bound to end in tragedy. Uncertain. A technological triumph.

Uh-huh. Well I've got news for Mr. May and the gaggle of producers at "Top Gear"--they're about 45 years too late.

The vehicle you see here went 255mph on a straight, level track twice--once in each direction--in order to claim a world speed record for vehicles in it's class. Oh, and the year was 1963. The following year, it broke it's own record by setting anew record in excess of 263mph. Based on the technology that went into the Veyron, you'd think that the engineering effort and money invested into such an effort over 40 years ago must have been astounding. Actually, not so much.

What makes this car, and others like it of the same era, so amazing is the ingenuity that went into them. This car was actually built in 1955 by a small racing shop in Southern California called Car Craft Machine. They used bits and pieces from a gaggle of disparate vehicles--along with the aluminum belly fuel tank from a P-51 Mustang fighter plane--that succeeded in setting multiple world speed records. And the engine was no 16-cylinder behemoth with four giant turbochargers, it was a 331ci Chrysler Hemi V-8 with a GMC supercharger bolted to the top. That amazes me.

Anyone who thinks James May was brave for his top speed attempt in the Veyron, should consider Don Johnson, the driver of this car during it's record-setting runs in '63 and '64, to be a justifiable hero. But I'll bet none of you have heard of this man who squeezed himself into a tiny aluminum teardrop and streaked across the salt flats at Bonneville, Utah so many years ago. I hadn't until now. Why did he do it? He and all the other speed freaks that would show up--and still do--at dry, flat lake beds in the Western United States each year in order to do one, single thing: push the outside envelope of their cars in order to see just how fast they can go. And there's absolutely nothing contrived about the drama involved in their efforts. It's the real deal.

This 1955 Johnson & Shipley B-Lakester, #48-B, is part of a private collection is listed for sale here on

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Viva Cisitalia!

Being of Italian ancestry, I take great pride in that country's obsession with fine, fast automobiles. As mentioned in a previous post, I have a particular fondness for Alfa Romeo. But in addition to the famous marques such as Ferrari, Lamborghini, and Alfa, there have been other smaller Italian builders who were just as passionate about motoring excellence. One of those was Cisitalia. Like Fiat and Alfa Romeo, the name Cisitalia doesn't actually mean anything--it's an Italian acronym that stands for "Consorzio Industriale Sportive Italia" and was founded in the motoring hotbed of Turin in 1946.

The car you see here was the company's first serious foray into the world of international Grand Prix racing, the D46. Although not particularly successful as a racing car, to my eyes the D46 is a showcase of the innovation and attention to detail that made Italian automotive engineering of that era into a quasi-art form. The overall proportions are nearly perfect, with details like the tightly-faired front suspension only accentuating the graceful lines. It amazes me how a 60-year old car like this can still cause my eyes to bug out. It hearkens back to an era when engineering, art, and not a small dose of pure, intuitive genius combined to create machines that men pushed to the absolute limit...and sometimes beyond (note the lack of roll cage and seat belts on this car).

The car is for sale on Autotrader Classics here. Magnifico!

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Who's Afraid of the Big, Bad 'Vette?

Among newer Corvette enthusiasts, thoughts of after-market performance tuners will conjure names like Callaway, Lingenfelter, Mallett, and Specter. But all of these mavens of fiberglass and speed are following in the footsteps of the original Corvette go-fast gurus, John and Burt Greenwood. The Greenwood team rubbed shoulders with the likes of Zora Arkus-Duntov and Gib Hufstader, who provided factory parts support for Greenwood's Corvette racing development in the early 1970's. This car was really the first of the famous 'wide-body' full-frame Corvette race cars, even though it carries chassis number 02, which were introduced in 1974.

Purpose-built for IMSA and SCCA, the car was raced with great success under many different names and color schemes during the 1974 IMSA season, and it's on-track prowess during the 1975 season earned it the lasting moniker "Spirit of Sebring '75". The car served as Greenwood's test bed for the subsequent wide-body cars and was the first to have the new, flared wheel wells, the Kinsler cross-ram Lucas fuel injection system, and Bob Riley coil-over suspension on all four corners. During the '74 and '75 seasons, the wide-bodied cars dominated IMSA--relegating Porsche's and BMW's to eating Corvette-induced dust.

John Greenwood himself said that the #02 car was the fastest of the early wide-bodies and is the car that he drove to victory at Daytona in the 1974 IMSA final. Other drivers to race behind the wheel of #02 were Sam Posey and Milt Mintner. It eventually was sold off and forgotten, only to be rediscovered by Greenwood aficionado Lance Smith. Smith purchased the car and restored it to its original glory. It's currently offered for sale on here. You can also read about the car's history here and the wide-bodied cars in general here.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

One-of-a-Kind Vintage 'Locost' Racer

What do you get when you cross styling a-la Lotus 7 with running gear from an early '60's Volvo PV544 with the aluminum drop tank from a North American F-100 Super Sabre fighter-bomber? Well, I'm sure it's a question that crosses every gear-head's mind every day...or at least it crossed the mind of Al Hoyt, who built the car you see here with help from his son, Mike, in 1961. They raced this car in SCCA F-modified autocross at Elkhart Lake/Road America. They also raced at the occasional USAF base, where the car must have felt right at home given its aeronautical roots.

I love the silver aluminum body with a front air dam modeled after the airplane that the metal came from. The original, 1.6L 4-cylinder Volvo motor breathing through dual carbs feeds power through a 4-speed gearbox to a limited-slip diff. The entire package looks like an absolute blast to drive. There's quite a grass-roots movement today built around the 'Locost' concept, and this car had to be one of the first! Completely restored--down to the original Volvo linear speedo and steel wheels--the car is 100% street legal.

The car would be perfect for anyone wanting to do some vintage racing or anyone looking for more excitement on those weekend bread runs! The car is listed for sale here on AutoTrader Classics, although why it's listed under 'Austin Healey' is beyond me.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Alfa Dreams

Being an Alfa addict isn't such a bad thing, really. Understand that this 1960 Giulietta Sprint race car has no particular historical significance and doesn't have a particularly stunning racing pedigree. But it is just so beautiful that I HAD to list it. In fact, it may not even be for sale any more, as the eBay listing has ended. Doesn't matter, though. It HAD to go up here. The Giulietta's were some of the most fetching post-war Alfa designs, arguably Pininfarina's best work for Alfa (although the '66-'69 Series I Spider is perhaps just as pretty). And the Giulietta Sprint coupe is one of the rare versions that look as good as the cabriolet version! One of the things I really like about this car is that from the outside, it looks pretty much stock. The Mini-Lite wheels give it away, but this car is fully prepared for the track--right down to the fuel cell and roll cage. My understanding is that the car has appeared at many vintage races and is pretty well known by Alfisti on the West Coast. That makes its appearance even more incredible as most track cars I've seen show a lot more 'wear and tear' than this car. More info on this vehicle is available here at AlfaBB and here at Bring-A-Trailer. Special thanks to William Conway for discovering this classic beauty!

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Salt Flats Grandaddy

Here's an interesting old "T" modified that was, at some point in the distant past, built for the singular purpose of going as fast as possible across an ancient, dry lake bed over a marked one-mile course. Salt flats racing is as popular today as it has ever been, and this car hearkens back to the early roots of this sport. Built some time in the 1940's, the car features a 248ci flathead 8 with custom aluminum cylinder heads and a hi-rise intake with dual carbs. The wide stance and minimilist design are particularly becoming to me, along with the original and unadorned patina of countless salt flats runs. This car definitely isn't about aerodynamics and hi-tech motive power--it's about pure, simple, go-fast fun. View this listing here on Los Angeles Craigslist.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Saturday Night Thunder, Baby!

If , like me, you love watching grossly overpowered cars designed only to get from Point A to Point B in a straight line scream down a track at full throttle...then this is one of the cars we have to thank for it. The seller claims that this car won the race at Pomona Raceway on July 6, 1958 that ignited the 'Gasser Wars' between the makers of Isky and Howard cams. One of Jr. Thompson's first 'Gasser' cars, it went on to win the first “Little Eliminator” class championship at the '58 U.S. Nationals in Oklahoma City. Since the top two classes that year were 'Top Eliminator' and 'Little Eliminator', and the top two classes nowadays are 'Top Fuel' and 'Funny Car', I guess one could argue that today's high-tech, 7,000hp, 300+mph nitro powered funny cars are direct descendants of this very car. Hmmmmm. The car looks very original down to the improvised seat covers and period decals. There's even an original hole in the hood caused by an interesting incident between Junior Thompson and his older brother, Eddie. You can read about that incident, as well as lots of other interesting tidbits, on the seller's web site here.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Who You Callin' a Midget?

Okay, so here's a very cool '48 Kurtis Kraft Midget car which appears to be a nice older restoration and very original. Ford flathead V-8 with dual Stromberg carbs and Eddie Meyer intake. The old midgets are just awsome to look of art, really. And I love the purple paint and tons of chrome. I mean, can you imagine that much chrome on a modern race car? It just isn't done. And the period magnesium knock-offs add the perfect touch to a very nice example. If you have a copy of "Kurtis-Kraft Midget – A Genealogy of Speed", by Bill Montgomery, there is apparently a bio of this car on page 99. I don't have a copy, so I don't know what it says. Offered for sale by the St. Louis Auto Museum on eBay here.

Friday, April 24, 2009


Here's a sweet '69 Lola T70 body in vintage orange on a McKee space frame. The car was originally an open-cockpit, aluminum-bodied car commissioned by Caroll Shelby. The owner claims it was the third frame made by Bob McKee, which I guess would be one of the first five one-off custom frames McKee made before rolling out the MkVI design in '66. At some point, the body was replaced with the closed-cockpit Lola seen here. Slick. Power is from a 357 Chevy small block producing 485bhp. For a car weighing 1650 lbs, you figure the things gotta move pretty well! Currently set up for SVRA Group 5 or 7 racing, the owner is taking offers. I could cash out my IRA but I don't think it'll be enough! You can view the listing here on