When there were far fewer people around, far fewer laws and regulations, when the legal speed limit was 75 mph, when gas was cheap, when driving was a pleasure, if you owned a hot machine you could point the grill down an empty road and go!

The First Drags

The ’32 flathead with the
McCullogh blower in Bob’s coupe.
This is from Al Drake's book Reflections in a Spinner Hubcap, available from Flat Out Press.

The first legal drag races in the Portland, Oregon area were held on the last Sunday in May, 1952. I was there.

Everything was new and wonderful. My father and I had driven my A-V8 roadster 120 miles south, to Eugene, the previous summer to watch the drag races. The clubs in the Northwest Timing Association (NWTA) had been holding drag races for a little over a year. In fact, there was not even the words “drag races” or they weren’t being used; in a newspaper article they were called “sprint contests”. Of course the term had been used in California where, as Wally Parks wrote, a guy would pull into a drive-in, find a competitor, and challenge him to “drag it out”. He also told me that he had planned to have quarter-mile acceleration races at Muroc, but WW II intervened. So the first legal drag race was in 1949 at the blimp base at Santa Ana.

In July, 1951 I joined a car club, the road Angels; the next month it joined forces with another club, the Ramblers, to form the Columbia Timing Association (CTA), whose purpose was to promote a drag strip closer to Portland. By May, 1952 it had acquired permission to use the Scappoose airport on certain Sundays during the summer. This was exciting news! I was truly car crazy. I thought about hot rods all the time and fantasized about building a variety of them. It determined who my friends would be, what I would spend the little money I had on and it interfered with my school work. Hot rods mattered!

On that Sunday in May, 1952, my A-V8 was apart. My father was sick and I had skipped many days of school to work in his gas station in Oswego. I was driving a dull gray 1936 Buick sedan; I put a buck’s worth of gas in the tank and headed toward Scappoose, 30 miles distant. I drove, and fantasized about building a four carb intake for the Buick, and a header system; those changes would make it go. Or removing the entire body and running it as a chassis, such as Dick Kraft’s “Thing” which I’d seen in magazines.

I got to Scappoose and found the airport. There were only a few cars in sight. I knew the gate man and he let me in free. I parked in the spectator area and walked across the air strip to the pits, where one car was rapping its pipes. By noon there were perhaps 30 cars in the pits, and a short row of spectators’ cars on the other side of the track. Norm Cahill, one of the organizers, told me years later that the lawyer they met with to fill out the incorporation papers scoffed at the notion that anyone would pay a quarter to watch an old Ford go the quarter mile. And now, Norm said, look what drag racing has become.

I talked with several Road Angels and checked out their cars. Jim Beauvais had a ’40 Ford coupe with a newly-rebuilt 276 CID flathead. Danny Hanna had a primered ’36 roadster with a hopped-up flathead; he drove it hard, not worrying about breaking an axle so far from home. Thom Charters had a nearly-new Chev convertible, with lots of custom body work but a stock engine. Norm Cahill had his primered ’40 Merc convertible with a hopped-up and fully chromed flathead, and a set of wild duals using Rayjax mufflers.

There were other cars, street roadsters and chair cars. Most cars went between 80 and 90 mph, so that an early roadster and a new Olds 88 were turning the same speeds; no one got near the magic 100 mph mark. But it was exciting to see various cars peel out, wind up, hit second gear, the rear dropping and the nose up, heading toward the clocks. This was what guys had been doing on 82nd Ave., the long road between Oswego and Oregon City, and on the unfinished Banfield Freeway. The big difference was if you were street racing you could get a hefty fine or even lose your license; on the airstrip it was legal. And that was a big difference.

Another Road Angel, Bob Simonis, had a ’32 Ford 3-window in the pits and a bunch of club members were huddled around the engine. The coupe had been stripped and channeled; it still had the ’32 V-8 mill, a 21 stud flathead, apparently stock except for the McCullough supercharger, which was really impressive. The engine would start, run, then backfire and flutter to a stop. Club members offered their opinions. One thought it was that old ignition, another thought there was a vacuum line flaw, another suggested new spark plugs. Finally the consensus was that it was starved for gas. Bob was trying to figure out what to do so he could at least get back to Portland. I mentioned that my ’36 Buick had a bigger carb, a Stromberg EE, and we could take that off and bolt it on because it had the same 3-bolt pattern. Bob looked doubtful, and then another club member offered to tow the coupe back to Portland at the end of a rope, and Bob accepted.

Much later I thought what if I had switched carbs and stripped a fitting or something. I was out in the country, miles from home, alone, and I had no money. I was glad Bob hadn’t taken me up on my offer. But I did what I could; I had my camera and I took a photo of the engine.

Excerpted from Reflections in a Spinner Hubcap, available from Flat Out Press.