Racing started for me back in 1958, when I met Elmer "Un-sprung" Snyder, a legend, who also lived here where I do. I bought a little 265 ci Chevy V8 motor from him, and we installed it into my 51 Chevy 4 door, "Abduls Tool." That was my first Hot Rod.
Photo's from Mike Steinberg collection, circa 1958 - Oakland, California
Elmer Snyder's "Unsprung" dragster with a flathead mill in it.
Elmer was racing his little gas dragster back then. It was made from 2 model T frame rails, with a roll bar welded on the back and a chevy V8 engine. It didn't have any suspension at all. Elmer used to say, "...whata you need that for?" He held the COG (C Open Gas) world record. I started going with him to help him pit the car. We raced mostly at 'Kingdom' Drag strip in Lodi, California. Elmer had just put the car back together, after racing at 'Lion's' Drag strip. He blew up a stock flywheel he was using in the engine. Pieces of the flywheel penetrated the bell-housing, cut his car in half, and injured spectators in the stands, and I guess their was a big lawsuit over that! Elmer told me with a little grin, "...ya know?...I didn't realize it, but that ring gear helps hold the flywheel together." He had taken the ring gear off to save the weight! But, that's the way it was back then...their weren't any Internet forums, hotlines, or experts to get information from. You tried something, using your best common sense, and if it didn't kill you, and it worked, you used it!
It was the summer of 1959, and me and Elmer ran 'Kingdom' one Sunday. It was a big meet for those times. Tony Nancy was there with his sanitary, Desoto Hemi. powered roadster, running nitro in it. Every run, you could hear the engine straining on the other end, because it was wound tight. The announcer would announce his time as, 149 mph (don't remember the et). The crowd would let out a lot of 'uuuuh's and aaaah's,' because experts had recently said in the news, that it was 'Impossible' for a drag car to exceed 170 mph in a 1/4 of a mile. They were backing up from a previous prediction, that no one could exceed 150 mph. Then Emory Cook, 'Cook & Bedwell' dragster hit 160 mph in a 1/4 mile and stood the whole world of experts on their ears.
Ed Cortopassi's "The Glass Slipper" was there, and was having handling problems, but looked like it was going to let loose with a good run if they could keep it going straight. The "Glass Slipper" was one of the first fully enclosed dragaster's. It was also one of the most beautiful cars of its day. Me and Elmer were sitting in the buildup area waiting to make a run. I drove his pickup to 'Push-start him.' That's how you started all those cars in those days. Even the fuel burner's. Elmer's little dragster was so short, he could put it into the back of a long bed 54' Ford pick-up. Their was another dragster in the next lane right along side of us. Me and Elmer started talking to the driver. He was a nice guy, and kind of shy, and told us he was a ..."long ways from home." He had an all black dragster, with an early Chrysler hemi. engine in it, and had just put on a 6-71 Blower. He had whitewall recap slicks, and was running a big load of nitro in it! The starter waved over in our direction for the black dragster to fire. His crew (his wife) pushed him off, and he made a run. He set a new world record of 176 mph, and brought the whole place down. The driver of that dragster was "Don Garlits." I'll never forget that day as long as I live.
Years later, I was racing my A/Gas 40' Willys at Half-moon Bay Drag strip one Sunday, and Don Garlits was there. I kind of hung around his pit for while and watched and listened. By that time, Garlit's was blown and injected, and he was running one of his famous 'Long' Swamp Rat cars. He made a run, that was kind of flat and not up to his usual. When he came around to his pit, me and another guy helped him take the blower off, and the manifold. I looked down into the ports on the heads, and could see metal file shavings. I told Don, and he just smiled and said he had a late night set of heads to get out for this race the night before. He just stuck his finger in the ports, and dug them out the best he could. Then he re-torqued the head bolts, and found that many were loose. When he got ready to go make a run, he discovered that someone had stolen his helmet. I ran over to my car, and got mine, and let him use it. He went out, and of course, in Don Garlit's fashion, set top time and low et of the meet. He ended up top eliminator that day...with my helmet! He won over Ted Gotelli's (The Goat) Top Fuel dragster...barely! In fact, Don had to come from behind and get him in the lights. Me and Don laughed after the race because I told him, "...Hey Don, you won because you had a longer car." He said laughing, "...Yeah, by the extra amount I added to the front of the car huh?"
I followed Don Garlit's career through the years. When ever he ran out here on the West coast, I always went to that race, whether my car was running or not. To list all of his accomplishments, and the things he contributed to the sport of Drag Racing would be much to lengthy here. If anyone reading this doesn't know anything about this man, you should find out if you care about Drag Racing. Don Garlit's career spanned many year's. He was one of the greatest pioneer's of the sport. He in my opinion, was the greatest innovator in Drag Racing. Also, in my opinion, Don Garlit's was the greatest Drag Racer in the history of the sport...and always will be! He was my hero back then...and still is today. I can only best describe Don Garlits, by saying, he is the Babe Ruth of drag racing.
Photo by Charles "Cookie" Gilchrist, circa 1980
Don Garlits and me, taken at the Bakersfield "March Meet" 2006
Elmer "Unsprung" Snyder in his A/Gas Dragster "Instant Junk."
I owe something to Elmer Snyder...a thanks'. Elmer started me racing. He taught me things I never forgot. It wasn't so much technical things...it was more in attitude! One day, he said, "...Never cheat! All you do when you cheat, is you cheat yourself. If you can't win the right way, you don't deserve to win." I never forgot that...and I never cheated! It gave me a real sense of accomplishment, when I beat someone that I knew WAS cheating, and Elmer's words would echo in my ears.
They called him the "River Rat"...his name was Dave McIntyre. I met Dave in 1959. He lived out by the river in Hills Ferry. His mom Virginia, owned the general store there. Dave was just getting out of the Air Force. He had bought a 40' Ford coupe in Texas, where he was stationed. He put the Chevy V8 I talked about above in it there, and when he was discharged, he drove it back home. Dave and I hit it off right away. And we became best friends. I also helped him on the "Chevy Eater" whenever I could. He started "Modesto Junior College" on his GI bill, and took auto class...what else...right? He did all the body work on it, and painted it a beautiful candy apple red. It was something for it's time, and it went well on the street. We never found anybody that could beat us. Dave started asking me to drive his car when we raced someone. I guess that's how I started a career of driving fast cars.
Photo from Mike Steinberg collection, circa 1959 - Ballico Drag Strip, Turlock, California
("The Chevy Eater")
Elmer Snyder and some other people opened up a drag strip at the old Ballico air strip, East of Turlock, California. It became..."Balico Drag-strip." The shutoff area on it, wasn't much! But the only ones that had any real problem, were the competition type drag cars. Many times, they'd go off the end of the strip into a big plowed field. Nobody ever got hurt that I know of. But it always added to the excitement on Sunday...LOL. I started driving Dave's 40' Ford coupe, the "Chevy Eater," at Balico, and we ran A/Gas. I also drove a BSA Gold Star bike that I stripped down, and put a cam and pistons into. I ran it on 130 Octane aviation gas. Many times, it would go straight up in the air at the starting line, and a few times, it almost got on top of me.
Photo from Mike Steinberg collection, circa June 1959 - Ballico Drag Strip, Turlock, California
Photo from the Mike Steinberg collection, circa June 1959 - Ballico Drag Strip, Turlock, California
From the Mike Steinberg collection, circa June, 1959 - Ballico Dragstrip, Turlock, California
Time slip for the Beezer.
From the Mike Steinberg Collection, circa June, 1959
And on the other side of the time-slip...anyone remember Bus Schaller and his 1/4 speed cams? If you can, you are REALLY old!
One Sunday, we had a pretty good size meet for around there, and the best car was a competition 32 roadster, with a blown Oldsmobile engine, running a chain drive on a 4-71 blower. He turned something like 115 mph, and that was good enough for top eliminator most times. He always ran off the end of the strip every run. Sometimes I think he did, just for attention. Anyway, me and Dave were there with the 'Eater,' working on it in the pits. A pickup truck drove in the gate, and pitted close to us. I looked over at the guy unloading a Harley-Davidson motorcycle out of the back of it, and I recognized him right off. I must have been the only one who did. Elmer was announcing at the track, so I walked over to him, and said, "Elmer, "That's Joe Leonard, six time U.S. National Motorcycle Champion, from San Jose.
Joe unloaded his 'Sifton' Harley, and proceeded to dust off the roadster like it was tied to a tree. He won top eliminator that day. Joe went on to drive at Indy for Andy Granatelli, and had quite a career. Joe Leonard is also considered one of the greatest motorcycle racer's of all time...in the United States and Europe.
By 1961, Dave had moved to Sacramento, and I moved to San Francisco and got married. A year later, Dave was killed, and that had a big impact on my life for some time.
Bob bought the 40' Willys and the engine out of the 'Chevy Eater' from the estate. We raced the Willys A/Gasser for a couple of years, and then we broke up, and he sold it. Bob was a good partner, but I decided I wanted my own car, without any partners. In 1967, I was building another race car...my own. I needed money to buy parts. So I hit on the idea of porting and polishing cylinder heads for other racer's. I went to Sears, and bought a high speed grinder, and some carbide cutters and stones. I started in a clothes closet with a drop cord light, in our apartment in the evenings after I got home from work. We lived in the Haight/Ashbury, on Clayton street...before the hippies arrived. I did some heads, and people saw them. You know how it goes...pretty soon everyone wanted me to build a set. The porting and polishing business on heads started keeping me real busy, even though I worked full time as a journeyman auto mechanic and eventually, a service writer. I made enough for a down payment on a beautiful black 59' Corvette hardtop, that was factory loaded and went pretty good. We moved a few times, and I rented a space at the rear of the building to work on my cars at 'C&G Muffler's' on 9th street. They had a blown gas dragster, and pretty soon, that was my hangout and all the guys were my buddy's.
Photo from Mike Steinberg collection, circa 1961 - San Francisco, California
Someone put me onto a Willys, and I tracked it down. It belonged to an old man that was the original owner. It was actually a 1937 Willys, with the frog front end. I bought it from him for $150. and he gave me the keys, and I drove it home, mechanical brakes and all...I'm serious! I took it down to C&G Muffler, and started tearing it apart to build a race car. Someone had given me a 430 Lincoln crank and heads. I traded something else for a 410 Edsel block, and put it all together to make a 430 ci. Lincoln engine. I started accumulating parts, and had to build a lot of them myself, because their wasn't much out for that engine in those days. I reengineered the oiling system in the block, and made my own dropped sump pan. Because of the blower, and the distributor being in the front like all Fords, that presented somewhat of an engineering challenge. I made my own aluminum adaptor to fit in the distributor hole to drive the oil pump. Then I made my own drive, and cut down a Joe Hunt Vertex magneto and drove it off the front of a 'Moon' cam timing cover. It all worked nicely! Kenz & Leslie used a 430 ci. Lincoln in a Thunderbird (I think), at Bonneville with success. Ted Cyr, the 'Cyr & Hopper' team, used one in their top fuel dragster with some success also. Earl Canavan was another.
Photo courtesy of Glenn Miller - Ted Cyr's Top Fuel Lincoln powered dragster
I started writing letters to the late Ted Cyr, asking for advice. He owned a gas station down in Southern, California. He answered me right away, and we traded several letters. He encouraged me a lot...and I toyed with the idea of running Top Fuel. I even went to the late Jim Davis in Walnut Creek one night, and talked to him about building me a chassis. One night I got a phone call, and it was Ted. He was always enthusiastic about the 430 Lincoln engine, and we had a good talk. He came up North to race at Fremont, and I met him there at the track. Ted was a big help, and he was a great guy.
Photographer unknown at this time, circa early 1960's
Another picture of Ted Cyr's 430 ci Lincoln powered AF/D
I got the Willys running, and made my first run in it at Fremont Raceway in late 1967. What a trip driving a blown 40' Willys for the first time!...and with a 4 speed stick transmission! Back in the 60's, drag racing was a way of life for a lot of people. And that included me! Except for my wife, that's all I lived for. I raced at Fremont almost every Saturday night, unless I broke something, and then, sometimes I'd drive someone else's car. Most of the time, I won 1st eliminator. I started accumulating trophies enough to fill a whole room. I applied something else I learned from Elmer Snyder. Elmer gave away all of his trophies to kids, and over the years, that's what I did too. I gave them all away to any kid who wanted them. I felt that I got everything I ever wanted from a trophy, in the moment they handed it to me. I never felt a need to collect them.
The head building business was being very good to me. I had a shop under my apartment out in the Mission district, that was something to behold! I had a fully tooled Bridgeport milling machine, a fully tooled South-Bend lathe, spot welders, drill presses, grinders...you name it, I had it. I built everything on my race car...almost! I didn't know how to weld, but I wanted to...or needed to rather, so I bought a $4,000 dollar Harnischfeger P&H Heli-arc welder. It was manufactured in Germany, and it was one of the finest made. The field man for the welding company that sold it to me, gave me a demonstration when we finished hooking it up. To show how stable the arc was, he heli-arced a bead around the edge of a dime! I bought books on welding, and read them. Then, I turned on the welder and started practicing. It wasn't too long, before I was very good at chrome moly and aluminum. Years later, when I went into Engineering, I became certified.
I was building heads for a lot of people around the country. As far North as Washington state, and Texas to the South. I built the heads on the Top Fuel drag-boat, "Conquest," driven by the late Dwight Bales. When Dwight and the owner, Ron Tort, came to see me at my shop, they told me they were after 200 mph, and could I build a set of early Chrysler heads that would do it. I'm not sure if Conquest was the first boat to hit 200 mph in a quarter mile, but I do know, it ran in the high 190's, and they used the heads I built for them. I built a set of heads for Bill Brasher's 33' Willys AA/GS car, Narlock & Worthy's 48' Anglia Panel truck (Lil Hearse), and a lot of others.
I started building other things, like pans, and aluminum fuel/oil tanks...then, I started calling myself, "Micro Engineering." I began developing idea's I had on intercooling, and port fuel injection plates for gasoline supercharged motor's. Some of these idea's sprung from the extensive reading I did on 'Dusenberg's' research on inter-cooling supercharged motor's back in the 1930's in America and Europe. They had discovered that signifcant horsepower gains could be had by cooling the incoming charge of air and fuel. A supercharger compresses air before it goes into the cylinders. When ever you compress air, it builds heat, and expands the air and fuel molecules reducing its density, which affects horsepower in a negative way. They used this research and technology with great success in their race cars at Indy and in Europe. Later, inter-cooling was also used in German fighter planes in WWII.
A lot of people would come to my house, and sometimes my wife would answer the door. Of all my customers, some of the best were the Oakland chapter of the "Hells Angels." They would come to my house with boxes of Harley heads, in neat clean clothes, and were very polite to my wife, and paid cash with no problems...every time! Say's something for preconceived notions of stereotypes, doesn't it?
They only got into one fight out in front of my apartment in the street one day. But it was something amongst themselves, and it didn't last long! LOL.
Photo by Rich Welch, circa 1967? - 427 Chevy rat heads for 'Lil Hearse'
(Heads by Mike Steinberg, "Micro Engineering")
Photo by Rich Welch, circa 1968 - 426 Dodge street hemi. valves
(Mike Steinberg, "Micro Engineering")
Here is one of the reasons why I considered the 426 Dodge Hemi. to be a superior engine to anything else in its day. Just look at the valves; 2-1/4 X 2" with 5/16" stems, and tuliped for flow.
Photo by Rich Welch, circa 1968 - 427 Chevy 'Rat' motor valves
(Mike Steinberg, Micro Engineering)