“Half Moon Bay Drag Races, 1955”
Story by Erich von Neff
Rich Bruckman stood on the seat of the Model A Ford Roadster. He could see planes, their engines warming up, their propellers whirling and whirling. It seemed as if they had been there, indefinitely, grounded. For they, like him, were waiting for the tule fog to life. It was eleven o’clock and still the fog hung like a blanket on the airfield and the Half Moon Bay dragstrip. His mechanic, John McKenna, lay slumped in the passenger seat, an empty bottle of Lucky Lager beer in his hand, as if he were going to take it in for a refill.
Rich noticed a blank spot in the fog: The asphalt of the airfield. At first he thought he’d imagined it. But no–slowly, slowly–but then rather quickly it widened and widened revealing more and more black asphalt until finally a biplane rolled down the runway, wobbled its wings, and took off. Other planes followed: a piper cub, another biplane, a cropduster, and finally a P40 Warhawk from World War II, with grinning shark’s teeth. God knows why it was here, but Rich guessed that its owner enjoying restoring it and flying it in much the same way he enjoyed restoring and racing the Ford Roadster. Not that it was stock or anywhere near the way it had rolled off Henry Ford’s assembly line.
Rich warmed up the Ford’s flathead. In the distance he heard a motorcyle. Shortly a man dressed like a cowboy rode up on a Harley. He unlocked the gate, unwrapped the chain, then raced off toward the far end of the airfield.
Gravel kicked up as the tires of the roadster spun til they passed the gate and grabbed onto the asphalt of the airfield.
Rich drove up to the pit area, where he and John began adjusting the carburator. Other drivers and mechanics were also bent intensely over their engines…tools were in disarray on the asphalt. They were borrowed and reborrowed. Usually they came back to their original owners, but sometimes they did not.
The grandstands began to fill up. Women in T-shirts without criss-cross straps and other “support groups” seemed to favor the lower benches; frequently they bent over, retying their tennis shoes.
“Beer, beer, beer.” A fat man carrying a case of Lucky Lager yelled.
John left to get a couple. Chevys and Fords parked. More people climbed up into the grandstands.
“Beer, beer, beer,” the fat man kept yelling.
Time trails began. John made final adjustments on the carburetor. Rich revved the engine. That would have to do for now.
Class B street roadsters paired off beneath the timing tower. Rich looked across at a channeled Chevy with red flames painted in the hood. Rows of louvers were on the top and sides of it. The driver was wisecracking with a brunette.
Both drivers looked up–the green flag dropped–the bullshit stopped–tires peeled and off they roared toward the timing lights, one quarter of a mile away.
Now the “Green Monster” and others took their turn at the startling line. E.T.s were posted in the Class B. Street Roadster and other classes. Meanwhile Rich and John had been dialing in their engines.
Typically there were few surprises. Familiar names were now on the board: “Jay Cheatham, Andy Brizzio, Ted Gotelli, Jm McClellan and others that are still remembered to this day.
The fat man oured more Lucky Lagers. The crowd yelled for their favorites. “Cheatham, Cheatham.” “Brizzio, Brizzio.” Women in tight Levis cast alluring eyes and leaned forard to get a better view.
Luck held for the flathead. Other engines had blown up, transmission gears were stripped and broken, and tires had been torn to shreds.
Finally, it came down to a run off against Jack Dunn in “The Bumble Bee.” The green flag dropped. The cyclinders of the flathead hammering, hammering; and for a split second “The Bumble Bee” lingered on the line. That was enough, opportunity must be seized even in a fraction of a second.
The tires dug into the asphalt and a lead was taken that was never overcome.
The crop duster biplanes took off and landed oblivious to the events that were taking place.
“Beer, beer, beer,” the fat man kept yelling.
Rich and the other winners of their classes took their places in the wnner’s circle. Jay Cheatham, Andy Brizzio, Ted Gotelli, Jim McClellan and Mike Mitchell received their trophies and lipstick stains from the trophy queen.
The fat man stopped yelling, and cars filed slowly out of the gate. Crop dusters continued to spray.
The benches were now empty; occupied by beer bottles in various arrays.
Although today a couple of lesser knowns had gotten lucky–and men in greasy T-shirts would still tinker in their basements–with few exceptions sponsored teams such as: “The Champion Speed Shop,” “The Pacers of Petaluman,” and “The Gotelli Spped Shop” were soon to diminate the scene.
More and more the crowd would shout for “Jay Cheatham, Jay Cheatham” in “The Glass Slipper.”
About the author:
Erich von Neff is a San Francisco Longshoreman. He received his masters degree in philosophy from San Francisco State University and was a graduate research students at the University of Dundee, Scotland. Erich von Neff is well known on the French avant-garde and mainstream literary scenes. he is a member of the Poetes Francais and La Societe des Poetes et Artistes de France.