A Little Piece Of Chapter 4 Of "Edelbrock: Made In The USA"
By Tom Madigan
In the elusive search for more horsepower, early pioneers of racing experimented by adding various chemicals to their fuel tanks. For Vic Edelbrock, introduction to a potential power enhancer came from midget driver Ed Haddad. Ed had been given a nitromethane-based fuel sold by a company called the Dooling Brothers of Los Angeles. Manufacturers of aluminum midget slot cars, the Brothers used the fuel to power a 6.1ci single-cylinder engine used in one of their miniature cars. Haddad brought the 1-gallon can of nitro to Edelbrock saying he didn't want any part of it, because it could blow up in your face. Edelbrock thought the threat of explosion was overrated. He had heard about the wonders of nitro and wanted to try it immediately.
On the dyno, Vic, Meeks, Towle, and Hernandez added 10 percent nitro to the V-8-60 Flathead engine. When they pulled the handle on the first test, they saw instant horsepower gains. "They just about broke the beam," Vic Jr. recalls. "The spark plugs were so hot they turned into 'glow plugs.' When they tried to shut it off, it kept right on running. They finally had to throw a towel on it to get it to quit." The engine needed a complete rebuild, but at this point, nothing would stop Vic Sr. from trying again.
As with everything he did, Edelbrock threw himself into the project with all of his energy. He ran countless dyno tests, checked parts for wear, and then recorded the results. He learned that the engine needed more fuel, a colder spark plug, and internal components that could stand up to the corrosive effects of nitromethane. After using several gallons of fuel, Vic realized that in order to make a breakthrough, he would need larger quantities. Fran quizzed the Dooling Brothers about their sources for nitro and learned of a place that sold 50-gallon barrels. Vic ordered 100 gallons the following day. Testing continued using various percentages of nitro; the end result was 40 percent more horsepower with 20 percent nitromethane. The Edelbrock team had their secret weapon.
During this time period, nitromethane became the chemical of choice for revolutionary hot rodders like Tony Capanna and Joaquin Arnett of the Bean Bandits. Vic Sr. continued to experiment with other concoctions, but nothing worked better than nitro. He even sold a carburetor kit that made a Flathead nitro-ready. After his success on the circle tracks with the V-8-60, Vic tried the fuel in other racing applications, and continued to dominate.
Before the Dawn of Drag Racing
At the dawn of the '50s, street racing had grown to epidemic proportions. Not only was street racing more prevalent, the cars were getting faster. Crashes and citizen complaints prompted the mayor of Los Angeles to order the police department to go to war with the hot rodders. The flames of conflict were fanned by the Los Angeles Times newspaper when reporters began writing incendiary stories with emotional headlines aimed at street racers.
The campaign proved to be little in the way of a deterrent-the racers simply became more resourceful at detection and avoidance. Drive-in restaurants and local service stations were the focal points where car club members would meet and talk cars. It didn't take long for the conversation to get a hard edge. Who was the fastest? Who wasn't afraid of the cops? There was trash talk and the inevitable challenge. "Choosing somebody off" to settle the question of who was faster was common. If you were hip, there were plenty of places to race-the Los Angeles River bed, North Sepulveda, San Fernando Road, Ventura Boulevard, just to mention a few-but the cops were also on the prowl. Cooler heads suggested taking it to the dry lakes, but hot tempers and quick reactions would fade if a challenge went unanswered. You might be considered chicken.
Goleta: The Day Drag Racing Began
Ninety miles up the coast in Santa Barbara, a young hot rodder named Bob Joehnck was making a name as a fast guy and serious engine builder. He had turned his two-pump Texaco service station with a one-stall garage into a well-known hangout for local racers and a top Edelbrock equipment dealer. Shipping products was difficult then, so Bob made a ritual out of driving down to the Edelbrock shop on Jefferson, spending the day collecting his monthly order, and picking up the latest speed tips. Bob recalls, "I would hang out while the guys pulled my order. Sometimes we would go to lunch, other times Vic Sr. would invite me into his office and talk. He loved filling me in on all the latest happenings in the world of hot rods. He always made me feel important. On one of these trips, I told Vic what we were doing about street racing and that we had found a place to drag race without having the citizens up in arms."In a tiny suburb of Santa Barbara called Goleta, Bob Joehnck's car club, the Santa Barbara Acceleration Association, began planting the seeds of drag racing history. According to Joehnck, "The airport in Goleta was a U.S. Marine base during WWII and a huge parcel of land around it had been used as a Marine camp. At first, we would kind of go out and race on the roads adjacent to the runway. Nobody ever said anything. There was one road that ran off at an angle from the runway, and I thought to myself, maybe we could use it as a more permanent track. I asked the airport manager if we could use the road on Sundays to race some cars. He said, 'Sure, if you get some insurance.' One of my customers, an insurance salesman, got us a Lloyd's of London policy for 50 bucks.
"We measured off a piece of road, and started racing. We ran from a rolling start (a white line painted on the road) to a bridge. The winner was the first car to bounce when it hit a rough spot between the bridge surface and the road; this is what determined the distance. It was about a quarter-mile and that's how it started, as far as I'm concerned. At the time, there was no charge for admission; the boys would pass the hat, and we had a local hot dog vendor who would bring a portable barbecue and give us a percentage of the profits."
Street Racers Face Off at Goleta
Vic Sr. had done his share of street racing and enjoyed it, but he knew it was risky business. Fellow racers like Wally Parks, Ak Miller, and Art Chrisman felt that racing on the street had to be curtailed and an alternative found. Although he was unaware of it at the time, Vic Edelbrock would be a part of drag racing history, even though he would just be trying to prove a point.Tom Cobbs was a street racer from Santa Monica with a reputation as a "quick gun" in the San Fernando Valley. Even though he was heir to part of the American Tobacco Company fortunes, Tom built much of his own equipment. He was a rich kid with fast cars and a wide variety of friends. Several of Tom's "friends" had found their way into the path of Bobby Meeks, Don Towle, and Fran Hernandez at the Edelbrock shop. They claimed that Cobbs was "the hottest around and could beat any junk coming out of the Edelbrock shop." The Cobbs versus Edelbrock rumble had begun.
Dry lakes racer John Wolf remembers how the situation began. "The burr under the saddle of this story is that the guys doing the talking really didn't know Tom that well, and were trying to be part of the action." Cobbs remembers. "I had scared myself a couple of times street racing, because we were going faster and faster. I wanted to race, but I wished we could find a better place. I was up for racing the Edelbrock guys, 'cause they had a reputation for being the best. I was a cocky kid and wanted to prove myself ... no hard feelings." Bob Joehnck remembers that "we knew about the guys and the hot cars from Southern California. I heard that some of Tom Cobbs' friends had started bad-mouthing Vic in front of Bobby and Don. They passed it along to Vic, and it didn't take much to piss him off. All I know is, they wanted to race, and we let them."
Bobby Meeks tells a different version: "Vic overheard some guys as they were leaving the shop. They said that Cobbs could blow our doors off. Vic said, 'Have you heard enough of that bulls--? Let's do something about it.' He suggested that we take the shop engine, put it in Fran's '32 coupe, blow this guy off and be done with it. We did the engine swap, and made arrangements to run Cobbs at Goleta Airport. Although events have faded somewhat, I think that Bob Joehnck had something to do with setting it up. On a Sunday morning, we packed up the shop truck, hooked up Fran's coupe and headed north. We talked Bob Bradford into helping, and picked him on the way.
"When we got to the track, it was decided that Don would do the driving. The crowd was buzzing--they were ready to see the boys from down South get it on. As we got ready to run, Vic told us his game plan. If we won the race, Don was to drive directly to the tow truck, hook up, and we would all leave. If we got the job done, there was no reason to hang around. We were running unblown, and Cobbs had a blower, but we were running a load of nitro and nobody really knew our secret. Towle and Cobbs lined up, and they took off. Our shop engine was really strong and Don blew Cobbs off, but not before he bent the shift lever, slamming the transmission from First to Second. After the race, Don did just what Vic had told him, and we started hooking up.
"A bunch of Cobbs' crew came running over yelling for 'two out of three'. Vic just laughed, 'You wanted to race, we won, you didn't get the job done, so see ya.' Vic never said another word about the race, and we never said anything bad about Cobbs. He knew he was a good racer, and just wanted to try us out to see who was best. Any racer would have done the same thing. For Vic, winning was enough, he had proved a point." Vic Jr., then 13 years old, had enjoyed watching his pal Don Towle beat Cobbs with his dad's engine and Fran's coupe. It was a team effort.
To read more of hot rodding's early history and the development of the industry, pick up a copy of "Edelbrock: Made in the USA" at www.edelbrock.com.
Skip the Skip Loader
"I loved going to the shop every chance I could get, and like all kids, I sometimes got into trouble. Before we were totally moved into Jefferson, there was still construction going on and the trash was being taken to a lot next to the building and piled up to be hauled away. I talked Dad into allowing me to drive the skip loader and dump the trash in the lot. I was crazy to drive anything, so I couldn't wait to get home from school and jump on the loader."As time went on, I got faster and faster. On the backside of the building there was 1,500 square feet of flat concrete, the future parking lot with a chain-link fence at the back and a driveway that dropped about 8 ft into a dirt alleyway. One day, I decided I was Rodger Ward and came flying across the parking lot toward the driveway with a load of trash. I ran into the fence, bounced off, and hit a retaining wall at the bottom of the driveway. I lost the load of trash, got scared, and went flying back to the main building to park, and promptly ran the dump bucket into the side of the shop. My dad grabbed me and told me I should find something different to work on. Driving would have to wait."
The Young Bomber
Along with the contract for aircraft parts came work with exotic metals like chrome-moly steel, aluminum alloys of all types, and magnesium. Vic Sr. bought huge canisters of talcum powder and placed them next to the machines working with magnesium to prevent fires from the highly combustible shavings. If a fire ignited, you could cover it with talcum to smother the flame because water on the fire would cause an explosion.At this time, Fran Hernandez was teaching Junior the basics of machine work. A potential setback in Vic Jr.'s future at the Edelbrock Equipment Company came when he decided to take the magnesium shavings outside and experiment. "If I dropped a match into piles of magnesium dust, I got a bright, white-hot flash fire. Better yet, if I added cold water to the fire, I got a big-bang explosion, which scared the living crap out of the crew. The more dust, the bigger the blast. However, a side effect of the blast was the removal of large chunks of concrete from my dad's brand-new parking lot. He was not amused, and I ceased my newfound activity shortly after I became expert at it."
Keep Your Eyes on the Road
"My first real hot rod was a '46 Ford convertible. For Christmas Dad built me a special short-block with our own pistons and stroker kit. Then he let me, with Bobby and Fran helping, put together the rest of the engine. He even made a special four-barrel manifold. When I was just about done, all I needed was a fuel pump, and I borrowed the shop pickup to run down to the parts house to get one. On the way back I saw a girl, a hot number, who worked near our shop and drove a Studebaker Champion--the type that you couldn't tell if it was coming or going. Anyway, she was walking toward her car and I was all set to give her a big wave and a whistle when the fuel pump fell over and I reached down to catch it. The road jogged to the right and I stayed straight--right into the side of the Studebaker. I told my dad I had a little accident when I got back to the shop, and when he saw the damage I got one of his famous stares that said, 'Don't ever do that again!'"
During the peak of the Flathead years, Edelbrock Equipment was known all over the country. The name was established on the West Coast, but it was equally well known in the deep South, with Whiskey Runners and dirt track racers. Veteran Edelbrock employee Bill Likes runs some high compression heads through the machining process.
The Ford Flathead was losing its grip on the hot rod world by the mid-'50s. Tony "The Loner" Nancy tried to hang on with his Edelbrock-equipped blown Flathead roadster, shown on the cover of Hot Rod in December '57. But the small-block Chevy could not be denied. Edelbrock engaged in "Chevy mania" and produced all types of manifolds including a Ram Log six carburetor model and a dual-quad version.
Vic Sr. was given three Chevy small-block engines very early in the development stages of the V-8. He created a three, two-barrel carburetor manifold for the street and for boat racing...
...The result was a kick-ass hydro that blew all of the hot boats with bigger engines out of the water.
Father and son take time for a photo at the opening of the Edelbrock shop at 4921 West Jefferson Boulevard in 1949.