For the uninitiated, drag racing is a lightning speed contest between hot rods racing side-by-side.
In the 1960s, to reach maximum speeds of more than 200-mph in less than 7 seconds, dragsters fine-tuned their engines, modified body shapes and experimented with exotic, flammable fuels.
In the drag racing world, âSeven seconds is an eternity,â? Jim McLennan told me eight years ago when he was in his mid-60s. McLennan was also the veteran of 2,000 races and the former owner of the legendary Champion Speed Shop in Colma (south of San Francisco).
âBack in the early 1950s when I was known as a hot rod kid,â? McLennan said, â I cruised in a â51 Chevy loaded with a powerful Oldsmobile engine. I was at Melâs Drive-In when a young man called âthe Greekâ pulled alongside me in his â41 Buick with a Cadillac engine.â?
âWanna drag?â? challenged âthe Greekâ.
The hot-rodders negotiated the site of their âoutlaw dragâ? before settling on the straight-away of the âUpper Great Highwayâ? near San Franciscoâs Ocean Beach.
San Franciscoâs avenues were used because âthere was no place to dragâ?, McLennan told me. âThe street machines were going faster and faster and it was getting out of hand.â?
Sometimes the âoutlaw dragsâ? took place as early as 5:30 a.m. to avoid getting âtaggedâ? or arrested by police.
Jim McLennan was 25 when he changed careers. He opened the Champion Speed Shop on Mission Road near the Holy Cross Cemetery in Colma.
Inside the concrete âtilt-upâ? building where the smell of oil permeated the air, McLennan did tune-ups—but what he relished was building hot rods from scratchâand he was so good at it that the phone rang constantly until closing time, 9 p.m. On the other end of the line were young hot-rodders asking questions about engines, ordering special parts, inquiring about the date of the next drag race.
McLennanâs Speed Shop became the nerve center for drag strip devotees.
It was one thing to build fast engines, it was another to actually own a drag strip and thatâs what Jim McLennan wanted.
He wanted to own a legal and safe place where amateurs and pros could compete. Imagine his excitement when he learned that the 3000-foot long, 60-foot wide asphalt covered auxiliary air strip at the isolated Half Moon Bay Airport was for rent.
McLennan snapped up the opportunity but he realized that attracting spectators might not be easy. He would have to overcome the fact that few people knew how to find the remote, sparsely populated Half Moon Bay.
…To Be Continued…
. Photo courtesy Mark Andermahr, HMB Bakery (When you go to buy bread or pastries, enjoy the many dragster photos on the walls of the HMB Bakery on Main Street)
The Coastside sky was an endless milky white as 29-year-old Don âBig Daddyâ? Garlits towed his âSwamp Ratâ?, the strange looking, low-slung drag strip racing machine, into the isolated Half Moon Bay Airport.
Bold block lettering on the multi-windowed tower announced that Big Daddy had arrived at the Half Moon Bay Drag Strip: Where World Records Are Broken.
It was 1966 and 1500 drag strip fans, young and old, gathered to witness the highly publicized battle of the year–a quarter-mile, 7-second rush of acceleration– between arch rivals Don Garlits and Don Prudhomme.
Garlits, a Floridian, was always a star attraction, a âhired gunâ? that brought in the crowds, wherever he raced. But this time Garlits had had a bad year, losing important races on the East Coastâbut eveb worse he heard from a reliable source that the big trophy had been etched in advance with Don Prudhommeâs name.
As the day of the big match approached, excitement soared among the dedicated group of drag strip fans.
Who would win the giant trophy and the $5000 purse?
Did the trophy really already bear Don Prudhomme, the Southern Californian’s name?
Which man– and which machine–would emerge as #1?
…To be continued…
Long before I visited New York City a few months ago I admired the great Broadway actress Elaine Stritch. Most recently she did a one-woman show for HBO and she’s over 80 years-old. She was wearing an oversized white shirt and stockings and heels. The only prop was a bar stool type chair, and in her smoky voice she told stories of dating young, gorgeous Marlon Brando, of wild nights drinking, (she doesn’t drink anymore) and dashing from one fabulous Broadway show to another, both of which she was starring in at the same time.
Elaine Stritch’s voice is so much her own that I knew I’d recognize it anywhere.
I loved her as Joanne in Stephen Sondheim’s musical comedy, “Company” (1970) and “her” song, “Ladies Who Lunch”–
Especially these lines:
“And here’s to the girls who just watch–
Aren’t they the best?
When they get depressed,
It’s a bottle of Scotch,
Plus a little jest.
Another chance to disapprove,
Another brilliant zinger,
Another reason not to move,
Another vodka stinger.
I’ll drink to that.
Miss Stritch appeared in San Francisco a few years ago and how I regret not seeing the show. I heard it was marvelous. But something much better was in store for me!
While in New York, I stayed with Burt at the sexy Carlyle, famous for John F. Kennedy’s rendezvous with beautiful women. I knew that Elaine Stritch performed in the hotel’s club (and that she lived at the famous hotel, too).
One afternoon I was walking into the hotel when walking in front of me I heard a voice I recognized.
“Elaine Stritch!” I said loudly and boldly. If I have to say so myself I sounded like an old friend of the actress.
Wearing a scarf and a coat on a mild spring day she turned to see who it was.
What to do, what to do, I thought. I didn’t feel so bold anymore.
“Can I hug you?” I said.
“Yes,” she answered and I hugged her.
A younger woman, a daughter? a business manager? was with Miss Stritch, watching the scene unfold with an approving smile.
“What’s your name?” the actress asked me.
At that point we parted but moments later ended up getting into the same elevator. We didn’t talk but when she got off and walked away, her back to me, she had a final scene to play. In a loud, clear Broadway voice she said to me:
“GOODbye June.” (said in “that” voice).
Like the great entertainer she is, Elaine Stritch made the most out of those two words (that I will remember forever).
Commuters heading home to Half Moon Bay on Monday afternoon, the 10th of July, were stopped in their tracks near Half Moon Bay Nursery. Burt and I were two of those commuters, some 300 yards away from what–at a distance– looked like debris on the road. I wasn’t able to see what was in the road nor were any of the other drivers in front of me.
All of us were baffled. If it was an accident, where were the cars?
As we waited emergency vehicles arrived, including two ambulances. We waited, straining to see.
All we could see was something lying on the road. Something dark. Radio news didn’t know yet. I called 511* for traffic info but the man on the recording said there was a “delay between Skyline and Skyline” on Highway 92, but cars were moving at 35-40 mph. No way! And, where’s Skyline & Skyline?
I decided to find out the old-fashioned way: I called Half Moon Bay Nursery, and asked Brad, who answered, if he knew what had happened.
“Two motorcycles were struck by a vehicle,” he told me.
“Thank you, Brad.”
(Meanwhile two ambulances left the scene, heading east.)
I called KCBS and the story was aired seconds later. “Avoid 92,” the traffic reporter said “92 is a parking lot…”
We were near the front of the line and passed the endless line of cars, standing still, stretching from the scene of the horrible accident west to Highway 1–It’ll take at least a couple of hours to clear this up, I thought.
I didn’t want to imagine how far the line stretched, all those cars at a standstill, in the opposite direciton–and, there are very very few places to turn around on Highway 92.
The Blue Lady has been moving chairs and tables late at night in Moss Beach for decades earning her the reputation as the Coastsideâs top ghost.
But there is another ghost, the one we donât hear anything about, the one who also, in the end, raises many perplexing questions.
Iâm talking about the ghost at Miramar.
No sightings of this lesser known ghost had ever been reported until Albert and wife Eva Schmidt moved their restaurant business from Burlingame to Miramar.
It was after WWII, and the building they bought was the old Palace Miramar Hotel. During the war, U.S. soldiers used the Palace Miramar as a headquarters and they were pretty lax on maintenance. Albert had a lot of clean-up and restoration on his hands.
First, he renamed the place âAlbertâsâ?. Then, he found the ornate bar, gleaming chandeliers and other heavy dark furniture at the Spreckels estate sale.
Not only was the hotel worn out, but the historic wooden pier that once jutted 200 feet into the sea, had been left to rot. When Albert arrived, the pier had been reduced to stumps. While sipping at the bar, the Miramar locals guessed when the pilings would vanish forever.
I donât know what Albert was like in Burlingame, but he was a quirky figure in Miramar, an eclectic cook who whipped up chateaubriand for breakfast and ham and eggs at midnight. Albert and Eva Schmidt also built up a loyal following ranging from the locals to important politicos who loved their crab cioppino.
It was about this time that the âSecond Level Apparitionâ? that haunted Albertâs made its presence known. With an eerie shiver, the help reported sightings.
The chandeliers swung and tinkled as if agitated by a strong wind– but the windows were closed. Far more unsettling was the hooded, caped transparent face that peered through windows, there one second, gone the next.
And finally, what was going on in rooms six and seven?
When the pair of connecting rooms was unoccupied, lights could be seen beneath the doors. And when the doors were opened to see what the source of the light was, candles were found burning brightly.
Who lit the candles in rooms six and seven? Nobody knew.
Who lit the candles? Who swung the chandeliers? What was the hooded, caped thing at the windows?
Who was this âSecond Level Apparitionâ?? Man or woman? What is its story and why was it haunting Albertâs?
The only explanations seemed otherworldly. Remember, it is said that a ghost is a tortured soul searching for peace.
There are many theories: Was it one of the soldiers, a guest at the hotel, a fisherman on the pier, a passenger on the train, or someone who suffered an agonizing death during prohibition?
Most perplexing of al, what happened to the âSecond Level Apparitionâ? ghost when Albertâs burned in the 1960s?
Did the ghost find peace when the Albertâs hotel was destroyed by fire or did it move elsewhere?
Attention folks in Miramar: If you have any unexplained, strange activities in your home or business, please let me know.
Top photo: Albert’s, courtesy Joe Clement
I see the I Tunes Music Store is showing off a series of “Driving Music”–one is for the Autobahn in Germany, another for New England, another for the ride to the Napa-Sonoma Wine Country–all soothing, classical music.
The copy said (something like) nothing can ruffle feathers more than a wonderful day spoiled by unexpected traffic delays….turning an otherwise “normal” man or woman into a shrieking mimi within 30 seconds….
I Tunes Music Store Person: Please let me recommend “Driving Music For Highway 92”. Let it be modern music that goes off the dee end, music to accompany a nervous breakdown–spastic, antonal and cacophonous…