Dream Machine’s* On Sunday At The HMB Airport: Meanwhile

ENJOY “BURT BLUMERT TAKES THE GREAT ‘BIG DADDY’ DON GARLITS ON A HARROWING SIGHT-SEEING TOUR OF SAN FRANCISCO”

(Photo: L-R, Burt Blumert and “Big Daddy” Don Garlits.)

Friends of ours hosted a birthday party for Burt Blumert, at a home over the hill, on February 11, 2008. Earlier in the day we met “Big Daddy” Don Garlits in San Francisco where he was at a big car show signing autographs for fans at Moscone Center.

Burt has known Garlits for many years. When he told Don about the birthday party, and invited him to come along. Don Garlits said, “Sure. Pick me up at 5:30.”

Burt went to pick Don up, and while I was waiting for them at the party, I began to worry because they were late–and then they were really late.

Meanwhile they were having a wild ride all over San Francisco.. Don Garlits, the world famous drag racer, who won races right here at Princeton, sat in the passenger seat as Burt got lost, almost hit a pedestrian and ran a red light.

Here’s the true story:

“I picked him up at the Holiday Inn in Chinatown,” Burt says. “Don hadn’t been in the Bay Area for almost 20 years and I decided to give him a little sight-seeing tour before we headed down the Peninsula for the party. The sight-seeing tour didn’t go well. The second time we passed the Palace of Fine Arts, Garlits asked me, ‘Haven’t we seen this before?’

Burt said, “Yes, but that was the other side of it.”

When Burt realized he was about to cross the Golden Gate Bridge, he made a sharp, illegal u-turn and told Garlits, “We don’t want to do that.” Meanwhile he was lost in San Francisco

Poor Garlits, who spent his drag racing career surviving terrorizing moments, never experienced anything worse than Burt Blumert’s sight-seeing tour of San Francisco.

“We were lost for 45 minutes. I didn’t know where I was. I was on the Great Highway, I was in the Avenues, I was at the top of Twin Peaks….”

Finally when they arrived at the party, Burt was exhausted and Don Garlits seemed happy to be alive.

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In the late 1950s & early 1960s “Big Daddy” Garlits and his famous drag-racing rival, Don Prudhomme, drew record crowds, and all the locals, to watch them compete at the Half Moon Bay Airport near Princeton-by-the-Sea.

Be sure to stop by the Annual *Dream Machine event on Sunday, April 27–the drag strip is no more but let your imagination take you back to the 1950s when the great Don Garlits entertained so many.

To get info about June Morrall’s book, “Princeton-by-the-Sea,” which includes a chapter with vintage photos about Big Daddy’s drag-racing exploits at the Half Moon Bay Airport, please click here

Garlits v Prudhomme: The 1/4 Mile, 7-Second Rush of Acceleration: Half Moon Bay Drag Strip

DonGarlits.jpg

Part 4

The day of the match race finally arrived and the stage was set for the two biggest names in the sport, Don Garlits and Don Prudhomme, the only two men to win drag racing’s triple crown.

At 6:15 a.m. that Sunday, cars blocked traffic on Highways 1 and 92. The Half Moon Bay air strips huge parking lot was packed. Parked cars spilled out on entrance roads in all directions—a great turn-out and tribute to these world-class athletes.

“15 thousand people showed up,” Don “Big Daddy” Garlits told me in 1998. “They came to see their man, Prudhomme, beat ‘Big Daddy'”.

(Remember the trophy was already etched with Prudhomme’s name).

The race was run in three heats: two wins got the trophy and the $5,000 purse.

Garlits easily won the first heat but Prudhomme came back with a magnificent effort in the second heat.

On the scene was a reporter from Drag Racing Magazine. “Now the drama was really tense,” he wrote. “We had just watched two-thirds of the best match race we had ever seen.”

Now came the final deciding heat. A quarter-mile, 7-second rush of acceleration.

The magazine reporter wrapped it up:

“The two cars were perfectly matched….The two giants of drag racing pushed down the lanes for the final chapter of one of the truly great moments in the sport.”

And with the starting flags, Don Garlits was gone. He grabbed the lead, over a full car length—it was impossible for Prudhomme to catch him.

Don Garlits had defied the race experts who said he couldn’t win.

“It was the most important, most satisfying victory of my career,” Garlits told me. After he won the race he said, “I drove 50 miles before I remembered that I forgot to get my $5,000 prize money. Jim McLennan was waiting for me at Half Moon Bay when I returned. He grinned and said, ‘We wondered when you’d be back’.”

Jim McLennan, a former Woodside resident, lived in San Francisco when I interviewed him in 1998. The Half Moon Bay Bakery’s Mark Andermahr proclaimed that “Don Garlits is the most famous drag racer in the world.” Don Garlits operates the very successful Museum of Drag Racing in Ocala, Florida.

Three years after the famous race between Don Garlits and Don Prudhomme, the Half Moon Bay Drag Strip closed its gates forever.

airport.jpg (Photo: The Half Moon Bay Airport where the drag races took place).

Garlits v Prudhomme:The 1/4 Mile, 7-Second Rush of Acceleration: Half Moon Bay Drag Strip

PART 3

prudhomme.jpg(Photo: Don Prudhomme with Half Moon Bay Drag Strip “Theme Girl” Tammy Thomas)

For Coastside kids, now adults, the Half Moon Bay Drag Strip remains a fond memory. In the late 1990s I interviewed Mark Andermahr, owner of the Half Moon Bay Bakery on Main Street. A fervent fan of drag racing, Andermahr had turned the walls of the bakery into a museum of historic photos honoring the old drag strip and its heroes.

In the 1960s, Andermahr told me, he and his friends hitchhiked to the drag strip, perching themselves atop the roof of a barn at the south end of the drag strip.

“All we could see was the end of the race when the parachutes opened,” Mark said. They looked like little dots getting bigger.”

(The “parachutes” helped slow down the super-fast dragsters).

The races took place every other Sunday, the price of admission 90 cents. Jim McLennan “could hardly wait for race day” when he got behind the wheel of his 1936 Ford pick-up truck and headed from San Francisco for the Half Moon Bay Drag Strip where he opened the gates and awaited the crowds.

McLennan remembered a press conference he scheduled at Half Moon Bay, inviting radio and television stations to cover a mock race matching his homemade “slingshot dragster” that could go up to 150 mph against Art Arfon’s “Green Monster”.

Arfon’s dragster with a painted monster baring its teeth on the front end was funny to look at but it was awesome, loaded with a gas-eating jet engine that reached speeds of 170 mph.

“The media didn’t come to the press conference,” McLennan said. “They didn’t know where the drag strip was!”

Back at the Champion Speed Shop in Colma a KPIX-TV cameraman and reporter arrived, apologizing for their failure to get to Half Moon Bay.

“Can you show us the mock race now?” the reporter asked.

Game for anything, McLennan called Colma’s police chief, who said, “Sure, go ahead. You can run the thing, just put a couple of guys on the street to stop the traffic on the El Camino.”

“We did it,” McLennan said. “Art came down the street in the ‘Green Monster’.”

He gave it the gas, and the noise was incredible. Two parachutes stopped the “Monster” at the El Camino but the noise was so loud “the phones were ringing off the hook at Colma’s City Hall.

McLennan also made valuable contributions to the safety of the sport. Through conversations with a San Francisco Airport fire official, he helped develop a “pro-helmet, fashioned out of fiberglass material, protecting the driver from burns. Northern California dragsters were the first to wear the new “fire suit,” McLennan said.

Using brakes to slow a dragster going 150-plus mph did not do very well so McLennan experimented with parachutes.

Crouching in the truck bed of a pick-up, McLennan tossed out a 20-foot chute tied to a chain but he says, “It wrecked the tail gate and everything else.”

Eventually he used a triangle parachute attached to a nylon “roll cage” which resembled a back pack. McLennan was among the first to use parachutes to slow down a dragster.

NEXT: THE BIG MATCH RACE BETWEEN DON GARLITS & DON PRUDHOMME

photos courtesy Mark Andermahr

Garlits v Prudhomme: The 1/4 Mile, 7-Second Rush of Acceleration: Half Moon Bay Drag Strip

Part 2

garlits2.jpg (Photo: Don “Big Daddy” Garlits standing behind his dragster with Jim McLennan, wearing striped shirt in the background)

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, “Seven seconds is an eternity,” 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).

“Back in the early 1950s when I was known as a hot rod kid,” McLennan said, ” I cruised in a ’51 Chevy loaded with a powerful Oldsmobile engine. I was at Mel’s Drive-In when a young man called ‘the Greek’ pulled alongside me in his ’41 Buick with a Cadillac engine.”

“Wanna drag?” challenged ‘the Greek’.

The hot-rodders negotiated the site of their “outlaw drag” before settling on the straight-away of the “Upper Great Highway” near San Francisco’s Ocean Beach.

San Francisco’s avenues were used because “there was no place to drag”, McLennan told me. “The street machines were going faster and faster and it was getting out of hand.”

Sometimes the “outlaw drags” took place as early as 5:30 a.m. to avoid getting “tagged” 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 “tilt-up” building where the smell of oil permeated the air, McLennan did tune-ups—but what he relished was building hot rods from scratch—and 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.

McLennan’s 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 that’s 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)

Garlits v Prudhomme: The 1/4 Mile, 7-Second Rush of Acceleration: Half Moon Bay Drag Strip

garlits.jpg

Part I

The Coastside sky was an endless milky white as 29-year-old Don “Big Daddy” Garlits towed his “Swamp Rat”, 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 “hired gun” that brought in the crowds, wherever he raced. But this time Garlits had had a bad year, losing important races on the East Coast—but eveb worse he heard from a reliable source that the big trophy had been etched in advance with Don Prudhomme’s 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…