Before The War Racing On Southern California's Dry Lakes


By Tim Bernsau
Photography by Leslie Long

Hot Rodding California Desert Race

Southern California's dry lake beds have attracted racers since the turn of the 20th century, but things really exploded in the Thirties. More than 70 years later, hot rodders are still fascinated by this period and this place. Luckily, a lot of the racers are still going strong.

Leslie Long was at Muroc, Harper, Rosamond, and El Mirage back then and for the past several years has been collecting photos and information from those days, and is dedicated to seeing this history kept alive and told right. The amount of info Leslie has in his memory and on paper is staggering, and his photo collection, contributed by dozens of racers, is equally amazing. I had several long meetings with him, and a few more with his friends, Ed Iskenderian and John Athan. The stories these guys tell would fill a very long book. For the sake of a short article, we focused on the activity of the SCTA (Southern California Timing Association) prior to World War II, when the hobby we call hot rodding (they didn't) was just getting rolling.

Superchargers were rare at the early dry lakes. We were unable to identify this T speedster, but one of the first guys to run a supercharger was Ted Cannon, a member of the Desert Goats and an early member of the Throttlers. Barney Navarro ran one as well and, as Leslie recalls, could qualify Number One regularly, but didn't win much.

Hot Rodding California Desert T Speedster

Lakes racing was the result of several things happening at the same time. Young car owners were meeting each other, organizing into clubs, and racing. According to Leslie, George Wight, eventually the owner of Bell Auto Parts, began encouraging racers from L.A. and Orange County to run their cars at the Muroc dry lake, which was good for business. Because of its size, Muroc was the earliest popular site (it was eventually taken over when the military established Edwards Air Force Base there), followed by Harper, Rosamond, and later El Mirage.

The racing got popular fast, but with few established rules, accidents and injuries were common, and the police threatened to shut things down. The SCTA, established in 1937, was the result of several clubs cooperating in the interest of organization and safety. In those days, most of the cars running at the lakes were street cars that had been driven there. At the lakes, off came the headlights, windshields, sometimes shocks, anything to reduce weight. Some racers went to extremes, notably the famous Dick Kraft, who pulled off the body, sat on a board over the rearend, and even raced in a bathing suit. It was common for racers to swap carbs and run alcohol from a small tank through large lines.

The Ford Model A and B four-cylinders were the most accessible engines. Two- and four-port overhead conversions were common, and the SCTA Racing News identified cars by their heads: Winfield, Riley, Cragar, and others. It's not surprising that four-bangers typically beat the relatively new V-8 Flatheads, considering the amount of speed equipment that existed for them.

Two-at-a-time drag racing hadn't been established yet. Cars ran singly to qualify for classes, which were based on speed, and all the cars from each class would line up for the final races--sometimes it was as many as a dozen running side by side. Later, they established a four-car limit.

Leslie Long and Ed Iskenderian are still friends to this day, meeting for lunch on a regular basis, along with John Athan, Nick Arias, and anybody else who might be around. Leslie has been working hard to save photos and information from the days when they were all kids and inventing what would later be called hot rodding. Hot Rodding California Desert Leslie Long Ed Iskenderian

The SCTA quickly established more specific classes. Before the war, cars raced in Roadster, Modified, or Streamliner classes, although Leslie remembers that the distinctions were blurry at times. In later years, classes were based onthings like engine size and superchargers--it was a lot simpler in the early years. It was a time of experimenting and fabricating and, as Ed Iskenderian recalls, "It was just fun. Everyone had their own ideas, and you'd learn from the other guys--what they'd done. That's how you figured out what you might want to put together."

SCTA Racing News, August 10, 1947
We're not hot rods. Members of the SCTA, long irked at the attachment of the ignoble hot rods to their sport have resolved to try to discourage use of the name. To the general public, anything minus fenders appearing loud and flashy, or even the old man's sedan, if driven by a teenager, is classified as a hot rod. Much unfavorable publicity has been reflected upon us, due to the antics of irresponsible youngsters and some oldsters who still like to "make like Indianapolis" on the public streets. Our problem is not so much in controlling our members, but rather in distinguishing our cars and our activities from the HRs. So--we're running Sports Cars! (Or anything but hot rods)!

Bill Warth, who drove this streamliner with a Winfield four-banger, was instrumental in getting racers to Harper when the military kicked them out of Muroc. Warth went 132 mph at Rosamond in 1939 and eventually sold the streamliner to Stu Hilborn, minus the engine. After Stu dropped in a fuel-injected V-8, it reportedly became the first car to run 150 mph, at El Mirage. Hot Rodding California Desert Streamliner
  Hot Rodding California Desert Hot Rod Driving
Finished around 1939 after four years in progress, this completely custom-built roadster must've turned heads at the time. It was owned by Eugene Von Arx of the Bungholers, whose father worked for a coach builder and helped put together the body. Les told us it originally ran an Olds, swapped for a Flathead V-8 with Riley OHV heads. Hot Rodding California Desert Custom Roadster
Arnold Birner was a neighbor of John Athan and owned a modified in the early Forties and a belly tank after the war. He was photographed at Harper with this Riley four-port roadster that came before either of them. When the war ended, Arnold started working as a pattern maker for Ed Donovan, who continued to build four-bangers. The stylized AJB symbol found on Donovan blocks represents Birner's initials. Hot Rodding California Desert Arnold Birner
Look closely at the engine in Clint Seccombe's roadster and you'll see the V-16 engine is punching right through the firewall. Seccombe, a member of the Throttlers, raced in the Roadster class. His V-16 was much bigger (and much faster) than the Flathead V-8s and four-bangers; the car went 125 at Harper in 1940. Prior to the war, classes were determined by body (Roadster, Modified, Streamliner) and you could run whatever you wanted. After the war, separate A, B, and C classes were established to help level the field. Iskenderian remembers breaking an axle at Muroc one time and getting towed home by the Cadillac. Hot Rodding California Desert V16 Roadster
George Temple was a member of the Road Runners and raced at Harper Dry Lake, hare and hound meets, and, rumor has it, on the street. Leslie remembers him heading south to Orange County to race Dick Kraft, one of the best-known racers at the lakes and in early drag racing. George's sister, Shirley, was a star on the movie screen. Hot Rodding California Desert George Temple
Long before it became one of the most famous and enduring hot rods of all time, Ed Iskenderian's roadster was John Athan's roadster. Here it is with the Rajo motor, riding on Essex 'rails. Ed cut off the front horns and added a Flathead and eventually a pair of Maxi F heads. They were still teenagers when John sold the '24 T to Ed for $25 (we've heard lower numbers, but got that one from Isky himself). It eventually made the cover of Hot Rod's sixth issue in June 1948 and is now in the Wally Parks NHRA Museum. Ed and John remain close friends to this day. Hot Rodding California Desert Bucket
One of the most famous and possibly the first enclosed streamliner belonged to Albata member Ralph Schenck. The car was probably inspired by the Golden Submarine from years before and was built from aluminum by Joaquin "Joe" Grosso. It ran 118 mph on its first trip to Harper's in 1940. The Chevy four-cylinder had a 1918 Chevy cam, a Ford Model B crank, and a three-port Olds head. The body was discarded by a later owner, but the car is currently being restored. Hot Rodding California Desert Closed Roadster
After tilting up the T so that they could pour lead in the exhaust ports to seal them up (before bolting on the overhead exhaust), Ed and friends couldn't resist a little clowning around. The victims are generally identified as Ed and John Athan, but Ed says it could be his brother Luther and his friend Herman doing the posing. Hot Rodding California Desert Tilted Roadster
Ed Iskenderian retained the Essex frame, but Z'd the rear rails and added a '32 rearend. Then he took it across the alley to an apartment house and got it on film. Hot Rodding California Desert Essex Frame
The SCTA Racing News is full of items about Orville "Snuffy" Welchel (his name is sometimes listed as Welcher). Snuffy and Polly (note the sign on the cowl) were members in the Road Runners and raced in the Modified class running a Riley two-port. Hot Rodding California Desert Orville Welchel
Eugene Von Arx, the guy with the custom-bodied V-8 roadster, raced this Olds 8-powered modified, which went 112 at Harper in 1940. According to Leslie, there was always discrepancy about how the classes were divided, and Modified was gone in the years after the war. Hot Rodding California Desert V8 Roadster
The Spalding brothers, Tom and Bill, were pioneer racers and built one of the first streamliner-style cars, but had better luck with this modified with a Riley overhead V-8 and a blower. They also owned a successful speed shop. Their ignitions were extremely popular among the lakes racers (along with Potvins). Hot Rodding California Desert Spalding Brothers
The owner was named George Rubsch, whose dad owned A1 Auto Body in L.A. The streamliner was nicknamed Skip It and featured a Cragar Model B under the hood and what must be one of the first flame paintjobs on the outside. "He had the prettiest finished car of all the bunch," Isky recalls. Hot Rodding California Desert Streamliner Roadster
The number 44 Model A with a two-port Riley was owned by Bob Snook of the Road Runners and raced at Muroc. Leslie explained that, in the early days, numbers were assigned at each race. After the war, each club was assigned a batch of numbers. If you were familiar with the system, you could identify the club by the numbers. Number 1 and eventually 1-16 were saved for the fastest cars, regardless of club. Hot Rodding California Desert Model A
In the beginning, all qualified racers in a class could line up and go--none of that time-consuming round-by-round elimination stuff. Eventually, they limited it to four cars at a time; in this case it looks like Vic Edelbrock, Tom Spalding, Binks McLean, and Clint Seccombe. Les remembers Clint winning that day. Hot Rodding California Desert Starting Line
SCTA newsletters
Ten years before Hot Rod magazine and 50 years before the World Wide Web, Southern California hot rodders connected via the SCTA Racing News. Harry Cameron was the first editor in 1938. Road Runners president Wally Parks took over with the third issue. This was the place for finding out what was going on, who was building what, what the clubs were up to, points and records, rule updates (and debates), and for classified ads, personal announcements, and editorials by Wally.
Hot Rodding California Desert Scta News
This photo from Muroc in June 1941 was probably taken after the races were over. Photos were almost as big a part of the action as the racing (thankfully for us). This lineup--two with the headlights reinstalled--features the successful cars of Don Baxter, John Riley, Eldon Snapp, and Randy Shinn. Hot Rodding California Desert Lineup
Leslie remembers that Harry Hess was driving a '34 at the lakes, but thinks that this is the V-8-powered '33/34 hybrid driven by Bub Meyer. Hot Rodding California Desert Bub Meyer
Ten years before he was the editor of Hot Rod, Wally Parks was president of the Road Runners and editor of the SCTA Racing News (starting with the third issue). Lakes racer Robert Stack was getting started in TV and movie acting, and on the verge of getting a bath from Wally. Hot Rodding California Desert Wally Parks
Eldon Snapp's '29, equipped with a Winfield head, manifold, and carburetor, ran at Harper and at Rosamond. In addition to racing, Eldon was the art editor of the SCTA Racing News, illustrating most of the covers, lettering the logo and cover blurbs, and even drawing advertisements. Hot Rodding California Desert 1929 Roadster
The only information we have on this car came from a handwritten note identifying it as Roy Schellhous' "85" midget, maybe a reference to an 85hp Flathead. Leslie Long remembers that Roy had numerous cars and trucks, but didn't remember this specific one. Hot Rodding California Desert 85 Midget
At one time, the Cragar Model B in Bud Hinds' '29 RPU had a chrome-plated block. According to Isky, Hinds is indirectly responsible for the name of the Bungholers club. "Bud lived by the pass through Hollywood. Anybody going to Muroc would have to go that way, so we'd hang around there before going to the races. His dad would say, `You guys are a bunch of a**holes.' Instead of calling themselves the A**holes, they decided to call the club the Bungholers." Hot Rodding California Desert 122 Roadster
The long hood does more than advertise tickets to the Gear Grinders' dance, it's covering a V-16. The Gear Grinders club, from Bell in Los Angeles County, joined the SCTA in 1940. One member, Robert Binyon, raced this roadster at Muroc. Bob is also known for crashing, then helping to rebuild, the famous Bob McGee '32 roadster. Hot Rodding California Desert Gear Grinders V16