Book review by Richard Parks,
photographic consultant Roger Rohrdanz
I don’t believe that I’ve ever spoken or seen Albert Drake, but in talking with tried and true hot rodders they all tell me that he exists. I even called Glenn Freudenberger, the Dry Lakes Hall of Fame member and hot rodding historian and he doesn’t know who Albert is. Today’s review is on Drake’s book Hot Rodder! From Lakes to Street, and it is a real gem. Now Albert self publishes his books from Flat Out Press and his books are not in the same class as Motorbooks, which spends a great deal of money and effort to make their books look spectacular. But where Albert’s book lack that coffee table feel they more than make up for it in the quality of the text, research, photographs and sheer exuberance in loving the sport of hot rodding and land speed racing. Drake is first and foremost a fan of motorsports and it is his love and loyalty that shines through loud and clear. There is nothing fancy or fussy with any of Albert Drake’s books, just a delight in the writing of it that makes us all want to see what Drake sees. Sometimes the crafting of the books that Drake creates can be exasperating. Let’s look at the construction of the book and its positive and negative points before I tell you why you have to have Albert Drake’s books in your library. Hot Rodder is a paperback book with a glued spine and matte paper. The matte paper is not the type that you would use for high quality photographs and indeed the photos for the most part are grainy. They are clear and precise photographs, but just not of the quality that you normally find in books of this type. Most of the captions are thorough and professional, but some have little or no detail. There is no index and with all the text, nouns and data in the book, that makes it hard to find what you are looking for. It also makes historians cringe. Hot Rodder is 8 ½ by 11 inches, with 176 pages and 187 black and white photographs. There are no color photographs, but there were two programs, two logos, one timing tag, two time slips, three business cards and six magazine covers. The book was published in 1993 and the author may have copies for sale. You can reach Flat Out Press at 9727 SE Reedway Street, Portland, Oregon 97266.
Now that you know the drawbacks in Hot Rodder, let’s look at the positives. Albert Drake is a true hot rodder and he understands hot rodders of all kinds and skills. He knows how to interview people and draw out the best material. He is zealous about his hobby. He finds people to interview who have been overlooked, but who made huge impacts on hot rodding and motor racing. Hot Rodder has a simple but effective Table of Contents, an introduction actually worth reading and then he jumps right into the subject matter. The interviews are simply great. He makes the interviewees feel comfortable and they reward us with fantastic stories of the past. I have to admit that the material is so fresh that I have heard very little of what is in this book before. Drake finds people who have been overlooked by other writers. But that doesn’t mean that they aren’t important. It’s surprising how we tend to overlook great people simply because they have grown old and those people that knew them well are gone. It is possible to outlive one’s fame. Young people today have no idea who these men were and yet they see them at car shows, reunions and races. I admit to this same error. For all the people that I think that I know, there are a hundred more whom I have never met nor have the slightest inkling who they might be. The rule of thumb is this, if they have white hair at a race or a car show, they were probably an active hot rodder in their youth. Here are the hot rodders that Drake portrayed in his book; Eldon Snapp, Dick Ford, Big Bill Edwards, William Kenz, Karl and Veda Orr, John Riley, Vern Houle, Jack Henry, Ken Jones, Rolla Vollstedt, Len Sutton, Burke LeSage, Joe Bailon, Bob Kaiser, Roger Huntington, Peter Sukalac, Henry Gregor Felsen, Keith Peters, Larry Purcell, Dee Wescott, Dave Juhl and Stan Ochs.
The young hot rodders probably can’t name a single one of these pioneers. The older hot rodders, like myself know who Snapp, the Orr’s, Edwards, Riley, Henry, Vollstedt, LeSage, Sutton, Kenz and Wescott were. It simply makes my heart sing to know that Drake found Snapp and got his history down before it was too late. Eldon Snapp was a sign painter by trade, during the Great Depression when one took any job and excelled at it, or starved. Eldon and my father were close friends and his wife Betty and my mother Mary often went out together socially. Eldon was also an artist, cartoonist and designed the Southern California Timing Association (SCTA) logo. He was also the co-editor with my father on the Road Runners club newsletter that morphed into the SCTA Racing News. Most of the cartoons and ads were designed by Snapp and signed Snappe. My father did some of the cartooning, but Eldon did the majority of them. Eldon was a constant, but often silent voice in the SCTA and a loyal friend to my father. Few people know how important Eldon was to the well being of the SCTA and how it was an effective force in curtailing illegal street racing. I have some of Eldon’s paintings and treasure them. Karl and Veda Orr are perhaps somewhat known among land speed racers and a few even remember going to his speed shop and buying some of the best equipment available at the time. A few more people remember how Veda Orr took over the SCTA Racing News or what was left of it after Parks and Snapp went into the military. Veda sent the newsletter to as many of the dry lakes racers as she could, with news of home and whatever racing related information that she could find. Receiving those newsletters kept the morale up and many racers today covet those little sheets of yellowed paper. Karl was also known for the roadster that he built and maintained and let Veda drive at the dry lakes in the 1940’s, when no other women were allowed to race. She was a special lady and Karl, as crusty as he could be, had a loyal following of younger men who idolized him.
John Riley was an original member of the Road Runners and was there when the SCTA was formed in 1937. He was the treasurer of the club when Snapp, Parks, my mother Mary and a friend of Eldon’s “borrowed” the club treasury, all $6 of it and took off for a two day vacation to Yosemite National Park in the 1930’s. Gas, food and a tent for the group cost just $6 in those days, though they made my mother sleep in the car. That brings us to Jack Henry, the Road Runner’s club President and sometimes Sergeant of Arms for the SCTA. When on dates, my mother and father would go with Jack in his roadster. It wasn’t that they needed a chaperone; it was that they needed a car. This was the Great Depression and you went on a date in the most unusual manner or you didn’t go at all. Drake didn’t overlook Burke LeSage, a person who is always helping others, but who gets very little recognition in return. LeSage was racing before he could legally drive and he’s been at it since the early 1950’s. His memory is still sharp and when we want to know something, we go to Burke. I can’t tell you, because no one has that good a memory, how many times Burke LeSage officiated at a memorial service, or helped a fellow racer or lobbied on their behalf. He is a member of the Dry Lakes Racers Hall of Fame and he was elected for his kindness to other racers as well as for his outstanding dry lakes records. Drake doesn’t forget the men from the Pacific Northwest either. It is a region that often gets overlooked as fans of motor racing look towards the great oval tracks in the mid-west or east coast states and the drags in Southern California and stock car racing in the south. Washington state and Oregon produced their fair share of racing legends and two of them in this book are Rolla Vollstedt and Len Sutton. Both Sutton and Vollstedt wrote books detailing their lives in motor racing and their reviews are listed on the web under my Gone Racin’ by-line. Sutton was a hard-driving and successful oval track open wheel racer who ran at the Indy 500 when roadsters roared. Rolla was a car builder and owner who gave many an aspiring driver a seat in his cars. Vollstedt also placed cars at the Indy 500. I just loved the stories. This alone make the book worth adding to your library. Contact Albert Drake and see if he has a copy left. I rate this book a 6 ½ on the stories alone, out of a possible 8 spark plugs.
Gone Racin’ is at RNPARKS1@JUNO.COM.
I rate this book a 6.5 out of 8 sparkplugs.