Memories of the California Jalopy Association 1949-1964 is a six volume VHS set produced by Tom Luce. I spoke to Tom recently and he has plans to transfer the videos from tape to DVD discs sometime in 2012. Tom also wrote the book on Southern California Jalopy racing, which has the same title as the videos. The book is Memories of the California Jalopy Association, and it is in the third printing. I definitely advise fans of jalopy racing to buy the book to go along with the videos. You can reach Tom at 949-631-1598 or email him at email@example.com. Luce grew up watching jalopy racing on TV and as a boy going to Gardena with his father. In every sport there seems to be at least one or two people who became a zealous fan of that sport. For jalopy racing that person is Tom Luce and he has made it his life to accumulate history on this form of auto racing. Jalopies were old cars, very often model T’s that were picked up in junk yards for $15 or less, and had their doors welded shut for added body strength. A rectangular hole was chopped in the top of the car for the driver to enter and exit. In the beginning the safety features were primitive, with football helmets and seatbelts being the only protections for the drivers. There were other types of racing just after World War II ended that competed with the jalopies, including; sprint cars, midgets, roadsters, sports cars, land speed racers, motorcycles and early drag cars. There were even drag and hydroplane boats that attracted lots of attention. The jalopies were often the easiest way to get into racing and then work up to the faster sprint cars. They were cheap, easy, just fast enough to get the adrenaline going, but still safe enough to get the experience one needed to advance to the faster forms of racing.
Tom Luce had this burning desire to create a record of his boyhood love for these ungainly old cars. He began accumulating and to borrow other still photographs and video tapes from people and create his own masterpiece. The six volume Memories of the California Jalopy Association 1949-1964, came out first, followed later by his book on the California Jalopy Association (CJA). It was a labor of love, rather than profit and he produced a few hundred video tapes and nearly 2000 copies of his book. The six volume series is on VHS tape and is a compilation of home videos by fans in the stands, family members of the racers and five professionally made TV show episodes that were narrated by Bill Welsh. Each video is two hours long (twelve hours for all six) and while the quality depends on who was filming the home video at the time, it is remarkably interesting. In some cases the footage is repeated and redundant, but actually having two different angles and views can be a plus for a historian or fan of the sport. In other cases there are some real hidden gems that made buying these tapes worth the money and the time to view them. Luce worked very hard to have the tapes transcribed to six master discs. It took him months working with a professional to edit the home videos and remove the “flash points” from the film. Except for the TV shows there is no narration and that is because they weren’t narrated that long ago. Luce also tells me that even if narration was possible, the action is in snippets of a few seconds and a narrated would hardly be able to say something before the scene was over.
Sixty years ago those home videos were filmed on reels that lasted for about three minutes and it was expensive to process and turn the film into a finished product. Therefore the home video-filmer would shoot only a short sequence and not scan the entire track or waste film on panning the crowds. Usually the video-filmer would only shoot the car of a relative who was driving or his favorite drivers. There were enough accidents and fights among the drivers to fill up a movie reel, so people who shot home videos were selective in what they shot. It took a lot of effort for Luce to splice together the many small segments into something that would show the development of jalopy racing and do so without sound. To add a background he used various musical themes, some of which like the ‘Star Wars’ and ‘Can-Can’ complimented the racing, while other music was just forgettable. The home videos were overwhelmingly in color, while the TV series, “Jalopy Racing from Hollywood,” by Bill Welsh was in black and white, but with narration. Luce met the producer and owner of the TV show segments and was given the right to reproduce them into the videos. Unfortunately, the man died before Luce could transcribe all the videos and so there are only five TV shows in Memories of the California Jalopy Association 1949-1964. There are 21 shows that are either lost or in someone’s possession. Luce would like to know where they are and save them for posterity.
The following people provided these homemade videos or still photographs for the production of Memories of the California Jalopy Association 1949-1964; Ken Eastman, Cyril Fritz, Vallie Engelhauf, Dallas Harrison, Bob Fisher, Jimmy Oskie, Duke Parsons, Bill Merrill, Bob Hogle, Andy Lopiccolo, Ben ‘Termite’ Snyder, Bob Atkinson, Louise Atkinson, Sandy Atkinson, Bob Forster, A. C. Gordon, Bill Mangold, Bob Simmons, John Turner, Frank Allen, Jessie Allen, Jim Klessig, Edith Klessig, Ray Vodden, Gerry Mock, Don Hershey, Bud Astry, Mike Bell, Ronnie Johnson, LeRoy Riggins, and Fred Thompson. The quality of the homemade videos is quite good overall, but some were better than others in taking the videos. Volume 1 starts out at Carrell Speedway in Gardena, California and at first it takes some time to get used to having no narration and jalopy cars going around in a near circle for what seems like hours on end. But slowly your attention begins to focus and you see the actual racing and what made jalopies so loved by race fans. There is the jockeying for position and the bumping and soon a car goes over on its side, through a wooden fence or even upside down. Rarely is anyone hurt, for the speeds are slower than in sprint car driving. But the rough driving leads to lots of accidents, though the cars are righted and restarted. Then the driver gets going after the pack or is towed off the track and repaired for the next race. Sometimes tempers get a bit frayed and a fight breaks out between drivers or crew members. Some of these fights have become legendary among race fans.
One of the problems though is that the scenes are short, but Luce has done his editing well and kept the action going. He also breaks up the action with shots of different race tracks and still photographs. He even puts in captions to tell us the where, who, when and what, that is going on. Otherwise it is hard to see the drivers and other people in the film as the videos were taken from the stands or the infield. But home videos can also capture the excitement of the event in ways that make you feel as if you were there in person. There were also scenes of demolition derby and figure eights being run. It is also thrilling to see just how close the flagman gets to the cars as they are speeding by and how sometimes he will go out into the track and have cars pass him in front and in back of him. The flagman must be a reckless fool or a Hollywood stuntman. Other crewman and officials stay back off the track, but are close enough to rush out on the field and rescue a driver in distress or wave off the drivers and slow down the race until the injured driver or smashed car can be removed. The tracks are both paved and dirt facilities, but mostly it is the dirt tracks that cause the thrills and spills that are remembered most. The trophy girls are really cute and their bathing suits appropriate for all audiences, seeing as this is the 1950’s. I marveled at how they could smile for so long standing up to the grimy, dirt-covered drivers, but they did. There were also scenes of guys working in the pits, the awards banquet, Dick “Whoa Nellie” Lane interviewing jalopy drivers, and a woman dressed up in a ‘Harem’ outfit that looked like the mother of ‘Elvira, Mistress of the Dark.’
Volume 2 is more of the same, but the videos also show a CJA membership card, some memorabilia and excellent black and white still photographs with captions and the names of the drivers. There were also statistics on some of the more famous drivers. Then the tape changed to Balboa Stadium (San Diego, California) for some jalopy racing and still photographs. This tape ended with some sports car road racing in the 1950’s in Pomona and sprint and midget car racing at Carrell Speedway. Volume 3 begins with Bill Welsh narrating one of the black and white TV episodes of Jalopy Races from Hollywood, at the Culver City track. Welsh was a TV reporter who relished narrating these races and other sporting events in Southern California in the 1940’s and ‘50’s. Promoters used a number of gimmicks to lure fans into the stands, not that there were a lot of things to do back then. TV was just getting established and the serials and other shows that we take for granted today simply didn’t exist back then. TV programming started around 8 AM and went to 10 PM and then all the TV stations went dark (went off the air). But there were live news, roller derby, wrestling, boxing and auto racing to fill in the gaps and keep us entertained. No matter what they say, TV was exciting and never better than in the 1950’s. Some of the things promoters did were to schedule ‘backwards racing,’ racing with one or more wheels removed, a man in a gorilla suit and donkey racing with real live donkeys. Volume 3 ended with scenes from Gardena and the Orange Show in San Bernardino.
Volume 4 begins with racing at Gardena Stadium in 1957 and was heavily edited by Luce to remove the light flashes. Sometimes I would fast forward to speed up the action or to remove some of the music that I wasn’t thrilled with, but the quality of the tape was really good. In 1958 Gardena Stadium was lengthened to a 1/3 mile oval track and the pit area was placed in the infield. When it rained the infield would turn into a lake. Luce tells a story about how a driver turned on the sprinklers one night to wet down the track and slow the racing, but the next day when the officials reached the track the infield and part of the track was flooded. A scene showed the Gardena Precision Drill team twirling batons. One flagman, Jumpin’ Jack Summers had a real talent for waving the flag while dancing and jumping in and out of the way of the cars. Sometimes a car would go behind him and another in front of him as he waved his flag. A scene showed J. C. Agajanian Sr walking around the stands. Art Atkinson was interviewed after surviving a crash in which his car flipped over six times and he was flung out onto the track. He survived with only a few cuts and abrasions and was back racing soon after. For all the accidents it seemed that there were few serious ones. The video then showed scenes of the Orange Show in San Bernardino and some cute trophy girls. In 1961 Gardena Stadium changed its name to Western Speedway.
Jalopies also began to modernize and become modified racing cars with new and improved racing designs. They became lower to the ground, sleeker and more aerodynamical built. Western Speedway closed in 1964 and the jalopies moved to Ascot Park in Gardena and the style and look of the cars changed them into super modifieds with high pitched wings on the top of the cars and they no longer looked like old Model T Fords. Early model stock car racing also gains popularity at the tracks. There is some footage at Riverside Raceway. In September of 1964 the members of the CJA take note of the changes in the design of the cars. They see that jalopy no longer fits in with the style of their cars and they vote to change the name of their organization to the California Auto Racing (CAR), incorporated. The last scene shows footage of racing at Balboa Stadium in San Diego, California. Volume 5 gives a brief history of the old CJA formed in 1949. Seventeen drivers get together at a Shell Gas Station on Rosemead Blvd and Broadway, in Temple City, California in late 1948 to form the CJA, which is incorporated on August 30, 1949. By 1951 TV cameras come to Culver City Stadium to film footage for Jalopy Races from Hollywood, with Bill Welsh as the host. Four complete episodes are found in this fifth volume. There is one driver interview in each of the TV episodes. In the first episode Clyde Smith is interviewed by Welsh. Jimmy Sheridan is the starter. The second episode has Tommy ‘Tough Luck’ Monroe being interviewed. The last twenty minutes show racing at Culver City, Gardena, Huntington Beach Legion Stadium and Willow Springs Raceway on their road course.
Volume 6, the last in the series, begins at Long Beach Veterans Stadium in 1955. There is a short sequence on the American Jalopy Association (AJA), which for a while was a competitor of the CJA. There is a short home video in black and white, but then it switches back to color photography. The next racing is located at L. A. Speedway. There are some captions for individual drivers where Luce can identify who they are. A serious crash injures Chuck Guevara and this is caught on film. The ambulance takes Guevara away to a medical facility where he is treated. Chuck will be out of racing for several months, and then he will return to driving race cars for twelve more years before he retires from auto racing. One home video catches a TV show being filmed at the track by the name of Pete and Gladys, starring Harry Morgan, Gale Gordon and Cara Williams in December, 1960. It shows pretty Cara driving a car and going the wrong way on the track only to find on-coming jalopies bearing down and passing them on both sides; reminiscent of the Keystone Kops. Morgan and Gordon are impeccably dressed as they are in all their movies. The last video of the set ends with early model stock cars similar to NASCAR racing at the race track and seems to be the signal for the end of those old jalopies. Somewhere, they are probably running on a track today, but if you want to see jalopies in their heyday, then you will want to buy a set of Memories of the California Jalopy Association 1949-1964. I rate this a six out of eight spark plugs and I own the complete set for my library.
Gone Racin’ is at RNPARKS1@JUNO.COM.