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Richard Parks

Gone Racin’

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Story By Richard Parks and Pictures By Roger Rohrdanz

Gone Racin’ to…Clay Smith Cams

Clay Smith Cams is a business that has been in operation for over 70 years and is full of racing history. George and Patty Striegel invited us to come over and see their shop in Buena Park, California, as Roger and I had a plaque to give to George for his lifetime achievement in Powerboat racing. George was honored at the recent Boat Racers Reunion as one of our Special Honorees but a family emergency kept him from the ceremony. The Striegel’s only open their shop to valued customers, and this was a great opportunity to see and hear about the history of one of Southern California’s elite speed equipment manufacturer. Clay Smith Cams, with the redheaded woodpecker smoking a cigar, is a world famous icon among car and boat racers. The company began in the 1930’s, when a man by the name of Pierre Louis “Pete” Bertrand started grinding cams for sprint car racers. Pete was born in Mexico in 1902, while his father was the superintendent of a large silver mine. He grew up in Nebraska on his father’s farm, and by the 1920’s, Pete was racing throughout the Midwest in the P.E.B. Special, named for his brother Ernie and himself. 

Like so many other young men, the lure of Hollywood and Southern California was irresistible to a young man who was bored with farm life. By the 1930’s he was racing on the West Coast, and finished 8th in the A.A.A. Pacific Coast Sprint Car racing league in 1934, driving for the Morales brothers and other owners. He was a daring and dashing figure on the track until a disastrous accident in early 1935 put him in the hospital. That’s where he met Esther, a nurse, who cared for him and married him. Esther asked Pete to quit racing after a second accident in 1935, and he opened up a cam grinding business in Long Beach, California, in order to stay close to the sport that he loved. Pete’s main competitor in the cam grinding business was Ed Winfield, and the local hot rodders and racers would buy cams from Bertrand or Winfield, depending on whether they were from the East side of Los Angeles, or the West side of town. Pete came down with pneumonia in 1942, and passed away at the young age of 40. One of his employees, Clayton Sherman “Clay” Smith, purchased the business from the estate and renamed the company Clay Smith Cams.

Clay Smith was a master mechanic, but he also raced cars and boats, piloting the Yankee Doodle to records in boat racing.  Clay’s skill at building quality parts and his talent as a chief mechanic and owner, led to many victories and a great deal of notoriety. He married Ruthelyn, a lovely and vivacious lady, and together they built up the business with the famous redheaded, cigar smoking woodpecker logo. In 1954, Rodger Ward was driving Clay’s car at Du Quoin, Illinois, southeast of St Louis, when he collided with another car and ran over his car’s owner, killing Smith. Ruthelyn Smith later married Red Wilson and carried on the company business. Red Wilson was a boat and car racer of note, and was instrumental in developing improved speed equipment parts. Red Wilson died tragically in a boat accident and left Ruthelyn a widow again. She sold the business to partner Howard Jerome in the 1960’s, and Jerome sold Clay Smith Cams to George Striegel in 1968. George Striegel raced cars and boats and traveled around the country with his wife, Patty and daughter, Sherry. George was dissatisfied with the racing boats on the market and began manufacturing his own brand of hulls in order to develop a faster boat and because the boat racing association rules stated that the boats had to be factory made.

Patty and George were married in 1957, and literally honeymooned at the track. His favorite car was the Henry Honker, a Kaiser car. He raced at oval tracks and dragstrips around the country, including Ascot and all of the local dragstrips in Southern California. George got his start in racing by competing in quartermidgets as a child in his native Washington State. He was seriously injured in a boat race in 1976, and his doctor said that he would never walk again. Yet this big hearted man struggled with therapy for 3 years until he was up and walking and confounded his doctor with his recovery. Patty, Sherry and George watched as boat racers were being killed at nearly every race. Having lost a spleen, lung, and come near to paralysis and death, George finally left boat racing in the 1980’s and concentrated on the family business. However, the urge to race found the Striegel’s sponsoring other racers with their products and support, including their grandchildren, Trayce and Nic Woods, who both raced Jr Dragsters in NHRA. Nic is 17 years old and is in the last year of competition, and Trayce is now past the age limit for that class. Both Nic and Trayce are deciding on the next stage of their racing careers. Sherry Striegel has always been involved in racing and has spent a lifetime in and around the sport with her parents.

Sherry noticed that other companies were marketing their names and logos, and so she approached George and Patty and asked if she could do that with the Clay Smith Brand. It has been wildly successful and the family said that now there is no offseason for them. They build parts and ship them to their dealers and special customers during the racing season, and during the winter months they are filling apparel orders around the clock. The line of apparel that Sherry has developed has risen to the point that it now accounts for nearly half of their revenue. Clay Smith Cams has become so well known over the years that they hardly ever advertise, and word of mouth endorsements by their customers is all that they need. They refuse to make standardized cams. George grinds customized cams to fit the special needs of his racing customers. He builds custom engines, cylinder heads, engine parts, valve train accessories, lifters, push rods and engine kits. The firm also does porting, and polishing. George says that his company has carved out a niche in the marketplace, and is not really in competition with anyone else in the speed equipment industry. It won’t be long before George and Patty pass the company on to the next generation, and then to the next. This company, started by Pierre “Pete” Bertrand, has been passed down to us intact, as a successful business and a racing heritage.

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This Neon Clock is one of the latest “Clay Smith Branded” products being offered by the Company

Gone Racin’ is at www.oilstick.com

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George Striegel (right) graciously accepts the Boat Racers Reunion Honorary Award from Richard Parks

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