Burke LeSage Celebration of Life
Story by Richard Parks, Photographs by Roger Rohrdanz
On January 20, 2012 Roger and I attended the Burke LeSage Memorial and Celebration of Life held at the Wally Parks NHRA Motorsports Museum. The services were conducted by Lou Gerhardt and the Celebration of Life was hosted by Anne Lindsley and the LeSage family. As with all such gatherings to pay respect to those that have left us, it is the men and women who attend these events that tell us just how loved and important the deceased is to us. Burke LeSage was not a household name to most Americans; though among the racing community he was a man of stature. Burke was born on July 2, 1935, during the height of the Great Depression. He was a humble man and utterly dedicated to helping other people. That was the way for most people who lived in the 1930’s and ‘40’s; to help other people and to share what we had. Since that time America has become a land of great wealth and power, but Burke grew up when struggle and cooperation were the means of survival. Jim Lindsley was his hero, as were the other land speed racers of the time. He raced at Bonneville and at the dry lakes in his mid-teens, when he wasn’t supposed to, but he did anyway and with Jim on his side, set many records. Burke often referred to his short height to let us know that he was a humble man, but I never considered him to be small in any sense of the word. To me, Burke LeSage was a giant of a man in heart and soul and love. He never stopped working; often what he did was simply helping others. Burke hardly ever thought of his own wants, he was too busy thinking of other people. He was famous for sending out letters to people with his reasoning why this person or that person should be honored at some event. He constantly, without stopping, gave encouragement and advice to those who were struggling with a problem. He was quick to spot a need or a crisis and to pitch in to help. Burke didn’t limit himself to being a good Samaritan just to the racing community; he reached out to those around him and offered his help. He did so in a way that was courteous and kind; never banging his own drum or seeking the spotlight. Over the years he was honored by others for what he has done; but in his acceptance speeches he would give the honor to others. Burke was the glue that held us together. He was a man we could always count on to be there and to get the ball rolling. Burke was simply tenacious in his efforts to make life easier for all those around him. I never saw him lose his temper, swear or say a cruel word; though he had a talent for letting all of us vent our frustration and then easing us through the moment into the bigger picture. He was not only a gentleman, but a gentle man and his absence will make the world a bit rougher around the edges. Burke had no trouble leading men and in turn following others. He was one of the many who helped to make the Southern California Timing Association (SCTA) and SEMA into such successful organizations.
Burke LeSage was probably one of the most successful five foot two men in the world. In our eyes he was at least two feet taller. For sixty years Burke was an active and faithful member of the Gear Grinders car club in the SCTA and a past president of the club. He drove at least forty different race cars at El Mirage dry lake and the salt flats at Bonneville. Burke set numerous land speed records and was a member of the prestigious 200 MPH clubs at both El Mirage and Bonneville. At Bonneville he was honored with the Grant Company’s Man of the Year Award. He received the Meb Healey, Gear Grinders Sportsman Award, SCTA Wheels of Fame Award and the Lindsley Family Award. These are awards given for meritorious service and racing achievements in the SCTA and the land speed racing community. He also was a great speaker and writer. He constantly took the message of land speed racing to outside groups. He wrote a column called LeSage’s Pages for the El Mirage Racing News. He was a true historian; researching and writing on the history of land speed racing. The ultimate reward for Burke’s lifetime of achievements came when he was inducted into the Dry Lakes Racers Hall of Fame at Buellton, California by a vote of the members of the SCTA and previous honorees. His peers elevated him to this well deserved honor. Burke was also an executive secretary for the SEMA organization and was inducted into their Hall of Fame.
I counted about a hundred men and women who came to Burke’s Memorial and Celebration of Life. Among them were; Bob Webb, Skip Hendricks, Mike and Penny Cook, Jean Bixby, Patrick Bixby, Belinda ‘Bindy’ LeSage, Jami LeSage, Manny LeSage, Julio LeSage, Earl Nordstrand, Jim Miller, Anne and Larry Lindsley, Gary Lindsley, Fred Lindsley, Glen and Carol Barrett, Frank Acosta, Ron Phelps, Dan and Joanie Warner, Mike Stewart, Jon Meyer, Tom Jandt, Diane Voorhees, Joanie Johnson, John Bjorkman, Jim Korhanen, Don Aitken, John Sprenger, Kenny Hoover, Jim Travis, David Parks, Rose Dickinson, Warren Bullis, Kay Kimes, George and Jan Callaway, Ed Iskenderian, Brandon Carter, Nick Arias Jr, Bobby Sykes Jr, Bob Leggio, Louie Senter, Tim Rochlitzer, Yolie and Ernie Norris, Jim and Alice Turner, Al Sanderson, John W. Salkins, Tom Evans, Tom and Margaret Bryant, Cindy and Kim Harding, Rick MacLean, Dan Chilson, Bob Chilson, Norm Adams, Richard Reed, Carl and Kathy Olson, Tanis Hammond, Tony Thacker, Greg Sharp, Sheri Watson, Bob and Judy Sights, Bob Spar, Miriam MacMillan, Les Leggitt, Phil Grisotti, Bill Watts, Stormin’ Norman Benham, Al and Jane Teague, Rew Hennessy, Bill Lewis, Howard Phelps, Pamela Rogers, Ron Kato, and Jim Snyder.
Anne Lindsley put together this Celebration of Life and called the museum to get permission to hold the event there, and brought refreshments. The museum staff set up the chairs and podium. After letting the attendees meet old friends and renew acquaintances, Anne took the microphone and welcomed everyone to Burke’s Memorial. She then turned the event over to the Reverend Lou Gerhardt to conduct the meeting and offer an invocation. Dr Gerhardt is a close friend of Burke’s and the LeSage family and the author of Positive Living. “As some of you may be aware of by now, I have eye problems that keep me from driving and Burke noticed that and drove me to events. He stopped what he was doing and drove me all over the place, wherever I needed to go. Burke was a man of goodwill. I collected newspaper articles on Burke and the papers would say that he was a ‘big little man.’ Burke liked that phrase and used it often. He had a good sense of humor and joked about his shortness of stature. He also appreciated what people did for him and was quick to show his gratitude. On February 11, we will dedicate a plaque to him in Yucca Valley, California. I never heard Burke ever utter a bad word and he was always kind, caring and a trusting gentleman,” Dr Gerhardt concluded. The reverend then turned the time over to the audience so that whoever wanted could speak of their feelings for Burke.
Les Leggitt was the next one to speak. “I never heard anything negative from Burke,” Les said. “He was always positive and his words were good. I first met Burke in 1966 after I set a record over 200 miles per hour and he was the emcee at the banquet. He was very good at raising money for the SCTA and for SEMA. There were several nicknames that he had. He was called ‘the shoe,’ for his racing abilities. He was also called the ‘scribe,’ because he was so good at writing, but the favorite phrase that Burke used himself was, ‘the world’s tallest midget.’ He was always doing things for other people. He took me to see Wally Parks and Boyd Coddington and that was a real treat for me. Many people forget that Burke brought back the SCTA News and served as the editor and ‘do-it-all.’ He was a walking encyclopedia and I am going to miss his knowledge of the sport of land speed racing that he loved so much,” Les finished. Jim Travis made his way to the podium next. “I met Burke in 1956 at Jerry Eisert’s shop, where all the hot rod guys hung out. Burke was always in the middle of everything. He was the secretary for SEMA. He worked for Weiand, Grant, Ak Miller and other early manufacturers of speed equipment. He was honored in both the SEMA and the Dry Lakes Racers Hall of Fame. He was injured in a serious accident and was hospitalized and was unconscious for ten days, but he was tough and pulled through,” Travis told the crowd.
Tanis Hammond came from Santa Barbara and was given a message to read to the gathering by Anne Lindsley. It was from Gail Phillips, who couldn’t make it due to a prior commitment. “I met Burke in 2003 and he was such a kind man. I was amazed that he put my accomplishments up there with his own. He truly supported women in racing and gave us constant encouragement. Burke always sent me charming notes in the mail. I will truly miss him,” Gail said in her letter. Tanis added, “He was always a kind and gentle man and gave great support to the women in racing and in the auxiliaries,” she concluded. Mike Cook recalled that he first met Burke when he was driving for Les Leggitt. “He took me under his wing and helped me along. Once you were his friend, you were in with him until the end. He sent me letters too and I will keep them as treasured mementos,” Cook stated. Mike Stewart spoke next, “On July, 1961 Burke joined the El Mirage Dirty Two Club after setting a record over 200 miles per hour. He was the sixth man ever to do so and recorded a time of 205.94 mph. He was very proud of his nickname, ‘the tallest short man.’ Burke was an integral part of dry lakes racing,” Stewart exclaimed. Stormin’ Norman Benham was the next speaker and he told the crowd how he has known Burke for fifty-five years. “He was a hell of a guy,” Benham exulted. Jon Meyer, the president of the El Mirage 200 MPH club told the crowd that Burke was a tireless worker.
Carl Olson related a bit about Burke’s time at SEMA. “In the late 1960’s the president of Trans Dapt was leading SEMA and Burke was sent over from SEMA to work in the office of Trans Dapt in order to coordinate the plans and goals of the safety equipment manufacturers group. Burke literally ran the SEMA organization out of a small office at Trans Dapt. He was always involved with the Bonneville Salt Flats and was a great promoter of the SCTA. He talked me into going to Bonneville and after we got there he took me out to the fifth or sixth mile mark; about 200 yards off the course. We weren’t supposed to be there, but no one could see us that far from the official starting line. When the cars came by at over 300 miles per hour, faster than any drag car at the time, I got goose bumps. Burke loved land speed racing,” Carl said with emotion. Glen Barrett drove all the way down to the Memorial from St George, Utah. “Burke was an inspiration and an ambassador for everything having to do with racing. He was a spokesman for all of us. Whenever he got up to speak and stood up at the podium, someone in the crowd would shout out, ‘Stand up Burke,’ in reference to his short stature. But it wasn’t criticism; it was said out of respect. He was also a great and prolific writer. One of his columns was called LeSage’s Pages. Boy did he have a way with words. He gave me inspiration,” Barrett said with respect. Judy Sights told the crowd, “Burke sent many notes to the ladies auxiliary and was very supportive of the women drivers. He helped everyone. I’ll miss him,” Judy added.
Jim Turner told the crowd how he had known Burke’s wife since high school days. “I was involved in sports car racing. He invited me to many car and racing events and gave me a real education. At these events he wouldn’t get very far before a crowd of people he knew would come up and talk to him for half an hour and then we would take a few steps and there were more people that he knew. He had more friends than God,” Turner exclaimed. John Sprenger told the crowd, “I was doing research on B&M Automotive and Burke helped me. I was impressed by how much he knew about motor racing. One of his goals was to find those early racers who had been overlooked over the years and promote them for the Dry Lakes Racers Hall of Fame. He worked diligently to get Jack Calori honored. Tim Rochlitzer also came from the Santa Barbara area and had the crowd in stitches. “Burke moved up to Santa Barbara and retired, but he opened up a little bookstore. We would come into the store and shout out to him and to the other customers, ‘Hey Burke, where’s the porno section.’ Burke was too much of a gentleman to have lurid things in his store,” Tim expounded. Ed Iskenderian goes back to those early SCTA days in the 1940’s and the mid-1960’s when he and Burke were members of SEMA. “I thought that Burke would always be there to write those letters of his to me,” said the grand man of cam grinders. Anne Lindsley thanked everyone for coming. Any donations she added would be used to buy a wall plaque at the museum to honor Burke’s name. Reverend Gerhardt closed the Celebration of Life and Memorial for Burke with a benediction. The crowd milled around, unwilling to leave, talking to each other about the wonderful memories they had of a great man in land speed racing.
Gone Racin’ is at RNPARKS1@JUNO.COM.
|Burke LeSage, (2006)||In the ‘60’s, Burke was honored with the Grant Company’s Man of the Year Award. This beautiful Latch Hook rug was handmade by Anne Lindsley for Burke.|
|A nice group gathered for the Celebration of Burke’s Life.||Among the gathering were: Bob Webb|
|John Sprenger told the crowd, “I was doing research on B&M Automotive and Burke helped me. I was impressed by how much he knew about motor racing”.||Kenny Hoover (L), John Bjorkman.|
|Glen Barrett drove all the way down to the Memorial from St George, Utah. “Burke was an inspiration and an ambassador for everything having to do with racing”.||Jim Travis|
|(L-R) Glen Barrett, Larry Lindsley, Tom Bryant, David Parks, Skip Hedrich.||Ed Iskenderian pointing at Danny Thompson's "Challenger".|
|(L-R) George Callaway, Kay Kimes, Richard Parks, Jim Miller.||Nick Arias Jr.|
|Bob Spar.||Reverend Lou Gerhardt conducted the Celebration.|
|Tanis Hammond, came from Santa Barbara, “He was always a kind and gentle man and gave great support to the women in racing and in the auxiliaries”, she concluded. Tanis then read a message from Gail Phillips, “I was amazed that he put my accomplishments up there with his own.”||Mike Cook recalled that he first met Burke when he was driving for Les Leggitt. “He took me under his wing and helped me along”.|
|Mike Stewart spoke next, “In July, 1961 Burke joined the El Mirage Dirty Two Club after setting a record over 200 miles per hour. He was the sixth man ever to do so and recorded a time of 205.94 mph”.||Jon Meyer, the president of the El Mirage 200 MPH club told the crowd that Burke was a tireless worker.|
|Carl Olson said “Burke loved land speed racing”.||Judy Sights told the crowd, “Burke sent many notes to the ladies auxiliary and was very supportive of the women drivers. He helped everyone. I’ll miss him”.|
|Jim Turner told the crowd, “I was involved in sports car racing. Burke invited me to many car and racing events and gave me a real education. At these events he wouldn’t get very far before a crowd of people would come up and talk to him for half an hour.||Tim Rochlitzer came from the Santa Barbara area and said “Burke moved up to Santa Barbara and retired, but he opened up a little bookstore”.|
|Ed Iskenderian goes back to those early SCTA days, “I thought that Burke would always be there to write those letters of his to me,” said the grand man of cam grinders||Nick Arias Jr (L) with Louie Senter.|
|Al Teague||Anne Lindsley thanked everyone for coming. Any donations would be used to buy a wall plaque at the museum to honor Burke’s name.|
|The model of Danny Thompson’s Challenger 2.5 streamliner was on display.|