A Visit with Ken Walkey
Biography and photographs by Ken Walkey
Story by Richard Parks and Photographs by Roger Rohrdanz
Ken Walkey designed, built and raced one of land speed racing's most beautifully aerodynamic cars, which he called Grandpa's Toy. Here is his story. "My father, Jake Walkey, came from Denver, Colorado with his sister, Leah Walkey, my aunt, in a 1923 T roadster truck in 1924, to live in Los Angeles, California. He and my mother, Gertrude or Gert as we called her, first met in 1928. My mother and father belonged to the Sierra Club and went hiking together. Back then the Sierra Club was more for the enjoyment of hikers, not the political organization that it has become today. My father had a radio store in Beverly Hills originally, then moved somewhere around 54th and Crenshaw in Los Angeles in the early 1930's installing radios in automobiles, a novelty in those days. He went to work for Northrop in 1929 or ’30 and stayed there until he hired in at Lockheed Aircraft in 1936, where he remained until retiring in 1967 as a plastics research engineer. In the early 1950's he supplied all the fiberglass, resin and knowledge in working with the materials at the time on a fiberglass bodied streamliner. My father worked with Dean Batchelor in Doan Spencer's back yard in North Hollywood, California, to fabricate the very first fiberglass body to ever run on the Bonneville Salt Flats. This was The City of Burbank streamliner, owned by George Hill and Bill 'Willy' Davis. George Hill was the driver of the streamliner and years later he went to Australia with me and my land speed race car, Grandpa's Toy in 1995.
My mother came from Gloucester, Massachusetts with two girlfriends, Elsie Mast and Elsie Radoy, to California in a 1917 T truck in 1918 during the First World War. It took them over six months to make the journey over wagon trails and in some places there wasn't even a trail, just a nod by a local 'that way' out across the country. The T truck was modified into some kind of a camper. All three girls went to Ford School in Boston to learn how to change and repair tires, change bands and adjust the coils to keep it running. They also wore army attire to look like young boys, so that they wouldn't get hassled. Dad said that my mother was one of the original hippies. My mother was in the U.S. Navy as a Yeoman-F (female) from age 16 to 18, during World War I. When I was young she worked at the Hollywood Police Department as a secretary. Gert was a wife and mother after we moved to Burbank, California. I was born in Hollywood, in 1931. We moved out to the 'desert,' which is what we thought of hot and dry Burbank in 1937. I went to Roosevelt and Brett Harte grammar schools, then transferred to John Burroughs Junior High School, and graduated from Burbank High School in the winter of 1949 class. My major was Machine Shop and Drafting. I worked in a Mobil service station and Lockheed Aircraft during the night while going to school. My only hobby was a couple of Model T's and a 1928 Chevy roadster truck, which I drove to school. In those days I had a California driver’s license at age 14. I had my first T at 13.
I built an "A" Coupe on '32 rails with an early flat head motor and ran with Pat O'Brian in the Gazelles car club, which was a member of the Russetta Timing Association from 1948-50. Pat was the president of the Gazelles and may also have belonged to the Road Runners in the Southern California Timing Association (SCTA). He wasn’t the actor by that name. My fastest time was 101.58 mph. It took me a year just to break 100 mph, all in the late 1940’s. In the early '50’s I ran a '27 T on A rails with Jack Riley's flat head motor, and my fastest time was 132.11mph. I went to Glendale City College, which we jokingly called the Glendale Country Club, until the military wanted to draft me for the Korean conflict, as they called it. I enlisted in the U.S. Navy and spent five years active duty in Korea and Japan. My last two years in the Navy was running the machine shop at Hickham A.F.B. in Hawaii. David Blyth, Dave Shakley, Herb Tongpalan and I, organized drag racing events at Kahuku air strip on the north shore of Oahu in 1953. The Navy was buying new airplanes from Lockheed at the time, called Super G Connies. On one of my trips into Burbank to buy a plane, there was a layover of about a week, and I bought a 1950 Ford business coupe. The navy shipped it over to Hawaii for me at no charge. The engine came out, and on the bench in the shop. I took another trip to Burbank and to the So-Cal Speed Shop on Victory Boulevard, which was owned by Alex Xydias as he was selling Edelbrock heads and manifolds. Don Simpson had gone to Howard Cams to get an M-8 cam and some pistons for me, with all the gaskets and goodies. I returned to Hawaii on a brand new Connie, with my parts, which I could work on in my Navy shop. We couldn't get any decent gasoline, so I took 3 Stromberg 48 carbs, because they were larger, for more air. I believe the dimensions were 1-1/32 diameter. The 97’s carburetors were 15/16 in diameter, I think, but it's been a very long time ago, and converted them to alky (alcohol). An Air Force sergeant would bring me a 54 gallon drum of methanol for $10 when I needed it. We ran c/fuel coupe and had a ball. We even put different shades of food coloring in the 5-gallon containers to confuse the competition. In 1954 we built the second rail type car on the island to compete with David Blyth's ‘Yellow Fever its hell when it's well’ rail. We built the whole car in one week and I gave the car to Herb when I left the island in 1955. The Navy shipped the '50 coupe back to the states for me, and we ran the car at the Santa Ana Drag Strip. I only ran there once, and I think it was around late '55, or early in '56. I drove the '50 Ford Business Coupe, on alky in the C/Fuel Coupe class. We took the class trophy for the day. Our crew was Tony Amato and Dave Genenbach, both of them are gone now.
After my discharge from the Navy in August of 1955, I went back to school for awhile and got married a year later in August 1956 to Bettylee Kerley, a Pan Am stewardess I had met in Hawaii. We had three wonderful boys, Patrick, and twins Tim and Terry. I was married to Betty for 47 years. She hated racing and told the boys, 'If you ever get in that thing, I'll torch it to the ground' and she was crazy enough to do it. When I got out of the service in 1955, I got a job in the machine shop at Paramount Pictures in Hollywood. I spent two years working nights. Things got slow, and the people at Paramount got me a job at the Disney Studios in Burbank, where I spent more than twenty years. I started at Disney in the machine shop, then I transferred into the Camera Service, and then into Mechanical Engineering. At the same time I was taking Cinematography classes at the University of Southern California in the evenings. The classes were put on by the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE). During my time at Disney and Panavision, I also served on the Cine-Technical Committee for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science. I spent ten years at Panavision and some outside sales in between, but retired from Disney at age 61, as a Mechanical Design Engineer. The Eisner administration and I did not get along. I told one of his Senior Vice Presidents' that 'It was people like him that were putting the company down the drain.' When I got back to my office, a message from the Personnel Department said, 'we understand that you want to retire.' I later went out the back door with a severance package.
I first ran at the Bonneville Salt Flats with my first tank in 1972. Bob Higbee told me that I had to get a taller roll bar or a shorter driver for the next year. I had used the kids swing set for the frame in that first tank, so I went home, disassembled the tank, stretched it out four feet with a new frame and came back in 1973 to take the class record, 185 mph something, and the F.I.A. world record. It took me 13 years to get the F.I.A. certification with the help of Wally Parks and company. To this day, I don't know what happened to it. While at Disney I was playing with different layouts for a new Bonneville Streamliner. In 1989, I made the commitment to build a front wheel driven streamliner. In 1990, I gained entry into the Bonneville 200 MPH club with a two-way average of 289.150 with a 300 inch small block motor on gasoline. A lot of wonderful, dedicated people helped me achieve that goal in life. I put all of their names on both sides of the car, and they remained there until the day I sold the car. Just to mention a few, they are: Morrison "Moe" Walker, Dave Kennamer, Gordon Radcliffe, my son Tim Walkey who did all the welding on the chassis, my son Terry Walkey who made all the stainless steel tanks and parachute tubes, Jim and Marion Deist, Joe Hansen, Rick Gold (ERC), Don Zig (magnetos), Chuck Sawyer and John Kilgore (transmissions), Jim Middlebrook and Dave Austin (superchargers), Tom Prock (Venolia Pistons), Bob Lancaster (Torco Oil), Bob Stewart (Lubrication Engineers), Orme Brothers (hoses and fittings), and Scott Webb (Raceline Oil Pumps). Those are just a few of those dedicated to help me fulfill my dreams in Land Speed Racing. Without their help, it never would have happened. I also took the streamliner to Australia in 1995, with Fred Dannenfelzer, Gordon Radcliffe, Dick Kelsey, George Hill and Betty, my wife, went with me. It rained, the wind blew and I hand-grenaded my little 300 inch small block. All in all, it was a neat experience. I am retired from racing and announcing the blow by blow events at Bonneville and El Mirage now. A little side note about that. Ron Cohn set up an FM Station at El Mirage Dry Lake, 88.7 FM and Earl Wooden suggested we call it Station KWBS. I wonder what he meant? (Ha!) I have a 1927 T Touring sedan, which is fully restored. I drive it almost daily and have a bunch of 'old fart' A and T owners that I hang out with. Yes, I'm still having fun," Ken told me. Ken's website is at www.patwalkey.com/ken and www.qrz.com/w6rsp.
That won't cover the late '40's at El Mirage when there were hundreds of spectators camped out on the lake bed at night, the bonfires to keep us warm, Albright's home, bunkhouse and swimming pool on the north side of the lake, where for one dollar a person could rent a space to put their sleeping bag and enjoy a dip in the desert pool to clean off that El Mirage dust with. That was a period of time gone past. At Speed Week in 1973 the salt was wet. In those days the salt was so thick, they used a road grader to smooth it out and push the salt to either side of the course, like a snow bank on each side a foot or so high. I had just shifted into 2nd gear with my foot buried into it, when my new stretched-out lakester got sideways on the wet salt, so my instinct was to stay in it and just "dirt track it." Before I knew it I was flipping in mid air, something came into the cockpit, smashed my right arm, and bent the steering down into my lap. I landed right-side up with the front end out of the vehicle. One of the front wheel and tire assemblies, we later determined, tried to crawl into the cockpit with me. Mike Cook came up and asked if I was Ok. I said yes, that my right arm was broken, and I would take the arm, if he could get me out from under the roll cage, which he did. Also in those days, we had an airplane standing by for just such an emergency. Without that twenty minute flight to University Hospital in Salt Lake City, I would not have this wonderful right arm I was born with. In July of '93 at El Mirage I did another very stupid thing with the new streamliner, Grandpas Toy #122. The end of the course came up so quick; I missed it altogether, looked out the side and didn't see any cars, people or anything. All of a sudden I must have hit a "boonie," then all I saw was blue sky. I was flying like a NASA Lifting Body. They said I was about 35-40 feet off the ground. Glenn Barrett, our timer, said I went out "the back door" about 280mph. As I leveled off and saw the mountains beyond Victorville, all I could think of was, "what goes up, must come down," and I remember saying to myself, "Oh, S---." I did set the class record at 233.216 mph with that run, but I also broke my back in two places, T-5 and T-7. I can honestly say those Taylor Steel Wheels saved my life. They were bent up like a pretzel, but never lost a pound of air. Had they been Aluminum, I would not be writing this. As with any hobby, they tend to bite you once in a while. It's been a trip. I'm enjoying my Model "T" Touring at 35-40 mph.
Gone Racin' is at RNPARKS1@JUNO.COM.