Say Goodbye to Chuck Daigh

Story by Richard Parks, photographic consultant Roger Rohrdanz

richardparks roger

Richard   &   Roger

I used to drop by the shop of Chuck Daigh with Buck Smith, Jim Kavanaugh, my brother David Parks, or sometimes just by myself. “Chuck,” I would say, “how about telling me your life’s story,” and he would always give me that look that is a common one among car builders and racers. “Who cares,” he would say and add that he was in the middle of a project. Chuck was always in the middle of a project, even in his eighties. When he went into the hospital for rather normal reasons, we simply expected to see him again soon, but his condition took a turn for the worst and we lost him on April 29, 2008. 

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Chuck was one of the few men that I knew that could do it all. He designed and built great race cars. He raced with the best and he was a feared competitor on the dry lakes or behind the wheel of a sports car. He was also one of the best mechanics around. Chuck could spot trouble in an instant. Nothing seemed to have rattled his nerves. He exuded a confidence unique to hot rodders that no job is impossible. Just having Chuck around settled the nerves of a racing team. He fit in so well with his steady demeanor that it made a groups racing experience more fun than it should have been. I would usually see Chuck at the Fab 50’s reunion events. Dave Kleeman and Go Go Golightly would bring him with them. They made a great team, with the younger men devoted to following the charismatic older man’s instructions. Chuck was one of those automotive pioneers who simply made everybody around him better. So I made it a priority to attend his Celebration of Life on May 31, 2008, at his shop in Costa Mesa, California and learn as much as I could about this unique man and his life. Hot rodders hate funerals and memorials, but they love Celebrations of Life. Maybe it’s the car guy’s version of a riotous Irish wake, but it suits their style. 

Chuck Daigh holding trophy circa early 1950's.

The celebration for Chuck was organized by his family, with assistance from Al Arciero. The weather was great, the surrounding shop owners made us feel welcome and the upbeat attitude of everyone made us feel joyful on what should have been a somber day.
  Charles George Daigh was born on November 29, 1923 in Long Beach, California. His father, Harold Dundas Daigh owned a garage, where Chuck literally grew up. His older brother, Harold Dundas Daigh II, told us that father and sons were hot rodders at heart and they spent many hours together working on cars and developing projects. One of their ideas was to meld an Alfa Romeo body to a Model A chassis. 
Chuck managed a Union Oil gas station while he was still attending Compton High School, at the young age of 15.

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Chuck Daigh in a road course car circa early 1950's.

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Curiously, he never talked much about the other things young men like to do. His involvement from the very first was his abiding love of cars. Chuck graduated in the summer of 1941, while war raged in Europe and in the Far East and young men knew that the peace in North America could not last much longer. Chuck enlisted in the Army after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and was assigned to the 517th infantry regiment. He fought in some of the bloodiest and most difficult campaigns in World War II. His unit parachuted into Sicily, then crossing over to the Italian mainland at Salerno and taking Naples. Inch by inch, foot by foot they fought their way north. 

Chuck Daigh in a road course car circa early 1950's.

Chuck parachuted into Normandy on D-Day, trudged through hedgerows as the American Army pushed the Germans back across occupied France and into Germany. He was caught in the German counter-attack during the Battle of the Bulge, fought in the winter in deplorable conditions and utter savagery. Those that weren’t wounded or killed, found themselves struggling to keep frost-bite at bay. In units scattered all over northeastern France, hot rodders gave all they could to free the world of despotism. Ak Miller suffered frost-bite and almost lost his toes and feet. Nellie Taylor was severely wounded and would be crippled for life. Chuck survived the Battle of the Bulge, but was wounded three times in the fight to free Luxembourg from the German Army and his fighting days were over.

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Chuck Daigh at his Costa Mesa, California garage with the newly built Bonneville Streamliner 2008.

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The doctors thought that he would never regain the use of his arm, but to Chuck the war and his injuries were simply a roadblock on the way to what he really loved in his life, building, racing and designing race cars. He returned to Long Beach in 1945 and with the help of his brother Harold, built and raced a track roadster, which he raced at Carrell Speedway in Gardena. He set the track record at Carrell and impressed the legendary J.C. Agajanian Sr with his skills. Chuck built hot rods and engines, tailoring them to the needs of his customers and taking the cars to the Southern California dry lakes to test them out. Like so many other young men, he was attracted to the dry lakes to run time trials and he was good at what he did.

Celebration of Life for Chuck Daigh at his garage
in Costa Mesa, May 2008.

 The dry lakes was a seed bed of activity and young hot rodders would share their experiences and ideas and then go on to other car racing experiences. Southern California hot rodders would go on into sports car and road course racing, short track and the big oval track racing, drags, rallies, hill climbs, endurance runs and even boat racing. They tried it all and so did Chuck, and he was good at whatever he tried his hand at. In the early 1950’s (’51 or ’52), he joined Clay Smith and Bill Stroppe on an All-Star team owned by Benson Ford to participate in the Carrera Panamericana road races, which we familiarly call the Mexican Road Races. Chuck helped to build and maintain the Lincolns and was the riding mechanic and navigator on this grueling road race. The Carrera Panamericana started near the southern Mexican border with Guatemala, in the town of Tuxtla Gutierrez and wound its serpentine way north on the new highway linking the United States with Latin America. It took cool nerves and hot rodding skill to drive across mountains, deserts, long straight-aways and adoring crowds of fans who lined the streets and made things dangerous. 
  Sometimes the natives of an area would drive their old cattle up on the roads to be hit by the cars, and then demand reimbursement from the Mexican officials. Heavy vultures lined the road eating the carcasses and causing more distractions. At night the drivers would stop at designated towns where the populace would throw lavish parties and keep the teams awake. Sometimes the drivers themselves would re-ignite the parties and rest was slight and speeds were high. Chuck was more than up to the task of being the riding mechanic and navigator. He had that steady concentration and nerves of steel, honed on the battlefields of Europe. He drove a Frazer Nash, Marion Lowe’s car at Moffett Field, in his first road racing experience as a driver. He came in fourth at Terminal Island in October of 1953, driving a Jaguar, owned by Jay Bessemyer. The Jag had previously been driven by Don Parkinson. Chuck won at Willow Springs in a Kurtis. He drove for the Troutman and Barnes team. He came in second to Ken Miles at Torrey Pines in 1955, and then beat Miles at Santa Barbara in the same year. Daigh was a ferocious competitor, but you wouldn’t know it by his baby-faced picture. He had movie star looks and a smile that could melt hearts. His eyes looked gentle and beguiling, but that only masked the tenacious spirit that lurked in his heart. Chuck was admired and respected by his peers, but he never lost his hot rod soul and image. Like Max Balchowsky, Chuck was seen as a man who could take twisted metal and junkyard parts and turn them into hard-charging and winning race cars. He ranked right at the top with Jack Brabham, Danny Oakes, Bill Stroppe, Ed Winfield and other greats who could make race cars fly and motors purr. Chuck could hear an engine and know what was wrong. He could sense what was going to happen. He was a master mechanic that others came to for help.
  He had great success with the Troutman and Barnes car. It handled like a hot rod and he adjusted to it with ease. Chuck had that ability to fit a car, rather than most drivers who had the car built to fit them. Daigh would take a ride in an unknown car and would mold himself to the car. The driver and car would become one in an instant and this flexibility made him a dangerous competitor. He left Lincoln-Mercury in 1956 and went to work for Ford Racing. Ford was an active participant in the 1950’s and also hired Ak Miller and other hot rodders to show their cars and attract the new and emerging young drivers to their brand. In 1957 he drove a stock Thunderbird to a land speed record of over 200 mph. That same year he joined the Lance Reventlow team in building the famous Scarab race cars. Daigh did the suspension system and drove the cars. Troutman and Barnes worked on the chassis, while Miles did the drawings. Chuck won the 1958 Los Angeles Times Grand Prix at Riverside. Chuck also worked on the engines and brakes, along with Phil Remington. 1958 was a good year for Chuck as he won at Meadowdale, Montgomery, Laguna Seca and Nassau. He won the Sebring race three times and in one of those races his winning partner was Dan Gurney. He raced in Europe at Silverstone and LeMans and was a mechanic and trouble shooter for other drivers. In fact, his work as a mechanic was just as impressive and important as his driving performances. Bruce McLaren credited Daigh with much of his success in the races that they collaborated on. Chuck also drove Maseratis, Ferraris and other race cars. He was also involved in boat racing and was the navigator, throttleman and engine builder on the Thunderball, an off-shore racing boat that had great success. His last project was a Bonneville streamliner, built in the shape of a sleek dragster. Whenever I visited his shop he would be working on it. Sometimes he would just sit there in quiet contemplation and I would ask him what he was doing. It amused him to find a hot rodders quick comeback to a silly question. Building a race car is as much inspiration as trial and error. He was always thinking, always planning and overcoming whatever problem was thrown in his way. My father always told me that there were a great many men that came from the dry lakes racing experience that set the stage for the rapid development of automotive racing and Chuck Daigh was one of the best of that group.
  As people began to assemble, I found a few people that I knew. Jim “Abo” Travis came with Bill Walden. Travis is a car restorer, racer, mechanic, fabricator, builder and all-around authority on racing. Fab 50’s non-members were out in force. The Fabulous Fifties is a group of road course racers from the 1940’s and ‘50’s who meet regularly and keep the history and heritage of road course racing alive for future generations. They refuse to organize and call themselves a club, preferring to be the rebels that they’ve always been. To belong to the non-organization as a non-member is a true honor. The non-club is led by Art Evans, Bill Pollack, John and Ginny Dixon, Ann Bothwell, Cy Yedor and Alice Hanks. Art couldn’t make it as he was battling ill health, but he sent his best wishes. Part of this story is taken from his excellent book, “Race Legends of the Fabulous Fifties.” I also gained a lot of knowledge from the Daigh family and from listening to the many speakers at the Celebration of Life for Chuck. Pollack, Hanks and the Dixons were present and very helpful with Daigh’s life story. Alice is the widow of Sam Hanks, the legendary open wheel driver and Indy 500 winner. Pollack wrote the book “Red wheels and white sidewalls,” a story of his road racing experiences. Other Fab 50’s included; Rex McAfee, Jack’s son, Ron Cummings, Dan Gurney, Bob Bondurant, Jim Rowe, Phil and Alma Hill, Jack Burns, Mike Savin, Jerry Grant, Bruce Hand and Bob Barton. Approximately 200 guests showed up, including; Paul Vanderheyden, Les Nimmo, Richard Lyndhurst, Eldon Harris and Jimmy Stockberger. Vanderheyden came all the way from Raleigh, North Carolina, where he builds small displacement racing Fiats. Nimmo has a nearby machine shop and races at Willow Springs in VARA competition.
  Family members came from all over to hold this event for us and included; Mark and Melanie Rasmussen, Doris Burnett, Dick and Susan Banks, Denise Daigh, Dan Daigh, Andrew Daigh, Melanie Parmer, Alex Banks, Pat and Rita Daigh, Kelly, Katy and Sandy Banks, Alexis Parmer, Harold Dundas Daigh II, and Harold Dundas Daigh III. Doris Burnett was Chuck’s former wife and a gracious hostess. Harold Daigh II was Chuck’s older brother by 18 months. Mark Conovay owned the shop next to Chuck’s shop and he opened his shop and parking spaces to the guests. Conovay is a member of the Crackerbox Racing club and he showed us his boat, The Sluice Box, which he races with his partner, Randy Haapala, owner of The Body Palace, a major repair shop for cars in Huntington Beach, California. Conovay told me that the Crackerbox club is growing and has 35 boats in their league, 20 of which show up to race. He won the San Diego race last year and his boat is always competitive. The crackers are smaller than other race boats, but the thrills and spills are just as exciting as the bigger boats. They are going to race at Burley, Idaho on June 27-28, 2008 and again on the first weekend in August, 2008 at Marine Stadium in Long Beach, California. Jerry Ross, another crackerboxer, showed up at the Celebration. Jerry is the original owner of the Cracker Jack, Pile Driver and Arizona Girls, which his daughters race. Jerry is currently driving Tom Sampson’s Enemy. Another boat guy attending was Mo Beck, Mr Stern Drive, who is now retired, but was a former tenant and neighbor of Daigh’s. John Bixler came with Mo and Terry Baldwin. Terry owns Ralph Schenck’s old land speed racing car. Schenck was a member of the Albata car club in the early days of the Southern California Timing Association (SCTA) and set records and won championships with his fabled car. Baldwin worked very hard on the restoration of the car, which is one of the most famous of the early streamlined dry lakes cars.
  A group photograph included Ted Tanner, Don Rackeman, Warren Robbins, David Parks and Ed Iskenderian. Rackeman is well-known as a drag racing promoter and former NHRA employee. David Parks is the youngest son of Wally Parks. David wears the red hat, which entitles him to be a member of the prestigious 200 miles per hour club. He has set records over 200 mph at Muroc, El Mirage and Bonneville. Iskenderian came with his lovely wife, Elwanda. Ed is famous as the “Cam Father,” a term coined by the witty and talented CarToonist, Pete Millar. Isky cams have been setting records since the late 1940’s and Ed is still grinding cams, though the day to day operations have been turned over to his sons, Timothy and Richard. Dan Daigh spoke to the crowd in an open mike presentation and told how Chuck had once outrun the police on the way to Bonneville. “The policeman asked him why he didn’t stop when he was being chased,” and Chuck said, “Because I wasn’t out of gas then.” Another speaker said that “Chuck was a better welder and a better machinist than anyone else who ever graduated from high school.” Harold Daigh told the audience that “Chuck would build and style a car to fit the customer, long before it was the common practice to do so.” Some of the guests in attendance were Charles Rollins, Phil Remington, Gene and Alan Barbee, Bill Krueger, Joann Brock, Jane Barrett and Rod Bean. Rollins is the son-in-law of the late Ray Brock and Joann Brock and has his own website, www.benchracing.com. The Barbee Brothers are well-known land speed record holders. Phil Remington worked with Daigh on many projects and is a renowned race car fabricator. Dick Guldstrand spoke to the audience about how they ran the brakes off of their Corvette at Sebring and Chuck graciously helped them make the repairs in his shop. Dick Messer, the Director of the Petersen Automotive Museum, personally brought the Troutman and Barnes Special from the museum collection.
  Another speaker told of Daigh’s wartime experiences. “When Chuck was in the army he carried a rotor with him so that no one would steal his jeep. He went 43 days without clean clothes to wear, so bad was the fighting. He was shot three times, with the most serious injury to his wrist. No matter where he was, he was always interested in technology of the car,” said the speaker. Remington told us that he knew Chuck since the dry lakes and when they were together with the Troutman and Barnes team on the Scarab racing project. “We were in Belgium, racing and Chuck didn’t fear anything and would try to do everything. He was a very generous man,” said Remington. Ron Cummings said that Chuck got a ride once in an old Scarab and was up against newer cars, but worked on the car and qualified it in seventh, with great driving skills. Chuck did quite well against newer and better cars. We had a saying,” said Cummings, “What a difference a Daigh makes.” Ron added, “We just adjusted the driver to the car and Chuck could take any car and make a race car out of it.” Additional guests that attended the event were; Jack Brady, Bill Wilkins, John and Linda Clinard, Sharon Spearing, Sandy Galbraith, Chuck Fawcett and Anne Staskawicz. Dan Gurney took the microphone and told the audience that “Chuck was part of the World War II generation that included Clay Smith, Frank Coons, Bill Stroppe, Jim Travis and many more great racers and mechanics. Chuck knew all of these people and he was a hero to me. Chuck was careful about giving out his secrets. Keith Duckworth had this saying which Chuck agreed with,” added Gurney, “The milk of human kindness doesn’t go that far,” when he didn’t want to answer any more questions.
  Bill Krueger told of the time that Daigh raced on the Daytona Beach time trials and didn’t feel that he did very well. Bill France Sr was in charge and he had a rule that a driver only got one run. Maurie Rose and Zora Arkus-Duntov were arguing with France, saying that they didn’t do well and wanted another try. “Daigh walked up to them and asked for another run, whereupon France told Rose and Arkus-Duntov that Daigh just set a record and do you want me to give him another try?” Another speaker told us that “Daigh was a good boat racer and held the Newport Beach to Catalina record of 12 minutes. We lost one of the props and Chuck tells me to go onto the side of the boat, almost into the water and pull the cotter pin and change the prop. I asked him if he was going to stop the boat and he told me ‘no, we’re going to keep racing,’ and I had a hell of a time getting that prop off and a new one on,” he told us to roaring laughter. More guests who were at the party included; Ed Ward, Bob Stockwell, David Wells, Rick Hayden, John Bjorkman, Tim Bamford, Tony DeRosa, Gary Fortner, Bill and Bet Watkins and Don Taylor. Rackeman told us that Daigh “was one of the most talented guys around and told us about the time Lou Baney got Chuck to build a car and got Johnny Parsons to drive it.” Peter Rothschild told us about his experiences with Chuck. Rothschild was the National Offshore racing champion in 1966. Al Arciero provided some of his family’s award winning wines from their vineyard in Central California. The Arciero family got their start in the Paso Robles area, and is still producing fine wines. 
  Other guests who attended the Celebration included; Norm Grant, Jerry Austin, Gary Croan, Rolland Soll, Carrie, Lucy, Noel and Tate Berg, Barry Walker, Walter Gibson and Gary Donahue. Doug Stokes dropped by and told us about the times he spent with Daigh. Stokes has spent most of his life promoting the car scene, from Go-Kart racing to the times he was the PR man at Perris Auto Speedway and Irwindale Speedway. Doug’s favorite saying is “Great party, shitty reason.” A few more guests at the event were; David Sterling, Dan Gonzalez, Bob Schmitt, Gene Ellis, Michael Phillips, Susan Carpenter and Steve Cleary.

Gone Racin’ is at [email protected].  Special thanks go to John and Ginny Dixon, Art Evans and to the Daigh family for their help in compiling information for this story.

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