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A Visit with Veda and Karl Orr
09-28-08
Story and photographs by Bob Falcon,
Editing by Richard Parks

richardparks

Richard

   Thought you'd like to know about this discovery. While reorganizing my personal library I uncovered an old dry lakes publication. "Veda Orr's Lakes Pictorial-1946 Season"! I recall, when as a teen, I would visit Karl's Culver City Speed Shop and Veda would be at a desk, organizing snapshots and banging-out copy on an old upright typewriter. In fact I knew the Orr's pretty well, in those days since their home was just a few blocks from my parents, in Culver City.  I do remember their house was on a street about three blocks from where my folks lived. As I recall it was just south of Braddock and across the street from a small park. The location was south of MGM Studios Main Lot. Their favorite color combination was white and black, hence, their house was painted white with black trim. The Orr's were real hot rodders! Their "family car" was a 1932 Ford Roadster with full fenders and a canvas top. Veda used to run this car at the lakes meets. I had visited there many times and recall Karl had ashtrays in his garage, a policy I adopted and continued until I gave up the habit many years ago. As far as I recall, Veda was a housewife who also helped at the speed shop. She handled the books and did some counter work when Karl was running errands. Of course, she did the assembly on her lakes books at the shop. One of their customers, who had a really neat 1932 Roadster was a former Doolittle Raider. This flyer was a frequent visitor to the speed shop. He lived in Venice, California and he was a paraplegic who received his injuries when he bailed out of, or crashed, his B-25 bomber in China. I can't recall his name, but I know that Van Johnson played his character in the famous WW2 movie, "Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo. Karl and Veda were divorced (perhaps in the 1960's). Karl had closed the speed shop in the mid to late 1950's and went to work for Douglas Aircraft in Santa Monica. He was a regular visitor to my dad's shop. I recall that I was working the Swing Shift at AiResearch and building my 1932 coupe Jalopy racer in my dad's shop. Karl would stop by and check out my work, give me a few tips and go to the beer bar on the corner for lunch. One day he took a very long lunch and was headed back to the "Bird Farm" and declared he was going to tell them to shove it! He then disappeared off the radar. A few years later I was in Bouquet Canyon and spied a sign that read "Karl Orr Speed Shop" and we had a reunion. He had married a rather attractive, younger lady and seemed to be content...and still stocked Creme Soda in his soft drink machine. Several years later I was told (by Jim Bremner, I believe) that Karl and Veda had remarried and they were living in the San Diego area. I think I had learned later that they both had "crossed the finish-line." I always liked them, they were really kind to me. 
   Bouquet Canyon was a settlement kinda northeast of Saugus, in the desert. I was up there to do some target shooting with a friend and one or two of my kids. I wanted to test fire a .22 Beretta I had just purchased for $25.00. My friend had his Colt Army .45. We were driving through town when I spotted the speed shop sign. That was the only time I had ever seen the new Mrs. Orr, but recall her as being a very attractive blonde. I don't recall whether they had any children and I would reckon that Karl was 50 or better at this time. I think Jim Bremner picked-up the later news from Frank Oddo. Both Jim and Frank are on the mailing list for the LSR newsletter. When I was helping John Kelly, and later Sandy Belond, build their Track Roadsters, Karl was a frequent visitor to the shop in the evenings. John Kelly and Sandy Belond were very good friends and both appreciated my efforts on their race car, even though I was just a kid in their eyes. I lost track of John but remained in touch with Sandy and his wife, Ruth, until their demise. I am still in contact with their daughter and her sons. I first met Ray Nichels through Sandy when Ray was working as the Chief Mechanic on Sandy's Indy Roadster. I maintained contact with Ray and his buddies Paul Russo and Johnny Pawl until they all "crossed the finish line." Later Karl built a "Big Car," which we now call Sprint Cars, and I think it was a conversion of his old lakes modified. He named the Sprinter The K. O. Special. He raced it with the old Western Racing Association (WRA) that served as the Big Car organization for SoCal. I've seen a picture of the car recently, but can't recall the publication that ran the photograph. I doubt if any of your present day WRA contacts can shed any light on the doings of the old WRA that was in operation for a short time right after WW2. If Joe Gemsa, Vince Conze or the Famaghetti brothers were still alive they could probably help. I think Karl had Bob Swiekert driving for him at one time. Dan Fleischer may be able to help since he is a good historian. Most of the present WRA guys think 1965 is ancient history! 
Bob Falcon

Gone Racin' is at RNPARKS1@JUNO.COM


08-28-08
 Dear Braintrusters:
Here's some more information that I found out on Karl and Veda Orr. Would you please let me know if you spot any errors? Also, if this stimulates you to remember anything else, please send that on to me to add to the story on Karl and Veda. If you have photos, would you also share one or two of the Orrs for the website. Also, Ron Ceridono states that Veda started with Russetta Timing Association, but I show Russetta as forming AFTER WWII. He probably means the old MTA or even Western Timing Association.
Thanks for all of your help.
Richard
 
 
   Karl Orr was born in the Midwest and began building racing cars as early as 1921 in his shop in Missouri. He came to California in the 1920's and raced in land speed time trials as early as 1929 at Muroc, in his Model A. Karl raced a 4-cylinder modified and recorded a speed of 125 mph, which was supposedly the first to attain that speed on the Southern California dry lakes. He recorded times of 120 mph in his '32 Ford roadster. Karl was a flinty old codger at best, but he attracted a following of loyal fans and friends. He was talented and dedicated to his goals and not a person to trifle with. His views were seriously considered and he contributed to dry lakes racing in ways that gave respect to the early timing associations and to their successor, the Southern California Timing Association (SCTA). Karl was one of the older statesmen, even older than Wally Parks, Ed Adams, Art Tilton and the early leaders of the SCTA. If his views were not accepted by the SCTA, Karl often went his own way. He raced at Muroc long after the SCTA felt the criticisms of the public due to the outbreak of World War II. The main body of the governing board for the SCTA held the view that continued racing was not in their best interest. The war had brought shortages of every basic commodity and auto racing in general had been shut down in order to save on rubber, gasoline and other materiels that the military needed badly. Karl didn't see any reason why the desperate world situation should inconvenience him in his quest for more speed. He wasn't drafted, nor did he volunteer and throughout the war, Karl found places to race. 
   An article in the SCTA Times just after the war was over, complementary in nature towards him, sent him into a frenzy and he marched down to the SCTA offices with several of his followers to get satisfaction or else. Other than a great deal of shouting, cooler heads prevailed and Karl left without any broken furniture. He had taken offense to the words, "Karl Orr, sire of the record setting car..." As difficult as he was to deal with, Karl Orr was also an important fixture in the Southern California racing scene, as a car builder, mechanic and owner of one of Southern California's pre-eminent new Speed Shops. He was an important member in the SCTA, but one who was given a lot more leeway than was allowed to others. One favor that he extracted that bordered on sheer heresy was letting his wife race at Muroc in the late 1930's, under the Muroc Timing Association's banner. The SCTA seriously frowned on women racing or even belonging to their group. The MTA was under the auspices of George Wight, owner of Bell Auto Parts and George Riley, who manufactured the Riley 4-Port among other speed equipment. There were other men who donated timing equipment and a delivery van that doubled as an ambulence, but the ownership of the MTA was held by a few older men. Karl was more their age and when he closed the cloth tarp on his roadster and told his young wife, Veda, to take off as soon as her name was called, no one contested Karl's decision or authority. It was a power and authority based on sheer will and crankiness. You challenged Karl Orr at your own peril. Right or wrong, Karl was a presence in land speed racing and he always earned a grudging respect from his peers, though he made their jobs much more difficult. 
   Veda married Karl Orr in 1936 and fell in love with the whole aspect of land speed racing and automobiles. In a way she went past the tutelage of her husband and became beloved by all the land speeders of that early generation. She was kind, compassionate and caring, but when Karl was attacked, she forgot what the controversy was about and rallied to his side. She raced with the Russetta Timing Association and after the war, the SCTA passed a special resolution giving Veda the full rights of membership and the ability to race at their meets. She set a record of 104.40 mph in the full fendered roadster class and then improved on the record by going 114.27 in 1937 at Muroc. Nellie Taylor and Don Blair let her drive their modified car and she turned 131mph, in an SCTA meet. She raced to a speed of 121.62 mph in a C Roadster category in 1947. Those were exceptionally fast times in those days with the type of cars that they had. The timing associations had policies about excluding women from their racing activities. They weren't exactly anti-women, though they weren't supporting women's rights either. The men simply felt that women couldn't do what the men could and that it would put people's lives at risk to let women drive. A bigger issue was the public perception of land speed racing and hot rodding. 
   The public saw hot rodders and street racers as dangerous, out of control punks that felt no remorse as they put the public's safety at risk by their irresponsible behavior. By today's standards, those hotrodders were tame, but they often straddled the line between creative car builders and street-wise criminals. The timing associations, especially the SCTA, wished to present a picture to the public of a safe and sanctioned race, where speed and mechanical know-how and ability were the key elements. If someone crashed at a dry lakes meet and was injured or killed, the bad publicity would make it that much harder for them to convince the public of their good intentions and wise planning. If a woman was injured or killed at the dry lakes, the publicity might have ended any hope of acceptance by the public. State laws were being passed to outlaw the sport of hotrodding and land speed racing. The Dills Bills came very close to passage and they would have outlawed any car that was not stock. That the timing associations gave an exception to Veda Orr meant that she had gone beyond what was required to prove her driving skill and that she had gained the love and respect of the racers themselves.
   In fact, that's exactly what she did. As WWII began, a huge number of hotrodders were drafted or volunteered to go into the military and the SCTA lost so many members that within months of the outbreak of war, they voted to disband for the duration. All except Karl, who stubbornly went out to the desert and kept racing, bringing as many rebels as he could with him, until the military chased them out for good in 1942. There are reports that Karl continued to race wherever he found a flat surface to do so, while the SCTA board bit their tongues and resisted any discipline against him. Veda immediately took over the function of the old SCTA Times and began to send out newsletters, laboriously typed on mimeograph paper and reproduced, over and over again, until the paper gave out and she had to start over again. Finding valuable supplies not requisitioned by the war department, she collected news about the homeland and from the hotrodders overseas and put it all in her paper and then sent it back out to news hungry GIs and sailors. The SCTA Times had begun as a newsletter for land speed racing in Southern California by Wally Parks, Bozzy Willis and Eldon Snapp. Harry Cameron was the supposed editor, but they only used his name to deflect any criticism that might come their way. Veda loved what she was doing and her newsletter reached over 750 men overseas, who had just recently been SCTA members. They shared the newsletters with other service men and the land speed sport became well known. She never charged for her publication as far as we could tell and she carried on correspondence with many lonely men during the war. 
   Before the war, the land speed movement had been localized to Southern California and there were few ways to inform young men in other parts of the country. In 1941, Jack Peters published Throttle Magazine and it did quite well, but after twelve issues, it was closed down and Peters went into the service. No one knows what happened to Peters after the war ended, but Throttle Magazine only existed for that one year prior to the war. It gave a great deal of coverage to land speed racing, but was also concerned with oval track racing as well. Veda's newsletters and later her Dry Lakes Pictorial book, was the first real attempt at spreading the gospel of dry lakes land speed racing. After the war came a series of B rated movies about young men and women gone bad and racing and wrecking lives on the streets and roads of America. So desperate were young men and women in the military for news at home that Veda's newsletters, photographs and pictorials were passed around to everyone. The number of copies per issue probably never exceeded 750, yet for the first time, land speed racing became known by hundreds of thousands and many of these young men came home with the hot rodding bug. After the war ended, Karl and Veda rebuilt the Speed Shop and as a team, they went racing at the dry lakes and in oval track racing, in midgets, track roadsters, sprint cars and any other motorsports that struck their fancy. Veda passed away in 1989, a year after Karl, and they never had any children. Karl was remembered as an early pioneer, but Veda was never forgotten by the men she gave hope to during the war years. The SCTA gave her a written commendation, thanking her for the service she had provided. The Veda and Karl Orr '32 Roadster was chosen as one of the top 75 Deuce Fords by the Ford Motor Car Company, when they celebrated the 75th Anniversary of the famous Roadster in 2007, at the Grand National Roadster Show, in Pomona, California.
   The following excerpts come from Wally Parks and Tom Medley. "I first met Veda in the 1930's, when she raced her 1932 roadster at Muroc Dry Lake. She was later active as the first female driver in SCTA's time trials history, at a time when women were not allowed to become members of the association. Veda was a behind-the-scenes partner with her husband Karl, who operated one of the first speed shops of prominence in California. She was accepted primarily because of her dedication and her expertise as a capable driver in what was still an experimental stage of the desert's lakebed speed trials. Karl was an outspoken, but genuinely dedicated member of that era's hot rod culture, who backed up his opinions, good and bad, with building and driving his own race cars. He was an early member of the 90 MPH Club, who later switched to the Road Runners. Until the World War II years, Veda was a dry lakes speed trials contestant, and then to cover more than just SCTA's activities she introduced her own CT (California Timing) News publication and a CT News pictorial featuring popular race cars of that period. After the start of WWII, when SCTA's activities were put on hold, Veda extended her CT News to a special-interest mailer sent to military servicemen and defense industry hot rod members gratis-at least to ones she could locate. It was a blessing for overseas contacts. Veda was a door opener for the interest and participation of women in dry lakes racing. She was a role model in vehicle know-how and high-speed experience behind the wheel. Her record 122 mph in her '32 roadster was a mark for the guys to shoot at, which they did. After they sold their speed shop and discontinued their racing careers, Karl and Veda retired to Mint Canyon, north of Los Angeles on the road to the dry lakes, where they bought the local water works and discontinued their active roles as speed trials pioneers," Parks concluded. 
   Tom Medley spoke of Veda, "(She) was the glue that held hot rodding together during the war years," said Tom. Tom "Stroker McGurk" Medley remembers meeting Veda on the dry lakes before World War II, where she was, in his words, "a hell of a competitor." Medley served in the European Theater of Operations (ETO) and was in the Battle of the Bulge, a vicious and deadly German counter-attack, where Ak Miller and Nellie Taylor were seriously wounded. "Even with everything that was going on around us, lots of us were thinking and talking about our hot rods back home, and Veda certainly helped out in that regard," said Tom. "Veda corresponded personally with lots of the guys overseas; she kept everyone posted on who was where and how they were doing. Veda Orr was the glue that held hot rodding together during the war years," Medley added. Tom sent one of his cartoons to Veda to be used in her newsletter and book. "When I got home after the war, I told Veda that we should start a magazine, but she said no because the speed shop was getting so busy," Medley continued. Tom and Veda often wondered about what would have happened if they had formed their own magazine. Would Hot Rod Magazine have ever got off the ground, they mused. 
 
Gone Racin' is at RNPARKS1@JUNO.COM
Part of this story comes from an article by Ron Ceridono.

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