A visit with Burke LeSage

Written by Burke LeSage
Edited by Richard Parks,
 Photographic Consultant Roger Rohrdanz


   I appreciate your recap of the early days of the MTA, SCTA, Hot Rod Magazine, NHRA and the myriad founding people and pioneers. A document recording history, cheers! One person that I have yet to notice in reference to the early NHRA was Dr. Nathan Ostich, MD. I believe Dr. Ostich served as a director during the initial incorporation of NHRA. In addition to his medical activity Dr. Ostich was also a dry lakes and Bonneville driver. He had a Chrysler powered comp/coupe that was prepped by Ak Miller. Next he built and drove the Flying Caduceus, a jet powered LSR vehicle in 1961 that went 360 mph at the Bonneville Salt Flats in an AAA sanctioned event. Wally Parks and Ray Brock served as consultants, Road Runner and SCTA officer Bill Graham was the technician and pit crewman. The machine was last seen in the Harrah's Car Museum in Reno Nevada. As I type the word Nevada, I will let that serve as an introduction of my story. I was born in Nevada in 1935, where my parents were living as a result of the unemployment in their home area of Los Angeles, California. Thus my birth certificate states that I was born in Miner's Hospital, Tonopah, Nevada. I was an

Richard Parks


Current picture of Burke LeSage at NHRA Wally Parks Motorsports Museum

offspring of the depression era generation. I remember driving through Tonopah in 1951 going to Bonneville, with a race car in tow. 

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1950, a 15 year old Burke LeSage on the left with Jim Lindsley at El Mirage.

   I was at the home office for the SCTA in the summer of 1949, helping Wally Parks, Bozzy Willis and others transfer a couple hundred newly painted red and white traffic cones from the SCTA panel truck to a stake truck for shipment, preparatory to the inaugural Bonneville Speed Trials. The SCTA office at this time was at the East Los Angeles residence of Phyllis and Jim Lindsley. Phyl Lindsley handled the Association's clerical file, keeping work that resulted from the efforts of Wally, Pete Petersen and the others that had made the 'presentation' to the controlling organization for Utah's Salt Flats, the

Bonneville Speedway Association. I have a letter dated February 20, 2005 from Wally Parks endorsing Phyl to be honored in the Dry Lakes Hall of Fame. Jim and Phyl Lindsley handled administrative concerns with great dedication in the 1950's, while the others who had originated the early speed trials moved along to other hot rod, drags and motorsport action. Yes, Adams, Karl and Veda Orr, Parks and the others laid the foundation, yet it is my belief that the Lindsleys' provided the connecting-link whereby the SCTA survived to become the oldest, longest standing automobile competition sanctioning body.

   From 1949 through 1988, with perhaps just two weekend exceptions, I have participated in every Lakes Meet including a 1951 try out at Evans Dry Lake as noted in the January, '52 issue of Hot Rod Magazine. A photo caption related the Lindsley & LeSage B/Coupe entry netted the SCTA '51 Season championship. Editor Wally Parks was keen to note the 'driver' B. LeSage was just 16 years of age. Later on when I was a parent, my two kids went along for an adventure with the SCTA in the sojourn to Laguna Salada, a less than suitable dry lake south of Calexio, in Baja California, Mexico. Every summer from 1951 to

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Burke's first ride! 1951, 16 year old Burke drove his 21 stud flathead with 2, 97's on alcohol, '34 Ford 5 window. The location was Evans Dry Lakes.

1988, in the month of August, most often with the family in tow, we would find ourselves in Utah. My son was an excellent speed trials spectator, while my daughter for several seasons stayed in town and was able to enjoy horseback riding in the hills of Wendover. One year she and one of the local girls rode all the way out to the Bonneville Pits at the edge of the Salt. In 1988 at a Utah Salt Flat Racers Association (USFRA) event, Robbie Cohn asked if I would like to see what it was like to drive his Chevy Monza coupe. It was a good solid 'ride,' eight grand on tach thru the gears, 185 MPH in the timing lights, then over to the return-road back to the starting-line, when a subdued 'mystery-voice' whispered to me, "Racecar driving ain't fun no more." As it worked out, life for me somewhat took a different direction. I haven't been to many race events since then.

   Yet it is with great satisfaction for me to observe and reflect on more than three dozen men and women who contributed and made the more than thirty hot rods, Lakes and Bonneville machines available for me to drive. The speed range went from 107 mph up to 265 mph. I did just a bit of drag racing. At the El Mirage Dry Lake in September, 1954, I made two early morning runs in the 130's mph range with my brother's hi-boy FH roadster. George Bentley of the 200 MPH Club was scheduled to drive the 'Pierson Brothers Coupe' under the auspice of flat-head wizard Tom Cobb. Bentley had an unexpected truck run to 'Frisco town and offered me the ride. That was two runs in the 160 mph range. Two other fellows, Roger and Walt were into hopping up Buick's. They had a supercharged Buick V8 in a 1938 Buick Coupe. In August on the Salt it had run a sluggish 135mph. At El Mirage it became an ill-handling brute, both owners wanted another opinion. I accepted the challenge. According to Timing Stand reports the big coupe on the course was stirring up a lot of dust, and just before the Timing-traps, there was a sudden twist off course with a series of violent tumbles. There was no roll-bar, but I had a war-surplus safety belt that failed immediately, and the spill left me in a crumpled mess and out cold. The George Air Force base medical office in Victorville, California and the local hospital reported that the injury was too severe for their personnel, so the ambulance transported me to the Los Angeles area, where I awoke ten days later from my coma. It took me a couple of weeks before I regained normalcy, coordination and health. Somehow the zest known most by those who choose to live-in-harms-way was apparent.

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1971, Burke driving Bob Joehnck's Deuce Highboy Roadster on the Bonneville Start Line with starter Bill Higbee. Burke made 200+mph two way average.

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1963, Burk drives Ron Benham's blown, 180 cu in, 4 cyl Pontiac Tempest belly tank to 213 mph avg to get him into the 200mph Club.

   Weeks later at the Santa Ana Drags, Tom Pollard of the L.A. Roadster Club threw me the keys to his Deuce Roadster saying, "The cowboy always gets back on the bronc that threw him." I made a 100 mph pass; I was 'back in the saddle again.' At Speed Week in 1955 I was in Gene Thurman's rear motor 27-T Coupe, going 175 mph and went into a 'spin' so many times that it was hard to count, and lasted for almost half a mile.  Two other incidents have occurred in a Corvette spin at the dry lakes and I had a run off into the dirt at an SCTA half mile drag. That was a driver error. At Riverside I had a mechanical failure with the brakes, and no chute. Ron Benham provided me with three different belly tanks, one was a modified roadster, another was a chopped and channeled Karman Ghia, which was quite spooky, 'floating' from 140 to 160 mph. I had a great appreciation for Benham. Other cars were two blown, fuel burning Chrysler 'rides' in 1961, '62, and '63, yet it was Ron's 180 cid, 4 cylinder Pontiac lakester in 1963 that gave me a speed of 213.747 mph two-way average for the record and membership in the 200 MPH Club.
I received my share of trophies. About twenty years ago I sent all of my competition awards, faded and worn as they were, to a storage site. I still have all

my plaques, certificates, and mementos in my home office. I was inducted into the Dry Lakes Hall of Fame and the SEMA Hall of Fame and given special rings. 

One of my most cherished memories is a lapel pin that reads; SCTA-Gear Grinder President-1952. Here I was still a sophomore in high school and yet I was elected an officer in a racing car club. I was meeting with men who had full-race V8's, a V16 Cadillac roadster, a Model T powered by a Ranger aircraft engine. They were guys who had served in the military during World War II, and here I was just a kid going to the SCTA Rep meetings at the Figueroa Hotel in downtown Los Angeles. I was associating with men who were big names in racing. The Gear Grinders had a show committee helping with the hot rod set-up at the

Armory near the L.A. Coliseum. I recall having a dinner with Jim Lindsley and Wally Parks at Julies, a fancy restaurant across from Exposition Park. Lindsley and Bill Burke, as I recall, were both equipped with shoulder holsters acting as protectors of the gate receipts. I was invited to have my Gear Grinders Club register with the new drag racing association, the NHRA, by a lady named Barbara Livingston, who would later become the wife of Wally Parks. A person who was also there in the NHRA space was dry lakes great Ak Miller. How was I to know that 30 years later I would be employed, working at Ak Miller's high performance turbocharger facility.

   One summer, while I was in high school, I went to work at Harry Weber's, polishing camshafts. I also worked at Grant Piston Rings, and then went to work at Weiand's. It was John Barlett of Grant's and Ed Elliott who together provided a life sustaining input for the 200 MPH Club during those formative seasons. Each of these racecar dignitaries were also the ones of foresight in the formation of another performance group. Both were on the ground floor for the founding of the Speed Equipment Manufacturers Association (SEMA). At first, SEMA had little to rely on, other than bits of scattered ideas from some of the volunteers and a few business-wise elected administrators. As it attracted more professional help, it rapidly outgrew the original gratis secretarial assistance. In the mid-1960's, at an early morning meeting in Mr. Bartlett's office, we had a lunch conference with Ed Elliott and I was sort of drafted to become the first employee of the rather newly formed hot rod equipment trade association SEMA. Being acquainted with so many self-made, successful business people has been a rewarding experience. These people are generally balanced with a work ethic, the recognition of technical acumen, open to new thoughts, acceptable to change and to challenges.

   During the early years of World War II, my Mother was helping out with defense work. She ran a multi-spindle drill press, machining tiny holes for a gun mount on the P-38 Lockheed fighter plane. In pre-war years the shop was somewhere on the west side of Los Angeles and they worked on racecars. When the war came the shop switched over to military contracts. In the backroom, stored away was the Sampson Special. As I recall it had run high speed record runs on the sands of Daytona Beach, and the driver's name was Frank Lockhart. Other Indy big car drivers stopped in at this shop during the war. One triple-A driver was Ted Horn. My Mother, in my younger days, seemed to be duly impressed with Ted Horn who she said often appeared wearing white dress pants. As a teenager, when I went to the weekly jalopy races at Carrell Speedway with Jim Lindsley, it was an unspoken code to wear whites. Yet there I was at the dry lakes or on the Salt, even at 40 plus years of age still wearing whites. Speaking of Jalopy races, I recall the Kenny Parks pink car. Kenny and a couple of Bell Auto guys also raced a 1932 V12 Lincoln Sedan for a few races. Jim Lindsley and I were leaving the Gardena race track and Jim was using his work truck to pull his #44 jalopy race car, heading east on Rosecrans Blvd. Wally Parks passed us on the right driving a '36 Ford pick-up with a full-race flat head. As he hit second-gear you could hear the rear tires breaking rubber. So yes, he was a street racer like all the guys. Now don't ask me anything about last week, yet I have a very clear recollection of that moment fifty years ago. 

   I received a letter from a lady seeking a driver for an LSR car on April 1, 1982. It was a battery powered machine and the goal was to exceed 200 mph. Dreisbach Electromotive Inc (DEMI), a firm out of Santa Barbara, California was developing a basic research effort into the potential of a marketable electric passenger car. To have an official land speed record was an effort to ascertain the viability of a battery car. I got to drive the car and enjoyed a number of months as test-driver. My first time out was at the Santa Maria Airport. Rather than for me to motor to Santa Maria the lady said to fly-up. I called 2-Club friend Monte Wolfe, and they covered his expenses as well and we had a day of R & D and were home by dark. On another occasion they secured the Orange County Raceway and the car covered the 1/4 mile trap times at 97 mph, with an elapsed time (ET) of 14.5 seconds. We couldn't run the car at the August Speed Week due to a rain-out. DEMI made contact with the Air Force and we were able to contract with the SCTA to set up kilo and 1/2 kilo clocks at Wendover Field. A couple of days of FIA short course timing, a lot of time for me to be on stand-by. 

   As a U.S. history buff it was fascinating to visit the several USAF B-29 hangars that in 1944 had served in the preparation of the A-bomb, which helped to end World War II. Stenciled into an I-beam pillar a GI had etched the "Enola Gay was here." A couple of months earlier the DEMI folks wanted a look at the Salt Flats. On a Saturday morning Monte Wolfe, Gary Cagle and I were at the Ontario Airport. The DEMI Citation jet flew in, off we went to Utah, a Wendover rental car to the Salt, then back to SoCal. After many a dreary ride to Speed Week, such a refresher! Breakfast coffee and donuts at Ontario, lunch at the Wendover Stateline and then an early dinner back in Ontario. That was certainly a different experience for a trio of hardcore LSR guys. My 2009 ambition is to have a campaign to have Jack Calori (1922-2008) and his award winning 1936 Coupe honored by the Dry Lakes Hall of Fame.  

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El Mirage, 1965. Burke LaSage driving this Lindsley entry #21 Deuce Highboy with an injected Hemi. Jim Lindsley is next to Burke, Bob Higbee is in the striped shirt, and crew member Butch Petroff is at the radiator. The run was 170mph.

1971, Burke drove the B & N Modified Roadster to his fastest run ever, 265mph! The Bert Peterson & Noel Black entry was blown HEMI powered. From left to right, Burke LeSage (kneeling), Oy Bumgarner, Leon Griffith, and Ray Orput.

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1966, Tiki's in Montebello, CA. As a thank you to the NHRA for helping with insurance issues,the SCTA Board of Directors & Jim Lindsley presented Wally Parks with a trophy. In the background are, (l to r) Tom Bryant, Ray Brock, Bob Higbee, Burke LeSage, Bruce Geisler, Multy Aldrich, Jack Lufkin.

200 mph Club, Stateline Hotel, Wendover, NV. 1977. From left to right starting with front row seated: Bob Bennett, Leon Griffith, Fred Larson, Al Teague.
 Next row kneeling: Larry Lindsley, Bill Burke, Burke LeSage, Gary Cagle, Martin Immerso. 
Next row: Don Vesko, D. Allen, Jim Lindsley, Ernie Bennett, Ermie Immerso, Jim Lattin, Art Chrisman, Bill Temple, Jerry Kugel. Back row: Bill Snider, Butch Morris, Bill Taylor, Gil Ruiz, Mark Dees, Bob Kehoe, Don Allen, George Morris, Al Thayer, Jim Angerer, Don Cummins, Clyde Sturdy.

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