Editor’s Notes: Here is a continuation of the interviews conducted by Sam Hawley for his book, Speed Duel. I am only printing half of the interviews so that you will have to go to Sam’s website www.samuelhawley.com to read the rest of it. I am doing it this way because Hawley’s website is worth visiting. For you history buffs who love more than cars you should see what Sam has written on. He has a very sharp and incisive mind and he is one of the best interviewers that I have read.
FLYING CADUCEUS: ALAN BRADSHAW INTERVIEW
Alan Bradshaw was the only full-time paid employee on Nathan Ostich's "Flying Caduceus" project. I interviewed him over the phone at his home in Hackensack, Minnesota on May 9, 2009.
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The start of all this [Nathan Ostich’s "Flying Caduceus" project] was the hub of friends surrounding Ak Miller’s garage in Whittier, California. I met Doc when I worked for Ak Miller. Ak was the old hot rodder from many, many years ago, one of the founding fathers of the Southern California Timing Association and that whole group of Bonneville and dry lake racers. Ak had a garage on Whittier Boulevard in West Whittier, in the outskirts there. And there was always a large group of hangers-on that circulated in and out. They had no security. People went in and out, they’d watch you work. They were just a jolly bunch of guys that hung around there. I went to work for Ak in 1957. Doc at the time was a good friend of Ak and all the players there. And Doc had a Chrysler 300C. And I being a Chrysler-background guy did practically all of Doc’s work on his 300. So that’s how Doc and I got (to know) each other. I was only 23 years old, so I was the junior bird man of the group. We had a lot of comers and goers, but they were all very serious hot rodders too. Doc was a very independent hot rodder. He was one of these guys who was dedicated to his sport, and he considered it a sport. He wasn’t particularly wealthy. He wasn’t particularly ostentatious in his manner. He was just one of the guys. He was very independent. Some might have said he was pretty hard-headed.
One of his first projects was kind of crazy, because, like around 1956, he decided to go for a speed run at Bonneville in an old Henry J. Kaiser, about as weird a little car as you could get. They were sold by the Sears Roebuck catalog, of all things. So they put a Chrysler 300 engine in it. Ak Miller was one of the guys who was always trying to push the envelope with something weird. So I don’t know if it was Ak’s idea or Doc idea, but they decided to put this big Chrysler blown engine in this Henry J. and go for a record at Bonneville—I don’t even know what record it was—and they decided to run the blower on top of the engine with a Harley Davidson motorcycle engine. So this put this crazy thing together and they went to Bonneville, and they weren’t very successful. At any rate there was a big uproar at Bonneville. They didn’t have a category, because they decided there were two engines because of the Harley. So they disclaimed any responsibility or sponsorship. We used to call it the Green Thing. It was filled with Bondo to smooth it out aerodynamically and it must have weighed about a ton and a half, I suppose. It wasn’t really successful, but Doc kind of cut his teeth on that.
After that he came back, and he started talking about going for the land speed record. Now here’s a physician in East Los Angeles who is not overly mechanically capable and he’s talking about setting the world land speed record with, of all things, a jet car. (laughs) He started jabbering about that, and the naysayers came out of the woodwork from all directions. Because he hadn’t been overly successful with his Henry J., and everybody thought he was really out in left field. First thing they said was, “Doc’s nuts.” The second thing was it would be uncontrollable, the goofy car would go in circles, again Doc was nuts, he’ll never get it built, it’s an impossible task. And then, to top it off, the FIA, the French timing association, they would never recognize a record by a jet car because it was different. They didn’t have a class for it. And therefore they wouldn’t time it either. I think all those things cemented Doc’s desire to do it. I think it inspired him. Again, maybe he was stubborn. On the other hand, he had a vision and he was going to pursue it.
Was that what you all called Nathan Ostich, “Doc”?
Yeah. We called him Doc. [Laughs] And Ray Brock and Joanne Brock used to call him Dr. Quack. And that was common. “Hey Quack, what’re you doing?”
They’d call him that right to his face?
Oh sure. It all started when Joanne Brock was pregnant with one of the girls, and she told her sister-in-law that she had this Dr. Ostich. And her sister-in-law was concerned about these racers who had MDs after their name. She said, “Joanne, I’ve looked him up in the directory, the physicians directory, and there is no Dr. Ostrich in the book.” So that’s how it got started. We used to call him Doc, and Ray and Joanne called him Quack, or Quackenbush.
You mentioned that Ostich didn’t know a whole lot about cars. So he wasn’t really on a par with Art Arfons, Craig Breedlove, in terms of being a mechanical genius, building and designing these things.
No. That’s correct. He was intelligent. He was smart. He was dedicated. He worked on the car. But he was not in any way, shape or form a true craftsman or mechanically inclined.
Was Doc talking about using a jet right from the start, when he began talking of going after the LSR?
As far as I know, yes.
Any idea where this notion came from, to use a jet?
No I don’t. Except that he had a friend, I can’t remember his name, Jack something or other, was in the air surplus business. I don’t know what the connection between he and Jack was, but Jack bought the engines for Doc.
You were going to tell me about some of the problems about Bonneville.
Bonneville was really unique from the standpoint that the challenges are many. For instance, in those days, just accommodations in Wendover, you had a choice of one motel, the Stateline Hotel, and then there was a motel, I can’t remember what the name of it was. So as a result just getting there and getting a crew organized and being there alone was a challenge. When you got there, communications on the Salt were nearly impossible. There were no good radio telephones. The only telephones we had were land lines that we strung miles, ten miles of braided wire across the top of the salt. Of course when the salt water comes up in the hot of the day would submerge some of these wires and of course that’s conductive, so you can imagine the telephone system we had, almost non-existent. We had somebody stationed about every mile down the salt, on a bunch of army surplus field telephones that seldom worked. Now, the weather is formidable. It’s hot. It’s windy. Every night the wind blows, and the salt water comes up in the heat of the day, so the ability to run is almost always early in the morning. So you get up at three in the morning, you chow down and you get everybody ready. You fuel up all your cars because it was easy to run out of gas out there, running up and down the salt. And you get out there about daybreak, and you get all set up to run, and of course sometimes you ran and sometimes you’d be disappointed. The wind would come up, the weather would be bad, the quality of the salt, I’m sure you read there were years we couldn’t run at all because of the roughness of the salt.
Continuing on a little bit about the group of friends that put this thing together for Doc. They were a jolly bunch. Everybody who hung around Ak Miller’s, everybody thoroughly believed in having a good time. They were dedicated racers and had done some pretty outstanding things on a pretty limited budget. They were the poor man’s hot rodders. But on the other hand they were always having a good time.
As far as the car was concerned, the main leader, without a doubt, was Ray Brock. Ray was a smart guy, a great person, and he also was probably one of the closest, if not the closest, friend that Doc had. He was kind of the leader of the band. Worked right in there on the car every day, every night, with me. Ak was very active, but sporadic in his attendance. And then I was in there someplace probably as third. But the whole crew, probably ten people who were in the inner circle, that were really dedicated, were all volunteers. A really close-knit circle of people. I was the only paid employee. Doc hired me full-time about six months into the project.
Did you do the work right there at Doc’s house? I’ve read that he housed the car below his living quarters in a two-story dwelling.
That’s correct. He bought a storefront building in East Los Angeles and he lived upstairs in a nice apartment. It had a storefront on the boulevard and it had an alley access with big overhead doors in the back lower level. He bought that building specifically to build that car in.
There was no store on the lower level?
The store was closed. We used that front store building, we blacked out the windows, whited out the windows, and we used it for storage for spare parts and all of our stuff, and [laughs] it also had room for Doc’s ping-pong table.
He liked ping-pong?
He loved tennis and ping-pong. Doc loved his ping-pong, and he wasn’t above challenging anybody who came by to a game of ping-pong. And he would play ping-pong, with you for instance, he’d give you a paddle and he’d play with a Coke bottle. And he’d probably beat you.
I’ve seen reference elsewhere by you that Craig Breedlove was hanging around the shop in those early years.
We had a lot of hangers-on. Craig at that time must have been in the sixteen-year-old range. Those guys came and went. I can’t say how much time he spent at Ak’s. He never came by the shop where we built the car. He came by Ak Miller’s shop. That was actually before we started the car.
Like I was saying, there were about ten volunteers involved in the construction. They worked at night. I worked during the day. To my knowledge, nobody ever backed out, and this was a three- or four-year project. They weren’t there every day or every night, but there was always a group there who were willing to work. It was truly a hot rodders co-op project. Doc would come and go as he needed to. He would swing by when I was working during the day, and I’d see him maybe in the afternoon when he was on his way to the hospital for his patient visits. They all came and went, but they never gave up, and they went to Bonneville with us. I think that in itself spoke quite highly of the respect they had for Doc and for the project. That inner circle was behind him 100 percent. And then there was the outside circle of people who volunteered to help. Those were the guys at Aerojet General [?] and Northup Technology. Those guys provided wind tunnel tests and technical information and information on the jet engine.
Doc practiced medicine in East Los Angeles, in a private practice. He was an ex-military doctor, he was single. He had never married up to that point. He had two gals who worked for him in the office, Gladys and Helen. A lot of times I’d go over there and we’d meet for lunch and discuss what was going on. Actually, before we started on the car, when I was working on his 300s, I had a two-year-old son who was undergoing perpetual ear infections and sickness, and Doc said, “Well, bring him over to the office.” I kind of hesitated, because you don’t get a hot rodder doctor for your personal physician. But at any rate, he said, “Bring him over to the office and we’ll check him over.” And so I did. And he started treating Ron and taking care of him and doing good things for us as a family. And that grew and grew and grew, and it ended up being the best health plan I ever had. He took care of my family, he took care of Ann, he delivered two kids, he did tonsillectomies, he did hernia surgery. He would submit the bill to Blue Cross, to my insurance, and he’d give me the check when it came. That tells you the kind of guy he was. He was stern. He was one of these people who bark, and you would think he was a grouchy old fool. But he had a heart of gold. And he did the same thing for Ray. I know he delivered all of Ray’s kids, all the girls, he took care of our families at no charge. It was an amazing relationship, really.
Do you know anything about Doc’s Canadian background?
We didn’t get into personal things too much. I know that he had two brothers who were dentists. And his sister lived in East Los Angeles.
You mentioned that he had been a military doctor. Would this have been during the war?
Yes, as far as I know. And he also practiced medicine in what back then I think was called Los Angeles General Hospital. He was a grouchy sort of guy at times, I think because he was busy, and some doctors where they’re busy are a little bit grouchy. He was the kind of doctor I always respected because he told it exactly like it was. He told you what your odds were. He had my wife scared to death. On her first baby she had gained a lot of weight. He started taking care of her on her second and he threatened her with her life if she gained too much weight. I heard him say one day, just to give you a side line, I was sitting in his office, with the examining room right next to the office, you could hear a little bit of what was going on in there, and I’m sitting there waiting to go out to lunch with him, and a lady came in and she was coughing and hacking and wheezing said she had been sick for a couple of weeks and he finally said: “You know, when you’re sick your friends give you all kinds of advice on how to cure yourself. But when they’re sick they go see the doctor.” (laughs) he could be really tough if he needed to be, but he had a heart of gold.
I’ll tell you a little sideline about Doc when Ray’s and our kids were born. Doc liked to joke around. He liked to have fun. So he put our families [Al’s and Ray Brock’s] in a little hospital down on Sudder Street [?], fifteen rooms at the most, and it was run by three or four of the doctors. And they put their friends in there because they could absolutely dictate what kind of care they got. So when Joanne was going to have one of the girls, Doc decided he’d play a little trick on Ray. And Ray, working for a magazine, always had his camera with him, hanging around his neck. Ray wanted to photograph the baby the minute it was born. That was before the days they did that kind of thing. Doc said, “I don’t know if old Nurse Crachet will let us do that, but I’ll see what we can do.” They didn’t actually have a maternity waiting room. You sat in the lobby. You could hear what was going on around you, upstairs. So Joanne’s in labor and Ray’s sitting there waiting, and all at once he hears the nurses starting to talk about twins, and about another bassinette. Ray’s wife was the only one in labor, and so he’s sitting there, taking it all in. And so finally Doc comes out and says, “Congratulations Ray. You’ve got twins. Come on up and you can take a picture of them.” And of course Ray’s just dumbfounded. And so they go up and Doc gets in the nursery and he’s got the nurse holding one baby and Doc goes and gets the other baby, all swaddled in a blanket, and he says, “Are you ready, Ray?” And Ray gets his camera out and he’s looking through the lens and Doc says, “Well, whenever you’re ready, we’ll do it.” Ray says “Okay,” and Doc raises the flap on the blanket and he’s got a stuffed baboon in there. So Ray took a picture of the two kids, and one of them’s a baboon.
Another time, with one of the other kids, Ray came up to take a picture in the nursery, and Doc picked a baby up, supposedly out of the nursery, and he tripped and fell and threw the baby across the room. And when my wife was in there, we had two boys and one of the girls, the third one, and so he said, “We’ve got to get that baby before we go to Bonneville. So I’m going to give you something to take home.” So he gave me a plunger with a blue ribbon tied around the handle and he says, “Press and place and draw [garbled, 31:16] and when baby appears call Doc.” And on the blue ribbon he had a pair of cutting pliers tied on there and he said: “If I stomp two times on the floor, bring it up and we’ll make a girl out of it.”
So that was the attitude when you were around Doc and that whole bunch. We used to get together at somebody’s house and somebody always had some wild thing going on. We had a good time. [Al goes on to tell a story of playing a trick on Ak Miller at Bonneville when he was there with a Cobra doing time trials.]
That first time you all went to Bonneville, in the second week of August in 1960, Athol Graham would have been killed just the week before that. How much was that in your minds?
Very much. And Doc was right in there with us. He was not afraid, I don’t think. But we were concerned about Doc’s safety. This guy was our best friend. So we said right from the get-go, we’re not going to go out and go 200 mph the first day. We’re going to take it easy, work our way up. Everything was untried, untested. You take this whole do-it-yourself package to Bonneville, and you’re going to see if everything works the way it’s supposed to. And so we were concerned.
A couple years later, in 1962, the Deseret News makes a reference to Ostich having nightmares about Athol Graham’s death. Was that true?
I never heard him say that. He was concerned. We were all concerned for his well-being, but I never heard him say anything like that. One of Doc’s brothers, Dr. John, a dentist, went with us. I guess you could say he would have been Doc’s personal valet, he would prepare Doc, when we put him in the cockpit I would dust off his shoes, and Doctor John would be there helping. And I’m sure they shared some private moments in the evening. But that was about as close as it came to getting involved in his personal feelings.
I’ve read with regard to 1960 that Ostich had a radio system in the car, that people were relaying information to him through headphones.
We tried. If you look at the very first photographs you’ll see a little silver dome on top of the cockpit. It was totally unsuccessful.
So you didn’t use it again when you returned in ’62.
We took it off. The car underwent quite a few modifications. That was one of the bad ideas. Everybody was just getting into radios at the time. The quality of the equipment wasn’t good enough.
As far as I know, the other land speed racers, Breedlove and Arfons and the others, didn’t have radios in the cockpit.
No, not to my knowledge. The only thing you had to navigate with, at least in our case, was Howard Dickson painted some four-by-eight sheets of plywood with different colors and put them up on an easel, and they marked the miles by color. In other words, when he entered the speed traps there was a green, and when he exited there was yellow, and then the red...You see, you lose your depth perception. It’s much like being on a big frozen lake. You had very poor depth perception about where you are and how far you’ve gone. And so those were the only navigational markers we had, other than the fact we tried to station people on every mile or two of the course, because you needed weather reports. It could be dead calm at the starting line and you could have 20 mile an hour winds at the other end of the course. And the wind is always a factor.
Did Ostich wear an air mask when he was running?
Was that never an issue, asphyxiation or something like that?
No. Actually, we were concerned about CO2. We installed fire bottles somewhere in there, I think maybe on the second or third run at Bonneville. We were concerned about fire. So we installed CO2 bottles that he could trip, mainly in the chassis area, in the fuel tank area and around the engine. And there was some worry about CO2, but we didn’t get too concerned about it because your choice was CO2 or burn.
A funny thing about volunteers. These bottles were being installed by somebody who had volunteered, I don’t even know what the company was, but these two yard birds were in the shop, and they’re trying to decide how much CO2 they need to flood the given volume of the chassis and the cockpit, how many pounds of CO2 is it going to take. So they’re in this big discussion about how many cubic feet of CO2 is in a pound, in a bottle. In other words, when it expands, how much area is it going to fill. And they’re discussing how much CO2 and free air is a ten-pound bottle, and they’re off and running discussing this. And working on our parachutes in the back was a fellow by the name of Klaus Kanaky. Klaus was in space recovery systems. He built the drogue cute system and installed it for us and showed us how to operate it and check it and pack the chute. He was a German V2 expert. Brilliant. I mean this guy was a walking encyclopedia of technology. And he’s back there working on the chutes as these two guys are arguing about CO2, and they had the wrong numbers according to Klaus, and Klaus finally said, “I hate to interrupt you guys, but I’ve got to tell you you’re wrong.” He says there are so many cubic feet of CO2 in a free state in a pound, and he quoted it off the top of his head, and sure enough he was right.
Speaking of the chutes, I’ve read that Ostich frequently didn’t use the chute because it took so long to repack them.
On the lower speed runs, a 200 mph run and he had plenty of time to stop, he did not deploy the chute.
I’ve also read that the final stage of repacking the chute was to beat it with a bat to make sure it wasn’t packed too tightly. Is that correct?
Was that standard procedure with these LSR cars?
I don’t know. We learned all about the chute from Klaus. His job was with the Mercury capsules and things. He never went to Bonneville with us, but he set it all up and taught us how to run it. We were kidding him one day. They shot the first Mercury capsule and it went way down field, beyond the recovery area, and dropped in the ocean, and we were always kidding him about it, “What’s the matter, didn’t your chute work?” And we were at lunch one day and he says, “Well, I’ll tell you what’s wrong with that. The guy ran out of fuel is the reason he went all the way down there.” And we said, “What do you mean, Klaus? You’re just making excuses.” And he says, “No! I tell you the truth. The guy ran out of fuel. You take that poor devil and you put him in that thing and you fly him butt-first 17,500 mph and what’d he do but he turned around to see where he was going. So he burned up too much fuel and he overshot the landing spot.”
I’ve noticed that Doc wore regular sneakers when he was racing. Was there any reason for that?
Just for comfort. I’d take a brush and brush the salt off his shoes before he stepped into the cockpit. Let’s see where was I here...I made some notes...Doc was dedicated, but he wasn’t obsessed [I had mentioned this word in the questions I sent], but believe me, he was in charge of the project. His desire to succeed I think was only reinforced by the naysayers. This was a true hot rodders’ program, born out of the guy who ran on the dry lakes and the salt flats in converted old Motel Ts, low-budget operations. But we never scrimped on quality. We never scrimped on spending the money if we needed to. We promoted parts. [I think he means they asked companies to donate parts.] Ray Brock promoted all the suspension parts, four-wheel torsion bar, independent suspension, from a truck, turned upside down. It was put together from parts donated by some friend of Ray’s in GMC truck. It didn’t take a lot of parts. I’m sure it cost them hardly anything.
Doc bankrolled everything. Doc was in charge. Doc put the money in, his own personal money. As far as sponsorship was concerned, unless there was something going on behind the scenes that I wasn’t aware of, Firestone donated tires and wheels. That was a total Firestone donation. They tested them on Firestone’s farm in the Midwest and ran them at high speed on the dynamometer they’d built. They may [also] have donated tires and wheels for the trailer we built, but I’m not aware of any monetary help. The same thing went for Mobil. Mobil furnished fuel and people there to handle the fuel, but I’m not aware of any money that changed hands. In fact I can tell you, Castrol at one point offered...I was at the lunch when Castrol made an offer to Doc for sponsorship, and they wanted some strings attached, and he told them to go pedal their wares [?] elsewhere. He wasn’t interested. So he bankrolled it all, right out of his own pocket. He paid for our motel rooms, for all the crew that went to Bonneville those times.
Editor: The rest of the interview can be seen at www.samuelhawley.com.