Zen philosophy states that there is an interconnection of all things physical and spiritual, that there is a unity at a profound level, and that our actions have infinite repercussions. In the mid-1960s, this discipline was integral to the machinations of an offbeat trio of nitro bums from the west side of Los Angeles: Bob Skinner, Tom Jobe, and Mike Sorokin, aka "The Surfers." It defined their approach to the application of nitromethane vis-à-vis compression ratios and blower speeds. Further, it defined who they were as individuals.
This is the story of how these three stood the world of drag racing on its ear via their theoretical approach to life as applied to a Top Fuel dragster. It is the parable of two abstract yet linear thinkers, Skinner and Jobe, and their driver, Sorokin, and how they discovered that the path to Drag City and the trophy queen was also the path to nirvana and enlightenment.
For these shrewd and mischievous nitromaniacs, the dragstrips of Southern California were a blank slate upon which to project their desires and sensibilities in much the same way a Zen master approaches the mysteries of life: Head First. With No Rear View Mirrors. This was not about kissing a trophy queen on Saturday night. This was an exercise in consciousness expansion. It was a journey.
And it was the ideal time to catch a wave, so to speak. The opportunity to express one's self in the state of California was at that time as wide open as the blue waters of the Pacific. The only limits were one's resourcefulness and ingenuity. And for approximately three revolutions around the sun, it was absolutely high tide for the collaboration between Skinner, Jobe, and Sorokin. The Surfers ruled.
At the first NHRA Winternationals (1961), Mike Sorokin (foreground) and car builder George
Although these young men made the universe shudder with their unique approach to both Top Fuel racing and life itself, the genesis of their racing endeavors was much more prosaic than you would imagine. It germinated in the days of Ozzy & Harriet and it specifically took root on the corner of Jefferson and Sepulveda in Culver City, California. There stood a burger joint known as The Nineteen. Named after its 19-cent hamburgers, it was the epicenter for cafe society as interpreted by street racin' Southern California hot rodders. And its atmosphere, vibrations, and "extracurricular activities" resonated deep in the soul of Mike Sorokin, at the time a Venice High School student with an acute case of Lead Foot.
"The thing about The Nineteen was, not only did they have cheap food," recalls local digger driver and one-time street racer Ron Hier, "they had a great big parking lot. We used to hang out there because we used to street race, and 'Sork' was one of the guys who was there.
"When we first started hanging out with Sorokin at The Nineteen, there really wasn't any dragstrips—except for Lions and the one all the way out in Santa Ana, and there were no freeways in those days. It was Gene Adams, Craig Breedlove and his '34, Leonard Harris, Mickey Brown, and John Peters. What got Sorokin into racing was hanging out at The Nineteen and street racing with the guys. I can't believe none of us got put in jail."
Hier, who sold Sorokin a 1934 Ford that was used to drag down Sepulveda Boulevard, mentions that Sork's desire to race lead to an ego battle with his old man, a conflict stereotypical of the era's teenage rebellion. "His dad did not like street racing; he didn't like drag racing; he did not want Mike driving. He would come over and try and talk all of us out of racing." Suffice to say that Ben Sorokin's admonishment fell on deaf ears, mostly because he couldn't be heard over the roar of unmuffled engines and squealing tires of the cars that roared down Lincoln Boulevard.
Concurrent to Sork sharpening his reflexes on the malt shop circuit as well as in gas coupes and a D/Fuel dragster on the strip, Santa Monica City College students Bob Skinner and Tom Jobe began tinkering mischievously in academia with a double major in chemical mischief and the theory and application of nitromethane. And as Southern California's dragstrips and freeways experienced a parallel boom, these two brainiacs pooled their gray matter with a local construction worker named Jim Crosser and postulated running a Top Fuel car out of a motel garage. It was the perfect opportunity to apply their studies to the real world....
"Skinner and Jobe, when they put the car together," Hier recalls with bemusement, "...it was just a harebrained idea." Skinner doesn't dispute Hier's assessment. "I had dabbled in street racing. I briefly ran a B or C/Gas car," he recalls. "I had just got back from a three-month vacation and Jobe and Crosser said to me, 'OK, we want to build a fuel car.' And I just said, 'OK.' Most things that I have done along the way have been sort of spontaneous impulse without a lot of thinking about it. So when I came back and they said, 'We want to build this car,' I just said 'Great,' and we just kind of got into it."
Hier remembers how the team raised its venture capital: "Skinner and Jobe got together with Skinner's mother—who owned the Red Apple Motel there on Wilshire Boulevard in Santa Monica—and got her to sign for a 'furniture loan' for something like $5,000." Skinner and Jobe immediately cashed the check and began gathering pieces for their AA/Fuel Dragster, which they kept in a garage at the Red Apple.