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The Epic Saga of the Surfers - Part One

How Three Bucks-Down Geeks Single-Handedly Put Top Fuel on Its Collective head

By Cole Coonce, Photography by Car Craft Archives

Jobe sums up their rationale for running a Top Fuel dragster out of his mom's motel's garage thusly: "It was a time when anybody could participate. When we started, all we had was enthusiasm. We didn't know nuthin'. We were just a bunch of street racers from Santa Monica," he says. "My brother raced in a stock class with a Chevy, and I was his motor man. He street raced six days a week and would go to the drags on Saturday night, but we just got tired of the 'class' deal. He won the Winternationals in 1960 and runner-upped at the Indy Nationals, but he was always getting torn down and all that crap. We all kinda' dabbled with C/Gas Willys, and Mike drove a (C/Altered) coupe with George Bacilek," he remembers. "Anyway, all of us had messed with different classes, and we finally said: 'Classes? That sucks! Let's build a dragster,' but we didn't know how to build one, you know." In other words, the only competition class where Skinner and Jobe could dwell as free-thinkers was a class whose structure had no real structure: Top Fuel.

So the pair began tugging on the shop apron strings of the local chassis builders and fabricators like a couple of hyperactive nephews who forgot to take their Ritalin. "There were a lot of (dragster) guys around here," Jobe notes. "Every day after work we'd hit all the garages—there was a bunch of them in Mar Vista—we'd go to every one of them and ask some questions 'til they'd throw us out and then we'd go down to the next one. We (finally) found out enough stuff because we had to build the whole thing ourselves; we didn't have any money to buy anything."

They might have been strapped for cash, but Skinner and Jobe were loaded with an intellectual camaraderie that couldn't be bought. "Tom and I had a great ability to work together," Skinner acknowledges in reference to the sculpting of their short, scruffy, minimalist dragster. But Crosser had a somewhat less theoretical take on drag racing and according to Jobe, "Our other partner just dropped out soon after we got the thing running."

But just getting their homemade dragster to fire was an excruciating learning curve, according to SoCal drag racing fixture Tom Hunnicutt, who was crewing for friend Jim Boyd's "Red Turkey" AA/Fuel Dragster the day The Surfers unveiled their creation at Lions Drag Strip in early 1964.

Hunnicutt says of that afternoon, "They kept pushing up and down trying to get the car to fire, and it wouldn't fire. I don't know if they had the magneto in wrong or what, but they kept pushing it on the return road for a long time—it wasn't just once. It was a bunch of laps." About this initial impression, Hunnicutt recalls thinking derisively, "'These guys aren't drag racers; who are they?' They were kinda' geeky."

This was the phase where Skinner and Jobe were enduring the scorn of their opponents because their homemade, homely digger was a real backmarker. Even if they could get the motor to fire, part of the boys' dilemma was that they had yet to settle on a shoe who could viscerally and intuitively interpret their cerebral approach to Top Fuel racing and run it through the lights with the butterflies horizontal. Before Skinner and Jobe ultimately settled on Sorokin, there was a litany of drivers who attempted to "hang ten" in the cockpit, including "Lotus John" Morton, a journeyman sports car racer who was sweeping the floor at Carroll Shelby's (where Skinner also punched a clock). Morton had a reputation as being absolutely fearless and able to handle anything that had a throttle.

"The dragster ride happened when I was at Shelby's," Morton writes of his one-day tenure as shoe of The Surfers' AA/Fueler in a passage from his biography, The Stainless Steel Carrot. "I got in the car at the strip. Really got packed in. I was sitting there in that thing thinking, 'I have really got myself into something.' Here I was a sports-car racer and had never driven anything down a dragstrip before, not even my dad's car, and I was about to drive the fastest thing they made. I was scared shitless. The thing was so powerful the centrifugal force of the clutch was trying to push itself out. I revved the engine, and the sound ripped out like an explosion. My whole leg was trembling on the clutch.

"I let it out. Everything was a blur, the whole world went fuzzy. I let off for a second, just a tiny bit, and got pissed off at myself and floored it again. On my other runs I never let off but it didn't matter; the thing was so fast I did 100 my first run and that was it, never any faster. I put the clutch in at the end of the run and waited for the thing to stop. By the time it did, I could feel my leg was still shaking, like a dog shitting razor blades. But I did it. Something made me do it."

Morton's account reveals something about the state of The Surfers' racing effort: For a couple of geeks, all of a sudden Skinner and Jobe were making beau coup horsepower. But they lacked the final piece to their puzzle: a driver who could harness it all and ride the bulbous yellow machine bareback. And then Sorokin passed Skinner's reflex test of catching a series of falling coins, hopped in the saddle and history was about to be capsized.

According to Skinner, "It's hard to say how it all evolved because we had [Bob] Muravez driving, and we had Roy Tuller driving, then 'Lotus John' drove, then we had Mike driving for us, and we got rid of him and had other drivers driving for us. Somehow we came back to him [Sorokin] and things started to work better for us. Maybe we got the car running better; maybe he got better, but I feel like we all kind of evolved together."

By Cole Coonce
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