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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

For Sorokin, this was nirvana indeed. His ambition was to be a professional dragster driver, and here was an opportunity to hammer the throttle, kick out the jams—and get paid. Notoriously hyperactive and quick as an outhouse mouse on the X-mas tree, Sorokin was a fearless capsule monkey who thrived on going into orbit no matter how sketchy the conditions on the launchpad. Sorokin had Go! Fever as bad as any Southern California boy, and he was willing to get himself strapped into a nitro-burning rattletrap rocket no matter what the circumstances.

"He was so damn good at what he did. And all he wanted to do was win," remembers Jobe. "He wasn't interested in arguing about the nuts and bolts, 'that's your problem;' he didn't even care." This unnerved the competition—a couple of Surf City hodads were killing 'em at Drag City—but it thrilled the railbirds, and it gave the media a human interest hook to ratchet up their race reports.

The whole "Surf" thing, however, was a ruse: "None of those guys surfed," remembers Hier. "None of 'em had a board."

Sorokin tried to keep the image of beach bums in perspective. "Surfing kind of scares me," he confessed rather dryly to Drag World. But his droll backpedaling was too late. The die had been cast.

Jobe, musing on The Surfers' sartorial ensemble of Pendelton shirts, deck shoes, and skateboards, says, "They didn't know what to think of us; we were thought of as just...this was before hippies...but we were thought of as just some long-haired freaks from the beach."

"They were definitely different," recollects Roland Leong, nowadays the pit boss on Don Prudhomme's Funny Car but then proprietor of the infamous "Hawaiian" AA/Fuel Dragster that claimed Top Fuel Eliminator at the 1965 and 1966 Winternationals. "I remember seeing these guys at Fontana and Bakersfield and they pulled in there with an open trailer with a 1955 Chevrolet and uhh, like uhh, 'Who are these guys?' They called themselves 'The Surfers,' right? And me, coming from Hawaii, that wasn't my idea of a surfer; you know what I mean? I guess in California terms they looked like 'beach' kinda' guys, but in my eyes....

"When you think about it, at the time we were all young, and the word 'nerd' wasn't in our vocabulary. But looking back, they looked like the intellectual-type as opposed to some greasy drag racers, which is what we were all known for at the time."

Regarding the perception of The Surfers as beach bum misfits and oddballs, Skinner—who now answers to the name "Roberto"—was oblivious. He says, "Some people live their lives, and other people live their lives but at the same time it's like they're standing off at a distance and watching themselves. I've never been that observer."

Skinner maintains there was no contrived image, but others theorize that the persona of beach buffoons with sand in their snorkels was a calculated, theatrical red herring. But arch rival Leong saw through the skullduggery of the Surf City minstrel show. "All of 'em were pretty smart guys," he says. "With the budget they had to run on, they did an excellent job. They didn't have the funds, so a lot of their stuff they had to make or spend the money very wisely. They didn't have a lot of what we call perks, you know what I mean?"

"It wasn't very long before they were pretty dialed in," Hunnicutt corroborates. Indeed, soon the dragstrip world was talking about the beatniks from the bay, not out of bemusement but out of respect. It was obvious The Surfers were onto something...just ask the denizens and the vanquished drivers of San Fernando, Long Beach, Fontana Drag City, Riverside, Bakersfield, Irwindale, Pomona, Fremont, Amarillo, Salt Lake City, Pocatello, Union Grove, Rockford, Maple Grove, Atco, and Denver. At every one of these venues, The Surfers either bagged Top Eliminator, recorded Low Elapsed Time, or turned Top Speed of the Meet—and sometimes all three. (In Amarillo, they won two match races on the same day. Leong's "Hawaiian" AA/FD was bongoed in a towing accident so the track manager enjoined The Surfers to go best-two-out-of-three against local hitters Eddie Hill and Vance Hunt...the Californians swept both matches.) They were no longer geeky gremmies. They were heros.

The wave continued to crest. Skinner asserted, "At that point in life, I would say that we were totally focused on our deal." In a separate conversation, Jobe agreed and then elaborated on The Surfers' approach to conquering Top Fuel. "We went at it in a very conventional fashion," he says. "All the guys that had the goofy combinations were never gonna do it...[and] if you had a mainstream deal you couldn't get banned. We had a very clear view of that. 'We've got to attack this from a mainstream angle.' That way your advantage is invisible."

Hier explains one example of their focus and aversion to "goofy combinations" was to remove parts they considered superfluous. "They never had run an idler belt on their blower," he muses, "because Tom Jobe felt that it was just another accessory that they might have a problem with, something else that could break. So when they put the motor together and they wanted to change belts, they would unbolt the blower and tilt it forward until the pulley was underneath the belt and then push it down onto the manifold and bolt it down. All during the time they were running that car, they never lost a blower belt."

By Cole Coonce
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