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.
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.
The Surfers mixed science with psych-out to keep their better-funded competition off balan
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."
Tom Jobe (foreground) and Bob Skinner begin their low-profile tune at the ’66 HRM drags.
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."
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."
To: Joe Buysee, Lansing, Michigan
From: Mike Sorokin, Mar Vista, CA
Thanks for the nice letter. I'm glad we didn't disappoint you at Bakersfield. It's fans like you that make our efforts worthwhile.
I'm sending you a T-shirt. It's used, but clean. I'm sorry I have to send you a used one, but there are no new ones around. I don't think we will be in the Michigan area this year, but maybe next season.
Mike Sorokin & The Surfers
On the absence of the idler pulley, Skinner is nonplussed. "We figured we could just get along without it; so why have it if you don't need it?"
Mickey Thompson promoted a race at Fontana (California) on November 6–7, 1965. Sorokin bea
In 1966, Leong's engine czar Keith Black went on record in HOT ROD as defining a mixture of 75 percent nitromethane as "heavy." Ergo, 100 percent was not just volatile—it was certifiably insane. Of course, this was the percentage that Skinner and Jobe considered ideal for their tune-up. To The Mighty Surfers, cutting the nitromethane with alcohol was even more absurd and non-linear than using a blower pulley. More is good; too much is better, right? But were these yin and yang yahoo alchemists pushing the envelope of internal combustion beyond its tension threshold? Had they gone too far?
On the contrary: At this moment, The Surfers were the manifestation of a phenomenon that happens in physics all the time. When envelopes are pushed, the parallel lines of, say, method and madness, bend and distort, and at some point they are no longer parallel; at some point they actually intersect. Method and madness become the same thing...Madness becomes rational. The Surfers had reached that lucid intersection.
What's happening? Not too much going on around here. We're building a covered trailer for our tour, and we don't have much time for racing at the present time. Our race with the Goose (Tom McEwen) will be our last local race.
Our car isn't exactly beautiful, but it is functional. Beauty doesn't always get the job done. We are building a new car, which should be pretty nice looking. Full body and all that trick stuff.
Well, maybe I'll see you pretty soon.
Hier depicts "the lunacy" of Skinner and Jobe's fuel mixture: "They originally started at about 50 percent nitro, but Jobe didn't like the (lack of) accuracy of the hydrometers. He thought they were a bunch of crap because they couldn't get the right mixture on them, you were never sure what it really was so he said, 'If you just pour it out of the can we could eliminate that (uncertainty).' That was Jobe: Eliminate all the mistakes. So instead of mixing it and getting a bad mix he said, 'We'll run a 100 percent.'"
Another theory was that the beakers were too expensive for The Surfers' budget. Ironically, this is a rumor Skinner and Jobe perpetuated. It was really quite unnerving to see Sorokin gleefully pouring pure, undiluted nitromethane into the tank—all because his team couldn't afford any more beakers. Skinner expounds on the "no hydrometers" rule this way, "What we used to say was that we didn't want to break the hydrometer," he says, "but basically what we were trying to do was get as much energy out of the fuel as possible. Our game plan was about efficiency...to try and maximize the potential power that was available in the fuel. It took a long time to do that."
So what was the formula? "100 percent," he answers. "Well not 100, but close...we had some stuff we put in there, y'know? We had some additives that took some percentage, something anybody could buy to stabilize things a little bit...in the neighborhood of one or two percent."
Jobe concurs about the mix, but adds that the decision to use it was strategic on a variety of levels; most importantly, it shrewdly negated The Surfers from falling prey to their own pranksterish tactics. "Since most of those guys could add nitro and kill their motors—we couldn't add any more because we already had the whole thing, right? We had it planned that you couldn't destroy the thing almost no matter what you did. The other guys would typically run 70 to 80 percent nitro, and if you could get them panicked, they would add another 5 or 10 percent and blow the thing up."