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The Epic Saga of the Surfers - Part Two

How Three Bucks- Down Geeks Single-Handedly put top Fuel on Its Collective Head

By Cole Coonce

The biggest test of Sorokin's mettle transpired during the 1965 UDRA meet at Fontana. During a semifinal heat, the boys had blown the side out of the block. It was the only bullet in their inventory, and until that moment, "it lived like Methuselah," according to Sorokin. But rather than pack it in, our heroes improvised. They turned the car on its side, jammed the piston all the way to the top of the bore, removed the connecting rod, taped the crank journal and wrapped it with a hose clamp, taped cardboard [!] over the gouge on the inside of the block to keep it from hemorrhaging oil, and threw the pan back on. For the half-dead 392's swan song, they dosed the remaining seven-cylinders on 99 percent, fired it up, and Sork staged the discordant, vibrating, wounded machine like nothing was out of the ordinary. Despite the frenzied thrash, Sorokin expertly cut a gatejob that was sharp as a switchblade, and he was scarfing up asphalt in a discombobulatory pell-mell fashion until the backfiring mill detonated and went kablooey at the top end. They lost the match, but won the respect of the entire drag racing community with that gonzo, anarchic attempt to win a $1,000 purse. Sorokin got more ink than the event winner...

"When we got done with one of those deals, Mike would just look at you like, 'Is it time to go?' and he'd hop right in knowing full well that the whole side of the motor is made out of cardboard and silver tape. There was a hose clamp around the crank where a rod used to be," he concludes. "He didn't give a shit. 'Oh yeah, let's go.' He loved it."

As The Surfers' star continued to rise, Sorokin met Robyn Rains, a part-time trophy girl at the digs. "She is the best parachute packer I have," said Sorokin, "and it's nice to have a pretty girl to look at instead of all the racers."

Robyn packed the chute at all the races, including the 1966 March Meet at Bakersfield, an event that has been described as "the purest drag race ever." It was an absolute orgy. There were 102 entrants in Top Fuel Eliminator that weekend. The Surfers outlasted 'em all—and for punctuation they set a National e.t. record of 7.34 seconds.

Skinner reflects on Sorokin's contributions to The Surfers' triumph at Bakersfield like a calculus problem: "You can't really pinpoint who does what," he reckons, "but in order to win some drag races the car has to be running, and the driver has to be able to not only get the thing down the track but leave at the right time. Plus, after a while he got to where he could control the throttle.

"I remember one thing that he said at Bakersfield. We ran the first round with a 7.40, and he said, ' The track is really good; I think I can put the throttle down all the way on the next pass.' And he wasn't used to being able to do that. He definitely developed some finesse."

But it was certainly a culmination of elements, including all that R&D on the jeweler's lathe, according to Skinner. "We worked a lot with our fuel injector—we evolved the fuel injector," he says. "Up until we won Bakersfield we never had a new blower. At Bakersfield we had a 'new' (albeit used) blower. We were never on the cutting edge with expensive gadgetry."

But The Surfers' ken and karma transcended the limitations of their gear. It was their awareness that was "bleeding edge." Intuitively, if not intellectually, The Surfers knew that matter and energy are interchangeable and both are keys given to humanity to open any door we seek. The Surfers chose the door to the Kingdom of Nitromethane, whose sacramental temple was in Bakersfield.

In the winner's circle at Bakersfield, the paparazzi went bananas, flashbulbs bursting like asteroids during the Big Bang itself. It was glorious, with the bespectacled Skinner mugging for the camera in the reflective light bouncing off the Miss Hurst Shifter Trophy Girl's cleavage. Fame. Wealth. Top Eliminator. The Madcap Savants from Surf City put 'em all on the trailer. And as stars shone on Kern County that night, as oil derricks teeter-tottered off in the distance, the grunions were running at a motel in Bakersfield: Mike and Robyn Sorokin celebrated their triumphs in a cosmic sense and their son Adam was conceived. All across Creation, The Surfers were shooting the curl, and finally they had achieved a spiritual duty greater than themselves.

But at their zenith, The Surfers encountered a fork in the road. Skinner and Jobe were burnt on drag racing and sought new challenges. "Skinner and I could see that the only guys who were ever going to make a living in this deal were the owner/driver/operator; the Prudhommes, the Garlits, the whatever," says Jobe. "You could see it was already headed in that direction. We worked a lot of hours," he continued. "I went to school and had a part-time job and worked on the dragster. We were always just scraping by—and just barely. A lot of times we would show up with a crank that wasn't even balanced...Mike wouldn't be able to even see once he got halfway down the track the thing was vibrating so badly...He didn't care, 'Whatever...Let's go.'

"We told Mike, 'Hey, if you don't think that you have to do this for the rest of your life, why don't you look at it from the standpoint that we went out and did a bunch of wild shit, had a great time, kicked a lot of ass, took a lot of names, and we're all in one piece, and we don't have a nick on us. Let's just forget about it.' He said, 'No, I think I want to keep going. I like doing this.'"

Skinner says, "We were really able to walk away." Sorokin, however, was a different story. Sork was totally wired on driving a digger. Quitting wasn't an option.

Sorokin reflected in the Santa Monica Evening Outlook on his perpetual yen to kick out the jams on the dragstrip. "I spent two years at City College studying electronics because I thought it was the thing to do," he said. "I found out this is what I wanted to do most. I think everybody has some kind of dream. This was mine and I'm living it. You can't ask for much more."

By Cole Coonce
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