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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

Clutches had a sickening tendency to pull the bolts out. After a few laps under maximum torque, the asbestos disks would periodically shred apart. Ultimately, the flywheels cut through the aluminum bellhousing and the chrome-moly chassis like a buzz saw through Brylcreem.

Tom Hunnicutt was sitting in the bleachers with Jim Boyd during the first round of eliminations. "Sorokin left the line and got about halfway down, and I remember this horrendous metal sound. I remember looking straight down [from the bleachers], and as he went by, I remember seeing the light off of the top of his helmet," recalls Hunnicutt. "The rear wheels had stopped—this was at 220 [mph] or whatever—and the front part of the car was gone." At this point the bolts sheared, and the flywheel cut the chassis completely in two. Worse yet, the rear end seized and was freewheeling inside the rollcage at 218. This forced Mike out of the cockpit. "He was half out of the rollbar. I thought to myself, 'Maybe he's trying to get away from it...Why is he standing up?' About that time the tubes dug in and he started tumbling. And every time it went over, it was like a rag sticking out of a ball all the way down the dragstrip, all the way to the end...It was the worst thing I have ever seen."

After the horror and the screaming and the god-awful grinding subsided, there was silence. Everyone on the premises was stunned. Some folks were literally in shock.

"We walked back to the pits," Hunnicutt continues, "and I remember Frank Pedregon was putting his car back on the trailer—and he was in; he was qualified. Jimmy was in denial and kept asking him, 'What hospital are they going to take him to? Maybe we can go see him.' Frank finally had to tell him, 'Jimmy, he doesn't need a hospital.' It was one of those things you don't forget for your whole life."

"Anyway, even in the staging lanes I talked to him a little bit about it [getting together on Sunday]," Leong recollects. "I guess as long as I've been doing this, I've kinda' seen it all, so to speak...But it's kind of an eerie feeling to just talk to a guy before he gets pushed down, and the next time you turn around he's dead."

Once again, the universe shuddered because of Mike Sorokin. But this time it was from his passing. Sorokin's son was a year old. He vaguely recalls the phone ringing and hearing his mom screaming when she was given the news. It was perhaps drag racing's darkest moment, and at the very least, an ugly punctuation to the legacy of The Surfers.

April 11, 1968.

From: Roxanne Gibson (Mike's sister-in-law)
To: Pvt. Joe Buysee

Dear Joe:

I just finished reading your letter, it's so sweet and thoughtful of you to find time to write me, I know how hard it is to keep up with your letter writing. I don't know how you do it.

Joe, I just feel sick inside about all that goes on over there. I wish like crazy you American guys didn't have to be over there. I also received today a letter from our gal Robyn. She's fine and Adam too. They left for Spain April 7th.

That's too much about your license plate, my birthday is April 18th, so I'll be thinking about, "Roadrunner" except I'll be, 27 years older than your car.

So long for now, Joe.


(Pvt. Joe Buysee died of a rare brain disease in December, 1970. Depending on whether you ask his family or the government, it may or may not have been related to exposure to exotic, strategic chemicals during his tour of duty in Southeast Asia.)

The Surfers took the promise of America, tipped it over, and ran it out the back door. They chose their moment, took the trappings of our American Dream and manipulated it to their own ends, baby. And then they moved on because everything is ephemeral in the universal scheme of things, a theorem proved by Sork's profound passing. The memory of The Surfers and their exploits, however, continues to influence and affect everybody who was touched by their presence and anybody who saw them run.

In March of 1997, The Surfers were inducted in to the Drag Racing Hall of Fame. Skinner didn't even know it existed. He showed up at a black-tie affair in striped two-tone red pants, a flannel shirt and a Panama hat. Jobe was equally perplexed. Ron Hier relates the following anecdote from the ceremony: "Like Jobe said, 'We did it and that was that—and now I'm in the Hall of Fame. I can't fathom it; how did this happen?' So I told him, 'You gotta look into it a little more, and understand what happened to drag racing after you left.'"

But Jobe is nothing if not a crisp, clairvoyant thinker, and he knows the perfect wave is rare, indeed. He saw that the parameters and the scope of drag racing would be narrowed into a diameter thinner than his own fuel nozzles, that the scope of something defined as unlimited would narrow into something quite finite. "Rules create a funnel," Jobe explains in very matter-of-fact tones, "and at the end this just creates red dragsters, and green ones, and blue ones." He continues to describe the inevitability of homogenization. "Rules end up defining the vehicle: The wheel base, the height, the width. The only thing left is the color," he says, "and that is taken care of by the sponsor. That's evolution." One hundred percent.

By Cole Coonce
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