This is the second of a two-part series which debunks some myths about three drag racers from Santa Monica, California, who terrorized the dragstrips in the mid-1960s: Tom Jobe, Bob Skinner, and Mike Sorokin, collectively known as The Surfers. For those just joining us, Tom Jobe is in the middle of defending the "lunacy" of The Surfers' practice of running pure nitromethane...Ed.
Their public image as beach-bumpkin oddballs who ran 100 percent nitromethane because their hydrometers were broken—an image they helped cultivate—was in reality cagey alchemy, another trump card for these wiseacre college kids, a pearl of wisdom they had gleaned from their academic endeavors.
"I was going to college—mechanical engineering—and I just set about studying nitromethane," explains Tom Jobe about what led to The Surfers' witch's brew. "I would get the head of the chemistry department or whoever and get them all involved in what we were doing—and they'd cop a plea right away and say, 'Hey, I don't know how to do anything really, I'm just a teacher'—then they'd find out what we were talking about was going to get drug out to the starting line on Saturday night...So I'd say, 'Hey, you've got to keep me straight on the theory; I want to make sure I don't start deciding that gravity pulls from the side and get screwed up out there,'" he rhapsodizes.
The low-buck Surfers relied on a 157-inch chrome-moly chassis built by Frank Huzar. It was
"So I set about studying how nitromethane worked," he continues. "The reactions, both when you burn it and when you detonate it and how they differ; what causes it to detonate versus burn; what attitudes increase or decrease the tendency to detonate. At that time, there was a lot of literature out because there had been some train car explosions and other unexplained explosions that happened with nitro, so a lot of research had been done where they dropped 55-gallon drums of the stuff from towers and shot it with 50-caliber machine guns trying to figure out how these tank cars went up in, I think, Illinois.
"That was the basis of what made our deal run good," Jobe determines, "figuring out the nitro angle of it. And then we'd figure out how many BTU's were in 60, 70, 80 percent...Also," he proffers, "I was old enough to where I had watched the transition from gasoline to alcohol at the dragstrip; when I was, say, 10 years old I watched 'em put together alcohol and gasoline—which don't mix, right?—so at the starting line one of the crew would come up and grab the frame of the dragster and start shaking it to mix the stuff up, and I'm watching this as a little kid and going, 'Man, that's stupid. If alcohol is good, why not just throw the gasoline away and go with the alcohol?'"
Remove all obstacles in the path, eh?
"When we did our deal we were going, 'Why use alcohol? That stuff doesn't make it go...It's just pollution,'" says Jobe.
Jobe's old man was a jeweler, and so his workshop became The Surfers' impromptu research and development lab. "We continued our experiments at my dad's factory in Santa Monica," he says. "He had some jeweler's lathes that we used to make all kinds of goofy nozzles. Do you remember Bernoulli's equation from science class? [Simply, the pressure in a stream of fluid is reduced as the speed of flow is increased]. That defines all the stuff you need to know to make a nozzle...Anyway, we made 'em look just like the pictures in the science book."
The "Kinetic-Molecular Theory of Gasses According to Jobe" is indeed the crucial element of The Surfers' success. Beyond that, it is also a blueprint on the mechanics of running a Top Fuel dragster—30 years later. Outrageous nitro percentages, thin nozzles subjected to ludicrous amounts of pressure, and low compression are de rigueur for a contemporary fueler. But in 1964, it was considered radical and suicidal. The Surfers debunked this as myth by using a water faucet as a flow bench. Yes, a water faucet...
"We made us a flow bench out of a water faucet that had 60 psi which, at the time, was what most fuel injectors had. Ultimately, we made a whole fuel injector, but then we found out that was stupid because then you don't get any contingency money from Hilborn or whoever. Why throw away contingency money? So we just used the Hilborn, but we made all the nozzles—we were into 200 psi fuel pressure but we never told anybody. We had little tiny nozzles, but lot's of 'em, in order to atomize the stuff. You can't burn liquid," Jobe clarifies.
The secret of their success was reducing everything to its essence, including the fuel mix
"We found out that if we could up the ignition's amps, we could take fuel out of it." Why less fuel volume? "All it's doing is flattening your wallet. The more you atomize it, the less you have to put in to get the same amount of burnable, combustible stuff."
The R&D at the jewelry workshop yielded a tangible, palpable difference between Skinner and Jobe's digger and virtually every other machine at the race track: That is, the way it sounded. Tom Hunnicutt, the SoCal racer who owned The Surfers digger after they sold it, explains, "Their car sounded like no other car. You could tell when it was their car. If there were 100 Top Fuel cars and they all sounded the same, their car was completely off by itself. It was louder than anybody else's, and it had more fuel lines on it than anybody had ever seen." Hunnicutt says about their swift conquest of the fueler wars, "They were kicking ass and not breaking anything. It was the perfect team."
Skinner describes The Surfers mechanical ethos this way, "Efficiency, reliability was important to us," he says. "Occasionally we had to take the head off or something. Occasionally we would break a roller tappet; occasionally we would lose a head gasket. When we ran the 64 cars at Bakersfield we didn't have any [motor] problems."
Because The Surfers were such a well-oiled machine and because they'd reduced maintenance time to nearly zero, this created ample opportunity for these free-thinkers to, uhhh, skateboard while the rest of the fueler guys were thrashing between rounds.
"Skinner always had some skateboards to play with because we didn't work on the car a lot like everybody else did," Jobe says. To compensate for the a lack of fiscal horsepower, the ingenuity of The Surfers manifested itself in psychological warfare; the boys occasionally deployed the skateboards as a weapon to combat their opponents' deeper pockets and cubic dollars.
As Jobe tells it, "On the way to the dragstrip we would talk about 'What can we do to them today? What weird thing can we lay on 'em?' in ways they wouldn't even figure out. We needed all the advantages we could get. A lot of the guys we had to compete against were well funded...The Lou Baneys and the Keith Blacks. "All of those guys had really nice stuff. They had, like, new parts."
Skinner (foreground) and Jobe were both superb machinists, as well as original thinkers—in
Jobe remembers a particular Sunday afternoon race at Fontana. All the bad guys from back East were gonna show up," he says. "They were all puttin' the mouth on us in the press, saying what they were going to do to us West Coast guys. It was about an hour's drive to Fontana from Santa Monica, and we were talking and riding along and thinking, 'What should we do today? Let's not work on the car. We'll come down and pick up the car at the other end, and while Mike and his girlfriend pack the parachutes, we'll service the thing.' We could service the whole thing in about five minutes. We said, 'We'll push right past the pits, and we'll put it right back in line, and we'll get out the skateboards, and we'll go torture 'em in their pit area.' So we did that—fortunately we didn't break any lifters or anything," Jobe remembers. "So we'd get the skateboards out. We go over and watch these guys [tear down], and we'd say, 'Man, you guys sure are smart; you guys know how to work on these things and everything. Man, you guys are good!' They didn't know what to think of all that. By about the third round one of these East Coast hitters said, 'Damn, don't you guys ever work on that thing?' We said, 'N-o-o, we don't work on it because we really don't know that much about it. We'd just screw it up, it's better just to leave it alone.' And this guy is like, 'What the fuck is this all about?' In the last round we got the mouthiest of the bunch, Bobby Vodnick, and we beat him and left 'em all shaking their heads."
"Nobody ever found out about the mind games, because we never talked about it," he concludes.
To: Joe Buysee, Lansing Michigan
From: Mike Sorokin, Mar Vista, CA
We will NOT be at Union Grove until June 25th. You can bet we will be trying to beat the Goose [Tom McEwen]; we haven't run the car for a month, and I'm forgetting how to drive the darn thing. I hope your pal loses his buck. I think he will. We still have a few tricks to try.
I have been married for about a month. I like it.
We are not worried about the strip conditions. The car handles good, and it has two chutes. We actually made No. 1 on the Drag Racing Magazine poll for the West. We were very happy about that. We are planning on running the U.S. Nationals.
We didn't get any color pictures in the article because our car isn't pretty enough.
You don't have to thank us. It's a pleasure to meet fans like you. I just hope our future performance doesn't let you down.
Well, I'll see you later.
The Surfers were one of the first, if not the first, to employ two fuel-distribution syste
"Sorokin was a real high strung kind of guy, very nervous," says Jobe. "He kept to himself, and he loved to race." On a typical Sunday morning, after rendezvousing at the Red Apple Motel (owned by Skinner's mom), The Surfers would stop for breakfast en route to San Fernando Raceway. Once seated, Jobe describes Sork's hyperactivity thusly: "Mike would be sitting there and he could not keep from bouncing his feet, jumping up and down, and vibrating at the table.
"The guy was so high strung that nobody could beat him at the starting line. And if you wanted him to be just a little bit quicker, you could just wind him up: You know, 'Mike, so-and-so was saying that their driver could whip you,' and that would really make him vibrate. And if somebody actually pissed him off, they could forget trying to be beat him. I don't know if he went into higher revolutions per minute or what, but he would really be quick," Jobe remembers.
"He would just drive anything, but fortunately by the time we got rolling, he was getting tired of all the coupes and roadsters, and he wanted to drive something fast—and make some money too."
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."
The heart of the operation rested in a .010- to .030-inch over stock 1957 Chrysler spinnin
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.
After smoking off the 64-car field on Saturday, Sorokin waited to race Sunday’s winner. Op
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."
How are things in the armed forces? Drag racing is getting rougher & rougher. We ran at Irwindale yesterday. It took a 7.57 sec. to qualify in a 16 car field. We broke in the third round after beating Gotelli-Safford and Tommy Allen. My writing is bad because I am holding my month old son, Adam. Very good looking kid.
The distinctive Surfer “act” included their familiar yellow ’55 Chevy push car and a pair
Anyway, in about a month, I think I will be driving the Hawaiian. The new car we were building when we quit racing is almost finished, and it is without a doubt THE best looking car in drag racing. Richie Bandel, from Brooklyn (New York), bought the car. We all hate to see it go. The old car is still for sale.
Well, G.I. Joe, take care of yourself, and good luck.
Sorokin's next gig was driving for a titan of engineering, Ed Pink. The gig lasted for a couple of months. He then drove for Blake Hill for a month. Next, he got a call when Roland Leong decided to campaign two "Hawaiian" fuelers, one powered by a Chrysler 392 and the other sporting a newfangled 426 Hemi powerplant. "Sorokin drove the 426 car," recalls Leong, "and we won the Stardust meet in 1967 at Vegas." Keith Black was wrenching, Leong was cutting checks, and Sork was swapping pedals—a formidable collaboration on paper, but in reality one that failed to set the world on fire...It's not like they stunk up the joint, they didn't; it's just that this combination did not crush like Black, Leong, and Sorokin were all used to. When Leong downsized to one car, Mike Snively was the shoe.
How's things in the Army? Good I hope. I was very happy to have won in Las Vegas. The win was badly needed.
It doesn't take people very long to forget past accomplishments. I hope this won't be the only big win. The cars around here are unbelievable. We ran 7.26 last week and didn't qualify!
Keith Black is a pretty good guy to race with. He is plenty sharp.
Well, goodbye for now, say hello to your mom.
Skinner and Jobe concocted a pump and a series of check valves to regulate fuel pressure,
Reflecting on the trajectory of The Surfers' endeavors, Skinner says, "It was kind of a curiosity, kind of an adventure to go on." His reward was the process and not the goal..."I've taken a different path in my life than most people have," Skinner said. "I'm interested in life-long learning, and I'm trying to continually grow as a human being. My interests are much more spiritual and philosophical than trying to be famous or achieve something on a material level."
For Skinner, his dragstrip endeavors were informative on an almost existential level. "I'm sure that having the success (we had) did something for my level of confidence," he said. "It helped me realize that I could be independent, and I could solve problems and solve them in a different way than the average person. I see myself struggling with...structure."
Ironically, drag racing hipped Skinner to the structure inherent in the symbiotic relationship that exists between humanity, technology, and a given environment. "Tom is the person who masterminded our combination for the engine," Skinner continues. "A lot of it really was kind of like a science experiment. It was nice recently that we were honored at the banquet for the Drag Racing Hall of Fame. I thought to myself, 'What if someone asks me, 'how did you do that?' I'm not really sure, but I know on some level we made friends with all the parts, and we had very intimate relationships with each of the parts. In order to do that, you have to be able to look at the part and on an abstract level. You have a conversation with the part. You look at the bearings and the bearing kind of talks to you and tells you what it needs so it won't get hurt."
I was really saddened to hear about [name is illegible]. He was a VERY nice guy.
I was layed off at work. They didn't appreciate my taking two weeks off to go to Bristol.
We didn't even qualify. A 7.35 in the first round was good enough, but a 7.40 in the second wasn't. Plus the engine melted a couple of pistons. That engine is extremely temperamental. Only six days to the meet at Lions. I hope Black does the right thing and performs some of his miracles. He was talking about using an Enderle injector. That's the only thing that hasn't been changed in the engine.
Well, I'll talk to you after the 15th.
In the waning months of 1967, Sorokin was back at the strip, shoeing a somewhat generic slingshot under the employ of Bakersfield racer Tony Waters. In their three races together, they went out in the first round of competition each time. Sorokin and Paul Gommi, a fellow SoCal fueler freak, had ordered a new digger, and they picked up the chassis on December 29. The two of them looked forward to the holidays to blow over so they could get the car ready for the new season. "I talked to Mike the morning before we went to race in Orange County, see?" recalls Leong. "And what he did was he just picked up a brand new chassis from a guy in Colorado I guess, at the airport."
This was the last race for Sorokin as a hired gun. With Gommi, he would now be owner/operator.
"He didn't like the car he was driving, but that was a ride, right?" Leong says. "He was going to start putting together this brand-new chassis; he bought the chassis with his own money, and he wanted to know if I had some parts that he might need to finish the car up. I said, 'Yeah, we'll talk about it.' Then he asked me if I would be home Sunday..." Leong pauses when he remembers the weekend of December 30, 1967, when the flaws in the clutch technology were showcased in a most grisly manner.
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.
Many teams insisted on their driver packing the chutes, as illustrated by Sorokin doing th
"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
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 28...wow, 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.)
Perhaps the high point in The Surfers’ three-year career was winning the ’66 Bakersfield F
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.