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|Publisher:||Chicago Review Press, Incorporated|
|Product dimensions:||5.90(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.20(d)|
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Ten-Year-Old Craig Bowman was flying.
He was going round and round in a circle, hanging on to the handle connected to the seventy-five-foot wires running to his model airplane. He took it around a few times at head level, the two-stroke engine that had nicked his finger so many times buzzing like an angry bee. Then, with a twist of the wrist that elevated the wing flaps, he sent it soaring in a series of inside loops that elicited "oohs" and "aahs" from the crowd gathering in the parking lot at Hughes Aircraft, not far from Craig's home in West Los Angeles. Next came a wingover, flipping the plane upside down for a few turns, then a few more loops, outside ones this time, bringing the plane swooping down so close to the asphalt that it looked sure to crash.
Fortunately it didn't. For this was a magnificent handcrafted model that young Craig was flying, every bit as impressive as the ones built by the grown men competing in the stunt flying contest. It was big too, with a five-foot wingspan — quite a bit bigger in fact than Craig Bowman, who was not much more than four feet tall and weighed barely seventy pounds. "I was so small," Craig remembers with a laugh, "that the airplane would damn near lift me off the ground when I did wingovers. I'd be leaning back in about a 45 degree angle just to fly it around in a circle."
This was where it all began — with model airplanes and Craig's membership in a club called the Sky Kings. It was here that Craig first learned about engines, little two-stroke jobs that ran on alcohol and nitromethane and castor oil for lubricant. It was here that he first learned about design and aerodynamics, for these were no mere kits he was assembling, but customized aircraft that he developed himself. It was here that he first acquired fabrication skills of a high standard, using an X-Acto knife to cut out balsa wood parts by hand, gluing silkspan onto the wing spars, doping it, and applying a flawless lacquer finish. It was here that he first showed the all-consuming drive and intensity that later characterized his approach to land speed racing. It all started here, when he was ten years old, competing in model airplane contests against older kids and adults. Seventy years later Craig's hand still bears traces of the nicks he got turning over the propeller to start up his flying machines.
The year was 1947. Craig was living with his mother Portia and his new stepdad Ken Bowman at 3940 Marcasel Avenue, a stuccoed bungalow in the Mar Vista neighborhood of West L.A. He did his model-building out back, in a shed where Portia had raised chickens and rabbits during the war. He had started with boats, then switched to airplanes with the encouragement of Ed Rourke, a gentle soul who lived across the street. Ed, a Hughes Aircraft employee and model plane hobbyist, had plenty of time to help Craig, for he was on sick leave with tuberculosis. It was Ed who got Craig involved in the Sky Kings and taught him the basics of building and flying his own U-Control planes.
Ed died shortly thereafter. It hit Craig hard. He had already lost his father to divorce and he felt unwanted by his stepdad, so Ed's attention had been important to him and losing it hurt. He would subsequently latch on to another neighbor, Loyola University student Jack Stafford, the second in a long line of older male role models who would mentor Craig during his formative years.
Jack took Craig to a more advanced level of model airplane building. It was a steep learning curve littered with numerous crashed models on the playing field at Venice High School where Craig practiced. But he learned. Then he innovated. He built drop-away landing gear to make his planes more streamlined and faster in flight, gluing skis to the underside of the fuselage so he could belly-land them without damage. To keep the propeller from breaking off, he figured out how to make it stop in a horizontal position as the plane glided in. And all the while he dug deeper into aerodynamics, studying books and attending weekly meetings in the cafeteria at Hughes, where the Sky Kings club screened films on aircraft design. Craig liked a good Western or spy thriller as much as the next kid, but an educational film on how to balance center of lift with the center of gravity — now that was exciting!
"That's where I learned about aerodynamics," says Craig. "It's how I got my education. It was very grassroots, basic stuff. I learned because I was really interested in it. I had some world-class airplanes that I had designed and built myself, really good flying airplanes. They were models, but there's really nothing different from building a model airplane to building the real thing."
And then, one day in 1949, when Craig was twelve, a vision of mechanical splendor appeared across the street in the Rourkes' driveway. It was an old jalopy, hood up, guts laid bare, parts strewn about. Ed Rourke's son Roger was working on the thing with his buddies.
Craig wandered over, intrigued. He asked seventeen-year-old Roger, who had grease smeared up to his elbows, what he was doing.
"Building a hot rod. Stay out of the way."
Craig stood back and watched for a while. The complexity of the machinery, so many intricate parts ... it made his model airplanes look like kid stuff.
He turned back to Roger. "Can I help?"
* * *
Like so many other Californians at the time, Craig's family did not have deep ancestral roots in the state. His father, Norman Lloyd Breedlove, had been born in 1906 in Louisville, Kentucky, to Gorman Breedlove and Florence Vanmeter. Gorman contracted tuberculosis in his early thirties and moved his young family out to the West Coast in the hope that the climate would help him recover. It didn't. He died in Los Angeles in 1918, leaving Florence a widow and twelve-year-old Norm without a dad. Florence went on to achieve success as a seamstress, opening her own shop and making gowns for movie stars like Joan Crawford and Anna May Wong. Norm, meanwhile, chafed under Florence's new husband, his new stepdad, whom he deeply disliked. He seized his independence as soon as he finished school, getting a job in a bank, then in the Hollywood studio system as a special effects technician. It would be here, working on everything from Tarzan movies to John Wayne pictures, that Norm would spend the rest of his life.
It was also here, at RKO Radio Pictures, that he met Craig's mother, a gorgeous young redhead named Portia Champion. Portia had been born in Alberta in 1913 to immigrant parents, Welsh stonemason Ernest Champion and his Irish wife Sarah Craig, who met on the ship to Canada. They married and settled in Edmonton, where Ernest built a successful construction business and a house called Craigmont. Seeking pastures that were greener still, the family moved to California when Portia was a child. She was a twenty-year-old dancer dreaming of Hollywood stardom when Norm first met her, one of the bevy of beauties in the musicals then all the rage. That vivacious looker in the chorus line backing up Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in Flying Down to Rio and The Gay Divorcee? The one with the great legs and a face like Bette Davis? That was Portia. She was never "discovered," never even got a screen credit. But Norm certainly noticed. They were married in 1934. The only child they would have together, Norman Craig Breedlove, was born on March 23, 1937. They took to using his middle name to distinguish him from his father.
Craig's earliest memories of home are of the little stuccoed bungalow that Norm built on Marcasel Avenue. The pictures that survive show a happy childhood: four-year-old Craig and his parents on the front step with the family's two dachshunds, Hans and Gretchen; five-year-old Craig laughing at a birthday party; eight-year-old Craig with family and friends at Newport Beach, enjoying a weekend at the seaside cabin Norm built. But there were dark moments too, for Craig's dad had a temper. Cut Norm off on the road or give him the finger and he was apt to run you down, drag you out of your car, and punch you in the face. And you definitely didn't want to hit on his wife, even if Portia was flirting, which she sometimes did. Norm wasn't a big guy, but he'd take a swing at you just the same.
"I can remember my dad getting out of the car and just decking somebody when I was a kid," Craig remembers. "He used to beat the shit out of me too, when I was really little. He'd smack me, give me a bloody nose, split my lip. If I used one of his tools and didn't put it back, or if I was out playing and I didn't make it home on time and he had to come out and find me, he'd be smacking me in the back of my head all the way home."
Portia hated Norm's violent outbursts. It was a major reason for their divorce in 1944. The sudden departure of his father left a void in Craig's life and, to a seven-year-old boy, felt a lot like rejection. This was why the attention of early mentors like Ed Rourke and Jack Stafford was so important.
Craig and Portia continued to live in the Marcasel house following Norm's departure, as Norm had signed the property over to his ex-wife. Then, in 1946, Portia remarried and a new man moved in. Her second husband, Ken Bowman, formally adopted Craig, making him Craig Bowman. It was a well-intentioned gesture, made in part to disguise the divorce of Craig's parents, which was still considered somewhat shameful back in the 1940s. But it only compounded Craig's insecurity and confused his friends. And then a half sister, Cynthia, was born, adding to Craig's emotional burden the sense that he was just in the way, that he was not wanted — particularly after Cynthia was given his bedroom and he was moved into the den. Norm was upset when Craig told him about it. "I built that house for you and your mom," he groused. "You should have your bedroom." But he kept his peace.
Craig and his stepdad didn't get along. Ken was a bookish type, more interested in reading and classical music than in model airplanes and engines, so the two had little in common. He also had an open dislike for Portia's ex-husband Norm, who frequently took Craig on weekends, leading to further alienation between stepfather and stepson. There was no open warfare, just a rift that developed between them, Craig resenting Ken's authority and convinced Ken wanted him gone, Ken seeing Craig as troublesome and rebellious. As Craig grew older, turning eleven, then twelve, his carefree childhood exuberance faded away and he became shy, withdrawn, a loner. The chicken coop out back, which served as his model-making workshop, became his refuge.
* * *
Roger Rourke and his friends working on the jalopy across the street were members of a local hot rod club called the Igniters, one of hundreds of such groups then springing up across the country and particularly in Southern California. The craze had begun with the millions of veterans returning to civilian life after the life-changing experience of World War II. Seeking to recapture something of the excitement of combat, they started souping up and racing used cars that were then flooding the market, unloaded by consumers eager to buy the new cars that Detroit was at last producing again after the long wartime hiatus. Building a hot rod was something an average Joe could afford. It required hard work and mechanical ingenuity and artistry too. It was a chance to enjoy some camaraderie with your buddies, building a machine together, speaking the language of engines, figuring things out. And racing your creation could give you a pretty good adrenaline kick, maybe not as intense as dodging bullets, but certainly more fun.
Craig, only twelve, was too young to join the Igniters, most of whom were in their late teens and twenties. He was eager to help, however, so Roger let him. Sweeping up, sanding off rust, packing grease into bearings — Craig completed every dirty, tedious job he was given with a cheerful diligence that won the guys over. "He was kind of our mascot," remembers Igniters member Doug Sarian. "We'd take him wherever we went. He was just a neat kid. And a fast learner. He was involved. When the guys worked on their cars, Craig would be right there with them, working with them, learning as he went. That's all he was concerned about: building cars, working on cars. He was just a good kid."
In the space of a year Craig was talking like a seasoned hot-rodder and was starting to work on a car of his own, a rusty old '34 Ford coupe. He had convinced Ken to kick in the last few bucks to buy it when he couldn't raise the whole seventy-five dollars from saved Christmas money and after-school jobs. "All right," Ken said sternly, "but it's going to represent your birthday present." Ken couldn't understand his stepson's new obsession, but Craig was working hard at it, even studying books on mechanics, so maybe it was a good thing. Besides, he wouldn't be driving the car. He was still three years away from even getting a license. He would only be out there in the backyard, tinkering on the machine.
Little did Ken and Portia know that Craig was already driving the streets of L.A. From the den where he slept, it was easy to slip out the back door after his parents thought he was asleep so that he could go cruising with the Igniters. They would hang out at the Clock or Piccadilly Drive-Ins ("A Square Meal on a Round Bun, 25¢"), go street racing on Culver Boulevard out among the fields, make out in the backseat with their girlfriends while Craig did the driving, acting as chauffeur, straining to reach the gas pedal.
The guys in the Igniters would be Craig's older male role models for the next several years, especially Roger Rourke, the group's de facto leader — Roger who couldn't speak a sentence without using a swear word. Some of the others were Marvin Gelbart, Doug Sarian, Carl Cruz, and Lee Ganzer, "Shitty" Schultz and "Hickey" Hickman and Bucky Cole and "Dirty" Tom Brown. They were rambunctious teens always on the lookout for fun ... and it sometimes took them too far. There was the time, for example, when they decided to get even with Officer Stafford, a local traffic cop who had it in for hot-rodders and was always looking for a reason to bust them. "The guys chained the back of Stafford's motorcycle to a light post or something," Craig remembers, "then one of the guys burned rubber around the corner. Stafford came out and jumped on his bike and took off after him and the chain ran out and it just stopped the bike dead. Sent him flying over the handlebars. Later, it was used in a movie, I think. [George Lucas's American Graffiti, where the chained motorcycle became a chained police car.] Well, that was an actual thing that happened. It happened right on the corner of Washington Place and Sepulveda Boulevard, at Piccadilly Drive-In."
And then there was the episode with the firecracker. This was no regular firecracker, but a veritable bomb that Roger made by filling a condom with oxygen and acetylene gas and attaching a fuse. It was set off in the men's toilet in the parking lot restroom at the luckless Piccadilly. KA-BOOM! The explosion destroyed the porcelain bowl and sent water geysering up through the women's toilets next door and a drenched and screaming occupant fleeing in a state of undress. Craig was disappointed not to have been there, for the incident was the talk around the neighborhood for weeks. He pleaded with Roger to make him a condom bomb too, just one, so he could see the effect for himself. Roger agreed. Hey, what harm could it do? Craig disappeared down the street with the quivering balloon full of gas.
A muffled explosion was heard a few minutes later. Then Craig returned. "That was the loudest firecracker I've ever heard," he marveled, his eyes still wide. He had set the thing off in a phone booth. It peeled the sides off it like a banana.
* * *
In March 1953, as soon as he turned sixteen, Craig went down to the Department of Motor Vehicles and aced the driving exam. He was now a full-fledged member of the Igniters, with a driver's license tucked in his wallet and his very own club plaque, IGNITERS, CULVER CITY, displayed in the back window of his hot rod. For his '34 Ford coupe, after three years of work, was complete. He had finished it at his friend Dick Pollard's house, in a backyard chicken coop that he had converted into a garage, after being evicted from his workshop at home when Ken and Portia started a business growing African violets and needed the space. Craig was glad to get away from the oversight of his stepfather, for while Ken condoned Craig's building a car, he strongly disapproved of the idea of racing — which of course had been Craig's plan all along. The whole point of fabricating a hot rod, after all, was to test it, to push it, to see what it could do. That was the payoff after the thousands of hours of work.
Craig's earliest experience of racing had been as a spectator at street races. For hot-rodders who hung out at the Piccadilly and Clock Drive-Ins, guys like the Igniters, the usual venue was a stretch of Culver Boulevard a few miles west, out among fields where there was no traffic at night. The starting point was the overpass where Culver passed over Lincoln Boulevard. This was where two cars going head to head were flagged off. The end was just before you got to the railroad tracks, a distance someone had measured off as being a quarter mile. Spectators would watch from the Lincoln overpass at the start or from atop boxcars parked on a railway siding down at the end. It was a risky business, racing here at night, even being a spectator, for it was illegal. When the cops showed up, everyone scattered. Craig, home in bed as far as his parents knew, never got caught.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Ultimate Speed"
Copyright © 2019 Samuel Hawley.
Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Foreword by Craig Breedlove,
2. Through the Roof,
3. Belly Tank Racer,
4. The Jet Car Idea,
5. Spirit Is Born,
6. Black Line Zigzag,
7. Bringing It Back,
8. American Hero,
9. Speed War,
10. Roll the Ambulance,
11. "I Almost Drowned in That Thing!",
12. Sonic I,
13. Back into Battle,
14. Russian Roulette with Jets,
16. Hard Times,
17. Playing with Fire,
18. The River,
19. Sonic Arrow,
21. Breedlove's Back,
22. World's Fastest Car Crash,
23. The Boom,
Sources & Notes,