30 June 2010

Muroc and the Hot Rodders


MurocRacer2The dusty settlement known as Muroc was named after the Corum family, who had a working farm nearby.  The story goes that there already was a "Coram, California" so the post office insisted the place, which was little more than a water stop on the railroad, have a different name. "Muroc" was "Corum" backwards, and that's kind of how the place was -- no electricity, no running water, and a lot of dust.  A lot of that dust came from the nearby Rogers Dry Lake, a 12-mile long, nearly 7-mile wide expanse.  The ultra-flat lakebed proved irresistible to aviation companies and pilots like Pancho, who saw the baked salty surface as an ideal place to test aircraft.  Today it boasts the longest runway in the world, 7.5 miles. 

But all that wonderful flat surface could have had another destiny -- it might have ended up like Bonneville, the salt flat near Wendover, Utah that has a 10-mile long race track used to set auto and motorcycle speed records.  Back in the mid-30s when Pancho Barnes moved to the Muroc vicinity, the Rogers Dry Lake was being actively used by hot rodders.  It was the early days of the "hot rod" phenomenon.  In those Great Depression days before WWII interrupted everything, autos were cheap and easy to modify, speed was a thrill, and the dry lakes at Muroc were absolutely alluring.  So just as much as the word "Muroc" conjures up legendary pilots and planes for one group of people, it is also a legendary place revered by the "rod rats". 

MurocRacer0Racing events were held at Muroc dating back into the '20s and in 1937, over 90 autos (including eight modified Model T Fords!) dashed across the desert.  The following year, on May 15, 1938, over 225 racers showed up to compete in what must have been a cross between Burning Man and Indy.  Keep in mind -- the closest hospital if something went wrong was hours away, and there were no facilities out there worth mentioning except ranches like Pancho's.  It remains known within the racing community as "the day hot rodding came of age."

The competition of 1938 was officially sanctioned by the SouthernMurocRacer California Timing Association (SCTA), a group that incidentally is still around today.  Sensing a dynamic story, Life magazine sent photographer William Carroll on assignment to the Rogers Dry Lake to cover the "hot rodders", their cars, antics, and youth culture.  Carroll had quite a day, witnessing Ernie McAfee's run of over 136 mph in a heavily-modified, four-cylinder streamlined Ford that resembled a torpedo more than a car.  Perhaps it was just a bit too shocking and scary for the magazine's editors: for whatever reason, the photos were never published.  Instead the negatives languished in a drawer, only to be rediscovered decades later by Carroll and published as the book "Muroc: Where The Hot Rods Ranalt">When the Hot Rods Ran".  It remains one of the best documents of the early, purist era of hot rodding, before it became a commercial enterprise and long before fashion companies like Ed Hardy decided to cash in on the mystique.

It's hard to imagine that Pancho did not attend the races at Muroc in 1937 and '38, because all that speed and testosterone would have been irresistible to someone like her.  At that time all she owned was an alfalfa farm -- her hotel and guest ranch did not really come into being until after the war -- so it's not clear whether she hosted any of the racers but "probable".   Unfortunately, it's just not MurocRacer4well documented.  But had the races continued, they certainly would have become a big part of her "Happy Bottom Riding Club's" calendar.  But as fate would have it, the Army Air Force had designs on Muroc and just weeks after the competition, began painting the outlines of battleships on the lake bed for target practice.  The arrival of WWII, gas rationing, and the establishment of the air force test base at Muroc put the Rogers Lake track off limits.  Where once cars raced at top speeds, high-performance aircraft performed taxi runs and takeoffs and landings.

After WWII, the SCTA reconvened at El Mirage, an area located to the south of the air base.  While not as flat or vast as the Muroc track, El Mirage worked well enough. MurocRacer6 In the post-war years, Pancho often hosted racers who came out to the desert for competition at El Mirage, and the occasional group out for a joyride.  In 1952, an enterprising auto dealer named John C. Mehan Co. began importing MG sports cars from the UK, and one of the stops on the "shakedown cruise" was Pancho's place.  Pancho and her fourth husband Mac even posed for photos with auto writer Bruce Kerr, and made the pages of the Daily News (seen at right). As far as we know though, Pancho never bought an MG.  (Her need for speed was apparently limited to airplanes, although her friend Patrice Demory did once tell us a story about driving with Pancho at high speed in a VW bug, on the way to get divorced from Mac!)  

MurocRacer3The El Mirage track remains in use, hosting races at least twice a year.  While many of the "classic" cars in competition look like the ones in Pancho's era, the modern events are quite large (the latest iteration of El Mirage featured twelve classes of engine types alone), speeds exceed 200 mph, and get this, they're now in the business of setting hydrogen-powered-vehicle land speed records.  But no one in the SCTA could forget about Muroc.  In 1995 after years of work, the SCTA managed to arrange what would become the first of five "reunion" races on the fabled track. These nostalgia-filled events were especially meaningful to the generation of men who had participated in the early SCTA events, some of who were still alive and able to attend.  Unfortunately, war once again intervened, as the course was closed off following the events of Sept. 11th, 2001.  Perhaps at some future date, God willing, the sands at Muroc will once again echo with the sounds of pure horsepower, the crunch of tires on hard-packed sand, and the cacophony and speed that is hot rodding at its finest.