Thursday, April 7, 2011

Cole Coonce Interview

When Hot Rod magazine added Cole Coonce to the staff in the 1990s, it not only caught my attention, but changed how I read magazines forever. I really didn't think it could get any more personal than reading features by Gray Baskerville and Ro McGonegal, but this guy's style hit me right where I lived: Here was the edgy immediacy of Hunter S. Thompson, enhanced with a wordcraft worthy of a Kurt Vonnegut eyebrow arch. What fun! What grabbed me the most was how Coonce raised the bar by going under the surface. Intrigued, I seeked out a couple of his long-play stories in paperback: 'Infinity over Zero' (guerrilla documentation of the Land Speed Record wars pitting the U.S. against Britain) and 'Top Fuel Wormhole' (a hilariously twisted psycho analysis of Nitromethane's allure). At that point, I was officially junk. Inspired (and yes, influenced), I set out on my own automotive journalism quest. At this point, I'm still in first gear, but by God, I have Cole Coonce on my blog. Who'da thunk it... He crashed through the front window of the SGE office in spectacular fashion and dusted himself off. We performed the secret automotive journalist handshake ritual and got down to it.

This is quite an honor for me, Cole. Thanks for dropping in.

Glad to do it (shaking glass shards from hair).

Were you born a journalist, or if not, how'd you get into this stuff?

I got into journalism because I was turned on by two art forms when I was a mere guttersnipe: Drag racing and rock 'n' roll. I saw The Beatles at Dodger Stadium when I was four years old. I saw my first Top Fuel dragster when I was five. I had an uncle Rick who was the drummer for The Grass Roots, who had many Top 40 hits and ended up on American Bandstand. His brother was a dragster driver. Because of their influence, and the fact that I could see them both on their respective stages on any weekend in Southern California, I became consumed with both music and drag racing. I read everything I could on the subject, whether it was Rolling Stone or Drag News. In my opinion, both race reports and rock criticism were also art forms and every bit as valid as the scenes they covered. I didn't figure I could drive a Top Fuel car, but I reckoned I could write about it.

Wow, you had a killer pedigree before you ever wrote your first words!

 Well, writing about something is only as valid as what one is actually writing about. Dragstrip journalism was at its most crucial when the drag racing itself was very dangerous, exciting and unpredictable. You couldn't wait to get the next National Dragster or Drag Racing USA because you knew there was going to be something in it - a speed record, some weird bondo-beyondo streamliner body shape, a macabre crash, some violent and catastrophic explosion - that hadn't ever happened before. I'm of the opinion that most of the interesting stuff in both music and drag racing has already happened. By extension, most of the interesting writing associated with those forms has also already happened.

And you were first exposed to those bare knuckled glory days of racing at five years old, when I was literally drooling on the pictures in the magazines.

Initially. Then in the late 1960s, my uncle Phil Coonce drove a Junior Gas dragster at Lions Drag Strip and San Fernando Raceway. I thought everything about that car and all the other dragsters of the era were pure magic. I've always loved front engine dragsters, especially the Top Fuelers. That's what myself and other school kids drew on our notebooks. When the rear engine dragsters hit, I think kids stopped scrawling fuelers on their book covers. Funny Cars maybe, dragsters not so much.

Have you built or owned many hot rods? Whatever happened to the '71 Grand Prix that was a regular character in your books?

Honestly, I've never cared about production cars, even muscle cars of the 60s and 70s. I've been obsessed with Top Fuel dragsters. Everything else is kinda boring, really. But to answer your question, I no longer have my '71 J Series Grand Prix. It was my daily driver for years, but 8 MPG while sitting in LA traffic is a kind of political statement with minimal practical returns. I sold it years ago and bought a Japanese shitbox from a yuppie nurse in Van Nuys who wanted an SUV. Nowadays, I drive a late model six cylinder Chrysler coupe. I think the suspension needs work.

 Is there anything on the streets that you're into at all?

As far as what I'm actually into? What forms of transportation stir my manhood? Chevy Volts and bicycles. Fossil fuels are as archaic as the dinosaur bones they're extracted from.

(thoughtful silence from Scotty, as Cole watches traffic distort through the broken window)... You mentioned music being an influence, earlier. Are you a musician yourself? And does music and car culture meld into one for you, or exist in separate realities?

I was a musician... When the Sex Pistols, the Ramones and the Clash hit all those years ago, I realized I couldn't just write about music, I could actually play the same stuff these guys did. Ten years later I formed a band that was equal parts Black Sabbath, Funkadelic and Blondie.

This was 'Braindead Sound Machine'?

(surprised) Right. Although we had a reasonable success, I stopped playing when I found myself caught in a record deal with a company who wouldn't release my band's second album, nor let us out of our contract. I wrote a book about that whole experience: 'Come Down from the Hills and Make My Baby'.

I can relate.

At that point, I was so appalled by the music business that it affected my ability to listen to or play anything. I've always been fascinated by sound, but couldn't stomach hearing another power chord or snare drum. But I craved the sound of something loud and pure and at that moment in history, the vintage Top Fuel scene was making strides in California. As a kind of catharsis, I hit every nostalgia drag race that ran, from Bakersfield to Sears Point and from Pomona to Tucson. Just standing next to those beastly nitro burning machines as they thumped and whomped filled my soul with fulfillment, if not nourishment. I was being cleansed of all the bullshit I put up with in the music industry.

Still relating, big time.

Vintage drag racing wasn't a very big scene at the time, but it made me very happy. I felt like it was the world's best kept secret and I just wanted to tell anybody that would listen about this stuff, so I approached the publisher of a local 'zine, Full Throttle News, about doing race reports on this indie drag racing scene. That led to writing for Super Stock & Drag Illustrated as well as other mastheads, both in the drag racing world and beyond. I collected all of those race reports and dragstrip features into a book - a collection called 'Top Fuel Wormhole'.

A masterpiece, in my biased opinion. But speaking of 'mastheads beyond drag racing', I've spotted your byline in such diverse locales as Gearhead Magazine, RAZOR Magazine, LA CityBeat, LA Weekly, Wired, Bikini, Bicycling Magazine, Grand Royal Magazine, Men's Journal and... help?

I don't remember what all else...

Well, you have a quite an online presence too, with your Nitronic Research site and Drag Racing Online, among others.

Yeah well, getting back to drag racing and rock 'n' roll: There is some crossover between the two scenes, I suppose. But, for a multitude of reasons, I consider both of these scenes slowly dying, so the crossover is getting more fleeting every day. But for me, one scene led to the other and the actual intersection was pretty small.

Same here. But my experience took place pretty anonymously, far from the big stage of the LA Basin, where you live every day. Do you hang much with the race crowd there, or do they see you as a pesky journalist they have to watch their words around?

As a journalist, you try not to become too chummy with your subjects, but after a while it's inevitable. So while some of my friends are more drag strip journos - Dave Wallace, Mike Bumbeck, Jeff Burk and Darr Hawthorne - I do socialize with some of the drivers.  I would be remiss in not saying that my girlfriend (Mendy Fry) is a nitro Funny Car driver. But as far as 'hanging with the race crowd', whether it's LA or anywhere else, I've never been interested in any public figure who figures they have to watch their words. I'll interview somebody like that only if I absolutely have to, but that's not the individual I seek out to document. When it comes to racers, those who are guarded and watch their words, give milquetoast interviews because they think that's what their sponsors want. Nothing could be further from the reality: Sponsors want representatives who generate eyeballs, because that means attention is indirectly being focused on their product. If you can't generate attention, you can't generate a return on investment for your sponsor's patronage.

That's another reason I was drawn to the more independent and alternative 'nostalgia' scene. These guys said what they felt without any filter, and emotions often run high in the heated contests of fiery machines and the daredevils who drive them. That makes for interesting quotes: dragster drivers cursing a machine that just tried to kill them, or the driver in the other lane that jacked her or him around.

There's a misconception that Kenny Bernstien and John Force nurtured, grew, and took drag racing to some supposed next level by using up precious broadcast time to thank their sponsors when they climbed out of the car, instead of motherfucking the guy in the other lane. Nothing could be further from the truth. Every idiot could see who the sponsor was and it's not like one is listening to the radio, for fuck's sake. For all practical purposes, drag racing is dead and with this formulaic interview style, these guys helped kill it. So it's not that racers are afraid of what they might say to me, but more that I've never had any desire to interview somebody who's going to give me the Kenny Bernstien boilerplate of banality and sponsorship recital.

I think everyone would agree with that. The last realistic racer interview I can remember was with Al Hoffman and even that seemed watered down. Who's the biggest 'character' you've dealt with?

(instant response) Brent "The Mad Rocket Scientist" Fanning. Absolutely out of his mind - or wants everybody to think he is. A very free thinker and a remarkably resourceful human being. After his Top Fueler failed to stop at the end of the dragstrip, a friend of mine helped him extricate the race car from out of the woods and asked Brent if he ever thought about quitting. He answered, "Quit? What for? We're out here making memories!" I understand he's playing professional poker tournaments now and I keep looking for him on television.

Ha! The Fannings are heroes to me. I've been impressed since they answered some flakey NHRA decision by popping a parachute packed full of cow manure at 250+ MPH. The Safety Safari wasn't amused though. The outlaw spirit lives on... And who was the biggest pain in the ass?

(even quicker response) "Jocko" Johnson. He threatened to sue both Hot Rod magazine and myself, based on a feature he described as "pulp fiction". Drag racers are tough guys, mad geniuses and bad asses, but man do they have frail egos! Jocko was upset because I said one of his streamliners "laid an egg". It ran once in competition and qualified dead last, before its owner, Don Garlits, had it mothballed because he said it actually went through the timing traps with the back tires in the air.

Bwahahaha! I've dealt with Jocko and Donald, too... But we have to wrap this up. Ready for your bonus question? What's the future of hot rodding/motorsports/transportation/print media/America/Planet Earth?

Today's consumers care about iPads. They don't care about cars, except for the ones with holographic gauges that that resemble an iPad app. And the only magazines people will read is on the holographic iPad-like dashboard in the car that Google designed that drives itself. I'll let you do the math on the ramifications of such a future as it relates to hot rods and car magazines. But I will say this, the sooner America embraces such a paradigm, the better chance it has of staving off its own obsolescence, and the better chance Planet Earth has of not choking on its own exhaust.

Damn man, do you realize you just addressed six subjects with one answer and nailed every one of 'em?! How'd you DO that?

That's the one question Coonce didn't answer. I turned to see him stepping into  an adolescent-drawn rickshaw at curbside and he was gone. I thought I caught a whiff of nitro in his wake, but it was probably just another flashback.

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