Saturday, April 30, 2011

Dave Wallace Jr. Interview Part 1

                     Dave Jr on the job at San Fernando Drag Strip 1962
                                        (Photo by Dave Wallace Sr)

The name has been around our scene for so long, it has insideously morphed into the landscape. The Wallace brand has been burned into most every story of substance that ever emanated from a drag strip. The words and images are now our subconcious wallpaper, parroted to every newcomer that finds a seat in the stands, stumbles into the pits, or squeezes in with the railbirds. Whether your favorite drag tale is a philosophical parable, a list of stats, the hot skinny poop on a behind-the-scenester, or a slapstick calamity, chances are, you stole it from Dave Wallace - Senior or Junior.

In the course of touching base with Dave Jr. on various magazine projects, I've come to realize what treasures he and his dad are. Last week, I made the mistake of asking Junior something about his dad and have been getting very little done since. I asked Dave to let me print some of our conversation here and he eventually agreed. It's more than some guy's memoirs. It's really the story of drag racing's reluctant maturation, told by someone who rode a typewriter right through the vortex while experiencing the same cultural twists as the rest of us.

For those who may not be familiar with your dad's work, can you give a little summary of his career?

Senior Dave spent 39 years with the post office.  For about eight of those years, from 1957 up to the summer of 1965, he moonlighted at San Fernando Drag Strip (later Raceway), initially as a ticket taker.  He recalls that it was around 1960 when manager Harry Hibler made him the track's "trophy man," whose duties included typing up class-record certificates on the spot, Sunday afternoons.  Later that evening, at home, he'd type up the list of class winners, complete with hometowns, vehicle and engine makes, final-round e.t.s and speeds, in triplicate or quadruplicate, using individual sheets of messy carbon paper between onion-skin pages.  Last but not least, the trophy man was expected to write a recap of the day's action and drop it off at the post office for a special delivery pickup around dawn Monday.  Dad was San Fernando's first trophy man who further enclosed fresh photography, thanks to an early-model Polaroid camera belonging to the real-estate developers who owned the land and the track (and adjoining San Fernando Airport).

Senior Dave certainly had the writing and photography talents to do magazine work, but neither the time (raising three kids, working two or three jobs) nor automotive interest and knowledge (never was a gearhead).  He got that gig only because the track owner happened to own the building that the USPS leased for the Panorama City Post Office - and because 100 percent of the weekly proceeds from 'Fernando's earliest years (1955, '56, '57) didn't always survive the car-club volunteers who originally staffed the pit and spectator gates.  One day while dropping or picking up the mail for the real-estate-development company he co-owned with Fritz Burns, the track's general manager, William Hannon, noticed Dad and the other clerks counting large stacks of bills at the end of the business day.  He asked whether any of those guys would be interested in a Sunday-only job that paid $20 (nearly the tuition being charged for three Wallace kids in Catholic grammar school).  Postal pay being way low at that time, all five clerks jumped at the chance to supplement their income.  All of them had the same initial question for Hannon:  "What's a 'drag strip'?"

Was it a blessing or a curse, working in the same field your dad was so well known in?

Blessing; no downside whatever.  I think he'd tell you that he never was "so well known," insofar as his writing and photography were confined to covering that one small strip, and only for the weekly drag rags.
 So then, did you just ride into the scene on your dad's coat tails, or work up from the bottom?

Hey, you said there'd only be SEVEN questions!  (Are we there yet?)
In 1961, when I was 11, Dad suggested that manager Hibler hire me to replace a flaky time-slip guy, since I was at the track every Sunday, anyway, applying Polaroid's pink "goop" onto the black-and-white prints magically appearing about a minute after Dad pulled them out of the camera.  The time-slip guy wrote 'em, then passed them out a tiny window to the lone security guard charged with both keeping the peace and passing out slips.  (His presence also discouraged speeding on the return road - grounds for immediate ejection.) 

               The San Fernando Timeslip Bunker (Photographer Unknown)

The time-slip guy sat in a partially-sunken pillbox, right between the push-down or fire-up road and the return road, about 100 feet downtrack.  As the pairs of cars staged, one after the other (no burnouts, remember), I'd write their respective numbers and classes on separate time slips, while listening to a war-surplus squawk box for the announcer's single reading of the previous race's winning e.t. and speed (single-lane timing, still), which I'd write on the appropriate driver's time slip.  Screwups could get ugly, because these slips were the only record of a run after the announcer cleared the clocks.  It might've been the most-intense, most-pressure-packed job I ever had at a drag strip - and I had just about all of them, except for manager and tech inspector - and I loved every second!  No seat since has compared with sitting that close to two cars launching, plus right in between wire-wheel cars being push started at speed, plus cars returning from their runs, all uncorked.  The pill box was sunken a couple of feet into the dirt, so my chest was about level with the asphalt - making my head just about level with the weedburner pipes on the fuel cars and the fenderwell headers of the gassers and stockers on the return road.  Good vibrations, indeed! 

Next stop was selling 50-cent pit passes into the hot-car pits.  If you didn't steal any of the money, Hibler moved you up to the main walk-through pit gate, which had the major benefits of a shade tree and water fountain, but restricted the view to the first 200 feet of track.  That's one of the reasons I started bugging my dad to let me take the weekly Drag News report off of his $25 day.  The only subject that ever came easily to me was English; in particular, creative writing.  I could - and often did - procrastinate a composition assignment until literally the 11th hour, even writing it on the ride to school or during the previous class, and still get a B, or better.  I was totally enthralled with the shows I was seeing every Sunday, knew all of the players, followed the rest in the drag rags and mags, and had watched my dad bang out a story a week for years.  It never occurred to this dumb kid that he could not do it.

                                    With Steve Sturgeon's T/FD 1964
                                             (Photo by Phil Tessier)

I was making 50 cents an hour on the pit gates, for a grand total of about three bucks a week, so I offered to write his story for $5 and nearly double my pay, plus move out to the starting line.  On Father's Day, June of 1964, when I was 14, Dad finally relented, so he and Mom could go out for a rare Sunday dinner (possibly to Van Nuys Bob's, a real treat for our family).  I was still slaving over the story on a yellow legal pad when they got home.  By the time he ripped my first manuscript out of my hands, had me decipher the scribbling, and typed it up, it was well past midnight.  He pronounced right then and there that, while my story was passable, my lack of typing skills was not. 

The first thing I wrote after learning to type, at age 14, was a feature about Top Gas Eliminator.  I submitted it to Drag Racing magazine, but it showed up in DRM's sister pub, Modern Rod, Nov. '64 ("The Great Gas Comeback").  I think it ran five pages, exactly as writ; not a single word was changed, giving my confidence the huge boost that you can imagine.  In the cover letter to the editor, I asked for 75 bucks if the story was published.  I'm still waiting to be paid, 47 years later.       

So, that same month, I enrolled in the only summer-school course of my brief, less-than-spectacular scholastic career:  Freshman Typing, courtesy of James Monroe High School (Sepulveda, California).  At some point after I turned 15 that October (1964), I took over the weekly race reports (three different versions: for Drag News, Drag Sport Illustrated and Drag World) and results lists, while Dad continued handling trophies and shooting photos.  We might've kept on like that indefinitely, working as a well-oiled team, had the family not driven across country in early summer 1965 to the folks' hometown of Southington, Connecticut.  Hibler agreed to use existing staff members to cover us for the either three or four Sundays we'd be gone.  Things went according to schedule until our second weekend back east, when a family friend offered to take me to Connecticut Dragway in the hot Corvair he regularly raced.  Enroute to the track, on a country road, he cut a blind corner at the same moment as a guy in a '57 Chevy coming the other way.  We collided headlight to headlight.  Police-estimated impact speed was 110-plus (i.e., each car doing at least 55 mph).  I got off the lightest of all five passengers involved, with smashed cartiledge in my right knee, but was unable to bend that leg into the back seat of a '64 Impala for another two weeks.  My dad dutifully informed manager Hibler of the delays early in each of those weeks, but when we finally got back home, Harry called to tell him that the guy who'd volunteered to be our summer replacement wanted to keep doing both of our jobs, so we were out - and stunned, and pissed off.  Although my dad had acquired another parttime job at Schiltz Brewery for more pay, fewer hours, and even FREE FUCKING BEER (to quote Bret Kepner's infamous "Breasts On Fire" spoof radio spot) and had been considering turning the deal over to me after I got old enough to drive myself and my little brother (ace Drag News-Drag Sport Illustrated salesman, Sky) out to the track, he was bummed on my behalf.

I mention this in such detail because it led directly and ironically to be my Big Break.  Within a couple weeks, Hibler called the house and asked for Dave Junior, not Senior, for the first time ever.  To my astonishment, he revealed that the new guy couldn't handle the load - and that he thought that I could, without Dad.  He gave me about one day to think it over, because he needed someone that Sunday.  My initial inclination was to decline, out of loyalty to my dad.  Ironically, it was my dad and Ed Sarkisian, a drag-rag columnist who'd become my pen pal and long-distance mentor, who convinced me to reconsider, and seize the opportunity.  Dad even offered to drop me at the track Sunday mornings, then pick me up after the last of the trophies and record certificates were handed out, until I turned 16 and got my license. 

16 year old Dave Jr on the clock at windy San Fernando in '65 with friend.

It's been said that ya gotta be bad SOMEwhere, and this is where I sewed my bad seeds, from that eventful summer of '65 until either late '67 or early '68, when I quit - to go drag racing, of all things!  Y'see, track workers weren't allowed to make runs (except for Hibler, in disguise, but that's another blog post - which you ought to get HIM to write!), and I'd just bought a two-year-old Formula S Barracuda that had been a regular trophy winner for the guy who built it, the late Ron Neidorf.  In my farewell Drag News, I spouted this lame, if heartfelt, explanation: "The urge to race is stronger than the urge to write."  (Ugh!) 

That might've been the end of my automotive-journalism career right there, at age 17, but for the intersection of a broken output shaft and a chance encounter between my sister, working at Brownie's Snack Bar, and Ralph Guldahl Jr., the Lions PR guy and my first journalistic hero.

[To Be Continued ... some time when it ISN'T five o'clock in the morning!]