The Stoner T: How to build a hot rod in 10 years (and influence people), part two

The Stoner T: How to build a hot rod in 10 years (and influence people), part two

The original sketch Tim Conder, of Conder Custom, made after we talked about life, love, cars, art, dragsters, the Munster’s Koach, the Phonebooth T, Ed Roth, Garbage Pail Kids, Krofft Superstars, and the burn rate of magnesium. All photos by the author, unless otherwise noted.

The first chapter of the Stoner T story ended in the Summer of 2003, when nearly the entire front end of the rolling chassis was stolen from the open carport behind my apartment building. This is the right moment to mention how lucky I’ve been throughout this hot-rod Iliad: Just when everything seems to go wrong, it all goes so right…

This is what the T looked like with Vern Tardel’s new old front end, the day I delivered it to Conder Custom in Sonoma, California. Notice the 15-inch magnesium American Racing spindle-mount frontrunners already mounted.

After I plastered the neighborhood with probably the weirdest “WANTED” posters ever seen, I took those posters to every auto-parts store within a 15-mile radius, and pleaded my case on the few chat boards of the day. Then, I started calling all my friends who had stash space in their garages. The carcass needed a new, safe home, but it also needed a replacement front-end – preferably the same odd assortment of parts I had already assembled once.

The car rolled out in front of Conder Custom before any work commenced. The body hasn’t been vertically sectioned yet, and the motor is just about to be dropped off at Bruno Gianoli’s machine shop. The calm before the storm…

Then, I got a call from Vern Tardel.

Now, if you know anything about Vern, he’s got a one-way relationship with his phone, circa 1989: You send him a fax with your request/question/hypothesis/mantra/vision statement/phone number, he returns your call at some point after shop hours. That’s the way it is, and everyone in hot rodding understands it. So, to get a call from Vern out of the blue… I knew something was up. “Heard about what happened,” said he, “Come on up tomorrow.” “Sure,” said I. “I’ll bring cash.”

A cleaned-up scan of Conder’s first sketch of the T. Notice the Model A decklid and the amount of material shaved off the lower cowl and door to get the body rake. Tim was able to keep the rake without that severe modification.

Another early sketch of the lightening hole theme throughout the car. Lightening holes were used on race cars to remove material and lower the overall weight of the car, when every ounce counted. This would become a theme of the car, executed in some amazing ways in years to come.

I had spent a summer internship at Vern’s, gleefully stacking iron flathead heads, organizing piles of axle tubes, rearranging 40-year-old piles of cat fur on dusty shelves, doing odd jobs on customers’ cars, and generally loving every sweat-soaked minute of it. When the summer was over, I took all that invaluable experience and put it right into my fledgling magazine, pretty much an unfair trade that worked in my favor. So, when I got to Vern’s, not only did I already know that the replacement front end was there, but I knew which corners of the ranch its parts were spread across. He looked at me, said, “C’mon..” and not another word was spoken for about 30 minutes, as I dutifully followed him to all points of the shop and yard, carrying the axle, spindles, kingpins, spring perches, and radius rods that he picked out for me. Then, we assembled everything, and I knew I didn’t have enough to cover it. Over a brand-new, vintage front end – exactly what I had lost – laying on the bench in front of us, Vern just looked at me, smiled, and said, “Now, get outta here….”

This is the time-honored facet of hot rodding that never translates to reality television.

Before the frame was modified, we pulled the car apart and mocked up its essential ingredients with blocks of wood, stood back, took a picture, looked at each other, nodded, said “Bitchin” in unison, then walked back in the shop, turned around, and did it all again to make sure we were right. We were.

The car sat in a pile of itself in an undisclosed garage under a San Francisco Victorian for three years. In that time, I was lucky enough to get the one-and-only Bruno Gianoli to build that 331 Hemi. Bruno was a member of the infamous Organ Grinders car club – a Northern California team made up of men who helped develop hot rodding, drag racing, and the automotive aftermarket in the Fifties and Sixties. Heroes. Madmen. Gladiators. These guys were legends, and Bruno was one of the last standing. And, he still built motors out of his machine shop in South San Francisco. I told him what I wanted, he told me to kick rocks. I dropped off the motor, he dropped off a bill. And with every “fuel meet” at his shop on Friday afternoons, he’d grin a little more, tell me I didn’t know what I was doing and take care of me with “the last cam Engle ever ground” or a polished aluminum oil filter “from one of the Goat’s (Ted Gotelli of Gotelli Speed Shop fame) fuelers” or a set of rods that were “old bulls**t laying around.” Once again, it was an opportunity to breathe the same air and learn at the feet of one of the greats. None of it was ever lost on me.

One of the signature features of the car: the front end. Completely unique, and we’re pretty sure there’s a fraternal organization created just to hate it. As of this writing, neither Tim nor I have been invited to join.

Another shot of the front end, from the front end. The Camaro ball joints are hidden in those swollen nodes of the frame between the hinge and the axle. Aren’t those frame horns beautiful? AREN’T THEY?

By 2006, I had saved up a stubby little pile of cash, and it was time to dust the car off. By now, Tim Conder, of Conder Custom, had moved his design studio and fabrication shop south from Seattle, Washington, to Sonoma, California. Tim’s a rare combination of illustrator, designer, fabricator, painter, and journalist, so when he agreed to take on my Model T project, I knew I had found the right shop, but more important, a kindred spirit.

Closeup of the business end of the front end. I couldn’t figure it all out at first, either.

In the understatement of the month, those Ford 9N tractor radius rods didn’t escape the lightening hole treatment.

Conder understood the connection between the lines of my ’27 Model T coupe and the gothic-inspired show cars that I loved. He knew that a T had the potential to be sinister, cool, fast and a little dangerous all at the same time. He also shared my love for that Sixties dragster aesthetic, but more important, could make sense of all of it in one design. He sketched his interpretation of my car from nothing more than memory on nothing more than a scrap of layout paper and showed it to me. I was dumbfounded.

Look at all those suspension parts with the holes in them! That’s about a year’s worth of hours, I think. Front and rear 9N radius rods, axle, frame-horn caps, front Moon tank, Buick aluminum drums for the rear brakes, and not a 90º angle in the room.

Here’s a demonstration of how the front end works. Test at the end of the semester.

It was perfect. The sketch was exactly how I imagined my T would look. Tim had built lots of choppers, customs, and even two front-engine dragsters, but this was his first Model T project. The rendering became part of the car’s story everywhere I told it: online, in magazine columns, in-person, around campfires… It was now the end-game. Funny thing about Tim’s renderings: He’s capable of making the real car look exactly like the car he drew. The proportions and the relation of parts to other parts were all dead-to-nuts. The only thing he inadvertently got wrong was the decklid: He had basically grafted a Model A coupe rear end to a Model T. But, like I said, he had done it from memory, and it was really only the difference of one profile line shape.

The 331 Hemi, fresh from Bruno Gianoli’s machine shop and Conder Custom’s paint booth. New drilled motor mounts, because OF COURSE.

Beyond just the general stance and attitude of the car, Tim drew from mid-Sixties dragster inspiration when it came to the chassis. In order to keep the front of the car as clean as possible, he designed a unique torsion bar suspension system, borrowed from those early fuelers: no leaf spring or suicide front end, no unsightly shackles or perches. And I like frame horns on these chassis, so those stayed. The result was a frame that did away with the traditional front crossmember and was hinged where the torsion bar was located. Articulation was handled by ’70 Camaro ball joints willed into position at the axle, and the grille, headlamps, 3.5-gallon Moon fuel tank and shock-absorber mounts were located by one frame Tim designed to be removed as a complete unit. I’d never seen anything like it in my life. And neither had anyone else.

A shot of the daily goings-on at Conder Custom: lowrider bike, wicked old dentside F-250 and a Model T hot rod under construction. I weep.

The early days of the car were spent refining our ideas: those 9N radius rods were finished and shaped, and the motor got a Conder Custom-painted dragster scoop to top the twin Edelbrock carbs. The unobtanium swap meet Mickey Thompson valve covers got a Conder pagan gold metalflake treatment, and everything – I mean everything – got lightening holes. “Circles are a theme,” Tim would remind me. One art school student usually understands another.

A profile shot of the frame as the car develops its personality. Everything forward of the firewall is designed to sit perfectly parallel to to the road surface. The bottom of the oil pan is flush with the bottom of the frame rails, and the torsion-bar front end can be preloaded for the weight of the motor and car.

Favorite shot of the rolling chassis. That Turbo 400 automatic was essential, we thought, because it only required two pedals in a space that could barely accommodate that many. That would change in the future, though.

As I started recording the progress and sharing it across those pre-social media online chat boards, the car gained a life of its own. A universal truth is that the conviction and intensity of gearhead opinions will amplify by a factor of 2x the number of gearheads in a room. Add beer to that equation, and the magnification can reach factors near 17x. Speculations on the engineering of the frontend abounded. Some thought the frame was “bent wrong.” Others thought the cowl was channeled way too far over said frame. Still others swore the grille was from a fancy Italian tractor. But the one element that escaped most of those keyboard cowboys was the body: Tim had vertically sectioned it in three places, removing a total of 12 inches, thus creating the proportion he’d drawn and an exaggerated “Phonebooth T” effect. Again, perfect.

Ah… the car mocked up as one angry little hot rod. Here, you can see the lines where the total of 12 inches came out of the length of the body. Makes the car look taller, though it’s stock height. Photo by Jay Watson.

To top off the car’s dragster roots, I had scored a pair of original 15-inch, magnesium, 12-spoke, spindle-mount American Racing front wheels. Tim graced the car with matching early 16 x 10-inch magnesium American Racing five-spoke rears and Norm Rapp – the oldest (and only) sprint car racing shop in San Francisco – sold me a vintage Schroeder sprint car steering box. It was all coming together in ways I just didn’t deserve. And the car was gaining as many fans as detractors. I loved every minute of it.


Hemmings Find of the Day – 1955 Chevrolet Bel Air Sport Coupe

Hemmings Find of the Day – 1955 Chevrolet Bel Air Sport Coupe

1955 Chevrolet Bel Air Sport Coupe

From the seller’s description:

This 1955 Chevrolet Bel Air, Hardtop Sport Coup is a well-cared for high optioned car that was repainted about 8 years ago and has a new motor and air conditioning added recently. It starts, runs, and drives well. It has good chrome and stainless. The paint still looks nice. The interior is overall in good shape.

  • Special features: Recently built small block 265 cu (4.3L) V8 Chevrolet engine with aftermarket 4 bbl. carburetor, automatic transmission, air conditioning, power steering, power brakes, dual exhaust, wide white walls, and aftermarket AM-FM cassette and gauges.
  • Engine: Starts, runs, and drives well with fresh motor and transmission. Chrome air cleaner, vacuum chamber, and dual master cylinder. Working air conditioning.
  • Chassis: Four American Classics P205/70R15 wide whitewall tires in good condition on factory steel wheels with nice full wheel covers. Modern power steering and dual master cylinder power brakes. Underside driver quality with no obvious issues.
  • Interior: Older interior restoration (10+ years) still looks good. Good glass, seat belts, headliner, carpet, and original and aftermarket gauges. Four speaker radio. Trunk finished with spare and mat.
  • Exterior: Very good door, hood, and trunk fit. Chrome and stainless are both good. Repainted about 8 years ago and still looks very nice.

1955 Chevrolet Bel Air Sport Coupe 1955 Chevrolet Bel Air Sport Coupe 1955 Chevrolet Bel Air Sport Coupe 1955 Chevrolet Bel Air Sport Coupe



Location Marker

Williamson, New York

Magnifying Glass


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U.K. court upholds ruling that could threaten EU motorsports

U.K. court upholds ruling that could threaten EU motorsports

1979 Ford Escort RS1900 at the 2009 Goodwood Festival of Speed. Photo by AtomicJam.

In ruling for a charity that benefits crash victims earlier this month, the High Court of England and Wales supported a European Union court ruling on compulsory insurance that racers and racing fans believe will decimate motorsports across Europe.

The High Court, in its ruling for the plaintiff in RoadPeace v Secretary of State for Transport and MIB, held that any use of a motor vehicle, whether on or off public roads, requires motor vehicle insurance, a ruling consistent with the European Court of Justice’s September 2014 verdict in the case of Vnuk v. Triglav, which found that the EU’s 2009 Motor Insurance Directive did not clearly distinguish between on-road and off-road use and, therefore, any motor vehicle – regardless of its use on public or private property – must be insured.

The U.K.-based Motorsport Industry Association (which has yet to issue a statement on the RoadPeace ruling) earlier this year argued that the Vnuk ruling poses a significant threat to all European motorsports not only because on-track crashes will be subject to the same police investigations as on-road crashes, but also because insurance covering competition cars either doesn’t exist throughout the European Union or exists at rates of up to 20 times that of typical on-road insurance coverage.

Other motorsports organizations have pointed out that the economic impact just from the loss of motorsports activity in the U.K. would amount to £11 billion per year.

Shortly before the High Court ruling, an insurance trade group, the International Underwriting Association, warned the European Commission that the Vnuk ruling also creates the potential for wider uninsured driving and increased insurance fraud.

In the High Court ruling, RoadPeace, the crash victim charity, argued in part that the U.K.’s Road Traffic Act of 1988 only requires insurance for vehicles used on public roads, and that limited requirement does not comply with the EU Motor Insurance Directive, as interpreted by the Vnuk case.

Both the European Commission and the U.K.’s Department for Transport have issued consultations on the Vnuk case, requesting comment on the case’s implications and proposing a number of alternatives, including revisions to the Motor Insurance Directive that would either specifically exempt non-road vehicle usage from mandatory insurance or specifically apply the Motor Insurance Directive to in-traffic vehicle usage.

Until the U.K. finalizes its split from the European Union, it remains bound by EU laws, including the Motor Insurance Directive.

The public comment period for both consultations has passed, but neither consultation has resulted in any actions.

Despite its final ruling, the High Court did concede that the expanded scope that resulted from the Vnuk ruling was “unexpected” and recommended that the European Commission should add language to the Motor Insurance Directive stipulating that its scope applies only to on-road vehicle usage.


Bonhams’ Bond Street Auction to feature several sought-after motorcycles

Bonhams’ Bond Street Auction to feature several sought-after motorcycles

1964 BSA 646cc Rocket Gold Star. Photos courtesy of Bonhams Auctions.

Amid all the very upper-crust collector vehicles that will be featured – an Elton John-owned 1959 Bentley, 1955 Lancia B24 Spider America, 1959 Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud drophead coupe, and the ex-Paul McCartney Aston Martin DB5 – Bonhams will also be offering a few interesting motorcycles during its Bond Street Auction this upcoming Sunday, December 2, at the firm’s new auction house on New Bond Street in London. Always popular with high-end motorcycle collectors are the classic Brough Superiors and Vincent Black Shadows, and Bonhams will be auctioning one of each of these sought-after machines.

1949 Black Shadow Series C

The Vincent crossing the stage at the Bond Street sale is a 1949 Black Shadow Series C that sat untouched for over 30 years before it was painstakingly restored in 2016. Once owned by a lighthouse keeper, it was purchased in 2004 and left to its own devices after the owner intended to restore it but never got started on the project. It was recently sold to the current owner, who finally brought the bike back to its former glory. The Black Shadow features a 998-cc V-twin engine that realizes 55 bhp and 7.2:1 compression, and Girdraulic front forks, an innovation that used two external hydraulic shocks mounted to the sides of the ridged beam-type forks to provide softness to the front suspension. Only 42 Vincent-HRD Series C Black Shadows are currently known to have been made before the HRD name reference was phased out in 1950. The restoration was completed so that the bike would look as it appeared during its debut at Earl’s Court Motorcycle Show in 1948, including the red stripes painted on chrome spoked wheel rims. Pre-auction estimates for this beautifully restored Vincent are between $110,000 and 160,000 U.S.

1936 Brough Superior SS80 Special

Bonhams’ Brough offering is a 1936 Superior SS80 Special. This example features the J. A. Prestwich 982-cc side-valve V-twin engine that had just been reintroduced in Brough bikes in 1935 after a brief hiatus. The new J.A.P. engines were produced by Associated Motor Cycles and used by Brough until the end of production in 1939. Of the original 460 built, only 300 or so still survive. This SS80 Special features a Bentley-Draper sprung frame, which was usually only available beneath the SS100 bikes and a Druid front fork assembly, a later addition by its original owner. The bike was completely restored by a previous owner sometime before January 2010 but has been ridden over 200 miles since the restoration, including participation in the 2011 International West Kent Run. The auction company sets a pre-bidding estimate of between $87,000 and $110,000 for this J.A.P.-powered Brough SS80 Special.


1950 AJS 7R

Additional bikes to be offered at Sunday’s sale:

A 1950 AJS 7R 350 single cylinder “Boy Racer” in need of a full restoration that is expected to sell between $27,000 and $33,000.

A 1964 BSA 646cc Rocket Gold Star that was restored in 2001. This classic café racer is expected to sell for about the same price ($25,000 – $35,000) as the AJS.

1977 MV Agusta 750S America

A 1977 MV Agusta 750S America is also on the auction block. This hand-built bike has a 789-cc engine capable of 75 bhp and a top speed of 135 mph. The America bikes were only produced from 1976 to 1979, and the Magni fairing is available, but not part of the bike sale. It is expected to bring between $74,000 and $87,000 US at the auction.

You can see further details on these bikes, as well as on the many cars being offered and the art collection of automotive artist Dexter Brown, which will also be sold at this weekend at the same auction, at


Jeep’s last load-lugger: 1986 Comanche brochure

Jeep’s last load-lugger: 1986 Comanche brochure

Brochure images are from the collection of Hemmings Motor News, courtesy of Bruce Zahor.

Jeep aficionados are salivating at the prospect of the upcoming Wrangler-based Scrambler pickup truck, rumored to be debuting at the Los Angeles Auto Show at the end of this month. The retro-nameplate Scrambler would be the first Jeep with a factory-installed pickup bed in decades, and one whose ancestors include the Brooks Stevens-penned FCs of the late 1950s, the 1960s-’80s J-series, the 1981-’85 CJ-8 Scrambler, and this, the XJ-series Cherokee-based Comanche.

That new 1984 Cherokee compact SUV had proved a smash hit for Jeep, being a category innovator with its unit-body “UniFrame” construction and option of two or four doors. It was adapted to pickup duty with an 18.2-inch wheelbase stretch, and the addition of a rear subframe to support the generous 7.5-foot bed. The resulting compact/midsize (194-inch-long) pickup would feature a single cab with a bench or bucket seats, and two- or four-wheel drive, and would take home Four Wheeler magazine’s “Four Wheeler of the Year” trophy for its debut year.

This MJ-series Comanche was sold from 1985 (as a 1986 model) through 1992, and the generously sized, 24-page brochure highlighted here offered prospective buyers a fine overview of what Jeep executives hoped would be a runaway best-seller. This new model–which went up against Ford’s Ranger and Chevrolet’s S-10–could be ordered as a luxurious XLS, sporty X, or basic Custom, each coming in two- or four-wheel-drive forms (part-time, off-road “Command-Trac” or full-time, all-surface “Selec-Trac”).

For 1986, the standard powertrain was the AMC 2.5-liter, fuel-injected 117-hp four-cylinder mated to a four-speed manual transmission. Optional setups included that engine with a three-speed automatic, a Renault-designed 85-hp, 2.1-liter turbo-diesel with a five-speed manual or three-speed auto, and a GM-sourced, 2-bbl-carbureted, 115-hp, 2.8-liter V-6 with the latter two gearbox choices.

Jeep ensured the Comanche lived up to its tough 4 x 4 heritage by fitting solid axle front and rear suspensions behind 15 x 6-inch steel (optional 15 x 7-inch steel or aluminum) wheels: the “Quadralink” front used coil springs, four locating arms, an anti-roll bar, steering damper, and dual-action tube shocks, while the Hotchkiss-style rear featured leaf springs and dual-action tube shocks.

Regardless of the mechanical package or trim level, these trucks were highly customizable, with numerous option packages adding upscale equipment inside and out. Whether you wanted your Comanche sporty or cosseting, it could oblige. It was even available with a Fuel Saver Package, which paired the 2.5-liter gas engine with a four-speed manual, 3.31:1 final drive ratio, and an upshift light–so equipped, the 2WD was rated at 24 city/27 highway mpg, the 4WD coming in 23 city/26 highway. Of course, the turbo-diesel four did even better, claiming 28/31 for 2WD and 28/29 for 4WD. These figures were altered after the recent fuel economy rating changes, but the 2WD diesel achieves a still-impressive 24/29 mpg.

When the Comanche returned for its sophmore year, a good deal had changed. A short-bed (112.9-inch wheelbase, 6.0-foot bed) version became available in certain trim levels, and the milquetoast carb’d GM V-6 was replaced by a fuel-injected “Power-Tech” 4.0-liter straight-six, which brought another 62 hp to the party. That 4.0–which would power Jeep products well into the 21st century–was at the heart of the coveted Comanche Eliminator sport truck, which debuted for 1988.

This model would remain in Jeep’s lineup through 1992, with somewhere just under 165,000 having been built. After that point, the Chrysler-owned firm would focus on SUVs, leaving the pickup truck market to Dodge’s Dakota and Ram. That is, until now…

Were you a fan of the crisp-looking Comanche?

Click on the brochure images below to enlarge.




Hemmings Find of the Day – 1953 Packard 300 convertible

Hemmings Find of the Day – 1953 Packard 300 convertible

1953 Packard 300 convertible

From the seller’s description:

1953 Packard 300 convertible restored -“Lucy”- Mechanically excellent. This is the way you want to buy an old Packard: let the current owner sink serious $money$ and time into the restoration so that all you have to do is enjoy driving the wonderful car with no worries AND get a real bargain in the process!

VIN 26793014 #1014 out of 1518 produced in 1953. Briggs body number matches. Engine #26793014 (upgraded at some point with a replacement 327 ci 8 cylinder 9 main bearing engine). My wife’s car that she doesn’t drive anymore. Member of both Packards International and The Packard Club. Have owned and restored Packards for over 25 years.

Restoration was completed by the Packard pros at Custom Auto; Santa Ana, CA and The Murphy Auto Museum in Oxnard, CA with over $100k spent and completed in 2008. Includes: pulling engine and detailing compartment, new paint, interior leather and convertible top, front suspension, polish stainless, re-chroming, rebuild carb, add electric fuel pump backup, replaced 2 speed Ultramatic transmission with bullet proof 727 3 speed Torqueflite for reliability and better performance, drive shaft, mating yokes, brake cylinders, brake line, wheel bearings, generator, starter, water pump, fuel pump, various switches, voltage regulator, manifold gaskets, exhaust system, freeze plugs, rod out radiator, radial tires, etc. The objective was to have a great looking, mechanically dependable car that can be enjoyed for many miles.

Packard Factory Standards: 327 ci straight 8 with Carter 4 bbl carb. Options: radio with electric antenna, automatic transmission, heater/defroster, power assisted brakes, trunk light, backup lights, tilt mirror, driver side mirro, white sidewall tires, oil bath air cleaner, oil filter.

Maintenance: Once a year the oil, filter, air cleaner, crankcase vent, transmission, differential chassis lube were checked and serviced. Vehicle has always been garaged and has never been driven in the rain. I would call this a overly maintained car!

Performance: The three biggest old gripes are hard starting, runs hot, or break downs. Lucy promptly starts, runs cool, and has all the mechanicals rebuilt for reliability. The torqueflite transmission smoothly shifts through 3 speeds and you can comfortably cruise 70 mph on the freeway with one finger on the steering wheel. Convertible hydraulic top works nicely. What doesn’t work–the clock. For the past 10 years, the car has only been driven 3500 miles!!

1953 Packard 300 convertible 1953 Packard 300 convertible 1953 Packard 300 convertible 1953 Packard 300 convertible



Location Marker

Santa Barbara, California

Magnifying Glass


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After off-track excursions, concerns mount over future of racing at El Mirage

After off-track excursions, concerns mount over future of racing at El Mirage

Photo by CleftClips.

One would think the fluorescent orange signs would do the trick. Or perhaps the flashing LED lights mounted to those signs. But the Southern California Timing Association has decided to take additional measures to keep racers from blowing through the shutdown area on the track at El Mirage Dry Lake to ensure that racing continues there in the future.

Unlike the Bonneville Salt Flats, El Mirage sees high levels of public use alongside the SCTA’s regular racing events. According to Pat McDowell, the president of the SCTA, the organization does its best to separate the racing area from the motorcyclists, campers, and windsailers also using the dry lakebed by laying out cones and by posting observers every eighth of a mile along the track.

The track itself measures 90 feet by 1.3 miles and has another mile of shutdown area followed by “secondary containment”–cones that narrow in a V shape for 100 yards. The abovementioned signs and lights, along with balloons at two heights, mark the shutdown and containment areas.

“When a car goes outside that area, the BLM doesn’t like that much,” he said. “We’re in danger of losing our freedom here.”

“At the last SCTA El Mirage event of the season earlier this month, six drivers sent their cars ‘out the back door’–that is, beyond the shutdown and containment areas–far more than the occasional driver who suffers mechanical failures with their parachutes or brakes,” McDowell said. The Bureau of Land Management, which oversees El Mirage and issues permits to the SCTA to allow it to use the dry lakebed, documented each off-course excursion.

“These are big mistakes by the drivers,” McDowell said. He noted that it’s possible El Mirage’s dust and haze can cause some drivers to miss the signage, but it’s more likely that many of the drivers behind those six back-door violations either didn’t pay attention during rookie training or driver orientation, and thought they had a longer Bonneville-scale course. “The perfect storm is if somebody goes out and hits a kid on a dirt bike. After that, we’re done, there’s no coming back.”

McDowell made the excursions a topic of his end-of-season message to SCTA members earlier this week, noting that the violations “are a very serious infraction and threaten our very existence at El Mirage. We just cannot continue to have these problems or we will be shut down.”

BLM representatives did not return calls for this story.

Since the last SCTA event, McDowell said that BLM representatives have requested that the SCTA increase the visibility of the shutdown and containment areas, which McDowell said the SCTA will do before its season opener at El Mirage next May. McDowell also said that SCTA officials are discussing tougher punishment for back-door violations, likely on a sliding scale. “If a guy goes over by a few inches because his chute didn’t pop, he might be out for the day, but if he’s under power for a mile past the end of the course, he’s not coming back for a while.”

Past SCTA president Bill Lattin said that the SCTA hasn’t considered reversing the El Mirage course–running from east to west instead of the current west to east, theoretically shunting anybody who goes past the end of the course into lesser-used areas of the dry lakebed. “I’m not sure that would be a good way to go,” he said.

Both McDowell and Lattin said that back-door violations aren’t the norm at El Mirage. Both cited instances of drivers at speeds of up to and exceeding 300 mph able to get their cars stopped well within the shutdown area. However, both also noted that the cars racing at El Mirage are more capable of higher speeds than in years past, and that driver education is critical to keep those faster cars from leaving the race course.

“There’s that saying, ‘You can’t fix stupid,’ but we’ve gotta give it a shot,” McDowell said.

The SCTA has hosted land-speed racing events at El Mirage since 1938. The racers who gathered at El Mirage and other Western dry lakes in the pre- and postwar eras are often considered the pioneers of the hot-rodding hobby.

For more information about the SCTA, visit