SAAC 27 (2002, California Speedway, Fontana)
We at Crown Publishing Company/Cobra Country extend a special tip-of-the-visor to American Airlines pilot Mike Drew of Vacaville, California, who provided us his own personal experience at SAAC-27—the lion’s share of the text on these three pages of SAAC-27 feature coverage—as well as many of the photos. He did a splendid job, a credit to automotive writing… all the more so for his being an enthusiast/amateur writer and not a professional photojournalist. I hope you’ll dash off to him a nice email and express your gratitude for sharing his experience with all of us: email:MikeLDrew@aol.com
Mike Drew: I drove down to LA a few days before SAAC-27 was scheduled to commence activities. Thursday (July 4th) was the Magical Mystery Tour—a motorcoach tour around the southland, visiting the various locations where Shelby American had been headquartered in its heyday. Since I was on-call on my job, I couldn’t ride the coaches so I decided to just drive my beater Sirocco to the first stop and wait, then simply tag along. I found the place easily, and then realized that I’d inadvertently left my digital camera back at my apartment. :<(
I expected one or two buses; imagine my surprise when SIX fully loaded motorcoaches pulled up in front
of 1042 Princeton Street in Venice (right behind Bartel’s Harley-Davidson, for those who know the area). This was the former Lance Reventlow shop that Shelby took over in ’63 when he commenced production of the Cobra. Until recently it had been an abandoned building, but a few months ago a couple of enterprising guys bought it with the intent of opening up some sort of design studio.
Club member (and original 289 Cobra owner) Hank Williams happened to drive by a few weeks ago, and spotted the two owners standing outside; they happened to be chatting about the building’s history, and wishing they had some photos during its Cobra years. Can you spell “serendipity”? Hank was a regular at the shop back in the heyday, he returned with several hundred photos to share with them. In turn, they gave Hank the keys to the building! So we were actually able to go inside and look around. It’s all changed inside of course, but several original factory workers were with us, and they told us how things had been laid out back in the day….
Our next stop was the hangar at 6501 Imperial Highway, on the south side of LAX. Shelby moved here in 1965 when the GT-350 project started; this hangar was used for the assembly line, while the adjacent hangar was the race shop. The two buildings have since been taken over by QANTAS [acronym stands for “Queensland And Northern Territory Air Service,” in case you wanted to know] and Japan Air Lines/All Nippon Airlines, used as cargo ports. Fortunately for us, the general manager of the JAL hangar is a Shelby club member! So he opened the doors for us, and again, original factory workers regaled us with tales, describing how the cars had gone down the production line, pointing out where the various divisions in the building had been, etc.
Our next stop was Shelby’s Goodyear race tire distribution warehouse in Gardena, hosted by none other than J.L. Henderson. A full lunch was waiting for us there#thanks to the generosity of Gary Underwood and his family#as well as Shelby himself, wandering through the crowd, shaking hands and welcoming people.
Besides the tire biz, Shelby’s motor-building shop is also located here, and we got to watch an all-aluminum stroker 427 side-oiler get abused on the dyno. The numbers were in the 550 hp range as I recall. And that’s not their “big” motor….
Amid all the aluminum blocks (raw castings, very rough, and still cast by the Buddy Bar casting corp.) were several cars, including some new CSX 4000 Cobra replicas, a Series 1, a ’66 GT-350 convertible, and an original 427 Cobra roadster. What caught my eye, though, was Shelby’s 1986 De Tomaso Pantera GT5-S, powered by a twin-turbo 340 Chrysler. This was a pre-Viper development mule, a joint venture between Chrysler, Shelby and De Tomaso that never came to fruition….
While I was checking it out, my cellphone rang. I was advised that I had to fly to New York the following day, so I’d miss out on the first day of the track event. They then wanted me to spend the night and deadhead home the following day, which would pretty much shoot Saturday too. Damn. :<(
After lunch we stopped at the Moon Equipment Company, and speed shop; we were hosted by Chico Kodama, current president of the company. Dean Moon was a legend in hot rod circles; virtually every single southern California hot rod of the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s was Moon-equipped. Moon’s was one of the first hot-rod businesses to develop national marketing, and thus they were the primary distributors for Edelbrock, American Racing, et al. It was in a corner of this shop that Shelby and Moon dropped the 260 V8 into the very first Cobra, and the Shelby legend was born. Two original Moon employees, father Roy and his son Doyle Gammell from the ’60s were able to tell us all about the construction of the Cobra and the excitement that surrounded it.
This place was rather curious, almost like stepping back in time. While they were truly cutting-edge back in the heyday of hot-rodding, time has clearly passed them by. They are now deeply into the nostalgia scene, and most of their business comes from selling soft goods (T-shirts, decals, et al.).
The final stop was in the parking lot of a department store and mall in Riverside, which used to be Turn 6 at the famous race track which carried that name. The entire track is now gone, gobbled up by land developers in the 1980s and spit out as a CostCo, miniature golf amusement park, the aforementioned shopping mall and a housing development. Prior to the bulldozers and graders plowing up the last remaining part of the track back in January, SAAC had one of its dedicated members find what was left of the track’s legendary Turn 9 concrete wall and grab enough so that everyone on the tour was able to get a chunk as a once-in-a-lifetime souvenir. Surprisingly enough, after all these years the original Riverside Raceway sign is still standing, albeit not for much longer. SAAC knows how to do things right: they had each one numbered and registered with a company that authenticates collectibles so in the event they change hands, they will be legitimate – not just pieces of concrete from some nondescript landfill. Lewis Downs, who raced there in the ’60s, gave us a splendid narration of what it was like back then.
As everybody piled onto the coaches to head back to the hotel, I had to split and prepare to jet back to The Big Apple. The next day I grudgingly flew to JFK, but upon my arrival I persuaded The-Powers-That-Be to release me; 45 minutes later I was winging my way back to LAX. :>)
Saturday dawned early, and I drove from Long Beach out to Fontana. The sheer size of the speedway and its facilities is awesome to behold.
Bob Shaw: Friday we were introduced to one of the best tracks in the World. The excitement of pitting there and placing your car where the greats of CART and NASCAR put their footprints before. The swap meet area and the Shelby’s cars in attendance.the excitement of the first lap on the 2.88 mile (4.63 km) track. The Friday-evening banquet: 600 attendees were ushered in to a feast; they enjoyed the after-dinner recollections of former Shelby American Employees. Hosted by Rick and Bernie Kretzschmar.
Mike Drew: I can truly say that I have never come close to seeing so many Shelbys and Cobras in one place. Literally every kind of Shelby metal your mind’s eye could imagine was visible in multiple numbers. They ranged from concours perfect to abject beaters. There were trailer queens (which I personally find rather sad to contemplate, a waste of a lovely car as far as I’m concerned), vintage racers, daily drivers and everything in between.
I was particularly intrigued with GT40s, and saw a total of five of them there, of which one was an original, one was a quasi-original (Safir continuation car), and the remaining three were replicas, by three different makers. Each of them was exquisite, though!
Dunno know ’bout you, but there are those who staunchly maintain
that those black/gold 1966 Hertz GT350H Shelbys represent the very
pinnacle (pinochle?) of Shelby styling and color coordination.
SAAC-27: Track Events
Friday, Saturday and Sunday, July 5-7, 2002
Photos by Bob McClurg, Curt Scott and Mike Drew
above: distinguished veterans from the golden years line up in front of one of the largest gatherings of original 289 and 427 Cobra roadsters. Team driver Bob Johnson standing, second row, 7th from left, light blue shirt/white Bermudas, came all the way from Ohio. Great guy. Also in the picture (front row, second and third from the left) are Dick Smith, 1967 SCCA A/Production National Champion and Chuck Cantwell, Shelby’s GT350 Project Engineer. Smith is the original owner of the 427 Comp Cobra he drove to victory in 1967 and he still owns the car. He had his car there… and he raced it in the Cobra Vintage race! Cantwell drove GT350s for Shelby in 1965 and 1966 and at SAAC-27 he was behind the wheel of an original ’67 Shelby notchback Trans-Am racer in the Shelby/Trans-Am Vintage race. Photos by Bob McClurg
And folks, as luck would have it (Murphy must’ve been dozing), Mike Drew was up in the infield bleachers shooting from the side of the formation, as Bob McClurg was shooting this frontal shot from a stepladder. If you’d like to see Mike’s shot of the stunning lineup of original Cobra roadsters and Daytona Coupes (we count 42 machines in all (although we’re told that eventually 47 cars made the picture)… just about the maximum number of original roadsters & coupes anyone’ll ever see in one place), click on the hotlinked photo above and you’ll get to see Mike Drew’s splendid aerial shot!
above: Not able to resist the magnetic pull of a good vintage GT350 mix-’em-up, Rick Kopec dragged his GT350 R-Model 3000 miles west to be part of the show. A dozen other East Coast racers out of Curt Vogt’s Connecticut “Cobra Automotive” race shop were packed into two transporters and they made the race a truly West Coast/East Coast rumble. 56 cars were entered and the first lap of the GT350/Trans-Am race looked like a NASCAR Happy Hour.
Note the yellow tech inspection sticker in the corner of the windshield. It brandishes an image of Steve McQueen from Bullitt and says “East Coast Entry.” Midwest entries had red stickers with Shelby’s likeness. And West Coast cars were forced to wear pink tech stickers carrying a cartoon face and a rainbow. We know there was a little animosity between East and West Coast factions but some said this went above and beyond. East Coasters were smiling while West Coasters steamed in silence. All in fun… :=) Photos by Curt Scott.
above:early Friday morning, 5 July: Drivers queue their Shelby machines for the first round of track time.
Photo by Bob McClurg
Mike Drew (continued): The evil “Dave Dralle” chicane on the front straight had been reconfigured with small hay bales replacing the brutal K-walls which had been there a few weeks prior. The cars would be at 140-160 mph along the front straight, then have to stand on the brakes and downshift to 3rd gear to negotiate the quick left-right transition. One fellow driving a CSX 4000 Cobra spec racer [Shelby fiberglass-bodied car with a 351W race motor] had reportedly been driving very fast, but erratically. Eventually he got it all wrong, came charging into the chicane too hot, then panicked and jumped on the brakes. He locked up all four wheels, and went smoking right into and over the hay bales, wiping out the front end of his car (see photo below).
at right: the driver of this CSX4000
roadster experienced a bit of a
problem in the chicane, tumbled over
some of the hay bales… and as you
can see, implemented some serious
restructuring of his Cobra.
Photo and caption by Mike Drew
Several other cars had close encounters in the chicane, and body damage was visible here and there, but most folks shrugged it off and kept on driving anyway.
I spent most of the morning wandering around, checking out cars, bumping into Pantera buddies occasionally, and then got the opportunity of a lifetime. Scott Black, a Pantera and Shelby guy from Dallas, was working at a trailer right next to the Shelby trailer, and he’s tight with the Shelby boys, so he talked *my* way into a high-speed ride in a new, 515 horsepower supercharged Series 1 with a factory test pilot at the helm!
Once back at the track, I reported for work at the hot pits again, and helped stage the 50-something Mustangs (and one Tiger) that participated in the vintage race.
The race was action-packed and VERY fast. I noted that generally the east coast guys seemed markedly faster then us west coasters; the cars prepared by Cobra Automotive in CT were just unbeatable. I was chatting with Tom Fry and Tom Georgalos the night before, and Tom said that he was flat-out down the front straight, going like hell, when one of those Cobra Automotive cars just BLEW past him–Tom figured he had an extra *200* horsepower!!!!
Bob Shaw: Sunday. the big race: some bad boys with their bad toys put them on the grid and went for it. I’ll let the guys in it describe it, but the West coast prevailed with Gary Underwood winning the Cobra race. Some might disagree, but those CSX4000 Challenge Cars are in a class by themselves. The “GT350 race” was won by another West coaster, Dan Luckow. I suspect the rules and grids will change to match like-against-like in years to come, just a speclulation. I finally got to drive Sunday and what a hoot… that track was delicious. All turns were great fun, but diving into the chicane at turn one was best for me.
Mike Drew: At most 3-day SAAC events, a lot of people pack their track time into the early days so they can pack up and leave as soon as the car show and vintage races end. SAAC-27 was no exception. The drivers electing to run on Sunday afternoon barely filled one run group. The Cobra and GT350 vintage races were scheduled for the early afternoon and by about 3:00 the track went silent. It made me want to cry. It was a successful event for SAAC and on their way out of the track they stopped by the front office and put the club’s name on California Speedway’s 2005 schedule. Don’t make plans for the July 4th weekend. Kopec paraphrased Arnold by saying, “Ve’ll be back.”
All in all, SAAC-27 at California Speedway was a splendid event in every respect, thanks in no small part to SAAC’s Nor-Cal Region’s Open Track Executive Committee. As soon as the event’s location was made public these guys stepped forward and volunteered to oversee the track event! Their experience showed. They made the sessions run like a well-oiled 289 Hi-Po and this greatly increased each participant’s enjoyment. I volunteered to work this event because I normally enjoy the benefits of the labors of others, and I hoped for the opportunity for some payback to them. It helped the OTEC guys who had race cars by letting them suit-up and get behind the wheel. I’d like to extend a personal thanks to all of them.
Bob Shaw: Saturday—my favorite day—the luncheon with over sixty Legends attending and sharing their experiences and signing memorabilia#Phil Remington, Bondo, Chuck Cantwell, Bob Johnson and many of the Golden-Years participants who made it all happen. Ol’ Shel phoned from home (doctor’s order to stay at home) and Linda Vaughn (the Queen of Motorsports and a Hall of Famer and who once again lit up the room). Truly a once-in-a-lifetime event for us Shelby nuts… it just doesn’t get any better. A big THANK YOU to the reunion pit crew: Bernie and Diana (crew chief), John and Janet, my wife Sammie and Lewis and Terry Downs from NorCal and our sponsors: Shelby American Enterprises, Ford SVT Division, Vortech Engineering, JBA Headers, Applied Computer Solutions (pictured Janet, Mike Davis of ACS, Boris Said and Sandy Davis), Tony Branda Performance, Motorsports International, Orlando Mustang, SWB Studios and Steve Moriarty of Chicane Auto Racing Productions. A special thanks to Rick Titus and Jay Dalton (pictured) for bring their Drivers Talk Radio Program to the Reunion. Some say this was the best SAAC convention ever.
The (Saturday evening) dinner: 800 sat down to enjoy the meal and hear more memories Once again Bernie at the mike. A couple of us were surprised at the dinner and some us gathered around one of the most dedicated and talented Cobra/GT350 driver/mechanic/restorer ever for a chat. It’s not often Dave Dralle leaves the shop to attend a social event.
Mike Drew: Saturday evening we enjoyed a delicious banquet (editor: a first: there were TWO banquets at this convention… Friday evening and Saturday evening), and then filed into another room where a long list of guest speakers from the glory days of Shelby American shared short anecdotes. Shelby himself had a leg operation earlier in the week, and on Friday his doctor put him on bed rest, so he was unable to join us, but he did make a short presentation via telephone.
In it, he alluded to a new project he’s undertaking with Ford. Apparently Ford is surfing the Thunderbird/GT40 nostalgia craze fairly heavily, and they’ve joined forces with Shelby to create an all-new “old” car to be displayed at the Detroit auto show in January. It will be powered by a 5.4 liter supercharged or twin-turbocharged engine, and basically be an updated version of the classic ’60s Cobra. Will it go into production? Well, the folks that I spoke with who work for Shelby now (all of them very tight-lipped) indicated that they were working VERY hard on the project–harder than one might expect if the car was just a styling exercise….
Bob Shaw had this to say in conclusion: Volumes can and will be written about SAAC-27. My comments focus upon only a small part of what this event proved to be. According Rick Kopec, it was “A Great Convention” and “One of the best in 27 years”! And, yes they will be back for the 30th in 2005. Some stats: nearly 5000 attendees, eclipsing SAAC’s expectations; 250 cars in the popular vote, 27 concours and 44 Cobras for the photo shoot… 17 Cobras (including five CSX4000 Challenge Cars) and 56 Shelbys and their replicas entered for the race… a record for SAAC… and 128 trophies for the carshow and race. SAAC-27 in Fontana, California turned out to be Motorhead Heaven!
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