CALIFORNIA DREAMING (Confessions of a Rookie Drag Car Driver) or A BUG, A DREAM AND SIX MEN IN A MOTORHOME

(There was very little editing done to this story,it is the story of a novice driver and gives an amazing perspective)

A plan was hatched.  A dream was realized. Corey (Crew Chief), wanted to go to Bugorama in Sacramento, CA.  He convinced a group of five others to go.   Preparations began in earnest with the careful placement of stickers on the window of the motor home and the guys set out on their adventure.  Shane Constantinescu, Don Gifford, Greg Gunson, Corey Strickler and Ken Baker left Canada, stopping to pick up Jim Brown on their way.  This is Ken’s story …

California Dreaming.  The motor home was loaded, the trailer was hitched to it and the guys were ready to head to Sacramento.  Since he was a small child back in the UK, with hot rod pictures cut from American magazines pinned up on his walls, Ken Baker had dreamed about road trips like this.  As they set out, he was already getting nervous. He didn’t really know the guys he was travelling with, having joined the Luft Gekuhlt Kreuzers the previous year, and had only met them a couple of times.  Aside from that, Canada seemed like a big and scary place coming from Great Britain, but the United States seemed much bigger and much scarier. I reminded him of the boy with the cut-out pictures of hotrods on his walls, and the fact that he was realizing a dream, and of course, of the adrenaline rush that was to come.  His response was that adrenaline or fear—they were pretty close and indistinguishable.

Ken Baker leaving

Thursday morning, the 26th of May, and the guys set out at around 7 a.m. That meant Ken got up at around 4:30 a.m. and started driving up Highway 1 to Langley.  Surprisingly, traffic flowed nicely considering it was a weekday. The trailer was unhitched from the F350 and hitched onto the motor home.  Everything was loaded up.  One of the first lessons learned was that buying Canadian beer in Canada was not the smartest thing to do, since it’s cheaper in the States.  Even the U.S. border guard laughed at their folly—and waived them through.  It must have put him off his stride a bit as he laughed and watched the five VW guys in the motor home drive away with their Canadian beer.

Travelling deep into Washington State, the group stopped in Gig Harbour to pick up the sixth team member, Jim Brown. Jim and his wife Connie travel quite a distance for club meets in Canada and for lunches with the group at the White Spot in Aldergrove, BC; showing impressive dedication to a club that feels more like a family.

Motor home

The next port of call was to gas up.  The cavernous gas tank of the beast holds more than $150 of cheap U.S. gas (U.S. gas is about half the price of Canadian gas).  Then it was onto the Interstate 5, followed by more I-5, then even more I-5.

After more I-5, it was time for some sustenance in Oregon.  A few of the crew had never been to an In’N’Out Burger and were treated to the experience.  In Ken’s words, it was awesome…fast food, cooked slow and easy. I believe there are now new “In’N’Out” fans in the group. The posting on the LGK Facebook page resulted in a form of virtual drooling; that many people can’t be wrong.

Later that evening, in California, for no apparent reason, a truck driver, with what sounded like a train horn, decided to try and run them off the road en route, and it appeared as though he had a sore middle finger because he kept trying to show it to them.

Midnight saw the guys checking into a brand new Comfort Suite (or so the sign said—it had actually been open for two years).  Bunking down for the night in single beds that actually turned out to be King-sized beds (bonus! or just a misunderstanding by a guy from the UK), thoughts were on the road ahead and the adventure to come.

Friday morning, the 27th of May, and after an excellent sleep, albeit only five hours long, Day 2 of the road trip was dawning. Over breakfast, the conversation turned to how fast the bug should run.  It began at 13 seconds and worked down to 9. Ken wasn’t so sure, in his mind 13 sounded about right.  Discussion even turned to swapping out the engine and gearbox and adding electronics and turbo. Ken reiterated that the end result of that, with the same driver, would likely be the same 13 seconds.

Along the way, it seemed the group visited almost every Walmart on the road between Vancouver and Sacramento; and it looked like another might be coming up on the road ahead. Ken reflected on the fact that it would have been a wise move to buy shares in “Hot Wheels” before leaving—that, and tiny little beer bottles (it’s a group joke and if you ask Corey, he’ll tell all).

The climate and the landscape had changed as they travelled on down the road.  Things started to look dry and arid.  The LGK hoodies were no longer necessary and Ken put his aside as temperatures were headed towards 34 degrees Celsius.  Then, having second thoughts, he kept it handy to mop up the sweat when he melted into a puddle of salty water in the 100 degree heat. A quick stop in at Bugformance in Sacramento for some browsing and buying and a fantastic impromptu lunch of Tacos and Fajitas provided by the crew at Bugformace.

The Sacramento Raceway loomed ahead. Lots of top fuel V8 dragsters and a few VWs were present for the test and tune.  Ken was starting to get nervous, not wanting to let the club down, but he knew that he wasn’t driving a 10 second car; he ultimately knew that it was what it was. They stood on the starting line and watched a few passes. Ken tried to watch what the water box guy was doing when calling people, and the starter.  Everything seemed pretty relaxed.  A few cars were pulled due to oil leaks.

Sacramento Raceway.jpg

Sacramento raceway sign

Taking a deep breath, Ken decided it was then or never and walked back to the car back at camp, making a pit stop at the nearest washroom along the way.  He told himself to have fun and enjoy it, but that wasn’t working; as he got closer to the car his heart rate was increasing.  He got in the car, got it started straightaway and headed off to the lanes.  When he arrived Shane, Jim and Corey, were there waiting.  He should have gone up against Mr. Lauffer in the Hater Maker, but he was running a pro tree, and Shane said to hold back and they would change the setting on the tree.  That’s when the nerves really started to kick in, because he was waiting and then someone had an oil down, so the engine was shut off and they waited more.

Eventually, Ken was called up to the line, but on the opposite side to what he had been, so there was a bit of shunting around at the start line.  He ran through the checklist in his head:  pull into water box, remember to line lock while foot is on the brake, spin up in second.  He was ready.  He heard the wheels spinning, but his focus was on the start line and releasing the line lock so he’d go straight and wouldn’t take out the tree.  The burnout was successful and he was relieved he didn’t screw it up.  Step two complete, now to stage; slowly forward, slower, slower.  First light on! Stop! He edged forward, just enough, then just a little bit more.  Second staging lights on.  Yellows and launch!  Wow! The car pulled left and stuff was flying about inside, and that may have been the GoPro mount that went flying by.  He pulled for second far too late and apparently his rev limiter was screaming for him to change but everything inside was a blur and it was all he could do to focus on the end of the track and keep it straight while having such a narrow field of view (Ken remarked that he thought his brain was shutting out anything not in his direct field of view, it was like some sort of “fight or flight” reaction).  The end of the track came up quicker than he could remember and everything else was a blur, it felt surreal, like an out-of-body experience.

Racing

He went straight back down to the start for another run, then he started to worry about battery power and whether or not he should have stopped to re-charge.  More shuffling took place on the start line and eventually he’s called to the water box.  Then he was told to pull out and reverse up.  Oh no!  Something was wrong, but what? He was stuck in his helmeted, muffled, narrow field of view little world and he had no idea of what was going on.  The door opened and he was told he was leaking oil. It’s what happened, and Ken felt like he’s let the club down.

Corey came over and directed Ken to the recovery lane at the side and he drove it back to the camp. When he got out he had that feeling that a person gets when they bang their thumb or cut their finger and they just grab it tight; not wanting to look at it, in case it’s bad. He looked underneath, and it was bad, a puddle of oil is already forming—like the puddle of blood from a badly cut finger.   Dammit, all that way and all that effort by the club, for one rookie run at 14.04 seconds (even though it felt like much more), and what he was looking at now looked terminal.  The adrenaline was being taken over by a strong sense of disappointment and discouragement.

While looking at the bug and wondering “what now?” it was high time to pitch a tent and get some sleep for the night.  He set up the tent on the concrete/tarmac/volcanic rock-like surface and the tent pegs bent into the ground with about as much holding power as sticky tape on a dusty surface.  The ground was, well, stones. If his pump-up mattress survived the night without a puncture it would be amazing.

The guys sat down to eat.  Ken recalls that it might have been hot dogs, but his mind was on other things, and then he decided he couldn’t do anything at that point, so why not have a beer and try to relax and not think about sleeping—or rather not being able to sleep.  Eventually he climbed over the rocks and into bed around midnight.  Generators were running, lights were on and inebriated people were milling about.  With some ear plugs fashioned from tissue that didn’t seem to do anything, apart from making his ears ache, he tossed and turned all night.

The campsite

Saturday morning the 28th of May. Ken eventually got out of bed at around five in the morning and wandered around tidying the camp and pondering solutions to world peace and how to get the car running and even whether or not he wanted to, as his back was hurting badly.  He popped a couple of pills and had a coffee.  It was Day 3:  the resurrection and stemming of a massive oil leak that seemed to have grown overnight.  Not so much fun.

Engine out 2

By 11:30 that morning, with help from everybody, and instead of just masking the problem with a diaper (the Paradise Crew said “take it out and fix it properly, it’ll only take 15 minutes”) they worked on the car.  An hour later and the engine was out.  It appears others may have overestimated the skill set required to do the job, as it was being done by non-professionals with limited tools.  The Paradise Team came to the rescue and supplied help and tools, these guys are awesome!   In any case, it went well and it was out and the problem was close to being identified.  Shane went on a shopping trip for a socket big enough for the flywheel bolt.  It was an odd size, so nobody had one.  It appeared they may be hooped, and that they had stripped it down only to have to put it all together again.  Oh well, Ken figured, the practice would do them good.

engine out

Tools and parts were secured and the rebuild began.  Everything went back together relatively quickly and the engine was back in and running in no time.  Ken received more coaching from the guys and got back in the car.  The heat was brutal and the racing pants weren’t helping, nor were the full sleeves and helmet strapped on tight.  This time they were missing the water box and going dry off the line.  This time, and for the first time that weekend, Ken got the left lane.  This was beneficial as his eyes could actually see the light.  He wasn’t feeling less stressed, but had been giving himself a pep talk, “Just do it”.  His launch was great, his reaction wasn’t, but he hit all the gears in the correct sequence this time and he got to the end with nothing breaking and no oil leaks.  Even better, he got the WIN light.  He knew it wasn’t not about them, but that it was about wasn’t about racing others, but that it was about him improving  his times and ability; but he took any positives he could get after the first few runs.

Ken Baker 3

Racing 2

As the day came to a close, it was time to have a beer and relax.  Jim had made some truly magnificent pulled pork and boy, was that needed. .  The Paradise Crew also had some Carne Asada, so we mingled and shared food and stories. The guys walked around that evening taking in the sights, sounds, and smells of a drag strip taken over by thousands of VW-loving people.  They strolled around and stopped to talk to other racers, including the guy Ken was last up against.  Everybody was exceptionally friendly and wanting to chat, that’s what the VW scene is all about.  They headed back to camp and Ken was exhausted.  In his words, the heat, the adrenaline, and age were getting the better of him.  He left the guys to chat for a while and went off to write the last section of notes for the day and then crash for the night.  There was more racing in the morning, but right then all he was hoping for was more sleep than the previous night.

Sunday morning, the 29th of May, Day 4 or was it Day 3? The days were all starting to blend together.  Ken had a good sleep and apparently he snored, which gave the guys a chuckle until one of the others fell asleep and woke up parts of California.  Watching the Paradise crew checking their nuts, Shane suggested that Ken should check his (it’s a “race guy thing” apparently).  It was lucky that he did, because the header nuts were loose and the tie rod ends were as well.  That would not have been good because drag racing is about going straight, not all wobbly.

The driver’s meeting was scheduled at 9:30 a.m. and racing was to start at 10:00.  It was getting very hot; there was very little breeze so it was factor 50 and he made sure to keep hydrated.  The guys were off to the swap meet to have a look around and try to find that elusive “VW unicorn”.  Ken needed some parts for trophies and also the Valve Cover Racer build.  He figured he’d wait and if he was eliminated he’d have time then and he could relax and enjoy a bit more of what was going on, other than racing.  That was of the biggest down side Ken had realized about racing:  there was no time to yourself or to see other things; you missed almost everybody else’s passes and you just couldn’t relax and enjoy the vibe.  There were show cars he wanted to go and see and also a massive swap meet, but for the time being the focus (worry) was on racing…it was a long way to come and Ken contemplated not racing next time and wondered if he’d enjoy it more.  But the racing is a big part of the weekend.

Ken Baker 2

Corey described the swap at Bugorama 77 like nothing he’d ever experienced in a VW swap section.  As far as the eyes could see there was vendor after vendor.  He personally enjoys the swap aspect of a car show as much as the show itself.  There were countless tables with parts old and new and friendly people behind them to greet you and answer questions.  Not all the parts were top notch and desirable, but there were plenty of treasures to be found.  He found a great deal on west coast mirrors for his Westfalia and a couple of other small items.  As for the Bugorama Sacramento experience, it was so awesome he wants to go every year.  Being accompanied by a great group of friends this year only made the experience that much better!

swap

At 9:30, the driver’s meeting took place at the tower.  There weren’t many present and it seemed odd.  Ken asked an official why, and he said they were running a little slow. Ken knew exactly how that felt.  There were literally hundreds of VWs coming into the track, some racing, some showing, some swapping and some just chilling.  It felt like an American Bug Jam.

The driver’s meeting was done and Ken ran back to the camp to get suited up. It was hot, hot, hot.  When he got there the guys had already started to take down his tent for him. They were chasing him to get going and there was a change of plan for the burnout.  Kris Lauffer (who runs a 7 second car, so he should know) said Ken should do the burnout in third as it was hot and the wheels would still spin up and it wouldn’t get so squirrelly when he lets off the line lock.  Ken had his doubts that his car has that sort of power but decided to give it a try.

He joined Lane 5 right at the back, so Shane was right to chase him.  Another two cars showed u p behind him, but they were right back, probably 300 metres.  Ken’s car has no charging system, so stopping and starting the engine to move around twelve feet at a time was not possible.  Luckily, Jim came around with a bottle of water for Ken and to help with pushing.  The line started to move fast so Jim said to jump in and get strapped in.

Ken was in and strapped, with his helmet on and started just in time to be called to the water box.  Third gear:  mustn’t forget.  Shane is at the box holding up three fingers.  All good; select third, foot pumps brake, and line lock on.  It was time to see if he could spin the tires up in third.  Yes, it worked and it was nice and straight coming off the line lock and spinning to the stage lights, just like they said it would be. Shane spotted Ken’s first stage and Ken pulled forward slowly in his favourite left lane.  Staged, and 1, 2, 3, yellow lights, dumped the clutch and got a good .100 second reaction.  Second selected good, third—third?  Where was third?  Oh no, the clutch was out in third and no drive. He fumbled around a bit and got it into fourth (but it sounded a little clunky).  He crossed the line and headed back, picked up the timing slip from the booth and he already knew it was slower—15.6 and a very clunky gearbox.  It was the end of racing and time to save for a new box.  The guys packed everything away and went and watched some racing.  The Paradise crew were set up and had a good run, literally.Ken couldn’t remember the time, but it was well into the 7 second bracket.

The guys said their goodbyes to their friends and Bugorama and what was an awesome weekend. They hit the road and boy, did they need showers.  On the way home, they get a call that Kris Lauffer from the Paradise Team crashed at the top end at around 180mph.  Not good news, but apparently Kris was up and walking.  Unfortunately the car was a wreck. Everyone was relieved at the outcome and breathed a big sigh of relief that Kris was okay.

The plan was to drive hard and try to reach Eugene, Oregon by around 9:30p.m. and head for a hotel with showers. Then the next day they’d head out to drop Jim off in Gig Harbour.  Everyone was dropping off to sleep from the heat and fun-filled weekend (beer, bourbon and vodka).  Well, all that is, except Shane, since he was driving.

The drive from So-Cal to Nor-Cal (if that’s even a place) seemed long.  They missed it on the way down as it was pitch black and because they were pre-occupied with the semi that thought it was a train and tried to run them off the road.  Seeing it in the daylight, the scenery was spectacular and definitely an area to be revisited when there was more time to drive a little slower and take it in.

Reflecting on the trip, Ken felt very blessed with his life and seeing some of the things that he’d seen (Don’s Shasta Valley not necessarily being one of them).  Some people live their lives without experiences such as this, and it is Ken’s wish they could—or would—see them.  The heat of California was relentless and left Ken wishing for the normal Canadian-type temperatures, from which they were many miles away.  They neared the California/Oregon border and the next thought he mulled over in his head was why there were borders within the same country.

A quick pit-stop in Medford for an In’N’Out burger…so good and fresh.  Now there were 150 miles to Eugene for a stop and showers.  The sun was starting to set over the Oregon hills and had a pink and purple hazy shade, a sight that just begged to be put to music (perhaps Jimi Hendrix had travelled this road).  They were storming through Oregon, or so it appeared and not stopping for coffee.  That brought a round of uncomplimentary comments.  They decided not to stop at Eugene as someone recalled a really good Best Western that did an excellent breakfast.  A bed, shower and good breakfast. What more could six tired, dirty, and hungry guys need.  They pulled off in Sutherlin, Oregon at a Best Western right across from a Dutch Bros. coffee franchise.  One of the club members had asked for some stickers, so that would be the first stop in the morning. The Costco cards offer a good discount and soon everyone was in there rooms ready to shower and get cleaned up.  After that, there was a quick call to HQ at home and then it was time to sleep.  No sooner did heads hit pillows than no one remembered anything until morning.

In N out

Breakfast the following morning proved to be well worth the extra drive to reach this particular hotel.  The remainder of the trip was planned along with stops for fuel before heading out, but wait!  “Men of the Open Road” don’t plan.  With a half-full tank they could go anywhere (deep down most agreed that they all preferred their own beds and home).  They pulled into Dutch Brothers for coffee and stickers but there were none left with the Splitties.  It was therefore decided to add one of the LGK stickers to the building (that definitely could become “a thing”). They made Portland in short order.

dutch Bros. Coffee

As they pulled in for gas, Ken mused to himself that American gas stations were strange.  They didn’t like to take Canadian money from their neighbours up north.  Well they did, but only in small quantities up to the value of $75.  It took three people’s credit cards to fill up the motor home.  And their zip codes (you had to type them in when you fuel up) only had numbers–maybe it’s like when they took the vowels and letters out of words like colour and neighbour when they modified the English language.

Gas Station

At the end of the day, they made it safely across the border after the normal question:  Where have you been?  Sacramento.  What did you buy?  Most of the US stock of Hot Wheels.  Do you want to donate any money to the Canadian Tax Fund? No.  How much alcohol have you brought back? None.  Wait! None? They knew they forgot something; all that way and they forgot about Duty Free shopping.

Back at the PBI ranch, the RV was unloaded and it breathed a sigh of relief.  They washed it down and scraped about ten pounds of bugs off of the front.  The Canadian Border Security Agency completely missed that illegal importation of meat!  The trailer was swapped from the RV to the truck and now Ken was on his last leg of the journey.

Ken parked the bug in the garage and contemplated what to do next with the old girl.  The car was a 40-year old race car and he didn’t think it would ever break any records.  He’d like to get it into the high 12’s or low 13’s, and thought that would be achievable without changing it too much.  It was a nostalgic racer and should stay that way.  It wasn’t about getting into 9 seconds; he’d need a different car for that and wasn’t sure he had the nerve for 9 seconds anyway.  It really was more about showing people some of the history of these old cars and where the 7 second cars of today had come from.  It’s the history of VW drag racing.

So what did he learn from the weekend?  He had only ever raced once before and that was at the Great Canadian event at Mission.  He ran once and the battery died at the start line for the second race.  Luckily the LGK crew were there with a golf cart and Shane kindly dragged him back.  At that point he decided he needed to be in a club, as being on his own was no fun, and so the relationship with LGK began.  He is still grateful for that failure in the start line as it changed things in a big way.  Learning point number one: when things go wrong, good things come out of them!  Number two:  always have a battery charger; your life is not complete without a battery charger.  Number 3: sleeping in a tent at a race track in 100 degree heat is no fun.  As soon as he got back he started looking at old “Class C” RVs.  His only needs were air conditioning and a shower.  The rest isn’t important.

Driver, Ken Baker

The car is an old nostalgic race car.  Drag race fans should be content with seeing these old cars still racing—slowly, but still racing.  Once you get a 40 year old car, it’s not about making it go faster, it’s about preserving the history.  Ken has a split screen camper with more power than it needs and that can be tweaked and modified to go faster.  So for now the bug will get minor changes to make it reliable and consistent.  He will, however, modify the rear end to make getting the engine out easier and also get a new harness for racing.

Volks and Gene Berg Ken’s car is a 1962 High Tech Volks drag bug.  It was built in the 70s by Ron Pahl of High Tech Volks in Airdrie, Alberta.  He raced at Seattle International Raceway for a few years as well as Calgary and Edmonton and around the Northern USA. The photo with him and Gene Berg next to the car is at the 1987 meet at Castrol Speedway.

Volks emptyVolks in the Snow The car was later restored by Blair Duffy in Medicine Hat, Alberta, Canada.  It is seen in the pictures as it was found, it still has original paint and graphics.

Volks restoration         It has new everything else: 2332 engine with super fow heads ported by brothers machine shop, 51mm carbs, Wiseco pistons, a beefed-up transmission, msd, wide band new roll cage, seats, gauges, wiring, line lock. 11:1 fk8, Jaycee external bypass oiling system, and M&H 6” slicks.

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