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Information in this article, originally published August 14, 2006, was corrected August 16, 2006. In a previous version of this story, a photo caption transposed information about one of the cars. Pete Lovely's famous "Pooper" was a Cooper with a Porsche engine, not a Porsche with a Cooper engine.
The roaring '50s: Sports-car racing in the Pacific Northwest
Special to The Seattle Times
"Long Straights and Hairpin Turns: The History of Pacific Northwest Sports Car Racing"
Rudow Specialty Publishing, 200 pp., $59.95
In these times of noisy, slick, high-tech, yee-hawwin' NASCAR action, it's refreshing to encounter something quite different. By comparison, the early history of sports-car racing, Upper Left Coast style, was old-school, strictly seat-of-the-pants and deeply unflashy.
Race cars have a well-deserved spot in Northwest popular history. Back in 1909, the first automobile race across North America ended in Seattle as part of the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition. A Model T was the first across the finish line, having left New York City a mere 23 days earlier. (It was later disqualified because the drivers changed the engine during the race; the second finisher, a Shawmut, became the winner.)
This weekend (Aug.18,19,20) the famous ex-Pete Lovely "Pooper" will be racing at the biggest vintage sports car race in the country, The Monterey Historics, at Laguna Seca Raceway near Monterey, California.
The Pooper was purchased and restored several years ago by Dennis Aker of Shoreline, Washington. For more details on the event: www.montereyhistoric.com/
Another standout was the pride of Ballard, Norwegian immigrant Ole Bardahl. In 1939, Bardahl developed the performance-enhancing engine-oil treatment that still bears his name. (That's his big sign visible as you cross the Ballard Bridge northbound.) In later years, Bardahl's success let him sponsor numerous racing vehicles, from motorcycles and snowmobiles to cars and hydroplanes.
But the first stirrings of organized sports-car enthusiasm in the Northwest weren't seen until the late 1940s, when groups of guys who liked to go really fast in cars began gathering regularly. (And, yes, it was mostly guys, though "Powder Puff Derbies" were sometimes formed so women could race.)
These speed fans came together in Oregon and Washington with varying degrees of organization, but the first official regional race occurred up north, amidst a people not widely noted for their wild and crazy ways: the Canadians.
In 1950, the Vancouver Sports Car Club and the Canadian Motorcycle Association staged what was probably the first official race, at the Canadian Air Force base in Abbotsford, B.C. Abbotsford became a major hub for road racing in the Northwest, although races there were pretty funky affairs. Martin Rudow, in a dandy new regional history, "Long Straights and Hairpin Turns," writes, "It was grass-roots racing at its best, with an assortment of ungainly specials and MGs. ... There was little shelter and it usually seemed to be raining."
Rudow's volume is clearly a labor of love for the author and his co-writers, Gary Bannister, Vince Howlett and Tom Johnston. (The book's art director, by the by, is named Dave Burngasser. Do you think he's heard enough jokes already about his aptness for this project?)
The book delivers, in great detail and amply illustrated scrapbook style, a year-by-year disquisition on exactly what its subtitle promises: "The History of Pacific Northwest Sports Car Racing." The years covered are 1950-61; a second volume, covering the next decade, is in the works.
As Rudow describes, the use of airbases quickly caught on well beyond Abbotsford. After all, they were perfect for sports-car rallies, with all those huge, flat, mostly deserted expanses of tarmac. So, if military bureaucracy could be circumvented, bases often became meeting grounds. Gen. Curtis LeMay, then head of the Strategic Air Command, was an ally in this. A racing fan, the general encouraged meets on bases, reasoning that they helped boost troop morale and humanized the bases for the public.
But meets were held elsewhere as well. The annual Seafair shindig, for example, was a perfect excuse for one. Commercial airfields at places like Shelton and Bellingham were also early centers for the sport. One race was held at Fort Lawton; the course was from the lighthouse uphill to base headquarters, a distance of only about half a mile; not much of a course, really, but so accessible to Seattle-area drivers that it had plenty of participants.
Typically, courses were flat. An exception was the Mary Hill Loops, a section of obsolete road near Goldendale. This length of 26 twisty, hilly curves, complete with 600-foot drop-offs, ran for about 2 ½ miles, with about 1,000 feet of elevation from near the Columbia River up to the Goldendale plateau. The course was so taxing that a spring-fed trough was installed at the halfway mark, so drivers could replenish their cars' water and keep things from boiling over. It was also possible to access the old road from a newer highway, so racers could make continuous loops.
The machines in those early days were typically hybrids — European cars like Ferraris and MGs, mostly, often pumped up with pushy, well-muscled American engines. Some of the cars were boxy, some bulbous, some sleek, and some were just plain odd, like the Porsche driven by famed hydroplane pilot Lou Fageol. It featured four-wheel-drive and front and rear engines, each with a washing-machine motor powering a supercharger.
One well-known car on the Northwest circuit was a Porsche with a Cooper engine. It was a beautiful and curvaceous piece of machinery. Perhaps inevitably, though, this hybrid was forced to endure demeaning nicknames: "The Pooper" or (because it was often driven by local champ Pete Lovely) "Lovely's Pooper."
And, of course, the sport had its share of colorful characters. One was the crowd-pleasing acrobatic starter Al Torres, whose signature move was to signal a race's beginning by leaping high into the air. Yahoo! The shot of Torres in action, delighting in the race and delighting the crowd, is a fitting symbol for this very cool slice of Northwest pop history.
Adam Woog is a frequent books contributor to The Seattle Times.
Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company