The Saga of Its Glo­ri­ous Re­turn

Drag Racer - - Contents - Text and pho­tos by Alan Par­adise

SINCE ITS IN­CEP­TION, DRAG RAC­ING HAS BEEN VIEWED AS A COUNTER-CUL­TURE SPORT. De­void of the tra­di­tional stick-and-ball men­tal­ity, it at­tracted a more re­bel­lious bunch—those who were will­ing to step out­side the lines and em­ploy sense­less won­der­ment. There has al­ways been a gen­uine un­der­ground feel to the blue-jeans-and-T-shirt-clad teens and young adults who were drawn to the speed, smells and dar­ing. For these soul­ful trav­el­ers, there once was a se­cret roadmap, a trail dot­ted with old airstrips and makeshift race tracks that stretched from sea to sea and bor­der to bor­der, a covert path­way that con­nected the hearts and minds of all in­volved.

South­ern Cal­i­for­nia was an ideal breed­ing ground for this bur­geon­ing speed ac­tiv­ity, and no area was more on fire than San Diego. This was where high school bud­dies Fred Lear, Tommy Schacht, Do­minic Car­doza and Al Beauloye ded­i­cated their time and en­ergy. They dreamed and schemed about drag rac­ing. This hot rod gang spent many a week­end at lo­cal tracks such as Carls­bad Race­way and San Diego Drag­way—not to men­tion pil­grim­ages to the leg­endary Lions track, just a few hours' drive up the coast.

Even­tu­ally, each of the boys ac­quired their own cars, and nat­u­rally, tried their hand at mas­ter­ing the 1,320 feet of as­phalt. The lessons in hu­mil­ity were many; tam­ing the drag rac­ing shrew was much more dif­fi­cult than it ap­peared.

The "gang of four" was also grow­ing. The ex­ploits of the boys spread through­out their high school and be­yond. The group was grow­ing into a club. This al­lowed for more skills and tal­ents to push them all fur­ther along. It soon be­came ev­i­dent that Lear and Car­doza's on-track skills pro­gressed quicker than that of the oth­ers. It also be­came ob­vi­ous that through their col­lec­tive dis­ci­plines, they could progress at a far greater rate. Thus, the wheels were set in mo­tion to build a sin­gle car as a group ef­fort.

“From the be­gin­ning, we wanted to build some­thing that would be com­pet­i­tive—a lofty goal for a bunch of young­sters split­ting time be­tween school and jobs,” said Lear.

In the late '50s and early '60s, drag rac­ing evolved at a rapid pace. How­ever, safety and en­gi­neer­ing prac­tices were far from fully de­vel­oped. Many home­built projects were lit­tle more than glo­ri­fied erec­tor sets with boat an­chor en­gines, of­ten, the big­ger, the bet­ter (or so the young and in­ex­pe­ri­enced be­lieved).

The boys from Spring Val­ley, Cal­i­for­nia, wanted none of that, and their stan­dards even­tu­ally re­duced the pri­mary par­tic­i­pants back to the orig­i­nal gang of four.

These four showed sur­pris­ing wis­dom by build­ing through sub­trac­tion rather than ad­di­tion. They un­der­stood their com­bined bud­get would not al­low them to run head to head with the elite So­Cal driv­ers of the day, but with a cre­ative ef­fort, they felt the

right car could hold its own in the lower gas classes.

The con­sen­sus was that a rail on gas pushed by an in­jected small-block Chevy en­gine would be a per­fect place to start, but it would make them a “me, too” fish in a sea of also-rans. Aspir­ing chas­sis builder Harry Jack­man was brought in to build a proper frame and sus­pen­sion. How­ever, even with the right base, the guys needed a hook, some­thing mem­o­rable. That is­sue was solved when a mod­i­fied Fiat body be­came avail­able. De­signed more for a short wheel­base-al­tered, rather than a rail-based drag­ster, the team made many cuts and pastes to fit the body over the chas­sis and at­tach it to new mount­ing points.

In late March 1963, the newly named "Lit­tle Blue Coupe" made its de­but at

San Diego Drag­way. Car­doza dropped down into the driver's seat as Lear fired up the push car. As the tan­dem made its way up the re­turn road and down the track, an odd hush fell over the spec­ta­tors who filled the bleach­ers. The crowd's si­lence re­mained, even af­ter Car­doza jump-started the po­tent small-block. His ob­scured view could not tell him what Lear, Schacht and Beauloye wit­nessed: Their lit­tle garage cre­ation was beauty in mo­tion, and the re­sponse from hun­dreds of spec­ta­tors was con­fir­ma­tion of the boys' hot-rod dreams.

The team made its first suc­cess­ful pass, then an­other and an­other. With each run (each quicker than the last), crowds swelled at their pit space. The Lit­tle Blue Coupe quickly be­came the sen­sa­tion of the day.

The coupe's pop­u­lar­ity grew with each ap­pear­ance, whether at Carls­bad, Fontana, San Gabriel or River­side. There was just some­thing spe­cial about that al­tered blue body, chromed com­po­nents, tall slicks and quick bursts of speed that clicked with the fans. When the guys showed at the lo­cal cus­tom car shows, crowds en­gulfed their dis­play.

When NHRA re­scinded its fuel ban, Lear and com­pany made the tran­si­tion to nitro. Soon af­ter, Car­doza scored a na­tional record run in B/F Com­pe­ti­tion Coupe.

Suc­cess be­came the Lit­tle Blue Coupe's worst en­emy. A road­ster body was cre­ated and dubbed the "Lit­tle Blue Car­riage."

While just as fast, this topless ver­sion never res­onated with fans like the orig­i­nal. Plus, the taste of vic­tory left the guys lust­ing to up in class. As with the ma­jor­ity of drag rac­ers at that time, fi­nanc­ing the fu­ture meant sell­ing off the past. And so, the ob­ject of many teenage speed dreams was sold off.

Both Car­doza and Lear went on to run sep­a­rate Top Fuel ef­forts, while Schacht and Beauloye pro­vided en­gi­neer­ing and crew sup­port. Lear even won an AHRA Top Fuel event. The blue Fiat rail con­tin­ued to change hands and was be­com­ing like so much of drag rac­ing lore: a for­got­ten and an­ti­quated hunk of ob­so­lete equip­ment.

Life in­ter­rupts dreams with heavy doses of re­al­ity; prac­ti­cal­ity takes pri­or­ity over pas­sion. Higher ed­u­ca­tion, ca­reers, fam­i­lies and myr­iad other con­di­tions pushed the group into the de­mands of the real world, and their once-reg­u­lar con­tact di­min­ished.

Fast-for­ward three decades. While drag rac­ing was still part of the men's DNA, the sport had so dras­ti­cally changed that the rearview mir­ror was far more im­por­tant than look­ing for­ward. Gone were the days of garage schem­ing on a tight bud­get.

How­ever, there was a grow­ing in­ter­est in the men and ma­chines that made the sport so spe­cial. Do­minic Car­doza ig­nited his past love in the form of restor­ing one of his old drag­sters. Nos­tal­gia drag rac­ing events were be­com­ing a big draw, and cackle cars were a ma­jor at­trac­tion at these events. At one such hap­pen­ing,

Car­doza, Lear, Schacht and Beauloye, along with Pat Coyle and Fred Hayhurst, got to­gether. Among the top­ics dis­cussed were the cars that sig­nif­i­cantly touched their lives. As it turned out, all agreed that the Lit­tle Blue Coupe was, hands down, their fa­vorite.

The sub­ject went dor­mant for sev­eral years. Then, un­ex­pect­edly, Car­doza passed away. Sud­denly, the seem­ingly in­vin­ci­ble one of the bunch was gone. The tragic loss led to a com­mit­ment to find and re­vive the Lit­tle Blue Coupe.

Lear, Hayhurst and Coyle set upon a mis­sion to lo­cate their beloved com­pe­ti­tion coupe. It was an all-out ef­fort that would have made In­di­ana Jones proud. Still, af­ter two years of run­ning down leads, countless hours on the phone and nu­mer­ous false sight­ings, the harsh re­al­ity set in that the orig­i­nal car might never be found—and if it were, it might not be re­stor­able.

Dis­ap­pointed but un­daunted, the trio de­cided that if the orig­i­nal could not be lo­cated, the next best thing would be to build a du­pli­cate. So, the daunt­ing task of con­struct­ing a new Lit­tle Blue Coupe be­gan.

The im­per­a­tive task was to ob­tain a Fiat Topolino body. Be­cause fit­ting the body to frame was crit­i­cal, Lear and Coyle were able to pro­cure the cor­rect mold.

This was de­liv­ered to one of the orig­i­nal gang, Tommy Schacht, for the fiber­glass mod­i­fi­ca­tions and prep—just as he had done in 1963.

While this was tak­ing place, Hayhurst jigged up a chas­sis to the ex­act specs used by Harry Jack­man.

Lear, who built the coupe's orig­i­nal small-block en­gine, col­lab­o­rated with James Bo­stick Rac­ing En­gines to con­struct an ex­act match

The re­turn of the Lit­tle Blue Coupe also pays homage to the golden days of drag rac­ing. While it took place in South­ern Cal­i­for­nia, sim­i­lar sto­ries about cars that ig­nited a pas­sion for the sport could be told in nearly ev­ery re­gion of the coun­try. This is just one ex­am­ple of the tales that can be heard at ev­ery stop along drag rac­ing’s his­toric roadmap.

to the orig­i­nal punched-out 383-cid power plant, in­clud­ing the Hil­born fuel in­jec­tion and Sch­nei­der cam.

With the body prepped, Jerry Goulette was com­mis­sioned to match the all-im­por­tant blue fin­ish that Merle Rhodes squirted back in 1963. Blue Plex­i­glas win­dows added the cor­rect vin­tage ap­pear­ance.

Back in the day, Bob Martinez was one of So­Cal's top stripers. Keep­ing with that tra­di­tion, Mark Lueck lent his steady hand to repli­cate the strip­ing and let­ter­ing.

Lear, Hayhurst and Coyle were un­wa­ver­ing in their com­mit­ment to get­ting the de­tails as cor­rect as pos­si­ble. Many hours of test­fit­ting en­sured proper fit and func­tion. But it also needed the look, feel and "soul" that matched the ideal of more than a half­cen­tury ago.

Late last sum­mer, Lear, Coyle and Hayhurst se­cured the fi­nal bolts, pol­ished all the bits and pieces, and rolled the new-old Lit­tle Blue Coupe into the sun­light for the very first time.

It was a cel­e­bra­tion wit­nessed by a dozen folks who had worked on the old, new (and, in some cases, both) iconic race cars. How­ever, more than that, it was an af­fir­ma­tion of what once was great about their sport and could be again. All agreed that the most im­por­tant as­pect was its trib­ute to their friend and fel­low racer, Do­minic Car­doza.

The re­turn of the Lit­tle Blue Coupe also pays homage to the golden days of drag rac­ing. While it took place in South­ern Cal­i­for­nia, sim­i­lar sto­ries about cars that ig­nited a pas­sion for the sport could be told in nearly ev­ery re­gion of the coun­try. This is just one ex­am­ple of the tales that can be heard at ev­ery stop along drag rac­ing's his­toric roadmap.

The Coupe’s first pass. This photo was taken by the author’s cousin, Corey Ste­pek, who cap­tured much of So­Cal drag rac­ing’s glory days.The Lit­tle Blue Coupe was a crowd fa­vorite on the So­Cal cir­cuit with its wicked good looks and im­pos­ing per­for­mance.

With all the ma­jor com­po­nents gath­ered, Lear, Hayhurst and Coyle be­gin the fi­nal assem­bly process.

A lit­tle help was needed to fi­nesse the body onto the chas­sis.

Tommy Schacht (Tommy’s Auto Fab) did a mas­ter­ful job on the fiber­glass Fiat body—then and now. It’s a beau­ti­ful beast from ev­ery an­gle.

The Lit­tle Blue Coupe held the NHRA record for its class. This was a stel­lar achieve­ment for a bunch of lo­cal boys on a mod­est bud­get—but that’s what drag rac­ing in the ’60s was all about.

Pat Coyle, Fred Hayhurst and Fred Lear built the "sec­ond com­ing" of the Lit­tle Blue Coupe as a trib­ute to their late friend, Do­minic Car­doza.

A 383-ci Chevy small­block is fed by a Hil­born fuel-in­jec­tion sys­tem. Schei­der roller cam, 11-1 pis­tons, forged steel crank and a Ver­tex mag­neto are key com­po­nents.

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