Photos courtesy of the American Hot Rod Foundation, SCTA.
The Southern California Timing Association (SCTA) wasn’t born with the advent of land speed racing. In fact, decades of racing took place before the SCTA held it first meeting. In the early 20th century, Southern California was the epicenter for hot rodding. Since the 1920s, rodders have made the three hour trek from the Los Angeles area to one of several dry lake beds northeast of the city. These lake beds were several miles long and void of obstacles, allowing drivers to test their vehicles for top speed.
Early racing was a dangerous sport. Most of the vehicles were street cars that were driven to the lake bed, then stripped of fenders, hoods and other items to decrease vehicle weight. Safety equipment was non-existent. In early racing, the American Automobile Association (AAA) sanctioned speed events but it did little, if anything, to promote safety. It was not unusual for drivers to crash, sometimes with a fatal outcome.
Safety and organization issues hadn’t improved much as the 1930s rolled around. But in 1931, George Wright of Bell Auto Parts, along with George Riley and the Gilmore Oil Company, sponsored several dry lake events in an effort to organize the sport. Further involvement by the Muroc Racing Association (MRA) brought standardized timing equipment, but again, little effort to improve safety and organization of the meets. In 1937, George and the group withdrew their support of dry lakes racing.
On November 29, 1937, members from seven Southern California car clubs got together at the Throttlers’ Hollywood clubhouse. One of the clubs, the Road Runners, included Wally Parks, future founder of the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) and Ak Miller, who later became President of the SCTA. Together, these two icons of the sport would have a profound effect on the future of hot rodding. The meeting resulted in an agreement to develop an organization which combined several of the clubs for the benefit of all racers.
On February 7, 1938, the SCTA was formed. The organization was comprised of volunteers, and all members were required to participate in future events. At the meeting, officers were elected, bylaws were drawn up and contest rules written. Each club was required to pay a $20 entrance fee and an additional $2 monthly dues fee. The money was used to purchase its own timing equipment and to have an ambulance, doctor and two nurses on hand at each event. The cost was an astronomical $55.00.
The first event hosted by the SCTA was at Muroc on May 15, 1938. Spectators began arriving at 3am. More than 300 vehicles were signed up to race, with each owner paying $1.50 for the privilege of putting their car to the test. The format was to have four cars race alongside each other. Competitors would be separated in 10 mph increments: 80-89, 90-99 and upward. Unfortunately, the event never took place. High winds prevented anyone from racing, disappointing the nearly 10,000 spectators.
A second meet was scheduled for July 3, and it proved to be a big success. The top performer of the event was a Winfield-powered modified car driven by Ernie McAfee that reached a top speed of 124 mph. In an effort to show racers that the SCTA was focused on safety, a driver was fined $5 and suspended for 90 days after he did a few donuts at the starting line. While successful, it would be the first and last SCTA sanctioned meet at Muroc. The U.S. Army wanted the facility and informed the SCTA that Muroc would no longer be available for racing.
Not to be discouraged, the SCTA moved racing to a much smaller Rosemond dry lake. Again, the government took control of that facility, forcing them to move to Harper dry lake, where the SCTA hosted its first meet on August 3, 1938. During this time, the SCTA grew substantially, now publishing its Racing News newsletter twice a month, fueling even more interest in the sport.
By the end of 1938, the SCTA listed 451 people and 23 car clubs as members. As additional dues came into the coffers, a $250 hospital fund was set up to help members who were injured during the races. Racing ceased at Harper dry lake on July 19, 1942, as racers were now being sent overseas to fight in World War II. It would be in the armed forces that many racers honed their hot rodding skills, while working in motor pools and maintaining aircraft engines.
When the war started, Wally Parks and Eldon Snapp, the men responsible for the SCTA’s Racing News newsletter, joined the armed services. Veda Orr, wife of the well known racer Karl Orr, stepped up to the plate and took over publishing the newsletter. Veda was lovingly called hot rodding’s “First Lady.” During the War, Veda took the time to mail the Racing News to soldiers and sailors for free while they were overseas. Veda also became the first woman to race on the lakes; until then, only men were allowed. Her fastest time was 132 mph. Veda recalled the early history of dry lakes racing in her book, Veda Orr’s Hot Rod Pictorial.
After the war, the government continued control of both Rosemond and Muroc. With Harper lake considered inadequate in size, racing was again moved, this time to El Mirage dry lake. The first El Mirage meet took place on April 4, 1946.
In the early days of the SCTA, only roadsters and streamliners were allowed to run. In an effort to increase membership, rules were later changed to allow all vehicle types to compete. Five meets were run in 1946. Popularity of dry lakes racing continued to increase, and an additional meet was scheduled for 1947. By 1948, meets became two-day events, rather than the previous one-day event. In April 1948, the SCTA installed the first, much needed, public restrooms.
Because speeds continued to increase, the SCTA needed to find a larger facility. The Bonneville Salt Flats, a 47 square mile dry lake bed of salt, sat on the border of Utah and Nevada, just off of I-80. Unfortunately, the AAA had exclusive rights for the sanctioning of record speed runs at Bonneville. The SCTA requested to use the facility but was turned down by the AAA. Down but not out, Wally Parks set up a meeting with the Salt Lake City Chamber of Commerce, the organization that was responsible for the recreational use of the Salt Flats. To add credibility to the meeting, Parks invited Lee O. Ryan, senior member of Trend/Hot Rod magazine, and Robert Peterson, founder of Hot Rod magazine, to attend. The SCTA was allowed a one-time tryout event with the understanding that the Chamber would reevaluate the continued use by the SCTA based on the success of the first event. The event went off without a hitch, and the SCTA was given approval to continue racing.
Participation in the 1950s fell off somewhat when drag racing became popular. With drag strips popping up all over the United States, the SCTA fell onto hard times. Racers found it easier to go to a local drag strip than to make the long trek to the dry lakes. Historians refer the period between the mid-1950s and 1980 “The Dark Ages” of the SCTA. However, in the early 1980s, the SCTA began to grow again, thanks to men like Julian Doty and Jim Lindsley.
Over the years, the SCTA has been a pivotal part of the Save the Salt project at the Bonneville Salt Flats. SCTA members and others began to see a degradation of salt conditions in the early 1960s. It was found that a chemical company was pumping water through tunnels under the salt flats in an effort to remove potash. Unfortunately, the pumping of water was also removing 850,000 tons of salt per year, leaving the salt flat surface thin and fragile. In 1989, Rick Vesco, the first chairman of Save the Salt, initiated an effort to resolve the issue of salt depletion. In 1997, the SCTA, Bonneville Nationals Inc. and the Utah Salt Flat Racers Association negotiated an agreement to restore the salt flats by pumping brine water over the salt, transferring 1.5 million tons of salt back onto the surface. The effort was successful in adding several inches of salt, restoring much of the race course.
Enthusiasts must give thanks to the pioneers of the SCTA, including Wally Parks, Ak Miller, Stu Hilborn, Alex Xydian, Dick Pierson and untold others who gave of themselves to fuel the passion for dry lakes racing that continues today. In November 2007, an exhibit honoring the 70th Anniversary of the Southern California Timing Association was unveiled by the Wally Parks NHRA Motorsports Museum in Pomona, California.
Most organizations which have existed as many years as the SCTA eventually evolve into a commercial entity. However, the SCTA continues to hold onto its roots. The people who run it, as well as the people who race at SCTA events, can best be described as a throwback to yesteryear. It’s not the money that drives their passion; it’s their desire for speed. These men and women have petrol in their blood. You know it the minute you talk to them. Walk through the pits at El Mirage or Bonneville, and one feels like they are taken back in time. We have the SCTA to thank for keeping the organization grounded. Of the seven original clubs, two remain active: the Road Runners and the Sidewinders.
For those who’ve haven’t attended an SCTA meet, put it on your “must do” list. You won’t be disappointed.
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Don Baker's roadster ran 122.78 at El Mirage in 1946.
This is a shot of the dry lakes.
Ray Brown bought this car for $75 then put a Hemi in it and ran 197.88 at Bonneville
This is a view of the pit in 1952.
This is what happened prior to the SCTA. A driver raced the dry lake at night, never seeing the rock pile. Oops.
Shorty Post built this liner for Bonneville in 1952. The car ran 217.65 mph.
Stuart Hilborn raced at El Mirage in 1947. The 21 stud flatty ran 121.29 mph.
This is Gus Rollins’ SCTA timing tag from Harper Dry Lake in 1942. He ran 110.456 mph.
“Spectators” anxiously await the action in the SCTA exhibit at the NHRA Museum in Pomona, California.
A young Wally Parks (lower left) poses with other SCTA officials in 1946.
This is Veda Orr, the first women in the SCTA and the first woman to SCTA race on the dry lakes. Photo courtesy of VelocePress.com.
In her book, Veda Orr’s Hot Rod Pictorial, Veda recalled the early history of dry lakes racing. Photo courtesy of VelocePress.com.
Yes, it's backwards, but not really. This is a proof Fred Larsen received back on April 20, 1973 of his 1972 ride at Bonneville. It was for the frontpiece of a book being printed in Italy on race cars. In 1972, the car ran 288.23 mph with a little supercharged Chevy on straight alcohol for the fastest time of the meet.
Bob Drew's B Roadster was photographed at El Mirage on May 25, 1947 with his crew of lovely ladies. The car ran 116.42 mph for 6th in class. Power came from a 1940 Ford flattie with filled heads and Edelbrock intake manifold. Fellow Low Flyers Jack Engle did the cam and Frank Coon the ignition.