With contemporary automobiles being the capable performers that they are, it is interesting to remember how car-crazy Southern California was in the 1960s. Any kid, if he had the money, was “building a car” or doing whatever he could to modify his car to make it go faster.
On Friday nights in Burbank, reliable rumors said that there would be street racing at Forest Lawn Drive, in Los Angeles. That impromptu racecourse, also known as “The River Road”, paralleled the path of the LA River. Launching from a hastily painted starting line, two cars could race side-by-side for a full quarter mile, where a second painted stripe marked the finish line. There, racers had to shut down and “clamp on the binders”. Those with slow reactions or faulty brakes risked missing a sharp right-hander.
On one visit, my friends and I saw evidence that someone had missed the turn. Leaving the road, that automobile had blown through the quaint wooden guardrail, and then sailed airborne to the brink of the LA River channel. Across the road from that shambles of a wreck, was the grand entrance to Forest Lawn Memorial Park. None of us was sure if the driver of that car made it out alive or became a permanent resident at Forest Lawn.
At the time, the River Road was an isolated, rural location, yet it lay only minutes from the city. It took a while for the LAPD to discover that The Road had become an impromptu street-racing venue. Until then, a Friday night visit guaranteed seeing some racing action. At one point, a budding electronic genius set up portable “Christmas tree” timing-lights, similar to the ones found at sanctioned drag strips.
Although the rumors of such occurrences ran wild, I never saw one of the fabled “Races for Pinks”. To this day, California prints its vehicle title document on pink paper. The common name for such a document is a “Pink Slip”.
Prior to such a race, the fastest and most confident street racers would place their vehicles into an informal escrow. With their signed “Pink Slips” held by a neutral person, the winner of the race would return to the starting line and take title to the loser’s car. In the 1960s, whenever we arrived at a stoplight next to a friend, the byword of the day was, “Hey, do you want to race you for pinks?”
Periodically, drought visits California and the West. In 1966, there was a drought so pervasive that wild grasses in the area did not sprout at all. Presaging our knowledge of climate change, blowing dust and dirt were the order of the day.
One Friday evening, a group of friends and I caravanned from Burbank to Hollywood. There, as underage youth, we could buy cigars without showing identification. The Crooks brand, with their, “Rum Soaked, Dipped in Wine” motto were our favorites. With alcohol-soaked tobacco, we pretended that we were drinking and smoking at the same time. Only our lack of access to alcohol kept us sober. That night, I rode “shotgun” in my friend Phil’s Volkswagen Bug, which he called his “V-Dub”.
The only separation from opposing traffic on Barham Blvd. consisted of a double white line. On the downhill ride toward Burbank, the slope ended at an intersection with Forest Lawn Drive, better known to us as The River Road. On our return trip from Hollywood, the road rose over a hill, and then descended, while arcing slowly to the left for about a quarter mile. As Phil held his steering wheel to the left, the camber of the roadway sloped gently to the right.
In high school, we had learned some basic laws of chemistry and physics. For instance, “Oil and water do not mix”, “An object in motion tends to stay in motion” and “The heavy end of any object will try to lead the parade”. Pushing in the cigarette lighter at the top of the hill, all of those laws went unheeded by Phil that night.
As we crested Barham Blvd., a slight drizzle began to fall. While waiting for the cigarette lighter to pop out, Phil reached down to tune in the AM radio and activate the windshield wipers. With our friend’s car ahead of us, Phil wanted good music and good visibility for his overtaking maneuver. In his exuberance to overtake, and in steadfast belief of his own immortality, Phil accelerated throughout the long downhill curve. Soon enough, all of the aforementioned laws of chemistry and physics went into play.
After months of dry weather, oil on the roadway glistened colorfully in the headlights of oncoming vehicles. The emulsion of oil and water on the roadway provided friction similar to a sheet of ice. As the tires lost their grip on the road, the V-Dub started to slide toward the outer edge of the curve. Phil over-corrected our slide, thus swinging our V-Dub to the left. With myriad sparkles glinting off the wet surface of the road, I found myself looking straight into the headlights of an oncoming car.
With its rear-engine design, the V-Dub tried to swap ends and thus lead with its engine-heavy tail. In a vain attempt to slow down, Phil slammed his foot down on the brake pedal. As we swung once again towards oncoming traffic, I saw my Maker. Who would have believed that God drove a 1958 Cadillac Series 62 Sedan?
With unwavering speed, the heavy Caddy struck our little Bug, making contact aft of our driver-side door. Mercifully, the impact sent us back to our own side of the road. According to one witness, we spun around three times as we descended the hill. Facing uphill, windshield wipers still thumping, we stopped just short of the intersection with Forest Lawn Drive. Less than half mile from our final resting place that night, laid the largest cemetery in Los Angeles.
Staring straight ahead, with both hand clutching the steering wheel, Phil sat in shock. A telltale splatter of blood on the windshield told me that the impact had caused his nose to hit the steering wheel. Still gripping the grab-handle on the passenger-side of the dashboard, I exclaimed, “Phil, we fked your whole car.” When I received nothing more than a blank stare from Phil, I got out and helped divert traffic around Phil and his badly broken V-Dub.
The whole event took less than a minute. Although my life did not flash before my eyes, as events unfolded, I knew that my life might end at any moment. That I survived uninjured gave me a startling clarity that only such near-death experiences seem to bring. I was seventeen years old and blessed to be alive. That I knew.
Excerpted from the book, WindSong.