Thursday, April 2, 2009

Tommy Sparks, my First Hot Rod, and the Last Flathead ( Part 3 )

The next chapter of this little saga will forever be the most mind boggling to me. This is for a couple of reasons; The first would have to be the simple fact that it actually worked out- and in a bigger way than I could have imagined. The other thing that makes me shake my head about it is the fact that I did this in the first place. I feel a strong sense of nostalgia when I think back about the 25 year old who did this. I like to think I still have a good amount of spirit for adventure, but I know that I wouldn't do today what I did then. It's not a feeling of being impressed with myself, it's just surprise. That said, I am forever grateful to that 25 year old who took this chance.

Many planets were aligning nicely for me in 1995. I had just taken my first significant gig since moving to Nashville, playing guitar for a true hero of mine- John Prine. This was indeed a dream come true. I remember a funny moment when I showed up for the first rehearsal... we had played through a couple of songs and the band was sounding good, then John walked over to me and asked,"Hey do you know a song of mine called Angel from Montgomery? It's in D and I'll start it off. Just come in with some electric when you hear it." I'm glad I didn't laugh out loud because that was exactly what I was feeling. Angel from Montgomery???!!! That's like asking me if I've ever heard of a song called "Happy Birthday". In other words, without knowing it, I had been preparing for this day for about 10 years. There wasn't a song of John's that I didn't know, and there weren't many that I hadn't played. Every band I'd been in before I moved to Nashville covered his stuff and I'd spent countless hours playing along to his records in my basement. It was the perfect combination that you dream about your entire life; finding yourself with the opportunity of a lifetime, and being nearly over-prepared. I wish I could say that that has happened again since. It hasn't.

Anyway, back to our story.

So the touring with John got underway in support of his new record "Lost Dogs and mixed blessings". All was going good and with few surprises. Then suddenly a call came in from the office that we had a TV date coming up and to put it on our schedules. This was no ordinary TV date, this was the Tonight Show. Too say the least I was excited about this. The Tonight Show! Where do I even begin with what that show had meant to me growing up?, and I know I'm not alone. It almost felt like they must have made some kind of mistake. Really, they want US to play the Tonight Show? Well they did indeed and it was coming up fast.

After the shock of this wore off it started to occur to me that this meant traveling out to California. California!!!??? And not just any California but southern California! My mind was swirling with all of this early hot rod business and now I was about to travel out to the exact location where it all happened. I immediately began to hatch a plan. I would go out a day or two early and see what I could find in the way of hot rod history. I mean, I knew some of the locations thanks to my great find "The American Hot Rod". I could get a rental car and see what was left of the old street race spots like North Supulveda. Try and get to a few of the night spot hang outs like Bob's Big Boy in Burbank or Parker's Night Owl in Glendale. Maybe even make my way out to El Mirage or one of the other lake beds. There was so much I wanted to do but time was limited because this TV date was sandwiched in the middle of the tour. I had to get a short list of must-do's going, put them in order of importance, and just see what I could check off.

As I sat down to do this I had my book next to me and kept thumbing through it. I made lists of locations and tried to get an idea of how big an area I'd have to be covering. I'd been out to California when I was 7 or 8 but that didn't mean I knew my way around. As I continued to try and formulate some kind of plan, I kept coming back to all of these great characters. Man were these guys cool. So amazing were their accomplishments. I just couldn't imagine what it would be like to actually meet one of these guys, ask all about the old days, listen to stories from when these guys and their flat-head roadsters ruled the streets and dry lakes... that would really be the business.

Then of course it hit me... this is exactly what my goal should be. This and nothing else. I should go out to So-Cal and use my two days that I had to see if I could find out where any of these guys were today. Even as dangerous as they lived when they were young, I just had a feeling that many of them were still be around. I believe people that live life to the fullest and have an adventurous streak, are hard to take down. That being said, this doesn't always stand up in the world of rock-n-roll.

Now I had a nice streamlined plan. If I totally struck out in finding some of the original hot rod pioneers, at least I would have had a good adventure, and surely I would make it to some cool old landmarks. Though I have to say, I know for a fact that I wasn't thinking anywhere near that clearly. I just had it solidly in my head, without a touch of doubt, that I would run across someone who had first hand knowledge of the early days. I know for sure that it didn't occur to me that I wouldn't. Crazy!

So, all I had to do now was call John's office and make sure this was cool with my new employers. For all I knew they might not be OK with me traveling out there early without the rest of the pack, especially without the road manager-whose job it is to make sure everybody gets where they are supposed to go. So I rang up and talked to John's manager Al Bunetta. At first Al didn't seem too cool with this, which is understandable. Then he asked me what exactly I was going out there early for, I told him, and then a whole new door opened up.

Al freaked out and ( and I remember this clearly ) said,"Hey man, didn't you know I was a hot rodder? I have an all steel '32 three window at home! I used to live out there, that's where I got the car. That and my original California '40 coupe." Well, a soft breeze could have knocked me over. I couldn't believe what I was hearing. This was all making me dizzy. Al went on and surprised me with what he said next,"Hey man, I'd love to go out there early with you if you want to run around with somebody who knows the place and a bunch of car guys."

I remember that for some reason we took different flights. Al was out there ahead of me and picked me up at the airport. The first thing we did was drive to a burger stand and have a classic southern California cheeseburger lunch. As anyone who has been out there knows, the people of So-Cal take their burgers very seriously. Even the chains are pretty exceptional. I spent the better part of lunch telling Al my story and about my newfound obsession with early hot rodding. I found out quickly that Al was the real deal. Al ran with Dick Scritchfield in the 1970s and remembered when he was driving around in his brown true-spoked '32 Vicky. Al didn't really have any leeds on where the old timers might be but he certainly knew the parts of town that I had on my list that I wanted to check out to see if any of the old hang-outs and/or speed shops were around. With that, we headed to the valley.

Within an hour or so I came to the depressing realization that the valley from the Dean Batchelor book was long gone. The neighborhoods that we went and visited didn't have even the slightest feel of places that would have at one time been littered with hot rodders and speed shops. Not even close. In fact I remember feeling like it was a trick. That this was all fiction and I must have had it wrong about those times ever even happening. These communities were so overpopulated with both people and businesses, how could any of what I'd been reading about have existed here. I didn't get any kind of sense that there were ever orange groves lining each side of the road for miles anywhere near here. Where were these guys opening up these cars and racing side by side and then running down dirt roads from the cops? It just didn't make sense. Maybe the book was wrong, I started to think.

But that couldn't be. Dean Batchelor was a serious writer. He lived this very thing that I was trying to find a scrap of, and I was standing in the very spot that he spun great stories about. What happened?

As Al continued to drive me around I started feeling pretty foolish. What was I thinking? This stuff that I'd been pouring over had happened 50 years ago! Of course there was nothing left of it. What the hell was I thinking? Did I really think I was going to pull into Glendale or Burbank and see kids running around in flat-head roadsters? Did I think I was going to run into Ed Iskenderian at the gas station? Now I really was feeling crazy.

At one point Al picked up on this and, as a way to cheer me up and make sure the day wasn't a complete bust, he suggested we drive over the hills into Hollywood proper and visit the shop that had built his '40 coupe. That did pick me up a bit and sounded like a nice way to finish out the day. I mean, at least I'd get to see a real live southern California hot rod shop and maybe talk to some car builders. And who knows, maybe even see some great cars under construction. Yeah, this was making sense to me. This was at least realistic.

As we pulled up to the shop I was not disappointed. Not only was the place right at the corner of Melrose and Gower and caddy-corner to the old Paramount movie lot ( which gave me a good dose of feeling like I was really in Hollywood ) , but the shop was full of great cars in various stages of build. There were street rods and hot rods and sports cars and muscle cars. The shop even had a rack on the far end of the lot with cars stacked two high and about 10 wide. We met the owner, who remembered Al and the '40 he sold him, and I got to hear some great stuff about the car and what a screaming good deal Al got on it, as he bought it back when those cars were not the hot tickets they are today. I remember that the owner pointed out 3 late '60s Road Runners that were stacked up on the racks. He said that they belonged to the actor Mickey Rourke and that they'd been there for over three years and no one knew where Rourke was or could reach him. Knowing what we now know about him, this makes perfect sense.

This shop owner was a nice guy and spent a lot of time showing us around, but we were really cutting into his afternoon and it was time to leave. Just as he was walking us out to his car I started thinking again about my original reason for coming out here. I had been beaten down so much with our little tour of the valley that I felt embarressed to even bring it up again, but I just couldn't help myself. I almost got in the car without saying anything, but at the last second I turned to the shop owner and said,"You know, I'm sure you'll think I'm crazy, but I actually came out here today to try and find someone who was around back in the early hot rodding days. I know the scene has long since dried up but, I really don't know why, but I just thought there could be a chance that some of the original guys might still be around out here you know? I mean, yeah, it was a long time ago but they can't ALL be gone right?" The guy just looked at me. Then, and with a very matter of fact attitude about it he said,"Well yeah, a lot of those guys are still around. I don't exactly know where they get together or if they do at all, but I see them around. You know, at cruise ins and such. You know, Isky, Ray Brown, the So-Cal speed shop guy Alex Xydias ... you know ... those guys."

Well that completely floored me. He just read off a list of names that were some of the biggest guys in the history of the sport. It was like hearing a page from this book of mine read aloud to me. It just came to life, right there! It was real again. I couldn't believe those guys were around... and walking around cruise ins!! This couldn't be happening. I guess the guy could see my excitement and amazement. I had so many questions, so many things I wanted him to expand on. Where did you see these guys? How long ago are you talking?

Then, before I had a chance, he said,"You know, there's a guy who's an early hot rodder who runs a shop right down here on Gower ( he points straight out the gate of his lot at the road bordering the Paramount wall ), he may still be there but it's getting close to five. He might have something to say about that stuff. He's not really into hot rods anymore, more of a classic car guy, but he's the real deal. He raced the lakes back in the day, the whole thing. His name is Tom Sparks."

What???!!!! Tom Sparks???!!! That's the guy! That's the guy from the Batchelor book. That's the guy that stood out more than any other ... among strong competition. How could this be happening? Maybe it's not the same Tom Sparks. But then again... look where we are. I was trying to stay level headed. Either way we were jumping in the car right this minute to see if we can catch him before he leaves. Tom Sparks! I couldn't believe it. I started immediately telling Al about everything this guy had done back in the day. How every few pages of the Batchelor book there would be yet another photo of him with some bitchin' car that he built. I went on about the range of speed competition he was involved in- the dry lakes roadsters, the drag cars, the Tony Nancy 22jr., the road racing specials, this guy was serious.

As I just said, I had seen a lot of photographs of this guy in the book but, again, this was a long time ago. I tried picturing in my mind the photo of him tuning the carbs on a supercharged flathead that he had run in a Willys coupe ( way way way before anyone had thought about drag racing a Willys coupe. In fact, this would have been around 1953 ), that photo was pretty close up and pretty clear. If we were going to be meeting THAT Tom Sparks, I wanted to at least have a chance at maybe recognizing him. I went over the picture in my mind and tried to tack on a few years. Then before I knew it, we were pulling up to his shop.

The shop was on a small lot that had clearly been used for automotive servicing for many many years. The pavement in the lot was black with years of grease and other car-contaminants that had been burned into it by the California sun. A bare metal XK120 Jaguar roadster was rolled out into the lot alongside a beautiful, red, black plate, California Porsche 356. The building was long, housing three businesses in total. A machine shop on the far left hand end, the Sparks shop in the middle, and a body shop on the other far end that looked as over-run with work as you would think an L.A. area body shop would.

Al and I got out of the car and walked up to the edge of the open bay door. The bay was about a car and a half wide and two cars deep. There was a far work bench with a lathe, drill press, and other high quality old machines from back when things like that were regularly built to military standards. The shop was well organized and clean. Along the left hand wall were two bare flathead Ford blocks in stands and something very interesting sitting covered on an engine stand near the back wall of the bay. Whatever it was it had a supercharger on it and big tube headers.

Just then I heard a voice coming from the office that I could just see the door to in the rear right hand corner of the bay. The door was open and a single voice was talking. I slowly walked back and looked into the office from the edge of the door opening. A gentleman was sitting in an office chair with his back to me, talking on the phone. As I stood in the doorway waiting for the phone call to wrap up I started to notice some things in this office that I was simply awestruck by. Things that I had only ever seen pictures of, and they were numbering in the dozens. It was overwhelming. Trophy upon trophy from places like Santa Ana, Paradise Mesa, Pomona, and Bakersfield drag strips, Riverside Raceway, dry lakes timing tags from Harper, El Mirage, and Rosamond, and a real live SCTA dry lakes trophy with the bust of a modified mounted on it. There was at least a full day's worth of early hot rod memorabilia to look at. The walls were covered with photos of the famous and the famous places from the early days of hot rodding and drag racing.

As I drifted away looking around this office and at all of the treasures on display, I began to gain confidence that this guy may just be the Tom Sparks that I'd read about. It was making less sense to me that there could have been two of these guys in the same era that had accomplished this much with the same name. Or maybe that was the answer, maybe it was two guys that did all of this, it certainly was the work of more than one person. I continued contemplating this and gazing around at all of this stuff and then suddenly I was snapped out of it."Hello, can I help you?" said the voice from the chair. I looked at him and he stood up. Again he said,"What can I do for you?" And there he was, Tommy "Sparky" Sparks, in the flesh. I have no way of describing how without doubt I was at that moment as to who I was meeting. This was him alright. No doubt about it. How was I so sure? Well, it was simple. He looked exactly the same! I mean exactly. There was no mistaking this guy from the young kid in the book. In fact, it was startling. I was off balance in a big way. I had gotten what I'd asked for and was now realizing that I had no way of putting into words why I was here.

Fortunately Tom is as nice a guy as you're ever going to meet. I slowly began telling him about my interest in early hot rodding and he just nodded along, listening. I told him that I'd gone into the shop down the street and the guy had sent me here because I'd asked about any of the original hot rod pioneers that might still be around. He then began asking me questions. Why would I be interested in this stuff? ( he must have asked me that a dozen times ). Funny enough, I couldn't really put it into words. For a while he thought I was some kind of reporter and continued to ask me what kind of business I was with that would have me researching this. I told him I was here just for my own personal interest in the matter. He still didn't seem to understand. Remember, this is 1995... a few years before the nostalgia hot rod craze really came on.

We continued to talk. I told him that my friend Al and I had driven into the valley to see if any of the old places were still around. I rattled off a few landmarks that I'd wanted to see, he laughed and said,"Hell, that was 50 years ago." Then he asked,"How in the world do you know about this stuff anyway?" I told him about the Don Montgomery book and he immediately said,"I've known Don since we were young guys." I then told him about the impact that the Dean Batchelor book was having on me and he said,"Yes, that's a very fine book. Dean really did a nice job with that. It's a terrible shame that he passed away. He was a good friend." I was so blown away at this point. He really was this guy I'd read about. He ran with and new these guys and seemed to have an incredible memory for the early days and was just now beginning to open up and reminisce. This was what I'd been waiting for.

He and I and Al sat and talked for about two hours. The more we spoke the more freakish I think I appeared to Tom. I would ask about a particular car or the person that built it and he would just keep asking why I knew about this stuff and how did I ever come to be so interested. There were so many things I wanted to ask him that it was hard to pick a particular one. Then I realized that one of the things I really wanted to hear about was the 22jr project he did with Tony Nancy. He got a smile on his face and walked us out into his shop. As we turned the corner he said,"You know, a friend of mine found that car and is restoring it. He's having me do the engine again just like I did it originally in the '50s." And with that he pulled back the cover on what I had seen sitting near the back of the shop. The real live Tony Nancy 22jr supercharged flathead. One of the nastiest full-race flatheads ever built. De-stroked to 258 ci and running an Italmeccanica supercharger, this little engine propelled the 22jr to mid 10 second e.t.s at 135mph in the mid 1950s!!! The car and its engine made the cover of hot rod magazine in December of 1957. Now, here I was standing next to it with the guy who built it!

We went back and forth talking about the 22jr and the Sparks and Bonney Willys coupe ( which the engine was originally run in ) and eventually started to work back to the dry lakes. This is when Tom really lit up. I asked about his old friends, he told me about the guys who were still around and the guys who weren't. He described the carefree lifestyle of those days, echoing some of what I'd read from Dean Batchelor, and I just couldn't have been more pinned to his every word. We batted names and cars back and forth, and talked about everything "lakes". Then, the biggest shocker of the day happened, Tom said,"You know I still have one of my first hot rods I ever built sitting at home in my garage. I'll bet you'd like to see that." I couldn't believe what I just heard.

And with that, Tom Sparks asked two complete strangers who just walked in off the street if they'd like to come to his home that night for dinner with he and his wife and see, not just his old hot rod, but the rest of his cars that he'd collected over the years. You can bet we said yes faster than you can blink.

We helped Tom put some stuff away for the night before leaving the shop and then hopped in our car and followed his shiny red 356 over the Hollywood hills into North Hollywood. It would be an amazing night, one I'll never forget, and would also be the start of a great friendship with a true hero... one that I'll always cherish.

( The photo above was taken by my good friend Al Bunetta on that very day that I first met Tom. There was no way I wasn't going to get a picture with Tom and the Tony Nancy 22jr engine before we left. And yes, I was going through my Chet Baker phase at the time. )


anderst5 said...

That is an outstanding story. "Outside is America".

BMCB said...

We will miss Tom, he has been part of our life for more than 40 years, a car he restored for us in the 70's just won another Award, that's how good he is!