nathan ostich flying caduceus


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Samuel Hawley is a writer of narrative nonfiction and fiction. His books are highly eclectic. He has written about 16th-century East Asian history, 19th-century Korean-American relations, Olympic sprinting and land speed racing and a circus elephant named Topsy who was electrocuted in 1903. He lives in Kingston, Ontario.


Alan Bradshaw was the only full-time paid employee on Nathan Ostich's "Flying Caduceus" project. I interviewed him over the phone at his home in Hackensack, Minnesota on May 9, 2009.

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The start of all this [Nathan Ostich’s "Flying Caduceus" project] was the hub of friends surrounding Ak Miller’s garage in Whittier, California. I met Doc when I worked for Ak Miller. Ak was the old hot rodder from many, many years ago, one of the founding fathers of the Southern California Timing Association and that whole group of Bonneville and dry lake racers. Ak had a garage on Whittier Boulevard in West Whittier, in the outskirts there. And there was always a large group of hangers-on that circulated in and out. They had no security. People went in and out, they’d watch you work. They were just a jolly bunch of guys that hung around there. I went to work for Ak in 1957. Doc at the time was a good friend of Ak and all the players there. And Doc had a Chrysler 300C. And I being a Chrysler-background guy did practically all of Doc’s work on his 300. So that’s how Doc and I got net to each other. I was only 23 years old, so I was the junior bird man of the group. We had a lot of comers and goers, but they were all very serious hot rodders too. Doc was a very independent hot rodder. He was one of these guys who was dedicated to his sport, and he considered it a sport. He wasn’t particularly wealthy. He wasn’t particularly ostentatious in his manner. He was just one of the guys. He was very independent. Some might have said he was pretty hard-headed.


One of his first projects was kind of crazy, because, like around 1956, he decided to go for a speed run at Bonneville in an old Henry J. Kaiser, about as weird a little car as you could get. They were sold by the Sears Roebuck catalog, of all things. So they put a Chrysler 300 engine in it... Ak Miller was one of the guys who was always trying to push the envelop with something weird. So I don’t know if it was Ak’s idea or Doc idea, but they decided to put this big Chrysler blown engine in this Henry J. and go for a record at Bonneville—I don’t even know what record it was—and they decided to run the blower on top of the engine with a Harley Davidson motorcycle engine. So this put this crazy thing together and they went to Bonneville, and they weren’t very successful. At any rate there was a big uproar at Bonneville. They didn’t have a category, because they decided there were two engines because of the Harley. So they disclaimed any responsibility or sponsorship. We used to call it the Green Thing. It was filled with Bondo to smooth it out aerodynamically and it must have weighed about a ton and a half, I suppose. It wasn’t really successful, but Doc kind of cut his teeth on that.


After that he came back, and he started talking about going for the land speed record. Now here’s a physician in East Los Angeles who is not overly mechanically capable and he’s talking about setting the world land speed record with, of all things, a jet car. (laughs) He started jabbering about that, and the naysayers came out of the woodwork from all directions. Because he hadn’t been overly successful with his Henry J., and everybody thought he was really out in left field. First thing they said was, “Doc’s nuts.” The second thing was it would be uncontrollable, the goofy car would go in circles, again Doc was nuts, he’ll never get it built, it’s an impossible task. And then, to top it off, the FIA, the French timing association, they would never recognize a record by a jet car because it was different. They didn’t have a class for it. And therefore they wouldn’t time it either. I think all those things cemented Doc’s desire to do it. I think it inspired him. Again, maybe he was stubborn. On the other hand, he had a vision and he was going to pursue it.


Was that what you all called Nathan Ostich, “Doc”?


Yeah. We called him Doc. [Laughs] And Ray Brock and Joanne Brock used to call him Dr. Quack. And that was common. “Hey Quack, what’re you doing?”


They’d call him that right to his face?


Oh sure. It all started when Joanne Brock was pregnant with one of the girls, and she told her sister-in-law that she had this Dr. Ostich. And her sister-in-law was concerned about these racers who had MDs after their name. She said, “Joanne, I’ve looked him up in the directory, the physicians directory, and there is no Dr. Ostrich in the book.” So that’s how it got started. We used to call him Doc, and Ray and Joanne called him Quack, or Quackenbush.


You mentioned that Ostich didn’t know a whole lot about cars. So he wasn’t really on a par with Art Arfons, Craig Breedlove, in terms of being a mechanical genius, building and designing these things.


No. That’s correct. He was intelligent. He was smart. He was dedicated. He worked on the car. But he was not in any way, shape or form a true craftsman or mechanically inclined.


Was Doc talking about using a jet right from the start, when he began talking of going after the LSR?


As far as I know, yes.


Any idea where this notion came from, to use a jet?


No I don’t. Except that he had a friend, I can’t remember his name, Jack something or other, was in the air surplus business. I don’t know what the connection between he and Jack was, but Jack bought the engines for Doc.


You were going to tell me about some of the problems about Bonneville.


Bonneville was really unique from the standpoint that the challenges are many. For instance, in those days, just accommodations in Wendover, you had a choice of one motel, the Stateline Hotel, and then there was a motel, I can’t remember what the name of it was. So as a result just getting there and getting a crew organized and being there alone was a challenge. When you got there, communications on the Salt were nearly impossible. There were no good radio telephones. The only telephones we had were land lines that we strung miles, ten miles of braided wire across the top of the salt. Of course when the salt water comes up in the hot of the day would submerge some of these wires and of course that’s conductive, so you can imagine the telephone system we had, almost non-existent. We had somebody stationed about every mile down the salt, on a bunch of army surplus field telephones that seldom worked. Now, the weather is formidable. It’s hot. It’s windy. Every night the wind blows, and the salt water comes up in the heat of the day, so the ability to run is almost always early in the morning. So you get up at three in the morning, you chow down and you get everybody ready. You fuel up all your cars because it was easy to run out of gas out there, running up and down the salt. And you get out there about daybreak, and you get all set up to run, and of course some times you ran and sometimes you’d be disappointed. The wind would come up, the weather would be bad, the quality of the salt, I’m sure you read there were years we couldn’t run at all because of the roughness of the salt.


Continuing on a little bit about the group of friends that put this thing together for Doc. They were a jolly bunch. Everybody who hung around Ak Miller’s, everybody thoroughly believed in having a good time. They were dedicated racers and had done some pretty outstanding things on a pretty limited budget. They were the poor man’s hot rodders. But on the other hand they were always having a good time.


As far as the car was concerned, the main leader, without a doubt, was Ray Brock. Ray was a smart guy, a great person, and he also was probably one of the closest, if not the closest, friend that Doc had. He was kind of the leader of the band. Worked right in there on the car every day, every night, with me. Ak was very active, but sporadic in his attendance. And then I was in there someplace probably as third. But the whole crew, probably ten people who were in the inner circle, that were really dedicated, were all volunteers. A really close-knit circle of people. I was the only paid employee. Doc hired me full-time about six months into the project.


Did you do the work right there at Doc’s house? I’ve read that he housed the car below his living quarters in a two-story dwelling.


That’s correct. He bought a storefront building in East Los Angeles and he lived upstairs in a nice apartment. It had a storefront on the boulevard and it had an alley access with big overhead doors in the back lower level. He bought that building specifically to build that car in.


There was no store on the lower level?


The store was closed. We used that front store building, we blacked out the windows, whited out the windows, and we used it for storage for spare parts and all of our stuff, and [laughs] it also had room for Doc’s ping-pong table.


He liked ping-pong?


He loved tennis and ping-pong. Doc loved his ping-pong, and he wasn’t above challenging anybody who came by to a game of ping-pong. And he would play ping-pong, with you for instance, he’d give you a paddle and he’d play with a Coke bottle. And he’d probably beat you.


I’ve seen reference elsewhere by you that Craig Breedlove was hanging around the shop in those early years.


We had a lot of hangers-on. Craig at that time must have been in the sixteen-year-old range. Those guys came and went. I can’t say how much time he spent at Ak’s. He never came by the shop where we built the car. He came by Ak Miller’s shop. That was actually before we started the car.


Like I was saying, there were about ten volunteers involved in the construction. They worked at night. I worked during the day. To my knowledge, nobody ever backed out, and this was a three- or four-year project. They weren’t there every day or every night, but there was always a group there who were willing to work. It was truly a hot rodders co-op project. Doc would come and go as he needed to. He would swing by when I was working during the day, and I’d see him maybe in the afternoon when he was on his way to the hospital for his patient visits. They all came and went, but they never gave up, and they went to Bonneville with us. I think that in itself spoke quite highly of the respect they had for Doc and for the project. That inner circle was behind him 100 percent. And then there was the outside circle of people who volunteered to help. Those were the guys at Aerojet General [?] and Northup Technology. Those guys provided wind tunnel tests and technical information and information on the jet engine.


Doc practiced medicine in East Los Angeles, in a private practice. He was an ex-military doctor, he was single. He had never married up to that point. He had two gals who worked for him in the office, Gladys and Helen. A lot of times I’d go over there and we’d meet for lunch and discuss what was going on. Actually, before we started on the car, when I was working on his 300s, I had a two-year-old son who was undergoing perpetual ear infections and sickness, and Doc said, “Well, bring him over to the office.” I kind of hesitated, because you don’t get a hot rodder doctor for your personal physician. But at any rate, he said, “Bring him over to the office and we’ll check him over.” And so I did. And he started treating Ron and taking care of him and doing good things for us as a family. And that grew and grew and grew, and it ended up being the best health plan I ever had. He took care of my family, he took care of Ann, he delivered two kids, he did tonsillectomies, he did hernia surgery. He would submit the bill to Blue Cross, to my insurance, and he’d give me the check when it came. That tells you the kind of guy he was. He was stern. He was one of these people who bark, and you would think he was a grouchy old fool. But he had a heart of gold. And he did the same thing for Ray. I know he delivered all of Ray’s kids, all the girls, he took care of our families at no charge. It was an amazing relationship, really.


Do you know anything about Doc’s Canadian background?


We didn’t get into personal things too much. I know that he had two brothers who were dentists. And his sister lived in East Los Angeles.


You mentioned that he had been a military doctor. Would this have been during the war?


Yes, as far as I know. And he also practiced medicine in what back then I think was called Los Angeles General Hospital. He was a grouchy sort of guy at times, I think because he was busy, and some doctors where they’re busy are a little bit grouchy. He was the kind of doctor I always respected because he told it exactly like it was. He told you what your odds were. He had my wife scared to death. On her first baby she had gained a lot of weight. He started taking care of her on her second and he threatened her with her life if she gained too much weight. I heard him say one day, just to give you a side line, I was sitting in his office, with the examining room right next to the office, you could hear a little bit of what was going on in there, and I’m sitting there waiting to go out to lunch with him, and a lady came in and she was coughing and hacking and wheezing said she had been sick for a couple of weeks and he finally said: “You know, when you’re sick your friends give you all kinds of advice on how to cure yourself. But when they’re sick they go see the doctor.” (laughs) he could be really tough if he needed to be, but he had a heart of gold.


I’ll tell you a little sideline about Doc when Ray’s and our kids were born. Doc liked to joke around. He liked to have fun. So he put our families [Al’s and Ray Brock’s] in a little hospital down on Sudder Street [?], fifteen rooms at the most, and it was run by three or four of the doctors. And they put their friends in there because they could absolutely dictate what kind of care they got. So when Joanne was going to have one of the girls, Doc decided he’d play a little trick on Ray. And Ray, working for a magazine, always had his camera with him, hanging around his neck. Ray wanted to photograph the baby the minute it was born. That was before the days they did that kind of thing. Doc said, “I don’t know if old Nurse Crachet will let us do that, but I’ll see what we can do.” They didn’t actually have a maternity waiting room. You sat in the lobby. You could ear what was going on around you, upstairs. So Joanne’s in labor and Ray’s sitting there waiting, and all at once he hears the nurses starting to talk about twins, and about another bassinette. Ray’s wife was the only one in labor, and so he’s sitting there, taking it all in. And so finally Doc comes out and says, “Congratulations Ray. You’ve got twins. Come on up and you can take a picture of them.” And of course Ray’s just dumbfounded. And so they go up and Doc gets in the nursery and he’s got the nurse holding one baby and Doc goes and gets the other baby, all swaddled in a blanket, and he says, “Are you ready, Ray?” And Ray gets his camera out and he’s looking through the lens and Doc says, “Well, whenever you’re ready, we’ll do it.” Ray says “Okay,” and Doc raises the flap on the blanket and he’s got a stuffed baboon in there. So Ray took a picture of the two kids, and one of them’s a baboon.


Another time, with one of the other kids, Ray came up to take a picture in the nursery, and Doc picked a baby up, supposedly out of the nursery, and he tripped and fell and threw the baby across the room. And when my wife was in there, we had two boys and one of the girls, the third one, and so he said, “We’ve got to get that baby before we go to Bonneville. So I’m going to give you something to take home.” So he gave me a plunger with a blue ribbon tied around the handle and he says, “Press and place and draw [garbled, 31:16] and when baby appears call Doc.” And on the blue ribbon he had a pair of cutting pliers tied on there and he said: “If I stomp two times on the floor, bring it up and we’ll make a girl out of it.”

So that was the attitude when you were around Doc and that whole bunch. We used to get together at somebody’s house and somebody always had some wild thing going on. We had a good time. [Al goes on to tell a story of playing a trick on Ak Miller at Bonneville when he was there with a Cobra doing time trials.]


That first time you all went to Bonneville, in the second week of August in 1960, Athol Graham would have been killed just the week before that. How much was that in your minds?


Very much. And Doc was right in there with us. He was not afraid, I don’t think. But we were concerned about Doc’s safety. This guy was our best friend. So we said right from the get-go, we’re not going to got out and go 200 mph the first day. We’re going to take it easy, work our way up. Everything was untried, untested. You take this whole do-it-yourself package to Bonneville, and you’re going to see if everything works the way it’s supposed to. And so we were concerned.


A couple years later, in 1962, the Deseret News makes a reference to Ostich having nightmares about Athol Graham’s death. Was that true?


I never heard him say that. He was concerned. We were all concerned for his well-being, but I never heard him say anything like that. One of Doc’s brothers, Dr. John, a dentist, went with us. I guess you could say he would have been Doc’s personal valet, he would prepare Doc, when we put him in the cockpit I would dust off his shoes, and Doctor John would be there helping. And I’m sure they shared some private moments in the evening. But that was about as close as it came to getting involved in his personal feelings.


I’ve read with regard to 1960 that Ostich had a radio system in the car, that people were relaying information to him through headphones.


We tried. If you look at the very first photographs you’ll see a little silver dome on top of the cockpit. It was totally unsuccessful.


So you didn’t use it again when you returned in ’62.


We took it off. The car underwent quite a few modifications. That was one of the bad ideas. Everybody was just getting into radios at the time. The quality of the equipment wasn’t good enough.


As far as I know, the other land speed racers, Breedlove and Arfons and the others, didn’t have radios in the cockpit.


No, not to my knowledge. The only thing you had to navigate with, at least in our case, was Howard Dickson painted some four-by-eight sheets of plywood with different colors and put them up on an easel, and they marked the miles by color. In other words, when he entered the speed traps there was a green, and when he exited there was yellow, and then the red...You see, you lose your depth perception. It’s much like being on a big frozen lake. You had very poor depth perception about where you are and how far you’ve gone. And so those were the only navigational markers we had, other than the fact we tried to station people on every mile or two of the course, because you needed weather reports. It could be dead calm at the starting line and you could have 20 mile an hour winds at the other end of the course. And the wind is always a factor.


Did Ostich wear an air mask when he was running?




Was that never an issue, asphyxiation or something like that?


No. Actually, we were concerned about CO2. We installed fire bottles somewhere in there, I think maybe on the second or third run at Bonneville. We were concerned about fire. So we installed CO2 bottles that he could trip, mainly in the chassis area, in the fuel tank area and around the engine. And there was some worry about CO2, but we didn’t get too concerned about it because your choice was CO2 or burn.


A funny thing about volunteers. These bottles were being installed by somebody who had volunteered, I don’t even know what the company was, but these two yard birds were in the shop, and they’re trying to decide how much CO2 they need to flood the given volume of the chassis and the cockpit, how many pounds of CO2 is it going to take. So they’re in this big discussion about how many cubic feet of CO2 is in a pound, in a bottle. In other words, when it expands, how much area is it going to fill. And they’re discussing how much CO2 and free air is a ten-pound bottle, and they’re off and running discussing this. And working on our parachutes in the back was a fellow by the name of Klaus Kanaky. Klaus was in space recovery systems. He built the drogue cute system and installed it for us and showed us how to operate it and check it and pack the chute. He was a German V2 expert. Brilliant. I mean this guy was a walking encyclopedia of technology. And he’s back there working on the chutes as these two guys are arguing about CO2, and they had the wrong numbers according to Klaus, and Klaus finally said, “I hate to interrupt you guys, but I’ve got to tell you you’re wrong.” He says there are so many cubic feet of CO2 in a free state in a pound, and he quoted it off the top of his head, and sure enough he was right.


Speaking of the chutes, I’ve read that Ostich frequently didn’t use the chute because it took so long to repack them.


On the lower speed runs, a 200 mph run and he had plenty of time to stop, he did not deploy the chute.


I’ve also read that the final stage of repacking the chute was to beat it with a bat to make sure it wasn’t packed too tightly. Is that correct?




Was that standard procedure with these LSR cars?


I don’t know. We learned all about the chute from Klaus. His job was with the Mercury capsules and things. He never went to Bonneville with us, but he set it all up and taught us how to run it. We were kidding him one day. They shot the first Mercury capsule and it went way down field, beyond the recovery area, and dropped in the ocean, and we were always kidding him about it, “What’s the matter, didn’t your chute work?” And we were at lunch one day and he says, “Well, I’ll tell you what’s wrong with that. The guy ran out of fuel is the reason he went all the way down there.” And we said, “What do you mean, Klaus? You’re just making excuses.” And he says, “No! I tell you the truth. The guy ran out of fuel. You take that poor devil and you put him in that thing and you fly him butt-first 17,500 mph and what’d he do but he turned around to see where he was going. So he burned up too much fuel and he overshot the landing spot.”


I’ve noticed that Doc wore regular sneakers when he was racing. Was there any reason for that?


Just for comfort. I’d take a brush and brush the salt off his shoes before he stepped into the cockpit. Let’s see where was I here...I made some notes...Doc was dedicated, but he wasn’t obsessed [I had mentioned this word in the questions I sent], but believe me, he was in charge of the project. His desire to succeed I think was only reinforced by the naysayers. This was a true hot rodders’ program, born out of the guy who ran on the dry lakes and the salt flats in converted old Motel Ts, low-budget operations. But we never scrimped on quality. We never scrimped on spending the money if we needed to. We promoted parts. [I think he means they asked companies to donate parts.] Ray Brock promoted all the suspension parts, four-wheel torsion bar, independent suspension, from a truck, turned upside down. It was put together from parts donated by some friend of Ray’s in GMC truck. It didn’t take a lot of parts. I’m sure it cost them hardly anything.


Doc bankrolled everything. Doc was in charge. Doc put the money in, his own personal money. As far as sponsorship was concerned, unless there was something going on behind the scenes that I wasn’t aware of, Firestone donated tires and wheels. That was a total Firestone donation. They tested them on Firestone’s farm in the Midwest and ran them at high speed on the dynamometer they’d built. They may [also] have donated tires and wheels for the trailer we built, but I’m not aware of any monetary help. The same thing went for Mobil. Mobil furnished fuel and people there to handle the fuel, but I’m not aware of any money that changed hands. In fact I can tell you, Castrol at one point offered...I was at the lunch when Castrol made an offer to Doc for sponsorship, and they wanted some strings attached, and he told them to go pedal their wares [?] elsewhere. He wasn’t interested. So he bankrolled it all, right out of his own pocket. He paid for our motel rooms, for all the crew that went to Bonneville those times.


Did the death of Glenn Leasher in September 1962 perhaps influence Doc’s decision to retire from the LSR quest?


No, I don’t think so. But let me get into that in a minute, because there’s a lot to be told in that area. One of your questions was, “How did he take set-backs,” and this leads up to the ultimate decision to stop the effort. He took set-backs very well, in stride, and I want to mention something here that I thought was remarkable. In spite of the air ducts collapsing, in spite of the spin-outs, in spite of the wheel coming off, in spite of the handling problems and those kind of things, never ever once did I hear Doc blame anybody. He never said “why did you do that” or anything else. He always kept his cool. You could tell he was frustrated. I think he was remarkably composed under some adverse situations where it would have been easy to in my case, it was my job, and the wheels, those weren’t demountable wheels. That meant every time we had to change a tire, or tires—we could only make a certain number of runs on a tire before they grew too big—that meant repacking new wheel bearings and stuff like that. That was one of my jobs. Ray and I did the wheel bearings every time. And we don’t know that one spindle pushed off or why the bearing failed, but Firestone had some bearing failures on the dynamometer. And never once did Doc say, “What the hell, did you guys tighten the bearings too tight or something?” Never ever any lash-out.


In fact, it was on the air ducts, now that’s kind of funny, it goes back to Doc’s lack of mechanical ability, when it came to the fiberglass air ducts, Doc had a guy, some guy who ran a pattern-making shop, make a great big solid wood pattern of half of one of the air ducts. The air ducts were Y-shaped and joined together just in front of the turbine and they were four foot long, something like that, and 36 inches in diameter, half round, half moon-shaped going back. And Doc had this guy make this pattern—goofy thing weighed a couple hundred pounds—and Doc himself made the air ducts. He spent hours in the front part of that building with fiberglass resin and fiberglass and goo and glue (laughs) and wire, and he made the air ducts himself. And then we installed them. So when the air ducts collapsed on that first go-around up there, we had never given it a thought, we were doing static testing, trying to see why we weren’t getting the full rpm out of this thing. So we had it tied to two air force boogey buggies, tow buggies, and we had it tied to our big Chevy truck, and Ray was in the cockpit and I’m standing alongside the thing, this fire-breathing monster, with the top of the chassis open, and I’m standing there adjusting the fuel control, running on ninety-some percent, and all at once, kaboom, and it inhaled those air ducts because there was no ram air coming into them. I guess it’s possible that even if we had ram air going in, it would have collapsed when it got up to four hundred or whatever miles an hour that we were trying to get to. But we took those air ducts out that night, and Firestone had their Lodestar right there on the salt, and we flew those air ducts to Hill Air Force Base, I went with them, and we got clearance I suppose from General LeMay, and they met us at the tarmac and they took those air ducts right to their fiberglass shop and they made new air ducts. And I got a wonderful tour of Hill Air Force Base, had dinner, and I don’t know, two o’clock in the morning we flew four new air duct pieces back to the salt flats in the Lodestar and we had them installed and ready to go by sunup.


How could they make those air ducts so fast?


They used a honeycomb core which I can’t even hardly describe to you. We had fence wire inside them originally.


Did you have the pattern along with you?


No we didn’t...How did we do that? You know, you’ve raised a good question. I don’t remember having the pattern along, by they [the ducts] fit perfect. You know, that’s something that just got by me. At any rate, they used this honeycomb core, maybe half an inch thick, sheets of it. To join sheets of it together you lay one on top of the other and then just pound it together, and it splits halfway down and dovetails, if you can envision what I’m saying. And they put them in a big bag and pull a vacuum on and the vacuum sucks the bag shut, which of course uses atmospheric pressure to pressurize the outside of the bag to the form. It was far superior to what Doc did back in the shop. And the funny thing was, there was no bill. And then maybe a year later Doc got a bill from the Air Force—and I don’t know where LeMay fit into the program at this time—but as a result he did ultimately pay for the air ducts, and it was pretty expensive, I’m sure.


Was this Curtis LeMay you’re talking about?


Yes. He was an old racer. I don’t know exactly where he fit into the picture, or who knew him to get him involved to the length that he was. But this first trip up there we had Air Force ATU units, we had Air Force technicians, we had Air Force boogey tractors, and there were some Air Force planes landed on the flats. But that was only the very first time, then everybody realized, hey, it’s not a good idea to take airplanes and land them out there on the salt flats, because it gets salt in the wheel wells and all kinds of stuff. So that was a one-time shot.


So anyhow, Doc took set-backs well. Disappointed, but he never ever lashed out at anybody. I think he totally trusted the crew. He knew that we were concerned about his well-being all the time. In fact, I don’t think those crashes had anything to do with his decision to discontinue. In fact, he didn’t decide to discontinue. Ray Brock and Ak and I did. And I’ll get into that in a minute.


When we got into the situation of ill-handling, I need to address that a little bit, because there’s been a lot of misinformation in a lot of the publications and write-ups. We got up to the 300-plus mile an hour range, and we were in a dilemma trying to figure out why the car would go straight as a string one time and the next time we would get into oscillations, right to left, right to left. We were chasing wheel alignment, we were trying to figure out, Firestone right in there with us, but we couldn’t figure it out. We couldn’t find any abnormal wear in the tires indicating any kind of scuffing or something getting out of line. We were pretty much at a loss to figure out why. Doc would make a run at three hundred, and it would go just straight. Perfect. He’d turn around to go back and the car would start wig-wagging. Did that cause the wheel bearing failure? What the heck went on here?


So when we got back to LA, talking to our sources, they began to indicate that we had aerodynamic problems, started to kick around terms like boundary layer air influence, these kind of things, which was beyond me. (laughs) There are some photographs of the original balsa wood model that Doc made of the car, what he envisioned it would look like. It was painted black, all stuck together with glue, and it had a tail. But when we did the wind tunnel tests on the model of the car, the quality model he built, the people doing the test said, “You don’t need the tail. It’s not necessary.” Then, when we started getting into aerodynamics, we were told that maybe we needed a tail. So we had two guys come down from Edwards Air Force Base. They came in to help us. We were told they were test pilots, that they had exceptional ability to fly a plane and then tell the engineers what was wrong with it. So these guys arrive, I’ll never forget, it was a Saturday morning, they arrive about an hour and a half late, they’d been riding double on a Harley-Davison, and had hit an oil slick or something on the Santa Anna freeway and lost it. And they came in there and one had the seat of his britches burnt out and the other [garbled]. And these two pilots pile off this Harley and Doc took them upstairs and dressed their wounds—of course he always carried his doctor’s bag with him in those days—and we went and had lunch. And their claim was that we needed a vertical stabilizer in order to take care of this boundary layer air. They explained to us that, with the car being a cigar shape, a straight cigar shape, that if you got a perfectly straight start and there was never any need to do a little correction in your direction, you could make a straight run. But if you started to turn just slightly, you had a vacuum on one side of the car and pressure on the other side of the car and it would tend to turn the car in the opposite direction. So you’d start this wig-wagging down the course and it would be nearly impossible to recover. Then we set about to design and build a tail, and it was quite a project.


So the only time the Caduceus had a tail was in 1962?


Yes. So I built the tail. And we were fighting weight. We were always fighting weight, just like a 747. We weren’t overweight, but we were at the marginal area for weight. And the tail, we cast some aluminum, and we skinned it, we made the tail adjustable, it was tied in with cables to the steering, quite a project for a kid, building this thing in Doc’s garage. But it was very successful as far as taking care of the problem.


I ran across a website discussing this issue of the tail and wind tunnel testing, and it said that it was discovered a few years later that these wind tunnels tests of cars were wildly inaccurate above 200 mph if the test didn’t have a moving ground plane.


Right. I think that was all of our agreement. We were told the car should go 435 or 450 mph, no problem. We had enough thrust to do that. And when we couldn’t get it up to those kind of speeds, we began to say, “What is wrong? Something’s wrong with the engine.” In fact, there was one time I flew back to Los Angeles and picked up the fuel control off our spare engine—it was the second time we were out there—and flew back to Wendover and put it on in the middle of the night and it didn’t change a thing. So we were concerned that we had an engine problem, when ultimately we had an aerodynamics problem. And that was part of the demise of the whole program. We had four wheels exposed, 48-inch diameter wheels. If you look at those wheels, they’re finned on the inner side, they were like big air pumps. The wind tunnel tests didn’t take into consideration the boundary layer air that was created around the wheels as they were pushing through the air. And that began a major—probably the major cause of our inability to get to speed.


It sounds like the wind tunnel test data was almost detrimental to the whole program, in that it led you in some wrong directions.

It did. There was never any concern among the crew, or Doc, that these guys gave us a bum steer, or you’d like to say, “well, they really screwed us up.” That was not...we didn’t know what we were doing. Nobody knew what we were doing. But when we finally got into the business of not being able to get up to speed, Doc was very disappointed. The choices were very limited. I guess what it boiled down to was, we needed more horsepower, or we needed better dynamics. And keep in mind, now, here comes Breedlove along behind us. He was behind schedule, as I understood, in the construction of his car, but he’s come along with a lot better data, a lot better information—I don’t now how much of it he got from us; I’m sure he learned from our mistakes. But he was coming along with a tricycle car, really aerodynamically designed. He’s got basically the same power plant we have, but his chances are looking pretty good.


So you were all aware that Craig’s car was very sophisticated at that time.


Right. At least the models and the stuff he had touted. Craig, as I understand, and this is really off the record, I don’t want to be quoted on any of this, to my knowledge Craig never came by our shop when we were working, but I’m sure he knew what we were doing because it was widely known. His dad was his mentor. I never really understood the relationship between Craig and his dad, I didn’t know him that well. There was never any...and I think you asked what Doc thought of Craig...I think he was very positive about Craig. He just knew he was coming along behind us with something maybe a lot better than what we had. But his dad started out with Craig, and as I understood it they took a model to Bonneville and photographed it on the salt. And he used that model to entice Shell and Goodyear into sponsorship.


I have seen those photos of the model at Bonneville, and it had a tail. But when they built the car they decided against the tail. And I’m guessing it was the same deal with Caduceus, that the wind tunnel tests showed that a tail wasn’t necessary, and that this proved ultimately to be incorrect, and later they put the tail on.


I think we all had the same problem.


Now you mentioned that Doc built a model of the car that was painted black. Did that model have a tail? Was that Doc’s original idea?


I think it did. If you find one of those old photographs...there’s one of him standing alongside the engine on a stand, holding the model in his hand, if I remember right....


As far as Doc’s relationship with Craig [Breedlove], I don’t know if they ever met. Now Doc did know Art Arfons. Well, Arfons followed us onto the salt at times. There’s one photograph of three of the cars all lined up on the salt at the same time. I don’t know if Doc met Breedlove or had any conversations with him. But I think there was a mutual respect; that it was a life-threatening endeavor.


One thing that’s kind of funny, wherever we went with the car, there was always a crowd. It was like hauling flypaper around. And we were working on the body, I and Luju Lusowski were doing the bodywork, the skin, the aluminum work, and we were down in Luju’s shop in South Figueroa, it was right on Figueroa Boulevard. It was summer and we had the doors open and we had ropes tied across the doors to keep the crowd out, because there were always sightseers looking in the doors. And Doc came by at lunch one day, and he just had his office clothes on, and he was in there working with me, or we were talking about something, I don’t know what we were doing. And there were some young guys who came up, and they were leaning on the rope at the door, saying, “Man, look at this. I don’t know why anybody would do this. Why would anybody want to get in that thing and try to go 400 miles an hour.” We could hear this conversation going on. And one of these young fellows, they were in their twenties, said to Doc, “Hey mister. Why would anybody want to do this?” And Doc looked at him and said, “Well, let me tell you son. Some guys smoke. Some guys drink. Some guys chase women. I race cars.” That just kind of stuck with me all these years.


When we finally realized we had aerodynamic problems beyond the tail—we fixed what we wanted there. We didn’t have enough horsepower. We either needed to up the horsepower—and this is where our decision to stop came in. We were right at our weight limit. Firestone kept saying, “You can’t add any more weight, guys. You just can’t do it.” So we’re at our weight limit, we need to improve our aerodynamics. And that’s like, how do you improve the aerodynamics of a brick? We considered enclosing the wheels some way to reduce the air drag. But we couldn’t do it without adding weight. I mean, no matter what kind of dream materials you might come up with, with the way the wheels were stuck out there, away from the chassis, on an independent suspension, it would have been just impossible to put skirtings on these wheels and still allow them to turn and all the things they needed to do without adding a lot of weight. The other alternative is to up the horsepower. We could have gone possibly to water injection, some of those engines were equipped with water. But again: weight. It would have been impossible to get enough additional horsepower without adding a tremendous amount of weight. The third alternative was a rocket. Let’s do some rocket assist. But everything we looked at in that rocketry field was going to take a lot of weight. And so we struck out on those three alternatives.


So the car was partially disassembled, it’s sitting in Doc’s garage, and I’d gone to work for Chrysler Corporation. Because Doc kept paying me all this time, right out of his own pocket. And I said, “Doc, I’ve got to go get a job.” I did everything we could do to the car as far as putting it in shape. Everything was there, it was in good condition, it was clean, the shop was clean, I had everything picked up and Doc had [garbled] upstairs. And we were just kind of in a hold pattern and I said, “There’s no reason you should be paying me a salary while I’m sitting around here sweeping the floor.” So I went to work for...actually, there was a point there where I went to work for a Chrysler Plymouth dealership in Whittier, and then I went to work ultimately for Chrysler Corporation.


Doc was researching through his friend Jack about taking the J-47 out of the car and putting a rocket engine in it. There were some experimental rocket power plants that were apparently available through the surplus deal. And at that point Ray Brock and Ak and I said, “No way.” Because we felt it was uncontrollable. And we just weren’t going to take that chance putting Doc in some kind of a missile thing and shooting his hind rear down the salt flats.


So basically you felt that you had pushed the design of the Flying Caduceus as far as you reasonably could.


Yeah, I think so. We realized what the limitations were of our design. And at that point Breedlove is cracking the record. And where are we going to go? We were in a situation where it would have been a whole new car and we would have been two or three years behind whatever they were doing. So they were coming up on the rear and surpassing our expectations, and we were in a box.


One technical question: I’ve got a quote here from Ray Brock from 1960, and he said: “If we had tried to enclose the wheels in streamlining we would have increased the frontal area far more than the small surface our four-foot wheels present.” Would that have been based on the faulty wind tunnel testing?


I think so. Because we didn’t realize that those tires essentially became a lot wider when they started rotating and pushing through the air.


Could you elaborate on that? What do you mean, “a lot wider”? An inch?


We were told—and I’m relying on my memory so I could be wrong, don’t quote me on it—we were told they increased several inches in width as they pushed through the air.


You said that the Firestone people were saying that you couldn’t add any more weight. Was their concern about weight on those really, really thin tires? Or was it more to do with the thrust vs. weight ratio?


I think it was everything. The centrifugal force...the tires grew in diameter on each run. One of the things they did was they measured every tire after each run very carefully, and they determined when it was time to take the tires off and replace them. I think they were concerned about centrifugal force. They were concerned about the growth of the tires. They only had something like a twenty-thousandth of rubber on the surface. They had no wear on the tires. The tires survived really remarkably well. We had an extra set of wheel, an old scabby set of truck wheels that we put in the car to transport it, and then we put the real tires on at Bonneville.


I saw an old Deseret News headline that referred to the Caduceus as “The Flying Anteater.” Did you ever use that expression?


I don’t recall anything like that, no.


Any thoughts on Mickey Thompson?


Mickey worked as a press man for I think the LA Times at the time, and he ran Lions Drag Strip down at Long Beach. He and Ray [Brock], I won’t say they were friends as such, but they worked together on quite a few things over the years, with the magazine and stuff like that. Mickey was one of those guys who was going a different direction, but doing pretty good at it. Really sad what happened to him.


Did you all know much about the Romeo Palamides Infinity jet car?

No. Nothing at all.


And what about Donald Campbell? Do you cross paths with him when you were out on the Salt?


Not at all.


[I mention Ostich’s spin out in 1962, and news report of how it left a long red smear on the salt.]


The funny thing was about the spin out, as he was spinning these four-by-eight sheets of plywood we had painted, he ran sideways through one of those, just smacked that plywood into a million pieces. So when we got back to LA I had to take the engine all apart and we went through the engine and filed all the turbine teeth clean, they had salt debris, and we filed all the nicks out of the turbine wheels [blades] and put it back together.


A lot of stuff went on behind the scenes. It really was an amazing project. Again, I go back to the crew, and how dedicated they were, and how close-knit they were. Again I’d like to say that I never ever heard Doc lash out at anybody and say “Why did we do that” or “What went wrong” or anything like that. I think the closest we came to anything at all was the decision between Ray and Ak and I that we weren’t going to participate with Doc in doing any rocketry.


He accepted that decision?


Yes he did. I think we was resolved at that point that we had done what we could do. The car was apart in his garage and I was working for Chrysler and had been transferred to Kansas City in later years, and then I got a call from Ray, and he said that Doc had been diagnosed with cancer. [You can hear emotion in Al’s voice here.] And they were going to donate the car to Harrah’s in Reno. And Doc was concerned because the car was all apart. Well, not all apart, but partially disassembled in his shop. And basically, Ray and I were the only two guys who knew how it went together. So Ray said, “Let’s get together for Doc’s birthday.” I believe it must have been his sixtieth or something. For a surprise birthday party. Between ten or fifteen of us got together out there and put the car together for him and put it on the trailer ready to go to Harrah’s.


After that I was in Kansas City, chasing turbine cars for Chrysler, and I had very little contact with Doc. It’s one of those things, you’re busy, you’re living your life, he’s doing his thing. You kind of regret, later on, that you didn’t stay closer. He called me one time, it must have been around 1970, he was going through St. Louis, on his way to the Cleveland clinic where he went, he was just on a layover. And I guess I’m probably the only guy left.


[I talk a bit about the story I’m hoping to write, about regular guys doing extraordinary things in their backyards, etc.]


We were doing what we could do with our hands, we knew what would work, we’d sit down and sketch it out and say, what about if we do it this way or that way. There was a lot of backyard engineering that went into it.


The steering gear was a Chevy truck steering gear mounted way up in the nose. Now we’ve got to get the Pitman arm for the steering back to the center point between the front wheels. And the rod that’s going to do this is probably twelve feet long, and it’s got a bend in the middle to clear the bottom of the seat. It went right back between Doc’s legs and had to clear under the seat and go back under the engine to steer the front wheels. So this thing’s going to be wobbly, you can’t put a four-inch tube through there, it’s going to want to flop around. So I made a slave cylinder, a tube, a machined tube under the front seat, and it had a key-way cut in it, and it had lock screws in it so that it couldn’t turn, and it hand a hind joint on the front end and a hind joint on the back end, and we essentially made this a three-piece shaft that went down through the middle of the car to steer the front wheels. We didn’t have any design or engineering. We just said, well what about if we do this? It was those kind of things that worked out quite well.


I’m seventy-five now, and one of the things I’ve learned over the years is that the small things that occur in your life that totally change the direction you’re headed. Maybe it’s a dime-store decision you make today and you don’t give it a second thought, but down the road it opens a career path or changes something. My career in this whole scenario is kind of funny because I was a hot-rod kid, living here in the woods of northern Minnesota, didn’t have a pot or a window, not very healthy, was married, didn’t have any money, and so I’m working for a Dodge dealer and running up and down the highway, the highway patrolman chasing me all the time. And my sister lived in Santa Anna, California. She teaches school out there. And she was teaching grade school with Joanne Brock, Ray Brock’s wife. And she kept saying, “Why don’t you move to California?” California in 1956 was booming, everything was new, orange groves were being taken out, housing going up. And her hubby was working for a Shopsmith, the power tool company. And she said, why don’t you come out here. And Bob said, “I can get you a job as a field service rep with Shopsmith.” He said there’s a job opening right now. The fellow is going into the service. He’s going to take his physical.” I’d already failed my physical. I’m 4-F. He’s getting drafted and there’s going to be an opening. So Ann and I packed up. We had a brand new Fury I hadn’t made a payment on. So here’s this kid, got no money and a new, fancy car. And we made a homemade trailer and lugged the ironing board and the baby and the crib in the two-wheel trailer and we head west. We got to California, I had seven dollars in my pocket, and we moved in with my sister. And that afternoon she said, “I’m happy you’re here, but I’ve got bad news. The guy failed his physical and he’s not going into the service, so there’s no job for you.” So she was telling Joanne about this, and Joanne said, “Well, have him call Ray.” So I talked to Ray, and Ray said, “You got the tools?” I said “Sure. I’m a mechanic. I’m a nut-buster. I got tools.” He said, “Call Ak Miller. He might need somebody.” And so I did. And Ak said, “get your tools and unload ‘em and we’ll see what you can do.” And so that’s how I got in it.


And then later, after we ended the jet car project, I went to work for Chrysler, and because I had jet engine experience I ended up being a field service rep for Chrysler in the turbine car project. And because that was mothered over onto the training program, the service training center for the people who took care of those cars in the field, then I drifted into the training group and I retired after thirty-one years.

speed duel land speed record

copyright 2011 Samuel Hawley