glenn leasher infinity land speed record
                   

LAND SPEED RECORD

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LAND SPEED RECORD

IMJIN WAR

PERCY WILLIAMS

ELEPHANT TOPSY

GEORGE FOULK


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.

GLENN LEASHER / INFINITY: TOM FUKUYA REMEMBERS (PART 1)



Tom Fukuya was one of the main volunteers involved in the "Infinity" land speed jet car project--the only volunteer whose name was painted on the car along with co-owners Romeo Palamides, Glenn Leasher, Vic Elischer and Harry Burdg. He was particularly involved in the car's parachute system. Following our intial contact in June 2009, Tom sent me a series of e-mails recalling every detail and every incident he could about the project, a total of 30,000 words by the time we finished six months later. The opening few e-mails below are just a small portion of this correspondence.

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From: Tom Fukuya

To: Sam Hawley

Date: Thu, Jun 25, 2009

Subject: Your phone call re Infinity

 

Hi Sam,

Thanks for your call the other day. I'm sorry I couldn't respond to your first call. I had a number of messages on my machine, and it stopped recording your call before you had left a phone number or email address. I think it ran out of memory space.

Yes, Vic Elischer told me that you had contacted him. I would be happy to relate to you my experiences with the Infinity team. Unfortunately, I did not keep a logbook or diary of events as they happened, nor did I take any photos. We were just too busy to do any of that....and all I remember are various episodes or vignettes as I experienced them...

The most efficient thing to do, I think, would be for me to answer any specific questions you might have to the best of my ability via email. I could also send you an email or a series of emails, just recounting events as I remember them..

Anyway, I hope I can be of service to you.

Yours, Tom Fukuya

 

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From: Sam Hawley

To: Tom Fukuya

Date: Thu, Jun 25, 2009

Subject: Your phone call re Infinity

 

Dear Tom,

Thanks very much for getting back to me, Tom. I got some great material from Vic, and would really like to hear your memories too. (I’ve also interviewed Tom Hanna, who was a friend of Glenn Leasher’s back in Kansas, and Bill Kaska, a friend of Glenn’s in San Francisco.)

The book I’m writing, by the way, is called “Speed Duel,” and focuses on the land speed record in the 1960s. Breedlove and Arfons are the main figures, but I’m covering the other LSR contenders as well, and am giving a whole chapter to Infinity and her crew. The book will be published by Firefly Books in Sept. 2010.

Communicating by e-mail would suit me fine. If you don’t mind, then, I’ll just hit you with a list of questions. Please feel free to answer any of them that you want, and to skip any that you want too.

When were you born? Could you give me a little background on yourself? Are you nisei or sansei Japanese-American?

When and how did you get involved in the Infinity jet car? What were you doing at the time? (Cal Tech engineering student, right?)

I’ve seen newspaper reports of the crash that say that Glenn Leasher had been married for six months, but no one I’ve talk to can remember if he was married or not. Can you recall? I’m wondering about any insights into the widow he left behind.

What do you recall of that first trip to the salt flats in August 1962, to test the car? Vic says the tests went well and you all left Bonneville feeling very confident. He also recalls running the car that first night in the moonlight.

What are your memories of Glenn Leasher as a driver?

Vic told me about some concerns he had about Glenn as the driver; that he wasn’t following the plan; that there was something of a split on the team with Vic and you on one side, wanting careful testing and incremental speed build-ups, and Glenn and Romeo on the other, who kind of didn’t like you university guys interfering in how the car was being run. What do you remember about this?

How were you feeling when you returned to the salt in Sept. 1962 to go for the record? Pretty confident that you were going to break it?

What are your memories about the crash itself? I gather you were following in the truck with Vic. What do you think caused the crash?

Do you know what became of Glenn’s remains? Where was he buried?

What did you go on to do?

Finally, I’d love to read about any other things that you might recall from those times, i.e. stories, interesting episodes, etc.

Thanks again, Tom!

Sam Hawley

 

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From: Tom Fukuya

To: Sam Hawley

Date: Sun, Jun 28, 2009

Subject: Infinity first installment

 

Hi Sam,

I've been thinking and thinking about your 11 questions, and printed them out, in order to have them easily at hand......They evoke many memories, many good, some bad, all poignant...

I'll answer the easiest ones first, and tackle the tougher ones in their turn, later:

#1) "When were you born?.....". I was born on May 5th, 1940, in Honolulu, Hawaii. My father was issei, and my mother nisei, so I think the convention is that I would be sansei.

#9) "Do you know what became of Glenn's remains?". I do not know, for certain, what was done with them. (Just after the crash, we as a team offered to do a complete cleanup of the site, but were forbidden to touch anything, because of the impending accident investigation by the Utah Highway Patrol. The track officials seemed to want us away from the scene, urging us to leave for home as soon as possible. They weren't unfeeling or unkind, but definitely had a protocol they had to follow...). I remember asking the question some short time after our return to the Bay Area, receiving an answer, maybe, but can't reliably remember what it was.....(I'll approach this in the answer to #8, soon).....All of this is extremely painful, still....

#3) "...Glenn Leasher had been married for six months....". I don't know anything about this. The subject never came up, between Glenn and me...I assumed that she (I can't even recall her name, now, though I can picture her, if I close my eyes) was his girlfriend, but had no basis in fact to discriminate girlfriend/wife....

I remember that she was a nice person, undemanding, easy to be around...Just a pleasant person...She wasn't around the shop constantly, as I recall, but might have been, lending a hand...( I definitely have tunnel vision about this time period, mainly remembering things connected to my own tasks and responsibilities). Even after she later brought suit (or maybe just started the process - I don't know whether she actually carried through with it) against the remaining members of the Infinity partnership (Harry Burge, Vic Elischer, Romeo Palamides), none of us could feel any ill will toward her.....

The news media reports about Infinity were so full of errors of detail, that we gave up on even trying to correct them.....partly our fault, though we weren't being deliberately secretive - it's just that we were such a small team, so intensely busy, that we didn't have time to communicate with any outsiders....

I'll stop this first installment here.

I'd like to mention probably the most important idea about Infinity, though, that is central to an understanding of all that happened to her...

Infinity and Untouchable need to be thought of as "sister automobiles" (kind of like the way, say, aircraft carriers of the same specifications were built during WW2, and were thereafter considered to be "sister ships").

Untouchable was the older, the team learned many lessons from her (Romeo about chassis, wheels/tires, parachutes, Vic about controls, running the afterburner, etc.), and these lessons were incorporated into Infinity, the "younger, glamorous one". This is why Infinity was so utterly trouble-free and so easily reached the low-300mph area.

The team certainly had very significant experience at the time in routinely running near 300 mph with Untouchable on drag strips, weekend after weekend....

anyway, seeya, Sam! .....more soon...t.

 

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From: Sam Hawley

To: Tom Fukuya

Date: Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Subject: Re: Your phone call re Infinity....(First response from Tom F.)

 

Dear Tom,

Thanks very much for your e-mail, Tom. I really appreciate that you have taken the time respond so thoughtfully. There has been so much misinformation circulated about Infinity, as you say, and it's wonderful to get the real story straight from you and Vic, who know better than anyone what really happened.

I hadn't heard about the lawsuit that Glenn Leasher's widow filed or started to file.

A couple more questions, Tom, if I could: Were you a hot rodder before getting involved in the jet car project? And did Glenn's death change you in any way? (i.e. did it turn you off racing; did it lead to any career decisions; etc.)

Thanks again!

Sam

 

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From: Tom Fukuya

To: Sam Hawley

Date: Thu, Jul 2, 2009

Subject: Infinity....(Second installment from Tom F.)

 

Hi Sam,

Thanks for responding to my first installment. (Good to confirm that this "email stuff" is in working order!)...

Here's my second installment:

Question # 2: "When and how did you get involved in the Infinity jet car? What were you doing at the time?...

Well, first about Caltech. I had gained admission there, but attended only a few months, then dropped out just before flunking out. I blame myself 95%, Caltech 5% (65% of my entering class dropped out before earning degrees there, though - today's retention rate is 90%+, so they probably made some changes in their teaching methods to go from 35% retained to 90%+!)....

So, I'm the farthest thing from a "Caltech engineer"...a "Longtime Car Enthusiast" is more like it....or maybe "A Science Groupie"!

I got involved with Untouchable first, then Infinity through my long-term friendship with Vic.

We had been friends ever since Jr. High school in Berkeley, were in the Boy Scouts together, in High School, and later, a bit in Jr. college....(Vic is the real thing, though - after passing-up college for a few years after high school, he dropped back in and did superbly at U.C. Berkeley. He had been working at the Lawrence Radiation Laboratory as a tech, and won maybe the most prestigious scholarship in the U.S. - the A.E.C.(Atomic Energy Commission) Scholarship, it is very large monetarily, and only one is awarded every year)...

Vic is probably not the most ultimately brilliant guy I've known (you run into multiple Nobelmen at places like Caltech and UC Berkeley), but no one can match his drive and work ethic, and his combination of brain, drive and toughness is just about unsurpassable......

Vic had been involved with the Untouchable team (Romeo, Harry Burge, and the then-driver, Archie Lederbrand) for some time, before he showed me what they were doing. Vic's role was to get the engine running reliably, including the afterburner, substituting mechanical car-type controls for the largely electronic controls in the F-86 aircraft. Lots of ex-military aircraft mechanics said it couldn't be done, especially the afterburner part....

The inspiration for this jet car partnership was due mainly to Romeo, and it was his dream to later go for the LSR. (The business plan was to eventually run Untouchable and Infinity (hopefully holding the LSR) on drag strips around the country).

Harry was the financier (he was a very successful businessman, and owned the Vaca Valley Raceway at the time).....He was an ideal guy in that role - even-tempered, unfailingly a nice person, generous and totally involved...

Archie was a quiet older guy, very competent, fast and tough, who drove Untouchable through the development and shakedown period and on the dragstrips to very fast times for that period.

One memory stands out, from my first contact with Romeo.

Vic and I went to his home on MacArthur Blvd. in Oakland, where the first thing that caught my attention was a sleek, fully-enclosed racer on the west side of his multicar garage. The body was raw aluminum but complete, the chassis was in rolling condition, and a nonfunctional engine was installed for mockup purposes.

When I asked about it, Romeo became very enthusiastic and said that he had shaped the body according to the coke-bottle forms of the latest American jet fighter planes. It was intended for racing at Bonneville, but he was selling it to help finance the jet car(s).

(Inwardly, I thought it was too messy a shape, and wouldn't work....Stupid me - the guys who bought it (Hammon, McGrath and Whipp) developed it, virtually unchanged in outward form, into maybe the most successful Bonneville racer of all time, "The Redhead", setting numerous records in many different classes. This car, which still exists today, is a living monument to Romeo's brilliance as a designer and fabricator).

It pleases me tremendously that Romeo lived to see his car do so well at Bonneville....

Anyway, Vic wanted me around as an unpaid volunteer (they picked-up expenses for meals, gas, etc.) and as a sounding board for ideas, for totally open criticisms, etc., etc. Kind of like his wingman....

Looking back, it amazes me that they were so accepting and tolerant as to even allow an unknown quantity like me anywhere near their projects.....but that was Harry and Romeo - nice guys, open, honest and accepting.....but probably very cannily watching my every move out of the corner of their eyes!  At least at the beginning....

There is more about this subject, but I'll return to it later....

seeya, Sam!  t.

 

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From: Tom Fukuya

To: Sam Hawley

Date: Fri, Jul 3, 2009

Subject: Infinity...(third installment from Tom E.)

 

Hi Sam,

I hope all is ok with you...

I'll tackle question #12 next:

#12: "Were you a hot rodder before getting involved in the jet car project?".

I wasn't a hot rodder, though I had some small contact with that world through Vic and another friend of ours, Dick Adachi, who both built hot rods based on '34 Ford 3-window coupes.

I was just interested in nice, reliable transportation and worked on my own completely stock cars....The first car I bought, a pretty '37 Packard roadster, had a ruined engine, and I rebuilt it to get it going. I also occasionally helped Vic, who was perpetually exploding transmissions and rear ends with that powerful Pontiac engine...

I also read car magazines voraciously, especially sports car mags, and had a special interest in LSR cars and the Bonneville Speed Week. I remember especially reading about the Frank Lockhart Blackhawk Special, H.O.D. Seagrave's car, the Malcolm Campbell Bluebird(s), Capt. Eyston's Thunderbolt, and the Railton-Napier Special, of course. The Mercedes T-34 (? Is that what it was called?)...The Auto-Union LSR runs on the autobahns.....even the elegant little Lloyd streamliners....(I'm afraid I'm mangling some of these names)....

Interestingly, the cars Vic and Dick built strongly reflected their personalities - Dick's had a lighter Chevy Corvette engine and Vic's had a heavier Pontiac Bonneville 389 tri-power engine. Vic's was brutally fast, with brutish handling, while Dick's was slower but more elegant and easier to drive...

Dick also went through school with us and also lent a hand, later, building infinity.

Twenty years later, Vic and Dick were top-flight electronic engineers (both graduates of UC Berkeley). (By the way, UC Berkeley, in my opinion, is easily the greatest university in the US, above places like MIT, Caltech, Harvard, etc. None of those places has anything remotely like Berkeley's Lawrence Berkeley Lab, Lawrence Livermore Lab, or the Los Alamos Lab, which Berkeley ran until recently).

Vic recruited Dick and me, and we all worked together at TRW Financial Systems, where Vic was VP of engineering, for a number of great years....

One really interesting side note....

After everything was over with Infinity, Vic discovered that Reid Railton, designer of John Cobb's car (was it called the Napier-Railton Mobil Special? - I can't remember anymore...) lived just a few blocks from the house he grew up in, in Berkeley....I think Vic also got to spend some time, talking with Mr. Railton....!!!!

Also, about this time, the Cobb LSR car was displayed at Brooks Hall in San Francisco at the SF Car Show..

The body was displayed off the chassis, and it was a thrill to study every detail we could see! Those so-thin hand-forged suspension a-arms with the hammer-marks all over them!!!!

I'm jumping around in time, but I have to mention some of Vic's inventiveness, car-wise.

One of the Infinity volunteers owned a transmission shop, and ran a strong sedan on the dragstrips. He was complaining about rear-axle windup, hopping and losing traction, and Vic on the spot designed what came to be called "traction bars" for him.

Vic's reasoning was that he wanted to control the hopping and simultaneously exert a moment to elevate the front of the car, transferring weight to the rear axle and thereby improving traction. It was an elegant way to attack three problems at once with one solution...

Jim (I think that was his name) quickly installed them on his car, went a lot faster, and soon lots of guys were copying these same bars. Sometimes, I would see pictures of cars in magazines with those bars visible underneath, and it would be funny to remember that afternoon in Jim's shop, when Vic invented them on the fly.....

anyway, seeya, Sam!  

 


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