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Wheels, Windmills spin into Solvang

/ Source: Santa Maria Times

Maybe the car show should be called "Wheels, Waves and Windmills."

A new group of classic vehicles will join this year's Wheels and Windmills lineup in downtown Solvang and even though they have no wheels, they've probably gone faster than the cars that will be displayed.

Five speedboats from the 1960s and '70s heyday of drag racing on water - races that approached 200 mph - will be displayed on Copenhagen Drive near Alisal Road.

The drivers, including Solvang's Don Edwards and Santa Maria's John Miller, will display either original or restored vintage boats that were part of a quarter-mile racing culture that has largely faded from the public's mind.

In addition, they'll be signing copies of a new book called "Drag Boats of the 1960s Photo Archive," compiled by Edwards and another retired racer, Barry McCown, both of whom were record-holders during their racing days.

"There's not a lot of profit in the book, but we just want to get the history down," said Edwards, who grew up in Santa Barbara and got hooked on drag boats at 19 years old.

The book sprang from a conversation between Edwards and McCown, when they realized that most of the people who remember the glory days of drag-boat racing are getting older, and their memories will eventually die with them.

"We got together at a boat show in L.A., and he said we ought to get some of this down," Edwards recalled.

They took it upon themselves to preserve what they could of that history, when some Southern California teenagers and young men took the hot rod culture to the water, not the streets; when car-racing legends including Don Prudhomme and Louis Unser were racing boats instead; and when thousands of people lined the banks of various Southern California venues to watch young men risk life, limb and considerable investments for small prize money but a lot of pride.

"It took about a year and a half, putting it all together and getting the pictures," Edwards said. "As the word got out around our group, a lot of people wanted to get in."

Other drivers who plan to bring their boats to the Wheels and Windmills show Aug. 29 in downtown Solvang are Bob Garner of Chino Hills, Spike Morelli of West Hills and Fred Iaia of Paso Robles.

Also planning to attend are ex-racers McCown, who is pictured on the book's cover; Barry Berkus, a Santa Barbara architect who now lives part-time in Solvang; and Larry Schwabenland, who wrote the book's foreword. All were successful racers and are pictured in the book with their boats.

The text was written by another drag-boat veteran, Bob Silva, after Edwards' wife Lydia compiled her husband's story.

The boat Edwards is bringing is a rare wooden-hulled 23-footer built by Rich Hallett, whose designs were legendary on the racing circuit. Edwards found it, in bad shape, in a barn near Fremont and just got the engine running in June.

It resembles the 21-foot Golden

Komotion that he used to set speed records while winning races in the '60s.

"This boat went 167 miles an hour in 1967," Edwards noted proudly. "That was pretty fast in those days.

"It's rare. ... It's a wood Rich Hallett boat," he continued as he pointed to the craft made of birch, mahogany and marine plywood, equipped with a 392 Chrysler Hemi engine. "There aren't any around. They're either wrecked or they've fallen apart."

And no memories of racing can escape memories of wrecks. The book depicts some spectacular ones, and the authors pay tribute to friends they lost.

That's primarily why boat racing faded and car racing grew, Edwards speculates.

"I think it became dangerous (especially as speeds increased) without a lot of prize money," he said ... "and it became expensive ... we're talking $50,000 for just the motors" in today's boats.

Compiling the book also brought out a lot of people's scrapbooks and their stories, he said, and with the book finished, "we're just having fun with it."

"Now everybody (who raced) in the '70s and '80s wants a book," he said with a laugh. "I tell them they have to make it happen themselves."

August 20, 2009