In a few short years dry lake speed trials had attracted hundreds of young men. In addition to the events sponsored by the Muroc Racing Association, independent clubs also held meets using clocks rented from George Riley. One or two clubs would set up the meet and invite the members from two or three other clubs to come to Muroc on a certain day for a speed trial, As interest grew, more supe jobs were being built, and an increasing number of cars were heading for Muroc. When they got there the drivers wanted to go fast, and with more cars racing across the dry lake bed there were accidents. Many times the victims were spectators who decided to make a quick run across the lake, sometimes at night without lights. It seems incredible, with an area of 65 square miles, devoid of pedestrians, cops, fixed objects and little traffic, that there would be anything to run into but collisions happened with some frequency. As John Riley told me, "They got all the room in the world, but if there were two cars out there they'd manage to hit!"
In the early days the cars raced several at a time, and if you weren't out front you were driving in a cloud of dust. As Julian Doty recalled: "If you can visualize ten or twelve cars running right through the dust. They were doing 80, 90 mph, which was fast in those days of wooden spoke wheels, or even iron spoke wheels, 21" tires. I'd say that 99 percent of the tires shouldn't have gone over 50 mph, retreads and everything like that.... The Muroc post office was also the morgue, and sometimes there'd be five or six corpses there."
Ak Miller later recalled the need for safety. "The big thing that bothered me at the early time trials was the lack of organization which resulted in many needless accidents and injuries. As many as six accidents in one day left an unfavorable impression not only in my mind but in the minds of other participants as well.... The coroner would come out to the lake and pick up two or three bodies, and they wanted to know why this was happening."
Sometimes the cars seemed drawn together as if magnetized. Bob Berry remembered one wreck that occurred between a rodder who on that day was spectating and Tommy Lee, the millionaire speed enthusiast. "Once Louis Kline was coming across the lake in a Chevrolet four door, about a '27, I think, and Tommy Lee was up there with his Bugatti and he hit that goddamn thing and it went up in the air and it came down on its nose and it just completely disintegrated. Nothing but a bunch of goddamn old wood laying all over. Louis shook himself and got out, but it totaled that damn Chev!"
That accident had a comic element, but usually the wrecks were serious because the cars were traveling at high speeds. Bob Berry recalled: "We'd lay down beside the car and go to sleep. One time I woke up and there were fresh tire tracks right next to me. These guys would go up there and rip around all night long, no lights or anything. One guy in a '36 coupe, I remember very well, he got over in a part of the lake where there was a big pile of boulders and he ended up on top of them. The girl that was in the center, the transmission shift lever went right through her and killed her."
One reason for the accidents was sheer recklessness. Another reason was that driving on the lake bed is different from driving on a road; there are no fixed reference points and you have the illusion that you're going slower than you actually are. Bob Berry mentioned that he'd landed his plane on the lake bed at 120 mph and he would have sworn that he was going about 45 mph. Participants had their speedometers whited out, and drivers might easily have been confused about their true speed.
An additional problem was the general lawlessness. People brought guns to the meets. A favorite sport was to pursue rabbits across the lake in a supe job, with the passenger taking pot shots with a rifle or a pistol. A few people, probably spectators, would shoot up the water tanks at farms near the lake bed, which was one reason rodders were occasionally barred from using Harper Dry Lake. Berry's initiation to the dry lakes was in the context of chaos. "One time Jack Morgan and I started up there (to Muroc) together and we blew a rod or some damn thing on the way up, and my dad said, 'Oh hell, I'll take you up there'. He did, and Bill Blystone's dad, something happened to Bill's car and so he took him up there, and so my dad and Mr. Blystone were standing on top of a knoll there, and these colored guys came along in this car and the driver cranked the wheel at about 60 mph and they rolled it about eight times. It killed them all. The bodies were out in the sun baking--somebody was using the battery from the ambulance in his race car. It was a helluva mess!
"So Mr. Blystone and my dad were standing there, talking, and there were these two guys, drunk as hell, really frosted, and they were fighting over a gun, and they blew a hole right through the rear fender of Mr. Blystone's Graham-Paige or whatever the hell it was. And, boy, my dad came over and he said, 'Let's get the hell out of here'. He forbid me to ever go back up there again. Of course, I was at the next meet!"
The story of the Black rodders in the touring that turned over has taken on mythic qualities; I heard it, with variations, from several people. All said that it was a touring car, that it contained six to eight people, that all the occupants were killed. Two people suggested that it was somehow associated with the Atlas Chrome Shop in Los Angeles, and said that although the car was not competing in the trials it was beautifully chrome plated; one person called it the Atlas Chrome Plating Special, which was a race car. No one was able to offer an explanation of why the accident occurred. One person suggested that there was a hole in the lake bed, but the preferred version was that the driver simply turned the wheel abruptly. The accident came easily to memory, perhaps because of the number of people killed, or because of the extensive chrome plating on the car, or because few Blacks were running at the lakes.
Another accident that several people told me about happened to Knox Allen. As Bob Berry recalled, "Knox Allen was driving through in a modified, tearing along the lake, and they used to have a barb wire fence across it and he hit the goddamn thing and it laid across him right at the neck and we thought he was decapitated, but he lived through it. In fact he died about six months ago--forty years after the wreck." Several people told me that they either saw the wreck or were involved in helping Allen. One person told me that Wally Parks applied first aid and then drove Allen to the nearest hospital because again the ambulance was not available.
Although the Muroc Racing Association and, especially, the later Southern California Timing Association stressed safety, in the beginning there was little in the way of safety equipment or, at first, inspections. There's a famous photo of Ernie McAfee leaning against the tire of his modified--at 137 mph it was the fastest car competing--and the story is that he's leaning on the tire to conceal the place where the cords show through!
No one had the safety equipment that today we take for granted, such as roll bars, seat belts or crash helmets. John Riley's girl friend (and later his wife) bought him a Cromwell helmet, which he had Eldon Snapp paint green. Riley recalled that it was the only helmet he saw at the lakes, and that he let others wear it when they went down the course. The other make available was the Seagrave, made in England. Racing great Wilbur Shaw got one and was kidded by the other drivers, who wore cloth or leather aviator helmets, for wearing a "chamber pot" on his head. Then one day Shaw flipped at Ascot; the helmet was split open but Shaw was unhurt, and the others got the message. It took several years for rodders to begin wearing helmets when they made their speed runs.
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