Calgary Herald, 1953 Studebaker on the Salt Flats, by Greg Williams

Photo courtesy Kristin Martin. This story first published in the Calgary Herald Driving section Oct. 15, 2010.

When he was 13 years old Gord Driedger made a promise to himself.

One day, he’d race on the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah – just like the go-fast gearheads he had read about in his latest issue of Hot Rod magazine.

That was back in 1970. Fast-forward to 2010. At 53, Driedger, a Calgary hot rod fan, recently made good on that boyhood promise.

“I remember reading about Bonneville when I was 13 years old,” Driedger says, “that’s when I started buying Hot Rod magazine.”

He owned some fast cars when he was younger, but sold his 1970 Chevelle SS 454 LS6 and didn’t have much to do with high performance vehicles for a while after getting married and raising his three daughters.

He couldn’t stay away, though. About 10 years ago Driedger got back into the hobby with a 1965 Corvette – a car he’s restored and modified. And, another 1970 Chevelle has found its way into the garage.

Neither of these vehicles eventually got him to Bonneville, though.

This is a story best told by Driedger.

“In January 2010, I was at a live auction for Ducks Unlimited. I bought a wine-tasting trip for four to Napa Valley. My wife Kim and I and a couple of friends went down in late March.

“We were staying at a winery up on the hill, and we were sitting out on the deck one morning drinking a cup of coffee looking out over a field of grapevines.

“Then, I heard this race engine fire up, and the sound is coming up the valley to where we are. I jumped in our rental car and zipped down the valley to try and find the source of the sound, but I couldn’t. When I got back I started talking to one of the guys working at the winery, and he said that it was probably his friend Bob Nance, and that he’d introduce us.”

So, Driedger and Kim drove down the valley a short distance where they met Nance, a member of the Napa Valley Cruisers car club.

“(Bob Nance) gave Kim a glass of wine, me a cold beer and us a garage tour,” Driedger says, “he treated us like long lost friends.”

Around the corner of the garage Nance had parked a 1927 Ford he planned to turn into a salt flat racer. That’s when Driedger told him he’d always wanted to do the same – either build his own or buy a ready-made racer.

“Bob stopped and turned around and said ‘Gord, you’re going to be a happy man in a few minutes’.”

Nance took Driedger to a neighbour’s house to see a 1953 Studebaker coupe. The car had been assembled by one Ron Zampa to race on the salt – but was never finished. Unfortunately, in 2003 Zampa died.

Another Napa Valley car collector bought the Studebaker from Zampa’s widow, thinking he would turn the car into a street rod. After looking at all of the race modifications, though, he thought better of it and left it alone. He eventually decided to sell. Enter Driedger, who made a deal on the car and had the Studebaker shipped to Calgary.

Photo courtesy Kristin Martin.

The Studebaker arrived in April, and Driedger quickly familiarized himself with the salt flats rulebook and set to work putting together the finishing touches. Driedger installed a safety harness and door nets, together with a fire suppression system and some instrumentation.

Driedger took the Studebaker to Dale Adams Automotive Specialists in Calgary for tuning of the 296 cubic inch race-prepared Ford flathead V-8 engine. Original car builder Zampa had commissioned flathead specialist Chris Zootis of Zootis Performance Center in Healdsburg, Calif. to breathe a little extra life into this powerplant.

The Ford engine, topped with a Holley four-barrel carburetor, is connected to a Muncie four-speed gearbox driving a nine-inch Ford rear end with 2:75 gears. Driedger managed 135 horsepower at the rear wheels, which is respectable given that a stock flathead Ford makes about 90.

The Studebaker’s body has been chopped and channeled giving just 76.2 mm (three inches) of ground clearance. Front fenders and hood are Fiberglass; the rest of the car is all steel.

“We had May, June, July and one week in August to get ready for Bonneville,” Driedger says. Bonneville Speed Week ran August 14 to 20 this year, and Driedger managed to get the Studebaker to the salt. And, this was a family affair. Wife Kim and daughters Brittany (23), Kaylee (21) and Spencer (20) were all part of the pit crew.

There were a couple of issues to be fixed before the Studebaker passed the rigorous tech inspection, but Driedger persevered, and finally had the car ready for its maiden run.

“It was a rookie run for me, and a rookie run for the car,” he says. “I’d never driven the car before except for backing it up and down my driveway.”

To run at Bonneville, a driver has to make licensing runs. An ‘E’ licence simply shows a driver can handle the vehicle and the salt, and there is no minimum speed limit. Driedger, on his first run, managed 218.9 km/h (136 mp/h) – this gave him both his ‘E’ and ‘D’ licences. Over the course of Speed Week Driedger made 10 more runs, with 241.2 km/h (149.9 mp/h) his fastest. The record for the XF/GCC (Flathead Ford/Gas Competition Coupe) class is 251 km/h (156 mp/h).

“We snuck up pretty close but we’ve still got a ways to go,” Driedger says.

While his daughters have expressed an interest in racing the car on the salt themselves, Driedger first wants to get more speed out of the Studebaker.

Above photos courtesy the Driedger family.

Calgary Herald, Pre-1916 Motorcycle Cannonball Endurance Run

As a writer for the Calgary Herald Driving section I always look for a local angle to any column I write for the paper. There wasn’t one for this piece, hence the first line in the story. But as you’ll read, the story is just too good not to share. Good luck to all those riding.

Story first published in the Calgary Herald’s Driving section Sept. 3, 2010. All photos courtesy Felicia Morgan unless noted. Archival image courtesy www.motorcyclecannonball.com.

Warning: For those looking for local or even national content in the following column, there is none.

However, for anyone interested in motoring, it’s a story worth sharing.

Next week on September 10 more than 90 riders aboard motorcycles manufactured prior to 1916 will leave behind the bluffs overlooking the Atlantic Ocean in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.

Riders of these rare and sometimes delicate machines will then tour through 11 states and cover some 5,265 km (3272 miles) as they test their mettle (or, is that metal?) participating in what has been dubbed the Pre-1916 Motorcycle Cannonball Endurance Run (www.motorcyclecannonball.com).

And then, on September 26 and of all those miles later, hopefully more than a handful of riders will roll onto the pier at the Pacific Ocean in Santa Monica, California.

This ride was the brainchild of one Lonnie Isam Jr., of Sturgis, South Dakota. Isam and his friends often talked about getting their pre-1916 motorcycles together for a ride across America, à la Erwin George (Cannonball) Baker.

Born in 1882, Baker was known for his automobile and motorcycle racing exploits, and most notably his coast-to-coast riding adventures. In 1914, he set a record by crossing America in 11 days aboard an Indian motorcycle.

“Lonnie and his friends had been talking about doing a run like this for a long time, and Cannonball Baker was their inspiration,” says Felicia Morgan, Motorcycle Cannonball director of communications.

In 2009 Isam decided to go ahead with the run. And that’s when things got exciting. More than a few folks expressed interest, and the event soon took on a life of its own.

“People from around the globe expressed interest, and this has become universal,” Morgan says. “These are all riders who want to ride their veteran bikes, bond with the road and the people they meet, and enjoy the environment and scenery as they pass through it.”

Route master John Classen has driven the roads twice, mapping out highways and distances that ensure most days are 250 miles or shorter. He also wanted to ensure riders spent little or no time on an Interstate, but they will have to cover 160 km on one — that only occurs in New Mexico where no other option exists.

And that’s a good thing. Many of these pre-1916 motorcycles would not survive an extended blast down the freeway.

For the most part, motorcycles built prior to 1916 are quite different from one brand to the next. At that time, the ‘cycle industry was in its infancy, and manufacturers such as B.S.A., Excelsior, Flying Merkel, Harley-Davidson, Henderson, Indian, Triumph and Thor were very inventive in their engineering.

Early motorcycles were little more than bicycles – including the pedals – with motors attached somewhere to the frame. Final drive could be via chain or belt, and transmissions, if there was one, were very rudimentary. Pedals were often meant to aid starting, or to help a machine climb a hill.

“Most of these bikes, it’s not like you can ride down to the local dealership and get a part if you need one,” Morgan says.

Matt Olsen’s Sears motorcycle taking shape. Photo courtesy Matt Olsen.

One young rider, Matt Olsen, 26 of North Dakota has literally produced a 1914 Sears motorcycle – frame, forks and just about everything else around a rebuilt V-twin Spacke motor. He’s brought the process of recreating a 100-year old motorcycle into the 21 st century with a blog, www.pre1916scramble.blogspot.com, and almost daily Facebook updates.

Pete Young on his 1913 Premier.

Pete Young, 40, from San Francisco, Calif., will have two motorcycles at the start in Kitty Hawk. He’s planning on running a British-made 1913 Premier, a 500cc sidevalve single-cylinder motorcycle. His machine has a rubber V-belt drive to the rear wheel, where therein resides a three-speed rear hub with a clutch. Having a three-speed hub gives him some advantage when climbing grades.

Young, an engineer and avid vintage motorcyclist, will also have a 1916 1,000cc V-twin Excelsior as a ‘spare’ bike, in case the Premier breaks to the point where he can’t repair the damage.

“I’ve been through the bikes quite a bit, checking the mechanicals and remaking several parts where I’ve had to,” Young says. “I’ve spent about every evening in the shop for close to a year. My wife, Kim, and the kids have been very supportive.”

The ride will be physically grueling for participants. Did Young invest in a gym membership?

“I meant to, but never got around to it,” Young laughs. “I’ve been walking a bit and doing some push ups and sit ups, though not as much as I should have done.”

There are three classes for the Cannonball. Class 1 is the single cylinder, belt drive, and no transmission machines. Class 2 is the twin cylinder bikes, but any single speed four-cylinder machine is allowed in this class. And Class 3 (this is where Young’s machines fit) features all of the pre-1916 motorcycles, regardless of number of cylinders, with a two or three speed transmission.

“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and I didn’t want to miss it,” Young says of the 2010 Cannonball Run.

Pete Young at rest with his 1916 Excelsior.

Motorcycle Classics Norton P11 cover story by Greg Williams

Motorcycle Classics and their 2010 September/October issue features this story about the birth of the Norton P11, and tells  the tale of a ‘new’ re-creation built by the hands of Steve Zabaro. Steve, together with Norton distributor Bob Blair, built the very first P11 prototype that went to AMC for testing and production. A great little slice of history, if I do say so myself.

Click here to read the story on Motorcycle Classics’ website.

Inside Motorcycles, Trick Buell offers performance, by Greg Williams

First published in Inside Motorcycles, Issue 1209. Paul Shore runs Motorrad Performance in Calgary, Alberta — not only does he do some impressive custom work on modern machines, but he’s also got great t-shirts designed by Mark Dulmadge of Factory1969.com. Dulmadge did the design work for my Nicholson Bros. Motorcycles t-shirts. Read about Shore’s custom Buell, and then view the photos taken by Amee Reehal.

Inside Motorcycles, Social networking links Manitoba dirt bikers, by Greg Williams

All photos courtesy Claude Giguere and the Manitoba Motorcycle Racing Facebook page.

This story first published in Inside Motorcycles, issue 1303, 2010.

Social networking sites such as Facebook, MySpace and Classmates.com have revolutionized life in the 21 st century. Whether they have made life better is certainly open to debate, but there’s no question about one thing. In less than a decade, these Internet-based mediums have also significantly impacted the world of motorcycles, and the very sport of motorcycling.

Claude Giguere, of Okotoks, Alberta is certainly aware of the power of Facebook. He recently joined, and has reconnected with plenty of his Manitoba motocross-racing friends. However, when he became aware of the site, he wasn’t so sure. “When I first heard about Facebook, I thought it was just a bunch of young kids yakking and updating their status every two minutes,” Giguere said. “But my kids were talking about Facebook, and I eventually got onto it. I found a few friends I went to school with, and some of my old racing buddies.”

One of those buddies was MX champ Kim Houde. He was tagged in a photo of a Thunder Bay, Ontario, race and that sent Giguere digging through other pictures. “I’m clicking through theses pictures, and I’m going, holy crap, that’s me!” Giguere says. He found himself in a few images posted by other motocross racers, and that got him started thinking about putting together a Facebook group – one dedicated to all of Manitoba’s motorcycle racers.

He wasn’t too daunted, as Giguere had experience putting together a website page where he’d uploaded several hundred pictures of his motocross racing days dating back to the mid-1970s.

In 1972 Giguere started riding a minibike, specifically a Keystone powered by a 3.5 horsepower Tecumseh engine. He was born and raised in Winnipeg, but lived on an acreage just outside the city’s Perimeter Highway. “I was the first guy to get a minibike, and then everybody started to get one – small Hondas or Rupps,” Giguere says. Life was good. Giguere and his group of friends got to ride around the acreages and on the gravel roads – he says nobody ever bothered them.

Giguere’s next bike was a 1974 Yamaha MX100, his first true ‘motocross’ machine. When school buddy Kim Houde found out he had a MX capable ‘cycle Houde immediately suggested the 16-year old Giguere get out on the track. “After he found out I had a motocross bike he kept bugging me because I was eligible for the Schoolboy class,” Giguere says.

So, Giguere and another friend loaded up their bikes and headed to Miami, Manitoba (70 minutes southwest of Winnipeg) where there was a motocross track built on top of an escarpment. Giguere recalls starting dead last because he didn’t want to be in anybody’s way in the first corner. But after a few laps he found himself in the lead – until his handlebars came loose and he had to pull off the track. He’d lost the crown nut for his forks, walked back out on the track and found the missing item, put it back together and went out for the second moto. He placed second in the race.

“After that, I was hooked,” he says. In 1975 Giguere bought a used Honda 125 Elsinore. He was able to afford his new passion because he always had a job, either helping his dad who was a beekeeper, or helping neighbours work their greenhouses. And that’s when he started to get a bit more serious about racing.

“A friend told me they’d put together a motocross track on a nearby old dairy farm,” Giguere recalls. “The farmer had front end loaders and helped build up a track.” Giguere would ride his Honda from his parent’s house to the track, and he did that every evening for months. Do it enough, and you’ll get good.

“I was getting faster and faster,” Giguere says. “When I raced my first 125 Junio (now Novice) event I was so fast and won the race they moved me up to Senior (now Intermediate).”

Giguere had a great year in 1976 campaigning a Yamaha YZ125. He won plenty of races and moved up to Expert (now Pro). He spent 1977 racing in Expert class, and late in the year he went to work for Alfred Nunn of Austin Sports. Nunn wanted to open a satellite Suzuki shop in Portage la Prairie, and he tapped Giguere to basically run a one-man show, looking after sales and service. While working for Nunn, Giguere was given two bikes to ride – one of them was a Suzuki RM125. He did well aboard the Suzuki, but crashed hard in 1978 and was on crutches for several weeks.

After the crash he quit the Suzuki gig in Portage la Prairie and moved back home. While there he got a call from Riteway Sports, and was offered a job to work at the number one Yamaha shop in Manitoba. Again, Giguere was given machines to race, now YZs. All through this period Giguere and his friends (there was quite a crew of them, often referred to as the Manitoba wild bunch) would travel to tracks in Thunder Bay, Minneapolis, Saskatoon or Regina to race, and if they weren’t motocrossing they were battling it out on half-mile dirt tracks or on ice.

Giguere started a welding course in 1980, and by 1981 he was employed by CP Rail as a boilermaker’s apprentice. He’s still working for CP, but was transferred to Calgary in 1997. Giguere continued to race motocross off and on for several years, but says, “In 1978, ’79, ’80 and ’81 the top three riders were Kim Houde, Don Gill and myself.”

Cross-country and enduro racing followed, and he still likes to get dirty and even greasy, as he’s collecting and restoring motocross machines similar to those he used to race. Amongst a number of Yamahas he’s got a 1974 MX100, and a 1978 Kawasaki KX250 and a 1981 Suzuki RM125.

While he’s having fun in the garage he’s also having just as much fun with his computer. After setting up the Manitoba Motorcycle Racing Facebook page in December of 2009 the number of members grew exponentially. It started off with 25 or 30 members, and climbed to 130 in less than two weeks. There are now some 193 members, and more than 1,200 pictures of Manitoba racers and events on the group page.

“Facebook is free to join and peruse,” Giguere concludes. “(The group page) has brought a whole bunch of guys back together that we haven’t seen or heard from for a while. I just think the whole global Internet thing is so cool.”

Calgary Herald, Bandit car goes the distance, by Greg Williams

Dave Holmes with his 1977 Pontiac Trans Am SE. Holmes won the Long Distance award at the Summit Racing Equipment Firebird car show in McDonough, GA. Holmes had driven his car from Calgary, Alberta to attend, ensuring he was a winner as part of the Bandit Run 2010. Courtesy Dave Holmes.

This story first appeared in the Calgary Herald Driving section July 9, 2010.

As a film, Smokey and the Bandit didn’t win any major awards.

Nevertheless, high -speed car chases and high-flying stunts helped make the movie a memorable one.

What makes Smokey and the Bandit even more memorable, however, is the black 1977 Pontiac Trans Am that plays a role in almost every scene of the film.

There were of course other actors in the movie, including Burt Reynolds, Jerry Reed, Sally Field and Jackie Gleason.

Here’s a brief plot synopsis: After accepting $80,000 to guarantee delivery of 400 cases of illicit Coors beer, Bandit (Reynolds) uses the Trans Am to draw police attention away from an 18-wheeler, driven by Cledus (Reed), that’s loaded with the goods. They’ve driven from Georgia to Texas to pick up the Coors, but by crossing the Mississippi back to Georgia with the suds they essentially become bootleggers – at the time, Coors product wasn’t allowed east of the mighty river.

But when Bandit picks up a wedding-ditching Carrie (Field), he also picks up some heat. Carrie left Junior, son of sheriff Buford T Justice  (Gleason) at the altar, and Justice vows to track her down.

With hi-jinks and gags aplenty, the movie doesn’t offer much intellectual stimulation. But that’s OK, it is entertaining.

When Dave Holmes of Calgary ordered his own Trans Am in 1976 he hadn’t seen or heard of Smokey and the Bandit.

“My purchase of the car had nothing to do with the movie,” Holmes says of his black 1977 Pontiac Trans Am. Some 34 years later, Holmes still has the car.

We have to step back to 1972 to pick up the story of Holmes and his Trans Am. After a motorcycle accident, Holmes lost the use of his right arm. He was 18 years old, and it took four years of court dates before Holmes got his insurance settlement.

With the money, he was going to buy a car. He’d always been a Corvette fan but he wanted to give his business to his uncle and cousin. They were family members who owned a Pontiac Buick dealership in Virden, Manitoba.

“The hottest car Pontiac had at the time was the Trans Am,” Holmes says. “I was talking to my cousin in the fall of 1976 – I ordered the car over the phone – and he mentioned they had a new special edition Trans Am available, and that’s what I ordered – with a red interior.”

Prior to Smokey and the Bandit, the car was simply known as a Trans Am LE, for limited edition. The LE was produced to commemorate Pontiac’s 50 th anniversary.

Pontiac built the LE for the 1976 model year, and the car featured the black paint, gold pinstripes and the huge decal of a bird, also in gold, spread across the hood. Another unique feature of the 1976 LE was the T-top glass roof hatches.

Selling successfully, Pontiac decided in late March of 1976 to continue the LE option into 1977, dubbing it the Trans Am SE, or special edition, to differentiate the two model years.

But then Smokey and the Bandit happened. In the summer of 1977, after the movie hit the screens the black Trans AM SE vehicles pretty much became immortalized as  ‘Bandit cars’.

On May 24, 1977 Holmes flew from Calgary to Virden to collect his Trans Am. He paid $8,900 for the car, and he drove it every year, all year, as his daily driver. Even though he was 24 at the time, he says he never drove the car very hard, and always took care of it by changing the oil every 2,000 miles (3,200 km). He replaced brakes, tires and hoses, and kept it tuned up.

But in the winter of 1993 the car skidded on a patch of ice in his driveway and continued through his garage door. That’s when he decided to buy an SUV, and park the Trans Am for the winter months.

Holmes says he had the car painted in 1998, but bemoans the fact it was a mediocre restoration, complete with the wrong decal package. Plus, it started to rust again almost instantly; with the unsightly rot returning around the rear wheel wells and the back bottom corners of the doors.

“I got sick of looking at it like that, and I borrowed the money and got it done properly,” Holmes says. In 2004, rusty metal was cut out and new patches welded into place. A one-man shop in New Sarepta, Alberta, sprayed the black paint and positioned the iconic decals.

Most recently, Holmes had the engine pulled to chase down a leaking seal, and while the powerplant was out of the car the pistons and valvetrain were inspected. There was nothing wrong with the big 6.6-litre V-8 engine, which has logged some 189,000 miles (304,166 km).

While Smokey and the Bandit had nothing to do with his original purchase decision, Holmes now enjoys the connection. He’s attended two Bandit Runs, one in 2009 and again in 2010. The Bandit Run was first held in 2007 to commemorate the film’s 30 th anniversary.

Holmes drives his Trans Am from Calgary to the southern states to participate, and says he rolls his eyes when he sees vehicles unloaded from car haulers.

“They’re so much fun to drive around, and that’s the whole idea of having the thing,” he says. “I get honks and waves from truckers all the time.”