“Fastest Car” is an entertaining automobile racing series that premiered on Netflix in the spring. Each hour-long episode pits a production supercar such as a Ferrari or Lamborghini against three “sleeper” cars built by garage mechanics. The cars square off in side-by-side drag races with the winners meeting up in the climactic finale at El Mirage dry lake in the high deserts of southern California.
During my research a few years ago for Wheels of Change, my friend Bob Newlon and I ventured out to check out the scene at El Mirage. It’s a fantastic place, and if you’re into cars, it’s worth a trip to see one of the SCTA-sanctioned races held there. The Southern California Timing Association has been running races there for half a century, and it is a first-class organization. The day we were there, we saw a car break the 300 mph barrier. It was…MOVING!
The heyday of El Mirage and racing on the dry lakes was the 1940s and ‘50s when teenage hot-rodders such as Dean Batchelor and his buddies were running their fast cars there. From Wheels of Change, here is a little taste of the dry lakes scene back then:
From Burbank they’d bomb up from the valley to Highway 6 (now Highway 14), cross through Mint Canyon and the Antelope Valley, and reach Palmdale or Lancaster at two or three in the morning where they’d scarf down breakfast and drink coffee at an all-night diner. They’d hit the dry lakes with the sun on the rise, and for the rest of the morning and into the afternoon they’d happily think and talk about nothing else but motors, motors, motors. All right, maybe they’d talk about girls too, but mostly it was motors and racing. They could listen all day long to the terrible, beautiful racket one of those motors made when it peeled off the line in a pure test of speed. In their ears it was like a symphony, a symphony of V-8s. But by mid-afternoon the music ended and Batchelor and whoever rode up with him climbed back into the Merc and they headed home. On the way back they sometimes stopped at the Saugus Café in Saugus, which opened early and closed late to serve the dry lakes crowd. “Beer up before and after the races,” said one of its advertisements.
Back in Burbank Batchelor dropped his friend off, or maybe his friend stuck with him for the next round of pleasure-seeking. This consisted of Batchelor roaring back to his house, washing and shining the Merc to make it look pretty, another quick change into some fancy nighttime wear, then off again to the Hollywood Palladium on Sunset. The great white bands—Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, Harry James, Glenn Miller, Woody Herman—all played the Palladium, and Batchelor, who loved to swing, really dug those hepcats. But he also dug the black bands that couldn’t play the Palladium in those days, so he’d cruise over to the Trianon or out to Ocean Park Pier in Santa Monica to hear Duke Ellington or Count Basie rip it up.
Batchelor only had one day off at the plant—Sunday—so he had to make the most of it. Dry lakes by day, big bands by night. Late Sunday night or early Monday morning found him at last curled up inside his sheets, snoozing away until he had to get up and go to work again.