CHAMPION SPEED SHOP
Video presentation for the NHRA Hall of Fame 2007
Narrated by John Drummond
Champion Speed Shop
Written by Stephen Justice
We DID IT For Love
It is not possible to talk about drag racing in Northern California without mentioning Jim McLennan. An inductee to the Bay Area Sports Writers' Hall of Fame and the National Hot Rod Association's Hall of Fame, Jim was selected in 2007 to the prestigious International Drag Racing Hall of Fame by none other than Don "Big Daddy" Garlits. Jim McLennan's contribution to the sport of drag racing is immeasurable. He did it all-drove 180 mph slingshot dragsters; ran Champion Auto Parts (a retail speed and machine shop); and, owned and operated several race tracks, including Champion Speedway which he built from the ground up. Although Jim McLennan died in February 2007, his legacy is carried on today by sons Bobby and Mike, who continue to build, tune, and drive top fuel dragsters as part of NHRA's Hot Rod Heritage Series. Jim's life long passion for hot rods and racing started in his teens. While at San Francisco's Balboa High School, Jim worked in a gas station. He could fix anything, but what he loved to do was make cars go fast. He was well known out on the Great Highway near San Francisco's Ocean Beach for his street racing prowess with a '51 Chevy powered by a souped up V-8 Oldsmobile engine. In the 1950s, as almost all activities relating to hot rods and drag racing revolved around a car club, Jim became a member of San Francisco's Pacers Car Club, and was instrumental in moving the racers off the streets and onto the drag strip. As early as 1955, Jim was racing a flathead-powered dragster at the strip. The problem was that there were very few tracks in those days to drag race. But, that would all change when Jim stepped in and rescued the closure of Half Moon Bay. The airstrip at Half Moon Bay had been used by a couple of the local car clubs (the Lightning Rods and the Piston Pushers) as a place to race legally, but the city wanted improvements and insurance. Without the money to sustain their pastime, the car clubs had to give it up. By this time, Jim had already opened Champion Auto Parts in South San Francisco. His speed shop quickly became "the place" to go for rodders seeking specialty parts, hot tune ups, or to just hang out. When Jim heard that a 3000' long, 60' wide ribbon of concrete was available, he quickly negotiated a lease with the city and took over the track. Jim turned this remote little auxiliary airport into the hub of drag racing in the late 1950s. With Half Moon Bay and Cotati (which Jim also owned) open on alternate weekends, drag racers in Northern California finally had a legitimate option to street racing.
Through all this, Jim still found time to be the wheelman for the Champion Speed Shop-Ted Gotelli fuel dragster. Talk about "having your cake and eating it too"--Jim enjoyed the rare privilege driving his own race car at a track he owned. But, the time to take off the gloves and helmet was just around the corner. Jim had married his high school sweetheart, Dorothy Padilla, and he soon became a father with the arrival of Bobby in 1954 and Sandy in 1955. By 1961, the dangers of driving a top fuel dragster had escalated exponentially. With improvements to supercharger and fuel delivery systems, the engines had become very powerful. Drivers were getting hurt everywhere including close friend Bud Barnett at Jim's own track (HMB). Family and business concerns convinced him to turn the job of driving a fuel dragster over to another. When Jim's long time partner, Ted Gotelli, left to form his own team, Jim turned the driving duties over to 19 year old Sammy Hale. It turned out to be a very fortuitous decision. With Sammy behind the wheel of a new Kent Fuller car, the Champion Speed Shop Chevy-powered, Algon-equipped, fuel dragster rose to the No. 2 position on the Drag News' Mr. Eliminator list.
However, the strain of constantly touring the country to defend the spot started to wear on Jim. At the end of 1962, he reluctantly sold the dragster to Masters-Richter. Jim now turned his attention to a most ambitious project-building Champion Speedway in Brisbane. On the site of an old landfill just south of Candlestick Park, Jim constructed a ½ mile oval track, later adding a 1/8 mile drag strip on the speedways straightaway. This NHRA-sanctioned facility was the mainstay of the Bay Area auto racing scene until its closure in 1979.
1934 Ford Pickup
A true champion among hot rod haulers
Words and Photography by Mike bumbeck
This 1934 Ford is a legend of South San Francisco hot rod history. Champion Speed Shop co-founder Jim "The Smiling Irishman" McLennan built the truck with his son Bob in mind from the beginning. While the shop has closed its doors, Bob now proudly owns and drives the supercharged Chevy-powered truck--whether the journey is 10 miles to work or 350 miles to Famoso Raceway in Bakersfield, California. As it has since 1953, the truck carries parts and serves as a tow vehicle for the Champion Speed Shop front engine top fuel slingshot dragster.
The once utilitarian pickup truck got its original hot rod stripes with an Oldsmobile engine in 1953. As soon as Chevrolet sussed out the overhead-valve small-block, Jim shoehorned one into the truck and the shop dragster--a tradition that continues today. The current 350-cubic-inch small-block Chevrolet is equipped with a Cragar V-belt drive that spins a Roots GMC supercharger to produce roughly 400 horsepower.
The Ford embodies the hot setup in hot rods through five decades. The suspension is a combination of an independent rear suspension from a Jaguar and a Bell front drop axle with disc brakes. Power goes from the engine through an automatic transmission, and hits the pavement through a set of tall final-drive gears. A steady foot on the throttle dispatches interstate miles at a velocity that the 75-year-old truck was never designed to achieve.
Parts are far from what gives this Ford truck its soul. History rides along. The Ford was striped by the legendary Tommy "The Greek" Hrones, not once, but twice. Jim McLennan and Andy "Rodfather" Brizio wanted to get into the first Oakland Roadster Show. Word was there was a pinstriper in Oakland, California, named Tommy The Greek. McLennan and crew took the truck across the bay. Legend has it that, after the gang watched Tommy lay down the paint, he asked them if they liked his work. Of course, was the answer.
"Oh yeah? Watch this. Nobody watches me stripe!" said The Greek, as he smeared the damp enamel line down the side of the truck with a rag.
Andy and the rest of the crew had to hold Jim and Tommy apart, but Tommy was only goofing around with Jim. Fresh stripes went on, and the pickup made it to the first Oakland Roadster Show and many subsequent shows. Jim and Tommy became the best of pals. The Ford was repainted in the Eighties, and again striped by Tommy The Greek. This paint, along with an award-winning interior and set of staggered-width Tru-Spoke wheels, is what the truck still rolls with today. Though Jim has since gone on to the great drag strip, the twice-striped hot rod has passed from father to son, and is still running strong.
This article originally appeared in the May, 2011 issue of Hemmings Motor News.
Mike Bumbeck can be found at Clunkbucket.com