John Nelson of Shoreline didn't just restore an old car. He restored a piece of racing history.
The 1955 Zink Championship Race Car was a rare vehicle, even in its heyday. Capable of 150 mph on a dirt track, it was a three-time national winner in the late 1950s, at a time when Champ drivers were a fraternity of gritty daredevils.
"I've seen photos where cars are tucked together only inches away from each other and three feet in the air," says Nelson. "They would slide sideways in the dirt at 100 miles per hour. They were geniuses in the dirt."
Renowned race-car builder A.J. Watson constructed the car in 1955 for racing legend John Zink. It survived five accidents and numerous owners before Nelson bought it in 1984. He then spent 10 years and more than $100,000 to return the car to its original condition.
Nelson, 79, did much of the work himself, but he didn't do it alone. "It's so expensive because you're asking specialists to do everything," he says. "The axle has to bend a specific way, you need to find a spring maker for the front spring, you have to find an excellent welder so that everything has a smooth finish."
Members of Golden Wheels Fraternity, a nonprofit organization formed in 1975, celebrate vintage racing the second Sunday of every month at 8 a.m. at Shay's restaurant in Shoreline. Visitors interested in open-wheel and oval-track Champ cars, midgets, sprints, and modified or track roadsters are welcome.
All this with no surviving manuals or plans, Nelson says. "Old-time racers had it all in their heads because they lived it. Nobody told them how to do it," he says.
Nelson hunted down some of the men who built and raced Champ cars. They gave him much-needed advice, but he says many of them have died.
Finding period parts was an epic struggle; Nelson estimates that there are only a dozen cars like his in the world. Some parts could be salvaged from old race cars, but items like the tail, radiator, shocks and radius rods had to be fabricated.
Nelson says the car had been cut down by a former owner. He knew the diameter of the wheels, so he used old photos and a set of calipers to calculate the original overall length.
He found records of the car's original paint mixture (Dusty Rose and Snowshoe White) so he could reproduce the color.
A Champ car from the '50s is loaded with seldom-seen features. The 1,000 horsepower Offenhauser engine ignites at full RPMs, so starting it requires the use of an airplane starter and a long shaft inserted through the grill.
Rules required Champ cars to have a reverse gear, and all-wheel braking was accomplished by pulling a lever that sat on the outside of the car.
During races, dust choked everything, so most moving parts were encased in the engine block. Champ cars are easy to fix because they are so simple, and the basic design is still used today.
Nelson's car was one of the first to have a roll bar, yet back then, safety was an afterthought. Many drivers raced in leather helmets and T-shirts, and were strapped in with simple lap belts. Drivers sat in open cockpits only inches from the steaming-hot exhaust pipe and 60 gallons of pure-alcohol fuel.
Nelson says he grew up racing midget cars with his father in North Seattle and street racing on Aurora Avenue. He jokes that the sport is a sickness. "Like a boat, it's a hole to throw money into," he says.
Nelson says he no longer drives the car, but it can be seen at occasional public appearances through Golden Wheels Fraternity.