How a California walnut farmer saved some of racing’s earliest warriors
This all started the way a lot of good adventure stories do, with a mysterious steamer trunk entrusted to a young man by an old family friend who had passed away. It was the early 1980s, and Brian Blain, a fourth-generation Californian and former school teacher who had only recently decided to try his hand at walnut and pecan farming, opened the trunk and saw, although he didn’t know it, the rest of his life laid before him.
The trunk’s previous owner was Harry Sprague, a local landowner and surveyor whom the young Blain had always thought of as an adopted grandfather. Sprague had gone to his grave without ever talking much about his past. Harry’s old trunk held some yellowed newspaper clippings and photos of car racing in the early days; a pair of well-worn leather gloves and goggles; a racing license that was expired by more than 60 years; and a red, long-sleeve jersey with the word “National” in a handsome vintage script across the front of it. Blain had no clue what National was. One of the many local fruit companies? A bank? A football team?
Being a curious person, and living in a time before every knowable thing was one mouse click away, Blain started looking into it. Nearly 40 years later, he’s still looking into it, still hunting down the cars and memorabilia from the National Automobile & Electric Company, as well as any prewar race car—pre–World War I, that is—that he can get his hands on. Blain’s farming enterprise did well (it turns out the Chinese really like walnuts), and on his sprawling property in Visalia, California, a number of Nationals as well as other wooden-wheeled ancients, plus some racing and road cars from the 1950s and ’60s, all live in the rows of classic timber-framed garages and newer metal storage buildings between the two walnut groves that flank Blain’s house.
“There’s got to be 48 cars here, maybe,” says the lean and silver-bearded Blain, looking authentically vintage in stain-speckled white coveralls and a flat cap, pretty much his everyday dress. “We’ve got seven of the Nationals here out of the 20 that survive.” Because of Harry and the steamer trunk, the Indianapolis firm that started building National electric buggies in 1900 before following the herd to gasoline engines in 1906 and entering the inaugural Indy 500 in 1911 (and winning it in 1912) holds a special place in Blain’s heart.
A couple of German shepherds bound around with excitement as some friends help wheel out a 1916 National racer that Blain found in 1992 mostly packed into 56 crates. Although there’s not much to the thing—it looks like two leather parlor chairs behind a long doghouse bolted to a railroad flatcar riding on wagon wheels—it took Blain eight years to piece it all back together. Bill Bennett begins the lengthy cold-start procedure. He’s the lone fulltime mechanic for the Blain Motorsports Foundation, the nonprofit Blain established to keep these cars and their history alive and in the spotlight at modern events.
First, he fills the primer cups on top of the engine with a wee dram of fuel, turning individual taps below the cups to release the gasoline into the cylinders. Since the single- throat updraft carburetor is about two feet from the intake, and the car originally had a hand crank, the fuel prime means there’s a chance the engine will fire before your arm turns to boiled linguine. Actually, the ’16 has been converted to electric start, so Bennett switches on the magneto, works the two levers on the steering wheel to retard the spark and advance the throttle, pulls a small chrome knob on the steering column that chokes the carburetor, and engages the electric starter via a floor button under his right foot while his left foot gives it some gas with the foot accelerator that sits in the middle between the clutch (left) and brake (right) pedals.
The 303-cubic-inch, side-valve inline-six cranks over with a pattering chug-a, chug-a. The gaping black exhaust pipe, running along the frame rail next to the mechanic’s chair and wrapped in protective ceramic rope (back in the day it was asbestos) barks once—then twice—and emits a deep, loping, percussive roar that is only made by engines with big displacements and small cylinder counts. “Back then the way to make power was just to make the engines bigger,” explains Blain over the hubbub of the engine’s whirring leather belts and the thudding of its exhaust. An even older 1911 National with a four-cylinder T-head engine displacing a ridiculous 450 cubic inches is then pushed out, and a similar procedure follows. The dirt trails through his walnut groves await.
Let’s go back to November 1912. Woodrow Wilson had just been elected our 28th president, the nation’s population stood at 95 million, Arizona and New Mexico were the newest stars on our flag, and seven months had passed since the sinking of the Titanic. There were about 640,000 cars and trucks registered in the United States, about the same number as there are today in Vermont.
Until then, the little San Joaquin Valley farming burg of Visalia, California, was perhaps best known for having its own mini–Civil War, the most ardent supporters of the North and South lining up on Main Street to shoot it out. A few decades later, like a lot of towns looking to get their names into the big-city newspapers in a positive way, Visalia decided to host the Harvest Day automobile races. The organizers mapped out a simple three-mile course with four right turns that ran down Main and then off through the citrus groves. They set a lavish—at least for that time and location—$1750 prize kitty to be split by the top three finishers. Nineteen teams came from all over California and Nevada. The Visalia Daily Times speculated that the crowd of 15,000 was the largest assembly of people yet in the town’s history.
The premier event, the 150-miler, proceeded over a Thursday afternoon for three hours, four minutes, and 46 seconds. According to the newspaper’s breathless front-page account, city trustee W.F. Ingwerson “performed his task with credit” and flagged off a dozen cars, a Detroit-made Flanders leaving the road at the very first corner where it “sprained an axle, never showing after the start.” There were blown tires galore, busted steering shafts, broken fuel lines, and knock-knocking engines that plagued the field of Mercers, Chalmerses, Buicks, Packards, Fords, and Overlands in the running.
The winner? None other than a young Harry Sprague, who started fourth in local fruit farmer Phillip Baier’s 50-hp National, took the lead on the first lap, and never looked back. Sprague averaged just under 49 mph in Baier’s brown roadster and raced “with a cool head and iron nerve,” raved the newspaper’s correspondent. He won the $1000 grand prize and then was promptly handed a bill from Baier for “car damage.”
In Blain’s grove, attempting to partly re-create that day, we line up the ’16 National that has been restored to look like Harry’s as it ran at Visalia almost exactly 106 years ago, except for the blue paint, which was National’s team color at the time. The ’16 sits next to the ’11 National Speedway Roadster, which has an actual door in its more extensive bodywork. Blain and his riding mechanic—they were called “mechanicians” back then—are in the ’11, suited up in leather helmets, goggles, coveralls, and thick elbow-length gauntlet gloves. Standing by as “spectators” are some of Blain’s friends in the local horseless-carriage club, dressed in period ankle-length dusters and straw boaters and standing by cars of the vintage: a 1905 National Model C that is the world’s oldest surviving National; a 1912 Cadillac Model 30 with the industry’s first production electric starter; and a 1914 Ford Model T runabout, one of some 15 million Ford churned out over 19 years. The two Nationals sound like World War I biplanes as they strafe the camera, the crews leaning into it with fearsome determination against what would have been a continuous cloud of dust and oil.
Racing was different in the embryonic days of the motoring century. Let’s start with that first Indy 500. It took over six-and-a-half hours to run, and the grid positions and corresponding car numbers were based on the order in which the teams paid the entry fee. Effective oil rings for pistons had yet to be invented, so the engines blew as much black stuff out their tailpipes as they spewed on the ground, while the tires kicked up so much dust from the mostly unpaved tracks that car and crew were quickly shellacked in a greasy sludge. Car numbers were soon obscured, so to aid the beleaguered scorekeepers, the organizers required that numbers be painted on round elevated signboards that were assigned a different color for every set of 10 numbers.
Every pit stop required a refresh of not only the fuel tank but also an onboard oil tank. Besides hand-pumping air into the fuel tank to pressurize it so the carburetor would keep feeding (fuel pumps were still coming), one of the jobs of the mechanicians was to occasionally pump fresh oil into the splash-lubricated crankcases to replace what was being lost overboard. The teams also mixed castor oil into the tanks to lube the valves, adding yet another fluid to the sticky mist that burned and inflamed any exposed skin.
Breakdowns and blowouts were commonplace, the mechanicians pulling from the stack of spare tires on the car or sprinting back to the pits for parts. With the wandering front wheels bolted to beam suspensions that were designed with little understanding of kinematics, the steering was so heavy and self-directed that the better teams kept trackside masseurs on hand to work the sore arms of the drivers during stops. Crashes were often fiery and deadly.
Early auto racing was a filthy, exhausting, and lethal business, which is why it operated like horse racing in that the drivers were typically beefy farmhands and other expendables from the ruffian servant class while the gentlemen were the owners who would no more drive a racing car themselves than go to the post on a snorting filly. For the most part, the gentleman driver didn’t come along until later, when the cars were easier to manage with soft hands.
Blain’s re-creation of history is somewhat sanitized, in that his rebuilt cars smoke hardly at all and drop a lot less oil, and you can pilot one for a while without needing multiple sets of goggles around your neck. Early drivers would swap out a pair as they became opaque. Blain has become the de facto R&D department for companies that went out of business almost a century ago, subtly fixing and improving what those companies couldn’t back when there were no rules and everything was being invented.
Once we have some photos in the can, I ascend the 1916 National to take the wheel. The car sports a wood floor, no doors, and button-tufted leather chairs that should be in a Victorian parlor. Blain sets the spark advance and advises me to pull only momentarily on the column-mounted choke as the starter motor cranks. When the engine lights, I’m supposed to immediately release the choke. You can hear the big six sucking ravenously through its single-barrel updraft carburetor when it catches.
The sensation is of sitting at the back of an old pumpkin-patch hay wagon—but one that throbs and thunders and happens to go 100 mph. Indeed, Blain once hit the ton mark at the Brickyard after they cleared everyone else off the track. “My teeth were chattering the whole way, it was vibrating so bad. Scariest thing I’ve ever done. Imagine those guys doing it for six-and-a-half hours! That’s why they had to be young.”
You sit in a sort of relaxed semi-slump, your hands up as if you’re reading the New York Herald in the Knickerbocker Club, but instead with a wide wood steering wheel between your palms that looks like the marriage of a steamship helm and a Swiss chronometer. The tall shifter will—well, it might—give you three forward speeds plus reverse in the usual H-pattern. Upshifts are rather fussy, the meshing of gears done not by modern many-toothed and synchronized dog clutches, but by unsynchronized rings with a couple of big keyways that never seem to be lined up right to let the shifter advance. No matter, said Blain, just stop and shift it. The National’s huge engine has no trouble pulling the car away in any gear until you learn the technique. The shorter shifter poking out of the floor is an on/off engagement for the overdrive, for when you’re feeling really lucky.
After five feet of driving, you realize the best places to keep your hands are the 10 and 2 o’clock positions, where you can exert the most leverage on the wheel. Surprisingly, the center gas pedal takes little time to get used to. Then again, I’m not driving the car in rush hour.
Naturally, this century-old machine works best on rural roads and the loose dirt surfaces that were predominant when it was new, slipping and sliding just enough to keep the steering a little lighter and the side loads on the wood-spoke wheels to a minimum. Blain has broken wheel spokes at speed on paved tracks and has lived to tell the tale with eyes wide. He’s added a short concrete oval around his property and encourages me to kick out the rear end for the camera, something the car does maybe a little too easily on its narrow, hard tires. Actually, rear-end wiggles are a good thing; what you don’t want is the tires loading with major g-force and then breaking traction suddenly enough to spin the car—that’s how rollovers start. Blain has fitted seatbelts but prefers to take his chances in the air rather than stay for a ride on a tumbling two-ton log of Progressive Era iron.
The Blain Motorsports Foundation took its show on the road in 2018, partnering with the Sportscar Vintage Racing Association to run a series of events as mobile historical demonstrations. Blain even designed and built a faux Model T racer with quick-disconnect couplings that can be stripped down to the frame and reassembled to (just barely) drivable condition in under 10 minutes. It’s a hilarious trackside pantomime of a Keystone Cops racing team, but at the first showing at Sonoma this past May, enough spectators thought the skit was real that they complained to the marshals about letting an unsafe car return to the track (the Model T actually gets parked immediately afterward). Back in the workshop, we are shown a 1912 Packard found in Argentina and thought to be the oldest surviving Packard racer. It has its own Packard-specific bolt sizes and thread pitches since not much was standardized back then. We also see some tulip-shaped engine valves that are the size of martini glasses, and a freshly overhauled 330-cubic-inch T-head four-cylinder out of a 1914 Case, from the familiar Wisconsin tractor company that also built cars until 1927.
Like a lot of Blain’s rescues, the Case was not much more than a pile of rust when he discovered it serving as a display shelf for potted plants in a nursery. Wartime scrap drives for the First and Second World Wars cleaned the landscape of most of America’s early racing heritage. “It was considered unpatriotic not to scrap a car you weren’t using, and most race cars had no purpose after they were done racing, so they were the first to go,” Blain explains.
The ones he finds were usually repurposed into street cars, hay trucks, or mobile sawmills. Blain looks for clues indicating a past life of glory, such as engines that are mounted farther rearward than normal, steering columns that sit lower, and a lack of mounting holes for road fenders. “We’re a bunch of archaeologists,” says Blain.