Harrell Engines and Racing Equipment








 NEWSLETTER 255 - August 31, 2012







Gone Racin’…Harrell Engines & Racing Equipment; Jim (White) Harrell & Nick Harrell, by Roger H. Harrell, with Richard C. Harrell and Alec R. Harrell Carlson. Second edition, 2012.


 Book review by Richard Parks, photographic consultant Roger Rohrdanz.  18 August 2012.


  The Second edition of Harrell Engines & Racing Equipment; Jim (White) Harrell & Nick Harrell, by Roger H. Harrell, will be relatively easy to review. Roger Harrell found additional material and simply added these pages to the back of the book increasing the pages from 154 to 208, or roughly 25%. There are more photographs and additional material in all of the chapters as well. Roger also sent in an explanation of how he went about producing this book, which I felt was important enough to add to this review. Roger and my views are that history needs to be preserved. I do it electronically on the internet and he does it by means of the print medium. If his research and efforts prod people into doing a book project on their particular racing exploits then we shall have been successful. Roger and the Harrell family have accumulated a great deal of history on their family’s racing history and no doubt they will continue to find more clues. We all owe the Harrell family a great deal of gratitude for their efforts.

   In the Second edition there are small changes throughout, basically Harrell changed Chapter six to reflect the discovery of new information on the Winged Express Fuel Altered race car. He then moved the old Chapter six to make it Chapter seven in the Second edition. He increased the photographs from 48 to 87. He added a “Second edition preface,” to thank those who helped on this later account. Some of these sources included; Ed Crafton, Curt Giovanine, Paul Hutchins, Rod Larmer, Rod McCarrell, Alan Mest, Dick Pickerel and Don Ferrara. I mention the names because they are important to judge the work by the people who contributed. Larmer worked for the Conze brothers and knows racing and Ferrara is an authority in car and boat racing. Roger also added material to the Second edition throughout the book including stories that came to light. The Second edition has the same vitality and life to it that the First edition has, but the detail is greater. That presents a problem for those who have only the Second edition to do research on. This is a common enough problem among historians, but for the general population, both editions tell a good story.

   New material shows up in every chapter of the Second edition and the Index expands from two to three pages. Footnotes are used extensively to give documentation to the serious historian and researcher. But it is the 44 pages of Chapter Six, “The altered roadster to Winged Express,” that truly sets this edition apart from the previous edition. Jim Harrell and Willie Borsch had a long and beneficial partnership with the Berardini Brothers and then purchased the famed roadster from Pat Berardini and raced it as the “Red Hot Roadster.” That roadster brought some success, but Harrell and Borsch built a new bucket roadster and used a fiberglass body, creating the Winged Express that would make Borsch and future owner Mousie Marcellus famous. They had their ups and downs with the fuel altered. When it ran well it was nearly unbeatable, but it also destroyed parts and was difficult to control with the short wheelbase. This class of fuel altereds was very dangerous and the NHRA considered banning the cars altogether. Only the demands by drag racing fans kept this class alive. Eventually the writing was on the wall, accidents a continual threat and competition from the new Funny Car class ended the Fuel Altereds as a racing category. Or at least some people thought so at the time, for over the years the Fuel Altereds became legendary and the cars were brought back to match race and to run in nostalgia events.

Now here is the review for the First Edition.

   A delightful paperback book on early dry lakes racing and engine building during the early to mid twentieth century is titled Harrell Engines & Racing Equipment; Jim (White) Harrell & Nick Harrell. Written by Roger H. Harrell, with assistance from Richard C. Harrell and Alec R. Harrell Carlson, this book details the story of the Harrell engines and racing equipment that played an important role in our racing history. Harrell Engines & Racing Equipment; Jim (White) Harrell & Nick Harrell is a paperback book measuring six by nine inches, with 154 pages. The cover shows a black and white photograph of Jim Harrell’s modified roadster at Muroc in 1941 as it set a record of 127.65 miles per hour (mph) in the modified roadster class, an impressive time for that day and age. The photograph on the back cover shows the two Harrell brothers at their shop with the roadster. It is a nostalgic start to a book on a racing family that was a cornerstone of our racing community. 

   The pages are on a white bond matte paper. The photographs are all in black and white, some clear and some grainy, depending on the age of the photographs that the authors used. All of the photographs were visibly clear, but remember that the technology of the age then makes it difficult to reproduce today in some cases. There were 60 photographs, 8 newspaper ads, 7 tables and one newspaper article.  The authors footnoted topics and provided an excellent three page index for the scholar and the average reader to use. There was also a five page pictorial appendix of the Harrell family so that you could see the men and women who were being chronicled in the book. The book contains a contents section, photographic index, list of tables, preface, introduction and six chapters. It shows the care and thoroughness of someone with an academic background, but it is easy to read and to locate sources.

   The Harrell family is proud of the accomplishments of Jim and Nick Harrell and the book is a memorial to their mechanical genius. Jim changed his name to White, then back to Harrell again, thus the confusion and the authors reference to Jim (White) Harrell. Some of Jim’s customers and racing friends knew him as White and others as Harrell. The book gives the reasons for the change in names and that in itself is a fascinating story. This wasn’t an easy book to write. The authors knew some of the history of the Harrell brothers, but so much of what they did they kept to themselves. This was an odyssey of sorts, a trek back in time and to do that the authors had to interview men and women who knew the Harrell brothers. They also found old programs, newspaper ads and articles and other sources with which to better understand what had happened over the years. The authors travelled to Jack’s Garage in Fountain Valley, to see a special man and dry lakes historian, Jack Underwood, who opened his archives for research. 

   They met with Leslie Long who has been dedicating his life to compiling the records and names of all those who raced on the dry lakes of Southern California and at the original drag racing strip at the Santa Ana Airport. They talked to Curt Giovanine, who opened up the photographic archives of his father, Bob, co-owner of the famous Spurgin/Giovanine roadster. They used the SCTA Racing News and programs, Throttle magazine and newspaper articles.  Some of the people they interviewed included; Pat Berardini, Vic Meleo, Rod McCarrell, Cary Harrell Prather, Wayne Pollaccia, whose father Tony also raced drag boats, Augie Esposito, Don Montgomery, Al ‘Mousie’ Marcellus, Terry Baldwin, Ed Iskenderian and others. These sources alone comprise an engrossing story of the times.

   Chapter One is titled ‘Jim’s Speed Shop and Jim’s Auto Parts.’ In the Introduction, the authors begin the story in the South and tell how the family relocated to Southern California, where they settled. In Chapter One, Jim worked as an auto mechanic and since this is during the Great Depression, his business did whatever auto work that he could find. In 1928 Jim returned to Georgia, but problems ensued and the family moved back to California, this time to stay for good. Jim was born in 1903 and was older than the typical hot rodder who raced their cars on the streets and dry lakes in the ‘30’s and this age and maturity influenced many around him. Jim Harrell opened his shop in 1932 and did the usual repairs, but also added rudimentary speed equipment, for the industry had not achieved the degree of sophistication that it has today. 

   The dry lakes of California beckoned many young men to come out and test their cars against the one thing that is unchangeable, time itself. Jim participated in these organized time trials and set records. His status in the racing community was rising, until the attack on Pearl Harbor by the Japanese Imperial Navy ended racing during World War II. Jim worked as a welder in the ship yards at night and at his garage and auto parts store during the day. In Chapter Two, the authors detail the close relationship that Jim Harrell had with several racing friends. Tony Capanna, another legendary dry lakes racer and mechanic, lived just around the corner and would learn from Harrell. Men who would become close friends and fans of Jim’s was Bob Noble, Bob Knapton and other members of the Albata Club, such as Babe Ouse, Chuck Spurgin, Bob Giovanine, Ralph Schenck and Nick DeFabrity.

   Jim’s brother, Nick Harrell, had worked off-and-on with his brother, but after World War II, he went to work full time in the shop and assumed a major role in the business. Jim and his fellow racers in the Albata car club had been one of the leading groups in the pre-war SCTA and after hostilities had ended and racing started up again, the club and its members regained the top spot at the dry lakes that the war had interrupted. Over the next few years the members of the Albata and other car clubs would be lured away from land speed racing and go into other forms of auto racing. Some would do well at the oval tracks in midget and sprint car racing. Some would follow road racing with Carroll Shelby, Briggs Cunningham and Dan Gurney. And some would move into a new sport which they called drag racing. The SCTA would almost collapse like the other timing associations and the car club scene would fade away, much like Jive, Be-bop, Swing, Drive-in theatres and the corner Drive-In restaurants. 

   Another siren call for dry lakes racers was boat racing and it flourished. Whether it was on lakes, marinas or the ocean, boat racing was much cleaner than the dusty dry lakes, the weather was nicer and there were always plenty of beautiful women in alluring bathing suits. Boat racing was the place to be and for a good engine builder like the Harrell Brothers, a sport that gave them exposure and prestige. The brothers were also finding success with the track roadsters, an exciting sport that combined the best of the rugged little midgets and the power of the sprinters. But it wasn’t only in racing that the Harrell Brothers were gaining a reputation. Young men were no longer building cars for the dry lakes; they were instead building street hot rods and racing illegally on the streets. This led to the formation of official drag strips and in 1951, the founding of the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) in an effort to provide alternatives for illegal street racing. Street rods for performance and show were to become a large part of the Harrell business. 

   The Harrell speed shop attracted lots of attention and some of the drag racers would include Willie Borsch, Mousie Marcellus, Tony and Pat Berardini, Don Bell, the Pollaccia brothers, Bob Morgan and many other young men who would go on to fame in drag racing and other forms of motorsports racing. Harrell engines figured prominently in Don Bell’s and Pat Berardini’s success at the Santa Ana Airport drags in the early 1950’s. Don Bell’s real name was Donald Allan Dodd, and no one quite knows why he went with an alias, but using a racing alias was quite common back then. The tragic death of Don Bell at El Mirage in 1953 ended a strong friendship between the two men. Cars running Harrell engines also did well at other dragstrips throughout the area. In early 1956, Jim Harrell teamed up with Wild Willie Borsch and put a Chrysler OH engine in the car. It seems like an eternity has passed since the Harrell/Borsch roadster wowed the crowds with speeds in the high 120’s and elapsed times in the 11 seconds. But in those days that was fast, gut-wrenching fast and even today, when we are jaded by 300mph drag cars, it just isn’t the same. 

   By July 1959, Borsch was recording speeds of 137 mph, then a month later up that to 144 mph. Borsch beat Tony Nancy to win the Smokers March meet in 1961, running an even 150 mph. Borsch added an airfoil to the roadster in 1964 and the car picked up the nickname ‘Flying Wing,’ which was later modified to ‘Winged Express.’ This is a type of roadster, with short wheelbases, powerful engines and running on nitromethane, that evolved into the wildly popular, but highly unstable Fuel Altereds class. These weaving, unpredictable cars would fascinate drag racing crowds until they were banned. Today they still run, but on the nostalgia circuit and the safety features have improved immensely from that era. By 1966, the roadster had reached a speed of 181 mph and Jim Harrell had decided to retire. Borsch took on a new partner, Al ‘Mousie’ Marcellus, who is still the car’s owner. The last chapter talks about the legacy of the Harrell brothers and what they meant to dry lakes, oval track and early drag racing history. The rights to the Harrell Los Angeles™ heads and intake manifolds are now owned by Gordy Cushman of Rockford, Illinois, who is making and selling them today.

Harrell Engines & Racing Equipment; Jim (White) Harrell & Nick Harrell, is published by R&M Publishing of Hermosa Beach, California and can be found at Autobooks/Aerobooks, in Burbank, California.  See http://www.autobooks-aerobooks.com, and www.harrellengineshotrodding.com.

Gone Racin’ is at RNPARKS1@JUNO.COM.



Jim (White) Harrell & Nick Harrell