Training Wheels

Skip Hudson’s first race car, speedster #80032, rediscovered.

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November 5, 2007

Sometimes, it’s not the machine. No, there are those moments when it’s the driver who overcomes the odds, sets the mark. This is such an instance. To be certain, the 1955 356 Pre-A 1500 Normal Reutter Speedster was a reasonably fast car for its day, but the fact this one achieved so much on track was due to its first owner and driver, Skip Hudson.

Based on specification, it’s unlikely that a Speedster with a 1.5-liter pushrod flat four should have been able to show its rounded derriere to a 356 powered by a four-cam Carrera engine of similar displacement with gobs more horsepower. But that’s exactly what Hudson’s bathtub did, and on more than one occasion. His Light Ivory-painted Speedster, #80032, was set up better than the average bear, but Skip Hudson was more than a merely capable driver; he was well ahead of his time in having the ability to drive the car with his brain as well as his right foot.

Hudson and good friend Dan Gurney were both avid Southern California hot-rodders and motorcyclists and had spent many hours at Joe Vittone’s bike shop in Riverside. When Vittone opened a VW agency, they soon became customers. Vittone’s son, Darrell, then a teenager, remembers the pair roaring up in their Ford pickup trucks: “Skip’s was red, Dan’s yellow — just like the Bobbsey Twins.”

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Skip would later write that “spying the white 356 Speedster in Vittone’s new VW dealership, I was drawn to it.” Hudson described his undeniable attraction to Porsche’s latest product thusly: “At the time I pressed my face up to the showroom window…what I saw was a wonderfully balanced machine, rear-engined layout, and felt instinctually to be very reliable and durable.”

Skip went to the bank for a loan and bought the little white 356 for $3,000. Said Hudson: “Immediately, I began taking the car apart, (removing the) windshield and bumpers, swapping the stock tires for Engelberts.” He also added what he termed “bogus headers” plus double black stripes and a racing screen. At about the same time, Gurney purchased a Triumph TR-2. Then he and Skip helped one another learn how to drive to best advantage, swapping cars, sharing what they were picking up through the seats of their pants.

Recalled Gurney in a recent interview: “Skip and I were students of motor racing and, like a sponge, we were soaking up every last bit of information we could, whether it was driving styles or different kinds of cars or how various people approached different turns. We were fans of all kinds of racing, including midgets, various California sport car club events, and things like the El Mirage dry lake stuff.

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“We were very close friends and, even though there wasn’t any professional road racing at the time, we felt that it was imminent and wanted to get in on the ground floor together,” continued Gurney. “So, essentially, we trained each other. And, early on, we started using a stopwatch. It didn’t take us long to realize that the only genuine tool we had was that stopwatch. When you talk about reality and time that’s gonna tell you what’s important and what isn’t when it comes to racing. We made a solemn vow that, no matter who looked good or bad, we were going to be totally honest and give each other the most accurate timing — no matter what.”

The two applied all they knew from hot-rodding to their new toys, tuning the cars to maximize power, painstakingly adjusting the distributors and carbs, searching for every possible advantage. Then, continues Gurney, they “would take the Speed-sters out to the orange groves in River-side and set up a circuit, all on dirt, (nick- named “The Burma Road”) that we could do lap times on. That’s when we started to develop what would become our driving styles.” Or what Hudson would later describe as the search for “the perfect four-wheel drift.” Said Gurney: “We did the first vestiges of setting up the chassis — ride heights, torsion bars, tires, and stuff like that. It showed up on the stopwatch and, well, it was pretty fun. I remember we would drive the Speedsters up to Palmdale and stay at the ‘X Motel.’ It had this giant ‘X’ out front. You could go to the office and ask for the key to the padlock for the gate that let you into Willow Springs race track and they’d give it to you! We could take the Speedsters out there and race each other with no one else around. Those were the days…”

“It’s funny now,” says Darrell Vittone. “But, at the time, it looked like Skip was going to become the better of the two behind the wheel.” In the beginning, Skip drove and Dan wrenched. Hudson’s most impressive drive in #80032 may well have come at the Cypress Point Handicap at Pebble Beach — a race for under-1500-cc cars — on Sunday, April 22, 1956.

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Hudson, starting behind a pair of more powerful Carrera Speedsters, quickly seized the lead and proceeded to lay waste to the field. However, on the 11th lap, while attempting to pass a backmarker, he carried too much speed into a corner — the same spot where Ernie McAfee would fatally crash his Ferrari 121LM chasing the Del Monte Cup trophy later the same day — and put his car off-course, side-swiping some trees that lined the circuit. Hudson managed to recover and finish second to season-long rival Dale Johnson, who was driving a four-cam. Hudson had beaten Johnson head-to-head at Palm Springs earlier in the season and surely would have claimed the win at Pebble had he not gone off-course. Behind Hudson’s bathtub was another Carrera plus a flock of lesser entries.

In 1991, Hudson told Excellence that he and Gurney loaded the damaged car on a trailer and hauled it back to Southern California, where he went hat in hand to John von Neumann, West Coast Porsche distributor, begging for a new mount in which to finish the season. Von Neumann, already well aware of Hudson’s abilities, grudgingly provided him a fresh red 1956 1600 Super Speedster, but it came with a strong warning that he’d be on his own if he damaged it. Now on even terms mechanically with the established competition, Hudson racked up more victories. The following season found him in a Carrera Speedster, in which he captured a hotly contested 20-lapper for F and G Production cars at the inaugural Laguna Seca weekend on November 9-10, 1957 by averaging over 65 mph.

Skip Hudson went on to a sparkling career behind the wheel of many larger and faster cars. Of course, the day soon came when Dan Gurney would join the ranks of the world’s top drivers and construct his own racing machines. Their stories are well documented, but, after 1956, #80032’s trail grows cold. Eventually, though, it came to rest beneath a tarpaulin in the rural community of McMinnville, Oregon, just southwest of Portland. There it quietly slept while the elements and the passage of time took their toll. Then, around 1994, a long-time Porsche enthusiast named Walter Kolouch learned of the old bathtub and acquired it.

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“It was in very poor condition,” says Kolouch, who has restored a half-dozen 356s of various types. Kolouch relates that he rebuilt Hudson’s old mount from the ground up, replacing the floors, longitudinals, closing panels, battery box, and any other steel the rustworm found tasty. “The good news is that the car was pretty complete and absolutely original, including the repaired left front corner damage caused by Hudson’s crash in the trees at Pebble Beach. The bad news is that one side of the two-piece engine case had been destroyed when a rod let go. I was able to find a new, OEM case half I used to assemble a new engine that included correct new pistons and cylinders that I found at Mahle.”

The original transaxle was still with the car, fitted with competition BBAB gearing. A full brake and suspension rebuild, careful body repairs, fresh paint, new upholstery, and a new top and side curtains completed the cosmetics, bringing the car to as-delivered appearance and condition. Kolouch says #80032 packed a few more surprises in the good-news category: “All of the original switches and gauges still worked, and the car still had its original set of five 16-inch steel wheels, all properly date-stamped, complete with the now-rare ‘turbo’ trim rings. In fact, the spare tire was the original factory issue!”

With the three-year project complete, Kolouch decided to see what the market would bear. He placed a large ad in the DuPont Registry magazine, describing the car and restoration in detail. The little Porsche, said Kolouch, had rolled up barely a dozen miles since the rebuild. The ad caught the eye of noted Porsche collector Jerry Seinfeld, who sent someone to Oregon for a first-hand examination. In late 1994, the title changed hands and #80032 was on its way south, to L.A. and the care of Sam Cabiglio, Seinfeld’s automotive consultant.

Cabiglio was impressed with what he saw, but a closer examination and a little time behind the wheel brought to light what he says were myriad small problems. Says Cabiglio: “It was a very pretty car, but it hadn’t been thoroughly sorted yet. If it had been driven more miles, those little niggling problems that follow any major restoration would have come to light and been corrected.” Cabiglio says he had to pull the engine out to clear up some issues: “Not to replace anything, but just to make it perfectly right.”

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When Hudson talked to Excellence in 1991, he said he wished he could find his old car again. That wasn’t to be in terms of ownership, but — a few years later, in early March of 1996 — Cabiglio found a surprise visitor at his door. It was Skip Hudson. Says Cabiglio: “He’d heard we had his old race car and he wanted to take a look at it.” It would be the first of several visits by Hudson, who at the time was working for Gurney’s All-American racers in Santa Ana. “Skip told me he had some things I’d be interested in.”

The next time Hudson came by, he had a pair of framed original paintings by Bob Rector, one of him racing the white #92 Normal Speedster. The second — entitled Skip Churning the Burma Road — illustrated Skip catching air in his red car. He presented both to Cabiglio, and, wearing a boyish grin, slipped behind the wheel of his old racer to pose for some snapshots in Cabiglio’s crowded space. There were several more get togethers, says Cabiglio, who at the time was unaware that Hudson’s health was already failing. Their last meeting came in January, 1997, when Seinfeld decided to sell the car at the Barrett-Jackson auction. Skip Hudson accompanied Cabiglio and the car to Scottsdale. “Skip enjoyed all the auction atmosphere, and his presence when the car sold probably added to its cachet.”

The little car left Arizona with a new owner, Mike Kittredge, founder of The Yankee Candle Company near Boston, Massachusetts. Kittredge placed the car in the company’s Auto Museum so that, when families visited to shop for candles and other home decor, those less interested could wander into the museum and look at cool cars. “He got a lot of publicity in business magazines, so it must have been a good idea,” says fellow collector and racing enthusiast Steve Serio. “It was money well spent.”

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Sadly, Hudson was losing his battle with cancer, and passed away in the spring of 1998. “It was a complete shock,” says Cabiglio today. A year or so later, Kittredge sold #80032 to Serio, owner of Aston Martin/Lotus of New England. Soon after, a doctor in Ohio purchased #80032, holding onto it for about five years before selling it back to Serio. Within a few months, however, the old Speedster would change hands yet again. Serio had been contacted by Ken Gross, a member of the 2006 Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance Committee. Gross was busy assembling a display of surviving cars that raced in the Del Monte Forest 50 years previously — before Laguna Seca was built — and extended an invitation to show the car. Serio agreed to bring the ex-Hudson 356 to California that August.

In the interim, Connecticut enthusiast and vintage racer Tony Angotti called Serio in search of a good Speedster. Since Serio already had a ’56 in his collection, he agreed to sell the earlier car to Angotti if he would honor the commitment to show this special car at Pebble. In May, Angotti picked it up and got to work “back-dating” its appearance to Hudson’s black-striped 1956 racing livery and preparing it for display at one of the most prestigious car shows in the world.

A cool and cloudy morning — typical Monterey weather — greeted the throngs of eager spectators who crowded the grassy fairway at Pebble Beach as soon as the entry gates opened. At the edge of the display, closest to the water, rested a line of proud old racing cars, all veterans of days when talented amateurs and semi-pro drivers battled for silver cups and glory on the dangerous, serpentine 2.1-mile Del Monte Forest circuit. Nestled among its peers, #80032 was home again.

Also from Issue 160

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  • Steelie Screamer: Early 911 Hot Rod
  • Riding Shotgun with Walter Röhrl
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  • Inside Penske Racing’s Premises
  • 997 GT2 Preview
  • Great White: A 680-hp 996 GT2
  • Market Update: 914 and 914-66
  • Porsche Icon: 917/30
  • Project 914 3.6: Fiberglass Bumpers
  • Installing Wheel Spacers Properly
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