One author, two books
by Gordon Eliot White


gordonwhite

Kurtis-Kraft, Masterworks of Speed and Style
Leader Card Racers: A Dynasty of Speed

One author, two books—each from a different publishing house—and both, at first blush, appearing as though they might hold little of interest to the average MMR reader/member. But books, at their best, edify and educate us—if we but allow them to do so. That, of course, requires that we read them.

So if you happen to be one of those who has been inclined to think that there is nothing for you in either of Gordon Eliot White’s books—Kurtis-Kraft, Masterworks of Speed and Style, published by MBI, or Leader Card Racers: A Dynasty of Speed, published by Racemaker Press—you should read on.

The newer of the two books is Leader Card Racers. It is about the Wilke family which is, to this day, dedicated (giving real substance to the word dedicated) to racing. The book opens with the century, in 1901. And thus you learn the origins of the team’s Leader Card moniker and get to see some tremendous early photos too. Race-family patriarch Bob Wilke was first fascinated with and by racing in 1921 as a twelve-year old, and there are still more terrific photos sharing and showing that those years up to “Leader Card” appearing on the first race car in 1939.

A quick flip back to the end of the book will help you understand that Leader Card would be a racing “mover and shaker” continuously from 1939 to 1994, and give you a sneak peek at the fact that Wilke family members, now four generations deep, are still active in the “race game” as Wilke Racers and Wilke-Pak.

But don’t cheat yourself out of all the pages and photos in between that show and tell the entire Leader Car story. It truly provides an overview of racing’s overall growth in America. Thus, yes there are pages that feature Champ cars, midgets and Indy cars—and their drivers. The book does an exemplary job lending perspective, all while putting the reader inside the pits and behind the closed garage doors.

The family’s racing-patriarch Bob Wilke, who began it all, had his own personal tastes and stable of cars. He heavily favored Ferrari from his first, a 375MM which he had ordered new. His last was a 250 GT Farina coupe now believed to be part of a collection in Wisconsin. Another that Wilke owned and drove was an M-B 300S with Ghia bodywork. In turn having that car led to the creation of the Wilke Superamerica, which was the last Ferrari ever bodied by Ghia. That car is now part of the Blackhawk Collection.

Similarly, if your “first blush” thoughts regarding Frank Kurtis and the book Kurtis-Kraft, Masterworks of Speed and Style are that it is about midgets and champ (Indy) cars, well—you shortchanged Kurtis as well as yourself. To be sure, the racing machines Frank Kurtis designed, built, and sold dominated at the tracks as they were, quite simply, better—the best. But notice the word “sold” in the previous sentence. Kurtis’ race cars earned him his living but in no way reflected the totality of the man, his interests, his abilities—nor were they the sum total the cars he envisioned and created.

You read about and saw one on this site’s September newsletter. It was named Aguila and, indeed, the bodywork gave the impression it might take to flight as its Spanish-language namesake did.

Aguila was developed and built in 1961 by which time Kurtis was some 30 years into his career. Aside from the income-generating race machines, its predecessors had included the gracefully aerodynamic and fast roadster that Frank designed and built in 1937 for Tommy Lee. (The car was sold earlier this year at a Gooding Auction for just a bit south of $300,000.) As a teen, Kurtis had worked for Tommy’s dad, Don Lee and for those who don’t quite place that name, it was at Don Lee Motors where Harley Earl honed his design skills prior to being hired away by General Motors. So Kurtis had benefited from working under Earl prior to establishing his own independent business.

Then there was the car that caused Tom McCahill to write that, “The chariot that Frank Kurtis dreamed up has everything—speed, safety, luxury and class…and makes every other car look like an unmade Murphy bed.” For Kurtis that car was the developmental stepping stone (prototype) that led directly to his Kurtis 500 sports-car line which he introduced as the 1940s drew to a close. Those cars, in turn, so captivated a man named Earl “Madman” Muntz that he finally persuaded Kurtis to sell him those 500 sports-cars already produced but as yet unsold as well as all rights and slightly revised plans permitting Muntz to build and market more, which he renamed the Muntz Jet.

Now you’ve got the idea; there’s more to Frank Kurtis than just midgets and Indy racees. But you’ll have to discover the rest of the story for yourself on the pages of Kurtis-Kraft, Masterworks of Speed and Style by Gordon Eliot White—which is, by the way, out of print. Motorbooks published it nearly a decade ago so no surprise that it has sold out. To date there’s no indication MBI plans a reprint. A quick search on internet indicates there are copies out there through the used-book dealers.

And, that of course brings us back to where we began: the danger in prejudging a book before properly investigating what it contains might mean you have to work harder and pay more to obtain later.

by: Helen V Hutchings

Leader Card Racers: A Dynasty of Speed
by Gordon Eliot White
234 pages, 10” x 10” hardbound
141 color & 132 b/w photographs
ISBN 0-9766683-8-6
$55 from Racemaker Press
www.racemaker.com

Kurtis-Kraft, Masterworks of Speed and Style
by Gordon Eliot White
216 pages, 10.5” x 10.5” hardbound
42 color and 185 b/w photographs and engineering drawings
ISBN 0-7603-0910-8
Original list from publisher, Motorbooks, was $39.95