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a young boy attending the Reno air races, I was aware of John Crocker
and his white and blue racing Mustang. He wasn’t on my list of
favorites, but don’t let that make you think I didn’t like him or
his airplane. I just didn’t have the pleasure of knowing him or
talking to him. What I did think was his racer, the modified P-51 named Sumthin’
Else, looked like 500 mph just sitting there on the ramp.
Problem was, it sat a lot when I saw it - sporadically - from 1982 to 1989. I never quite gave Crocker or his airplane a lot of attention, and that is something I wish was different. How could I fix that?
I did know one person that was close friends with Crocker; Bill Kerchenfaut. Kerch crewed for him for almost ten years. In fact, in photos of the race plane, you’ll see Bill’s name under "Crew Chief." They even won the gold race at Reno in 1979; a bittersweet win as you’ll read later on. More often that not, the team would suffer setbacks and bad luck. Crocker wasn’t a natural race pilot, but he worked hard and learned. Before his death in an aviation accident in the ‘90's, Crocker would add color to the air racing and warbird communities, make important contributions to the sport, and be recognized as a quality human being.
That, my friends, is not such a bad way to be remembered.
His story also intertwines with the development of the Merlin engine and the ‘Super-Stang’ racers. Kerch was good enough to sit down and talk about Crocker with me in his Santa Clara shop.
Kerch on Crocker
He lights up a cigarette, inhales, and considers the basic first question about John Crocker. "John Crocker was one of the nicest human beings you’d ever run in to. The definition of type-A," Kerch says, some smoke still streaming from his lips. "He was always going a hundred miles per hour. He’d make me look like I have a slow drawl. He talked fast, was very smart, very honest, and the most fair human being you’d ever meet. Good man; good friend; nice guy."
Kerch had already been on the air racing scene with Darryl Greenamyer and had just returned to California from working with John Sandberg in Minnesota. The two knew of each other from being at Reno. This was the mid seventies.
"It’s a funny story in a way," he says. "He’d race other peoples airplanes at Reno. Jack Flaherty’s was one of them. I forget who else. He was one of the founders of the P-51 club before it got to Hollister. I’d come back from working with Sandberg’s P-63 and was working at San Jose airport in 1975, I think. I had my own business at the airport and a big hangar. John had purchased Ken Bernstein’s Miss foxy Lady. It was built in Bruce Goessling’s shop. Jim Larsen and Rick Hall, who is a current unlimited tech inspector, built that airplane up."
When Bernstein was killed in the crash of his other Mustang, Crocker purchased the racer and found Kerch at his shop. "I was working away, probably in a cranky mood for some reason. I said hi to John and we’re talking. I say what do you want?
"I want you to work on my race plane," Crocker said.
Kerch, exasperated by his experiences with Sandberg, would have none of it. ‘I’m not working on any more race planes ever again!’ I’m all mad and not going to do that any more," he snorted.
So Crocker went away.
He came back a week later and asked the same question. "He did this about three times! I finally said this is going to cost you money. He said ok. I really did want to race, but I was giving this big facade like I was a mercenary and ‘you can’t buy me!,’ Kerch laughed. "He got the airplane; it must have been ‘76 maybe. Somewhere in there."
Along with the rest of the crew, Crocker and Kerchenfaut went racing at Reno that year. Not a lot went according to plan.
"That airplane went like crazy. John was really behind the airplane, and even he would admit that. He actually crossed the finish line first, but he was called for deadline cuts. Seven! Whatever - a lot of deadline cuts. The first lap he made, when he unhooked that thing, he was hauling! Man it was going! It sounded good... Jack Hovey engine... Typical Reno deal... Everything was good. He took the checkered flag and thought he’d won," Kerch said.
Well, he hadn’t won. Not by a long shot. And things were going to get worse.
"I thought he sure seemed wide coming around eight, and he was," Kerch said. "I couldn’t believe they didn’t black flag him." What was happening was either the race officials or the FAA were keeping track of his deadline cuts. "Those jerks were just sitting there and writing down in their little books that he cut that one, cut that one, and cut that one... I accepted that for racing. Okay; fine," Kerch said, his face getting red at the memory of it all.
"Then they came out and said they were going to disqualify him. Okay. That didn’t make me happy. Why are you going to give the guy a checkered flag if you’re going to disqualify him and you know it on the first lap? What sent me into orbit, and I was extremely angry and hot headed... At that time, I would have taken anybody out. The FAA was going to violate John for every single deadline cut and suspend his license! He was a pilot for World Airways at that time. If you lose your license, you lose your job. I went insane I was so mad."
In my mind, I imagine Kerch stomping off to find the right people to voice his mild displeasure with their intellect and cognitive abilities. He is not a person I would like to be on the offending end of.
"Gary Levitz was on the contest or safety committee that year. I was screaming at him. I knew Gary pretty well, and I was ready to punch his lights out! There wasn’t anybody on the ramp that could’ve taken me. I would have killed myself to hurt him!" Kerch was laughing at the memory of it all. "The principle of the whole thing upset me. It wasn’t right. I still get excited thinking about it. I told Gary that I had flushed more intelligent things down the toilet than you are! I called him every bad thing I could think of, and I know some pretty bad words..."
Kerch admits that his lobbying efforts may not have helped Crocker at all. "I was more mad about that than losing the race. John took it well; they gave him a letter and he survived all that. Then it took until ‘79 to get that thing hooked up again," Kerch said. Of his association with Crocker, Kerch said, "It was good people, a good family, he had a neat wife, neat everything. It was good racing and good times."
Crocker Lives, and Learns
If Crocker wasn’t a golden racing child right out of the box, how would he be described? Kerch, sitting back in his desk chair, considers what to say. "John got up to speed with the airplane, but he wasn’t... How should I say this..? He was a good pilot, but he wasn’t a natural race pilot. He was competitive but he wasn’t super aggressive," Kerch said. "It was just at a certain level with him. He was an excellent pilot; don’t get me wrong. He worked hard at it. It didn’t come easy for him - flying the pylons. He was safe, a good sportsman, but didn’t have that killer instinct. Not a Darryl Greenamyer, Skip Holm or Bill Destefani in that regard. They have that level of aggression that is a little beyond what most people posses."
Crocker kept at it, with Kerchenfaut as his crew chief, and ended up being one of the more competitive super Mustangs - when they were running well. Therein lies the problem. Over the years, Crocker stayed with Jack Hovey as his engine builder. To make a long story short, ah-waaay back, Dwight Thorn and Jack Hovey worked together building Merlin engines. At one point, the two parted and began their own businesses. Dwight experimented and found one way to build a Merlin for racing. Hovey did the same, but their differing approaches netted mixed results.
Crocker ran Hovey engines; they were built up to run -7 supercharger gears and spin un-Godly rpm to make manifold pressure and power. Kerch expounds by saying, "The problem is the prop is winging around way too fast. You can combat that, to an extent, with the Aeroproducts prop. We ran that on Crocker’s airplane. That caused many engine failures. Stupid propeller. The way it works; everything is self contained in the propeller. It doesn’t use engine oil or anything. It just uses red hydraulic fluid to control the prop. There is a little fork arm that sticks out from the engine and holds this lever. That runs a gear, and inside that propeller regulator is a hydraulic pump, a regulator and governor and all this stuff. It’s a really neat setup. To make the blades work, there are hydraulic cylinders, and you just vary the hydraulic pressure in these cylinders and it twists the blade."
Sure. Easy. But wait, there’s more!
"It seems like whenever you put big power on them, one of those stupid blade cylinders will start leaking. Crocker had this happen many times. I think the first race he ran in ‘75, or whenever it was, his prop was leaking and he had oil on the windshield. What seems to happen, I don’t know if it’s true or not, you put that high horsepower on those stupid torque cylinders and they can’t take that pressure. They start leaking and it goes into the hub. An easy way to tell is to pull one of the grease fittings and it’ll squirt a streamer of grease and hydraulic fluid all over the curious onlookers. It’s exactly what happened to Dan Martin in 2005. I have experienced that over and over and over again."
But it did work for them in 1979 when, albeit under difficult circumstances, Crocker won the gold race ahead of Steve Hinton in the Red Baron. Hinton ended up crashing, and Hoover broadcast over the radio that he hadn’t survived. "John really liked Steve, and I think he felt a real camaraderie with him. They were both pilots and mechanics, and I know John was very upset about that. He wanted no part of that win like that. It was a very heavy moment," Kerch said.
As we know, Hinton did survive, and that had to have brightened Crocker’s outlook on the win. After that, Crocker and his racer would surf the ups and downs of air racing, blow engines, and never really run as well as they did before. It seemed like a slow slide off the scene of leading edge racing.
Like everything else, things change over time. Crocker had blown another engine and it wasn’t clear if he could afford another one. Kerch being Kerch, he wanted to race and he wanted to win.
"I wanted to do more with the airplane," he said. "Lots of changes, and John wasn’t interested much in any of that. And I like that sort of thing. But he’d blown up another engine, and he didn’t know if he was going to race again."
He met with Crocker one day, and asked him if they were still going racing. Crocker couldn’t really give him an answer.
"Destefani had approached me through Dwight. So I had a meeting with John right over here on Coleman Ave. - not far from here. I said, ‘We need to talk.’ I told him right up front, ‘Tiger approached me with this, and I want to know if you’re going to race.’ He couldn’t give me an answer. He didn’t know. I said, ‘Okay.’ It was hard for me to switch over to Tiger because of my loyalties to John. But there wasn’t one bad word exchanged. I just wanted to go race and he wasn’t sure he could do that. So I parted with John, and it was very traumatic for me to do that."
By today’s standards, Crocker’s racer would still be a fairly fast racer and capable of gold speeds. Adjusted for ‘speed inflation,’ Sumthin’ Else could very well be a front runner with the right combination of engine, prop, pilot, and crew. But in the ‘70's, she was always near the water line and ready to make a break for the lead. She was fast.
"When John got the airplane, it was pretty much done in terms of mods. We changed some of the systems a little bit and improved them. The one thing that we did do was develop a temperature-controlled ADI system on that airplane. That was through Jack Sweeney. He and his wife Sylvia were avid racers," Kerch said. "Jack had conjured up this water system that had it’s only input as induction temperature. In the P-51's case, that’s a really good thing to measure. The only problem is that its failure mode shut all the water off. Every time it did that, it blew the engine up. That was one thing. That was pretty far ahead of anybody else."
Kerch went on to detail some engine mods the team tried, with varied results. They had Crane manufacture some custom camshafts in ‘77 or ‘78. "We had a number of problems with them; the cams would break and it would blow up the engine." Kerch laughed about it now, but at the time there wasn’t anything funny about it. "We broke a lot of engines. I changed a lot of engines."
When Crocker acquired the racer, it was pretty much a ready-to-go deal. The engineering and modifications had already been done by Larsen and Hull. It was built in Bruce Goessling’s shop in Chino.
"Bruce was a very good friend of mine," Kerch said. "Larsen came up with the canopy and some scoop mods. Not to the extent of Dago or Strega, but he had some pretty good ideas on the scoop and the wing fairings. Those are the major things. The Hovey engine was a tube. At 3,800 rpm the engine would put out, at a good day at Reno, about 120 inches. Maybe 121 inches of manifold pressure."
Kerch, when asked about his friend’s passing, runs a hand over his face and considers. "I was at work at Hewlett Packard. Dwight called me. Seems like Dwight tells me all these things. Throughout the years he’s informed me about a lot of people... Lloyd Hamilton... John... A lot of different people that I’ve known. Bob Love... That bothered me a lot."
Crocker was killed when a Convair 340 he was ferrying crashed after an engine failure on takeoff. Kerch’s memory of the details was sketchy, but he did recount, "I think, perhaps, the airplane was a little overloaded. The guy he was checking out in the airplane, and this is probably more significant, was most likely a little marginal. Apparently, they lost an engine on a short runway at high elevation in some damn place. Maybe it was New Mexico or Arizona. It was just a scenario of several things, and John had squeaked out of so many different tight spots. He ferried airplanes to England, T-33's back form England, all kinds of stuff. He’d been in a lot of situations and probably thought he could handle this one. I sort of suspect the guy in the left seat made a few wrong moves."
At the time, Sumthin’ Else had suffered damage in a previous wake turbulence encounter. Crocker had taken it apart and trucked it home. After his death, it was sold and rebuilt into a stock airplane.
Crocker’s death and the return of a championship racing Mustang to stock condition brought closure to the John Crocker story. It seemed as if he occupied a space between being a man many people liked and respected, and somebody that could have dominated the unlimited racing scene with the proper attitude and resources. In any event, his passing was mourned by many, and he undoubtedly would have made more significant contributions to the air racing and warbird communities. I wish I had known him.
Story by Scott Germain - WarbirdAeroPress.com. Copyright 2006. All Rights Reserved. Thanks to Gerald Liang and Emil Straser for use of their photos.
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