Tony Capanna (from Richard Parks)
Tony's family had immigrated to the United States from the Abruzzo area in central Italy. Tony’s mother was already pregnant with him when she and her husband left Naples, Italy in December of 1920 and she became very ill during the voyage to America. His parents were so poor that his father had to lend his wife a coat during the extremely cold weather, leaving the husband with nothing to wear but his shirt and pants throughout the rest of the trip. The family arrived in Canada on January 2, 1921. The family later moved in with relatives in Rome, New York state and Tony was born on June 14, 1921 in Utica, New York. The family was not finished moving around and they left for California in 1924. Vic Meleo told me that Tony and his family moved to Los Angeles from the east coast in the 1920s' and lived with Vic and his family for a short time while they got started. Tony's father died of heart problems when Tony was still a young man with a small family of his own.
Tony attended Jacob Riis High School on 68th Street, in East Los Angeles and referred to as Boyle Heights. It was an area that attracted immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe with concentrations of Russians, Jews, Italians and other minorities. While he was attending high school he met the Lewis brothers; Lowell and Kenny and joined the Albata car club in 1937. The club had been formed in 1936 to race on the dry lakes of Southern California’s Mojave Desert. The name of the club had been taken from the old silent movie Ben Hur. The extravagance of the chariot races and the huge cost to make the movie in made a huge impact on young people of that era. The red chariots were named Russetta, after the Latin word for red, while the white chariots were named Albata after the Latin, according to Capanna. Tony’s first trip to the dry lakes at Muroc was in 1937 when Muroc Timing Association (MTA) was in charge of the desert land speed attempts, led by George Wight and George Riley. It was love at first sight and like many young men; it began his taste for speed.
Jack Peters, the editor of Throttle magazine writes the following about Capanna at a July 14, 1940 meet of the Western Timing Association (WTA). “About the middle of the morning, Tony Capanna, driving J. G. “Jim” Harrell’s Hudson Eight modified, whizzed through at 122.28 m.p.h., and was also asked to make a return run. Coming back through, Tony clipped off the quarter-mile at approximately 120.68 to set the now standing modified record of 121.46.” Many dry lakes racers would run in different timing associations in order to multiply the number of record attempts they could achieve. In the March 1941 issue of Throttle magazine Babe Ouse wrote, “Tony Capanna is coming along nicely with his 16-cylinder rear-engined speedster. He hopes to be buzzing through those traps again this summer in it.”
In the book, Harrell Engines & Racing Equipment; Jim (White) Harrell & Nick Harrell, by Roger H. Harrell, there are many references to Tony. As a young boy of around 13, Tony hung around the Harrell shop and was influenced by the older man, who was eighteen years his senior. Both Harrell and Capanna had similar character traits; honesty, a healthy skepticism and an inability to promote themselves. They let their talents do the talking for them. Harrell was a member of the new Albata car club, which formed in 1937; Tony joined as well, around 1939. The members of the Albatas formed a who’s who of early land speed racing and included; Lowell Lewis, Charles ‘Chuck’ Spurgin, Bob Giovanine, Bob Noble, Jim Harrell, Babe Ouse, Bob Rufi, Ralph Schenck, Mark Cummings, Johnny Walker, Al Baird, Josh Lehmann, Karl and Veda Orr, Tony Capanna, Bob Knapton, Bob Bebek, Paul Harestead, Bill Schwartzrock, Johnny Thomas, Nick DeFabrity, Matsuo Euchi, Essau Chung and many more. Capanna, Lewis, Noble and Knapton either crewed on Harrell’s cars or drove them. Tony spent a considerable amount of time at Harrell’s shop and this laid the basis for his later mechanical career. One project that Tony helped Harrell on was the conversion of a 1930 Stutz Indy racer that Harrell was adapting to run at the dry lakes.
Tony was also close friends with Bill Burke, who was an official in the Western Timing Association back then. Burke, Don Francisco and Wally Parks would form a team that raced post-war belly tanks. Bob Noble, a friend in the Albata car club owned a Fronty with a Hudson engine in it. After Tony graduated from high school in 1939 he went to work for Raymond Ingram as a mechanic. Tony also worked for Empire Chair Company. This was during the Great Depression and a job was vital, not only for an individual, but for a family as well and Tony made his contributions too. He went back to Banning High School to take an advanced welding class and then he was hired in at Kaiser Shipbuilding. Tony took a job at the Naval Station at Pearl Harbor where he worked for a period of 27 months. and was a witness to the destruction there.
"Although my dad witnessed the aftermath of the Pearl Harbor bombing, he was not in Hawaii when it actually happened. He went over to Hawaii about 3 or 4 months later, March or April. My Dad also told me that there was a shortage of cameras in Hawaii, when he would come back to LA, he would buy suitcases full of cameras and take them to Hawaii and sell them. He told me he used the camera money to buy my Mom's engagement and wedding ring," Rita Capanna Ford told me.
He continued to work at the station until 1944, when he was reassigned to the Naval Shipyard in Long Beach, California. As a civilian welder and machinist, he was too important to induct into the service as the need for welders was acute during the war and he was exempted from active duty.
After the war he worked at Powell Motor Scooter Company welding the scooters together. He also assembled and tested the engines. Tony also streamlined one of the scooters, which was shown in an article of the January, 1951 issue of Cycle magazine. With his earnings from the shipyards, Tony purchased used machine tools, including a Kerrny-Trecker Horizontal mill and up a shop next to Powell. Tony married Ora Carter and gave driving race cars after his first child was born in 1946 because he did not want a catastrophic accident to leave his wife and family with any means of support.
His experience and his contacts led to a lot of business from fellow hot rodders. Tom Kelly added the following information; "Tony was using the dynamometer several years before he started researching oxygen bearing fuel. Tony installed the dyno at his first facility at 10215 South San Pedro Street in South Central Los Angeles, one block east of Howard's Cams. Red Wilson and Knudsen were in the equipment business before Red joined Tony Capanna at Wilcap. The original company name that Tony named the company was called Garcap, from the first three letters of Garner and the first three letters of Capanna. Tony planned on Walter (Willie) Garner as a partner, but Willie decided to stay at Powell Manufacturing Company; the maker of motor scooters. Then Red Wilson became Tony's partner resulting in a name change to Wilcap. Garner did come to work for Wilcap for several years at the San Pedro Street location. Willie and his wife Elaine were very good friends of the Capanna family. Will Garner later started Transdapt."
At the end of the year an incident would occur that would make Capanna a well-known figure in racing lore. He and Randy Shinn had been locked in a duel for the points championship in the SCTA. Randy was a Road Runner and a respected individual in land speed racing. At each meet the two would set records and score points and the rivalry and racing was fierce. Capanna was in first place, Shinn was second and Don Blair was in third place. Just before the last meet of the year, Shinn was severely injured in a car accident in Los Angeles that left a huge scar down his face and almost costing him his eyesight. Randy was unable to race in that November meet and he was behind Capanna by only a few points. All Tony had to do was get in his car and make a run, any run, and the championship was his. But Tony Capanna was a man of honor, taught by his father to earn what he got, not back into a championship over the injuries of his opponent. Even though the Albatas and the Road Runners were competitors and rivals, Capanna asked another club member to get in his car and make the run so that the Albata car club could get the club points. Tony and Shinn therefore scored no points at that meet and Randy won the individual points championship with Capanna falling to third place, behind Blair. Opportunities like this were rare and no one knew if Capanna would ever have the chance to win the top trophy again, but he willingly gave it up on principle. The SCTA had created a sportsmanship award named in the honor of Art Tilton, who had been the founding secretary of the SCTA and had died in the military while training a young recruit to be a fighter pilot. At the banquet the president of the SCTA, Wally Parks, beamed as he awarded the first Sportsmanship trophy to Tony as the crowd roared their approval. There is a photograph of Tony’s daughter Antoinette standing next to the trophy, which was bigger than she was.
I am sure that I met Tony Capanna when I was a youngster back in the late 1940's, for my father and Tony were good friends and we often visited his shop. Tony worked on the Plymouth Savoy, nicknamed SUDDENLY, that was sponsored by Hot Rod magazine for the famous stock car land speed record runs at Daytona Beach in 1957. This was the car that my father drove on the sands at Daytona to set a record for the stock car class at 160 miles per hour. The next day the newspaper blared out; “West Coast Hot Rodders best Detroit’s finest stock cars.”
Tony Capanna was an outgoing, friendly man with an infectious personality and he could be very charismatic. He was a man who lived life to the fullest, which was part of his Italian heritage. He could also rub people the wrong way with an equal enthusiasm. At the Southern California Timing Association (SCTA) Board meetings, he would rise up out of his chair and point his finger at the treasurer or president and exclaim, "Bozzie, WHERE'S the MONEY." It used to drive Ak Miller crazy wondering when Tony would challenge Bozzie, who was the sweetest, most unassuming man in the SCTA. That's just the way these early land speed racers were back then; full of spunk and vinegar. It also could have been a club thing as Ak was a Road Runner, Bozzie Willis was from the San Diego Roadster Club and Tony was a member of the Albata and these clubs were always fierce competitors. Bozzie was a close friend of my father, Wally Parks, and of Ak's. Bozzie was constantly doing things for the SCTA and volunteering. Without men like Bozzie the SCTA would never have been as successful as it was. Tony liked Bozzie, but kidding their friends was a character trait that all the men and women of the Great Depression and World War II possessed. No one wanted to be seen as inferior or superior to anyone else.
Tony was very close to Babe Ouse and let Babe drive his Marmon at the dry lakes. With Tony as the mechanic and Ouse as the driver the Marmon recorded a very good time of 132.82 mph and then at the next meet in 1946 set the fastest time at the dry lakes with an unheard of 145.39 mph in the unlimited class. In 1947 Tony was elected president of the Albata club and placed the number 3 on his Marmon racer. He met Red Wilson and together the two men formed Wilcap, the name being the first three letters of their surnames. In 1955 he tried to qualify a car at the Indianapolis 500 with a Dodge engine, but failed to make the field of 33. The car’s performance was worrying the competition, but in order to qualify the team was using nitro. The lower end could not take it and the crank was pushed down, seizing the engine and the car crashed. In 1957 he teamed up with Wally Parks, Ray Brock and Hot Rod Magazine to build the engine for a Plymouth Savoy, called SUDDENLY, which set the stock car world speed record at Daytona Beach, Florida. The car was driven to a speed of 160 mph by Hot Rod’s editor, Wally Parks. Ray Brock later drove the car to a new record of 166 mph at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah. In 1958 Tony tried to qualify another car for the Indy 500 using a DeSoto engine, but it also failed to make the field for the race. He would later remark to others that it was too costly a proposition to do that kind of racing.
"Another story that my dad told me was about the Summers Brothers land speed record breaking car called the Goldenrod. The Summers Brothers asked Tony if he knew how they could get more speed out of their car. Dad told them that if they reconfigured the 4 engines, instead of having them in 2 rows with 2 engines side by side, they should set all four in one line and streamline the body of the car. He suggested they go to Northrop and hire an engineer to design an aerodynamic body. The brothers did and found success on November 12, 1965, when Goldenrod set the wheel-driven record, a class introduced due to the controversy over Spirit of America at 409.277 mph (658.64 km/h) over the flying mile.' My father made many contributions to the racing and automotive industry, but as much as he loved it, he came to love his family and his church more," said his daughter, Rita Ford.
“He and my mom grew more and more in love as they aged. He was so giving and loving toward her before she died in 1997. Even in the beginning, mom was generally supportive of his interest in cars and automobile racing. But she did say to me, ‘When you were a little child, you had NO SHOES, but your Dad had FOUR NEW SETS OF RACING TIRES FOR HIS RACECAR!’ I always smile when I think of what my mother said about the shoes and the tires,” Antoinette beamed.
1958 he bought some acreage in Torrance and opened Hot Rod City, and this marked the end of his racing career as he began to concentrate on his businesses. In addition to Wilcap, Hot Rod City became the location for such companies as Chet Herbert Cams, 10,000 RPM and George Austin’s boring bar company. At Wilcap you could pull in and get nitromethane or alcohol by the gallon or the barrel. By 1964 there was about 15,000 sq. ft of industrial rentals on the property filled with various types of auto shops. The Wilcap Company catalog had 14 pages of flywheels, adapters, engine hardware and Hot Rod City Racing Fuel in the 1967 issue.
“My dad actually did eventually fulfill his dream of serving in the U.S. Armed Forces. In May of 1966, he joined the Navy Reserves. When he went to get his uniform, the woman who was supposed to sew on his insignias told him there must be some mistake. She had never seen a brand-new Navy man who was also a Chief Petty Officer with no stripes (or slashes). But Dad was a Chief Petty Officer from the very beginning, and he taught welding and machine shop-type skills to his associates. I believe this was on Terminal Island in the Los Angeles Harbor, not far from where he had worked in the shipyards in the 1940’s,” Antoinette explained.
By then Tony and Ora had five children of their own and adopted one more for a total of six. Tony had wisely invested in various pieces of Southern California real estate. His racing and hot rodding days were long past, but he never lost interest in engines. In the late sixties Tony began looking at fuel economy. Like most things he did, he studied extensively and came to the conclusion that the answer lay in the diesel engine. By 1974 he was busy doing diesel engine swaps from Nissan into Dodge Darts, Chevy Vegas and Ford Pintos. He also did swaps into trucks and boats. “I used to drive my children around town in a Ford Pinto that got 85 miles to a gallon of diesel fuel. The Dodge was fitted with a larger fuel tank in the trunk and could drive all the way to Salt Lake City, from Torrance, California, and back again on one tank of diesel fuel,” Antoinette Capanna Purdon told us.
In 1974 Wilcap entered the "Reduced Emissions Rallye" with a Dodge Dart powered by a Nissan Diesel and sponsored another entry, a Pinto with a diesel, by the Southern California Regional Occupational Center. The other entries were from such places as Cal Tech, General Motors Institute, UC Davis, Cal Poly and Northrop Institute. The overall winner was the UCLA hydrogen powered car, followed by the Wilcap diesel. The weight of emissions in the judging was heavy and so it was biased towards the hydrogen car, but in the Performance and Fuel Economy testing the Wilcap car and the Wilcap sponsored car beat the nearest competitor by more than 15%.
“During each fuel economy race, of which there were more than this one mentioned, plenty of dirty tricks were played by ‘the competition’ on the Wilcap entries, including pouring sugar or sand into the Wilcap car’s fuel tank during the night” Antoinette added. “Mr Yutaka Hiashi of Nissan Diesel came from Japan to visit dad and he was so impressed with what he saw, that when members of dad’s family ultimately went to Japan on a visit, he personally served them dinner in his home and showed them photos of my father, Wilcap, and many vehicles in which Tony had done diesel conversions,” she explained.
In the early 1980's Tony began work on the building that currently houses Wilcap in rural Arroyo Grande. He and his sons, Lloyd and Mike, would drive the three to four hours on Thursday or Friday night and work all weekend then head back to Los Angeles late Sunday or early Monday. Finally Hot Rod City was sold to the Torrance YMCA and was torn down.
In the mid 1980's Tony moved to the Arroyo Grande area. Although he was still producing the Wilcap product line, more and more he needed help in keeping up. In 1994 his son Lloyd began helping. By 1998 Lloyd was working at Wilcap full time and they purchased the Sharp brand from Al Sharp and began producing the famous Sharp heads and manifolds for the Ford flathead.
Tony, age 79, began a new project. He had transplanted a 4-cylinder diesel into a Suzuki Swift body with the idea of maximizing fuel economy. In the end, the car achieved 101 mpg and was drivable!
When he was the very first inductee into the Dry Lakes Racing Hall of Fame he was so shocked he was moved to tears. Though he may have been a hard worker and had many projects and interests, his family always came first. “In fact, he had planned a 50th year anniversary party and family reunion for his whole family before he got the invitation and notice of the intended special recognition as an inductee. They were the same day! And he never let his family know about it until after their festivities were done,” added Antoinette. Of all of his accomplishments and achievements, I think he was proudest, and deservedly so, of his family.
2001 was a tragic year for the Capanna family. In early September, Lloyd died suddenly. Everybody in the family was devastated. Tony, who had been battling cancer, was heartbroken. On September 20, 2001, he passed away, his faith in God and the love for his family was never shaken despite all of his ordeals.
Red (Guy Curtis) Wilson
Very little is written down about Red but those that knew him still have vivid memories of him 40 years after his death. He was a character that loved living. He a had a great sense of humor. He had his hand in many of the early speed equipment companies; After leaving Wil-Cap he married Ruthelyne Smith and helped her run Clay Smith Cams after Clay was killed in a pit lane accident, started KW Products with Lyle Knudsen, and helped Willy Garner get Trans-Dapt started.
His lifes' ambition was to be the US American Power Boat Champion, which he did three years in a row. In the early 60's he was diagnosed with skin cancer. Mike Kelly, who worked for Wil-Cap in the late fifties, tells the story this way;
"Red was told by three doctors that he would probably not live more than six months. The doctors told him the cancer was in advanced stage. When the three doctors gave him their prognostication Red stood up, took a cigar out of his shirt pocket ,lit it, blew smoke in the faces of the doctors and said: @*%* you guys; I ain't dying until I get ready to . Such was the outlook of Red Wilson with regard to most everything."
He was critically injured while racing his E Class boat at Parker Arizona in November of 1961 and died in February of 1962. He left 9 children and step children. Sharon Stender added the following about Wilson. "We had an 'I raced for Red' benefit race at the Long Beach Marine Stadium on December 23, 1962. I still have my small plaque that all the racers received. The crowd was huge and over $10,000 was raised to cover his hospital bills. Unfortunately Red never came out of his coma. His funeral was the largest I have ever seen, there were well over 100 cars in the procession."
If he had lived longer, there is no doubt he would become one of the well known legends. As it is he is a legend to those who knew him.
Innovator, businessman, WWII Vet,, machinist, pattern maker, a guy who loved to make things that make you go faster. Like many other pioneers he had his hand in a lot of different things.
He moved to Southern California from Oklahoma with his family in the 30's. They settled in the Los Angeles area and Al started working in shops and garages. He was apprenticed as a pattern makers helper when the war broke out. He joined the Navy and went to the South Pacific as a Foundrymans Assistant. He already had more experience and knew more than the men that he was under.
The best WWII story Al told me was about when he was on Guam and a destroyer hit a reef and broke off one blade on its' propeller. At that time they were cast in bronze and this one was about 12'' in diameter. The plan was to build a pattern and cast a new prop. All of that would have taken several days. Al convinced the skeptical officers that he could repair the prop and they let him try. He molded a box around the break, jigged the prop up at an angle, and poured the bronze. The key was to figure out the gating and runners and how to cool it after the pour. When the mold was taken off the Al's CO didn't believe that the repair would hold. Al bet him a weeks pay that he couldn't break it and pretty soon he was swinging an sledge hammer as hard as he could on the end of the blade. When the first guy wore himself out swinging at it a second one took a turn. Despite their best efforts, the repair held and Al won the bet.
Al got out of the Navy in 1945 and went to back to work as a pattern maker in L.A. where he ran into Gordon Pilkington and they decided to start a shop together, SP Products. They did a lot of work for different companies around L.A., including some of the early speed equipment makers. Soon a lot of the racers were coming directly to Al to design parts for their particular cars. Rathman, Chrisman, and others had Al build custom parts for their cars. A lot of these parts became the foundation for the Sharp Speed and Power Equipment parts.
1963 introduction of Aluminum Hemi Heads
Aside from the flathead equipment, he built parts for just about every motor that came down the strip. His manifolds and valve covers graced the mills of the famous Hurst Hairy Olds twin engine car and he helped Craig Breedlove with the Spirit of America record setting run. He and Gene Mooneyham built and sold some of the first aluminum heads for the Chrysler Hemi. He had a reputation for being willing and able to do just about any part quickly. He was a good pattern maker and designer and could spot the best solution to a problem quickly and would stick to a problem until it was solved. Most of all Al liked the problem solving. One of the stories he told me was about the Chrisman Coupe. Art and Lloyd and Al were at Bonneville with the flatmotor in the car and it would swap steering over 100 mph. Al went to town and got a couple of washing machine tops and bolted them to the front wheels and fixed the problem. Today the car in the museum has a couple of nice spun aluminum wheel covers on it. Another one was the safety hub for the early Ford axles. After an accident at the track where a wheel came off and went into the stands, Al decided that something had to be done and he built the hub. Now it's likely some one else would eventually have come up with the idea or some other fix, but Al went out and did it right away. There is no way of knowing how many lives that one little invention saved. Even though Al could be blunt, stubborn and was known to hold a grudge, he liked to have fun. Hot rods and making stuff were fun for Al. He was just finishing a 51 Ford truck for his daughter and had done some more work on the SP carb top pattern. Last year he was at the Hot Rod Reunion and had a blast. Al passed away on September 16, 2004 after a brief stay in the hospital.
The purchase of the Wilcap Company and all of the associated trade and brand names was completed in November of 2002.
In 2013 the Sharp brand was sold to H&H Flatheads to allow us to focus on the adapter business.
We are committed to continuing the tradition that the Wilcap company has for producing excellent and innovative products. We will never let the memory of the men who began this endeavor fade and we will make every attempt to live up to the standards they set.
806H S. Division St. Waunakee, WI 53597
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