Herb Lobdell was my favorite…….
Stock car racing in Oklahoma City was very popular back in the middle 1960’s as crowds as large as ten thousand fans would attend the popular races at the State Fairgrounds Speedway. Names such as Wayne Cox, Melvin Rogers, Bobby Reynolds, David Brotherton Jr., Carl Ferguson, Bobby Laden, and Bob Eichor (just to mention a few of over 25 great race car drivers) were on the big half mile track every Friday night from the spring through the end of the summer.
As a youth and teen during this time, more often than not I would be in the historic, and now torn down grandstand, on those hot Friday evenings. Having my father involved as a pit member of one of the youngest, and best drivers in the super-modified classification in the Oklahoma/Kansas/Texas area of the country, Herb Lobdell, I was as personally and emotionally involved in racing as any young person could be. Not only did I live dirt car racing in OKC, I followed NASCAR, watching anything on the tube. The Grand Prix circuit, Formula 1, was also special, with drivers Jim Clark and Graham Hill my personal favorites driving the Nürburgring in Germany or the streets of Monaco.
My Dad, Fred Pahlke Sr. was not only a member of the pit crew of Herbie’s number five race car, he was also a very close friend of the twenty something driver who made a significant mark on racing in Oklahoma City of the time. My Dad also was the man that put the iconic number five on Herb’s race cars, with a trademark arrow that shot out of the number. My Dad, known as a sign painter, was as an expert in painting numbers and letters. Because of my Dad’s expertise, Lobdell always raced a beautiful car, striking and visual from the stands, like the bright orange Shakey’s Pizza Wagon, a 1934 sedan body with a large V-8 racing motor that could take the half mile speedway at over 120 miles an hour. Herb’s car’s large racing tires were not like drag strip tires, but rubber that gave the look of a stock car with speed and traction. I will always remember that the Lobdell cars always had the newest and best on the wheels. Tires were a big deal and I heard many conversations on them through the years between pit crew members. Be it OKC, Tulsa, Hutchinson, KS, or Enid, OK, Herb Lobdell was right up there with the best and was as good as they come during this time period. Just ask Wayne Cox in the 1967 race season.
Stock car racing was very important to Oklahoma City from the days the Friday night show was staged at Taft Stadium on North May. Various drivers of the time showed their skills at the dirt track that circled the grass playing area of the largest and best stadium in the city for the better part of the history of the city. The races moved from Taft Stadium in the early 1960’s and most of the drivers in the 60’s transferred their skills to the outstanding facility at the State Fair Grounds at Northwest 10th and May. The Fair Grounds speedway was just a little over a mile south of Taft. Some might remember the Indianapolis 500 driver from Oklahoma, Lloyd Ruby, started his successful racing career driving the oval at Taft, but didn’t drive at the new venue. The Fair Ground was also used as the racing oval in the movie State Fair staring Pat Boone.
My first remembrances of Herb Lobdell and car racing was when I would be with my Dad on his visits to Herb home in a near OKC neighborhood. I do not know how my Dad met Herb for the first time but I was soon to know that he cared about the future driver that lived close to Northwest 10th and Indiana. My Dad would have been in his early forties and Herb in his early twenties if that. From their friendship, my Dad was always on Herb’s pit crew when he raced in OKC and in Enid. To note, boat racing was my Dad interest in the 1940’s and 1950’s in around Oklahoma and Texas, and he was among the very best. My Pop did not race for a lot of money, but he garnered many trophies during his time. He. was a master woodworker, and he built the speed boats he raced. My Dad’s first notoriety in boat building was when he was just twelve, when his boat (actually an intricate raft), sank in the Belle Isle lake in 1929. A picture of him and his best friend was published in the Oklahoma Times (the evening paper from the Daily Oklahoman). The photo showed the boys laughing for the Oklahoman photographer, standing in a foot of water/mud, with the raft next to them, half way submerged. They were covered with the mud and my Dad’s pearly white teeth stood out from his tanned and dirty face. My Dad had big, straight, teeth that was always noticeable. As of his gene pool, he never had a cavity, and neither did I, or my two sons. The picture noted my Dad’s attempt to float the lake. (I would post the picture but I do not have access to the Oklahoma Times archive (if there is one). Later in life my Dad built boats for his personal pleasure to fish, including his favorite construction, a twenty-two foot fiber glassed cabin cruiser, and as nice a home made boat can be.
As I attended races most Friday nights during racing season, the family always pulled for Herb to win his races. But it was a sport with no animosity toward any other drivers, that I could tell. Good racing, outstanding drivers, fast cars and always competitive. The track at the Fairgrounds for the veteran drivers, a half-mile with two straight-a-ways, was dirt. Being a large track, the best drivers in Oklahoma and Kansas were in OKC on Friday nights. The track in OKC was fast. Accidents were not numerous on that half mile, but the danger was ever present. From my memories, deaths occurred often in stock car racing, and OKC was blessed not to have any (that I can remember).
Herb, from newspaper articles, raced for pleasure, especially when he drove for an owner and not “his” car that he had to build and finance. With that, Lobdell would always be the master mechanic on his machine, as he was the most knowledgeable man in his pits. A savant mechanic from his early teens, Lobdell’s skill with a motor is of legend, as he became the head mechanic for Fretwell’s Motors in Oklahoma City at a young age. Fretwells was the place in OKC where you would buy a Jaguar, or MG, or other foreign cars. Want the newest Jag, you would go to Fretwells. As a man that did not fear speed, Mr. Fretwell would have Herb test drive the new Jags that came off the truck at their location on South Western, close to the Air Park. Mr. Fretwell wanted to make sure that the Jag could perform at high speeds before they were turned over to their new owners. Point in fact, Herb became a test driver. I will not tell you where Herb did his test driving but some of those Jags were considered the fastest production line cars on the market and Herb would put his foot down to see what they could do. In later life Herb was known as the best MG mechanic in the country, and he opened his own specialty MG shop where the now Chesapeake offices are located at Northwest 63rd and Western.
As for racing, the 1967 season was one I remember most. Wayne Cox (best driver in OKC with respect to Harold Leep) was challenged by Herb Lobdell for the racing championship. Not that Herb was going to beat Mr. Cox, as the #141 had pretty much wrapped up the title in the first half of the season, Lobdell’s second half was so successful that the #5 car make it’s way to second in the point standings and gave Herb his first “feature” wins, beating Cox to the finish line on more than one occasion. Point in fact, the 1967 season’s second half was so competitive that any one of six or seven cars were likely to win the night, and the racing in OKC for super-modified cars was as good as any in the country.
As the years passed, I became entrenched in other sports as I entered junior high and as is with most things, interests change. Not that I did not go to the races, other things started to occupy my time. As for Herb Lobdell, already the best foreign car mechanic in Oklahoma City, a bad Saturday night at the Tulsa Speedway was telling. He was pushing his machine to win a race when a rock that had become embedded in the clay track at the Tulsa Speedway came loose and fiipped into his driving cage and cold knocked the driver into a spectacular flip, nine rotations of the car before it finally rested on the track in a heap of bent metal. Herb, from my remembrance, does not have any recollection of the accident. He retired that night from racing.