Bonnie Henry: His life's anything but a drag

2010-05-31T00:00:00Z Bonnie Henry: His life's anything but a dragBonnie Henry Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
May 31, 2010 12:00 am  • 

It began with a doodle, drawn by a teenager who was just crazy about cars.

Then again, what teenager wasn't back in the mid-'50s? Only this teenager varoomed from doodle to model to sports car to career.

"I've built or rebuilt 500 cars, probably about 10 from the ground up," says Frank Townsend, longtime owner of Frank's Automotive and Racing Works on West Grant Road.

The first of those 10 was dubbed the Townsend Typhoon. Four more of that ilk would follow. "I could not afford a Ferrari or a Maserati, so I had to build it," says Townsend.

"We put a fiberglass mold over the undercarriage of an old Plymouth I found in a junkyard. Under the hood we put in an Olds V-8 engine we found in a wrecking yard. I went through the engine, put in multiple carburetors and a camshaft. I had to get the sound right. Gotta sound good."

By December of his senior year, he was driving that first Typhoon to Tucson High School. And beyond.

"I'd run it over 100 miles per hour at the drags," says Townsend, who has torn up the track everywhere from Marana to Monterey, Calif.

Never mind that his first Typhoon was built as a street car. Not so the second. "I built it to race," says Townsend, who painted it purple.

Known as the Purple People Eater, it's the only one of Townsend's Typhoons to still exist - to anyone's knowledge. Spotted in a field of rust buckets back in 1999, that car has been restored to racing form. (See accompanying story.)

A native Tucsonan - he won't give his age, but he graduated from high school in 1956, so you do the math - Townsend worked as a kid in the family business: Townsend's Hobby Shop.

Still shy of 13, he had earned enough money to buy his first car, a 1932 Ford coupe. Cost: $175. Running? You gotta be kidding.

"I worked the paint, the body, built the engine," says Townsend. By the time he turned 16, the coupe was ready for high school - and the race track.

"I raced it at the Marana drag strip. It could get up to 95 mph in the quarter mile," says Townsend, who wore a white carpenter's uniform treated with boric acid as a fire retardant.

Before long, he was doodling his way toward that first Typhoon. "I built a balsa wood model and then a full-sized model out of Masonite, plywood and dental plaster," says Townsend, who set up shop in the backyard of his folks' hobby shop.

Helping him were Larry Randall, brother Robert Townsend and the late Jack Voevodsky - all also known for launching large rockets into the air.

"My brother went on to work on the Apollo project," says Jack's brother, Peter Voevodsky, who along with Jack would drive some of Townsend's cars.

"They financed me, so I had to let them drive," says Townsend.

Peter Voevodsky says at least one of Townsend's race cars "made up for its lack of handling by sheer brute horsepower."

Townsend also got into the driver's seat of his Typhoons and stock cars as many as 35 times a year, laying down rubber in California, New Mexico and Texas. He even raced at Tucson International Airport. "We did it on the taxiways when they were not busy," he says.

Injuries? "Nothing where I had to go to the hospital," he says, recalling the time he took the wall at Manzanita Speedway in Phoenix, flipping his '65 GTO a couple of times. "We went to work that Sunday on it and ran it in a race the next Saturday night."

Bills were paid with a succession of shops he opened around town, the last at 244 W. Grant Road.

Today, the shop is crammed with about a dozen cars, ranging from a pristine black 1934 Ford with orange pinstriping to dusty hulks of various vintage. "Some people say it's awful to keep all these old cars," says Townsend, who no longer races. "But it's a hobby - one I made a little money at. It's my life."

Bonnie Henry's column appears Sundays and Mondays. Reach her at 573-4179 or at bhenry@azstarnet.com, or write to 4850 S. Park Ave., Tucson, AZ 85714.

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Activate

Follow the Arizona Daily Star

Featured businesses

View more...

Deals, offers & events

View more...

We Cut Countertops

We cut countertops purchased off the rack at Home Depot or Lo…

Get weekly ads via e-mail