When I was 13 we lived in Kalama Valley, less than a mile from Sandy Beach on Oahu’s southwest shore. Sometimes late at night the rumble of the surf would put me to sleep, other times it was the sound of two engines screaming down Kalaniana’ole Highway next to Sandy’s. Some ten years later it would be me down there in a little deuce three-window, unofficially marking the last, Sandy Beach drag race.
My deuce was chopped 4″ inches, channeled six over the frame and had no fenders, which gave cops lots of reasons to pull me over.
I ran a 302 small block that came out of a ’69 Z-28 Camaro, dropped in a 350 stroker crank and topped it off with a 750 Holley. An Erson 550 lift, 320 duration cam gave it a raunchy beat at idle but at 8000 rpm the valves banged the 12.5 to 1 Speed Pro pistons so I had the slug’s fly-cut to 0.30. I backed it all up with a Muncie 4-speed hooked to a ’55 Chevy pumpkin stuffed with 4:56 gears.
In spite of my limited hi-performance knowledge however, street racing wasn’t my thing. I never really liked it even as a spectator. My passion was makin’ Model A Fords and `32 coupes into stuff that twinkled. And just hanging out at the old Hawaii Kai Chevron with a shiny street rod parked under the canopy lights couldn’t have thrilled me more. But reminiscent to an old spaghetti western, guys kept coming from around the Island looking for me and a maroon painted deuce to race with. One guy in particular had a lightning fast VW Bug nicknamed the Flea.
By November 1982 I had a pretty good reputation for dragin’ at Sandy’s and decided to try a new go-fast item called nitrous oxide. Back then the kits were pretty pricey for a backyard rodder like me so I opt to borrow one. On Thanksgiving afternoon I scored a setup from Guy Swift, a good friend who had a notorious hot rod reputation. Up until then I had no real clear picture of a nitrous system. All I heard was that if you hooked it up correctly and pressed a button placed somewhere on your shifter you’d go faster. Much faster. And it really scared the hell out of me when I eventually did.
Guy briefly showed me how to operate the NOS and mentioned that it was a cheater kit. That meant no regulator so you had to guess the amount of nitrous to use. It also meant that it was important you had the fuel-to-nitrous ratio exactly right otherwise you’d blow the whole thing up including yourself.
At 8 pm I was at Hawaii Kai Chevron installing the kit and by 10 pm I was finished. I knew during an HPD shift-change there would be no patrols at Sandy’s for at least a half hour – between 10:30 and 11:00. That’s when I’d go for my test run.
I turned onto the highway, leaving the gas station behind, and cruised past Hanauma Bay to the Blow Hole lookout. When I got close enough to see the beach I noticed there were hundreds of folks between both entrances to Sandy’s. Turns out they heard someone from town would be challenging me to a race.
I slowly pulled into the parking lot hoping to see anyone I knew. I hadn’t completely stopped when a local guy walked up to my window and said, “brah, my boy like race you.” I was trying hard to appear cool when I asked “who’s your boy?” Again, he said his boy wanted to race me but this time he pointed up at the highway. It was that fast Volkswagen bug I had been hearing about; the Flea.
I gave him a nod and reached for the NOS bottle. I placed it between my legs and cracked open the valve. At that moment I couldn’t remember what Guy said about blowing up, but from where I was, I could hear the bug loud and clear, Whoop! Whoop! While the crowed shouted “race em! race em!” I drove up to the line, facing in the direction of Waimanalo.
Someone who I hadn’t seen before came up and stood between my coupe, in the right lane, and the Flea in the suicide lane. He held out a lighter, paused and seconds later, flicked it. The bug took off first, that’s when I nailed it. I knew Volkswagen’s were slow out of the hole but this one sure seemed faster.
I wound out first gear then slammed it into second. The Flea was right with me, side by side. I thought now would be a good time for the NOS so I pressed the button while power-shifting into third. That made it possible to pull away but I misjudged the amount of boost the nitrous would give me, and found myself pressing and releasing the button several times. With every blast of nitrous, my coupe became harder to handle. It was fishtailing all over the place but the Flea stayed with me, eye to eye.
Then all hell broke loose. A few hundred feet ahead someone pulled out in front of me from the sixty or so parked cars that lined the highway. All I saw were rapidly approaching taillights. An instant later a passenger car pulled out from Kalama Valley and turned towards the Flea in the left lane. I tried to slow to let the bug get in front of me, avoiding a sure head on collision, but the bug was runnin’ slicks and we were goin’ way too fast. The car went by but it was too late for the Flea. I watched as his slicks broke from the asphalt when he changed lanes. He swerved five or six times before whipping back over to the left, rolled once or twice, and ended right-side-up in a drainage ditch.
In the confusion, people began to scatter. Some were yelling, “Cops!” I slowed, turned my coupe around and rolled up beside the Flea. He was standing next to his mangled bug holding his arm in a blood soaked rag. I asked if he wanted to go to a nearby hospital but he said he had friends on the way and that I should make my coupe disappear because the police were coming.
There were so many cars flying out of Sandy’s that circling back, this time in the direction of my house would be impossible. I had to turn around at Blow Hole. When I reached the lookout I was surrounded by seven cop cars.
I instantly recognized one of them; a sergeant I knew from hanging out at Chevron. He peered through his window and asked if I had been racing, then shook his head and told me to go home. He was letting me go! Sgt. Carlos waved his hand signaling me to go first, while all seven of them followed towards the beach. They knew where I lived, and they knew I had to go back that way to Kalama Valley.
As I slowly rumbled past Sandy’s it looked strangely deserted. All that remained was a windswept salt spray coming from the pounding surf.
No one ever raced again at Sandy’s after that night, at least nothing really worth talking about anyway. But stories of the Flea and a deuce from Hawaii Kai would linger for years.
22 years later I went to a car show at the Blaisdell and while taking pictures, a guy walked up to me and said, “Brah, my friend like meet you.” “Who’s your friend?” I replied with a gentle smile. He said come with me; my friend wants to meet you. It was Joe Yu, the Flea. We talked and took pictures. Today, he’s around 60 or so, runnin’ a charter fishing company out of Kewalo Basin in Honolulu.
I went on to build four more street rods after that Thanksgiving night. Then six years ago I moved to Oregon where I watch the rain fall and now punch out old racing stories for my online magazine, HonoluluStreets.com.