During a recent visit to SEMA headquarters, Burke LeSage paused in the middle of the hallway. The myriad of past Hall of Fame portraits that hang on the wall had stopped him in his tracks. "This is truly amazing," he said in a voice that was barely audible, as if spoken only for himself to hear.
"Yep. There's Wally [Parks]. I think I first met Wally when I was 14 years old." He went on to tell the story of how he first met Parks at a friend's house which also served as the SCTA office. On that day, even though he was just a kid packing the wheel bearings on a race trailer, Parks treated him with a level of respect and dignity not often experienced by a youngster. "I've always had a great deal of respect for Wally and his ability to relate with people," LeSage said.
Phil Weiand, Sandy Belond and John Bartlett-LeSage had a story for just about every one of the nearly 100 drawings that populate the walls. The fact that LeSage was about to be welcomed into the same illustrious club that includes so many of his friends and heroes visibly moved him.
Anyone who knows LeSage or is familiar with his role in the industry wouldn't be surprised by the level of emotion his return to SEMA elicited. LeSage has a vested interest and a unique vantage point from which to judge the association's growth and success. LeSage was the first paid employee of SEMA.
LeSage said that he went to work for SEMA around 1965 as the Assistant to the President. He worked with Els Lohn, Willie Garner and Roy Richter and continued with the association until the mid-'70s, when he decided to move on within the industry.
LeSage grew up in East Los Angeles. One street over from his childhood home was a man who had a race car in his backyard. One day on his way home from school, LeSage stopped in to talk about the car. The neighbor, Jim Lindsley, asked if LeSage would like to go to the Dry Lakes with him to run his Lakester.
According to LeSage, the Southern California Timing Association broadened its classes to include coupes and sedans in 1951. Lindsley asked if LeSage would be interested in putting the engine from his Lakester into the '34 coupe that had belonged to LeSage's brother.
"So we went up to the first Lakes meet that year, and since it was a brand new class, we were in today's terms 'cherry picking' the class," LeSage said. "It didn't have any established records, so we set records for three or four meets in a row and got enough points to end up being the season's number one."
LeSage was 15 years old at the time. He received his California driver's license in July of 1951 and, at the last Lakes meet of the year in September, Lindsley asked LeSage if he wanted to drive the coupe. "I said, 'sure' and took off, and on my first pass I ran 107 mph," he said. "And that was just 90 days after I had received my driver's license."
LeSage was asked to drive what he refers to as "a machine with an ill-handling manner" at the September Lakes meet in 1954. The machine ended up going over. "It went seriously over," LeSage said. "In those days, these were stock-bodied machines, and they didn't require roll bars. I had an old cotton war-surplus seatbelt, and it disintegrated my first time over and I was thrown from the car. They estimated I was running somewhere around 130 mph."
LeSage was in a coma for 10 days. Despite what he refers to as "the accident that has affected my memory a bit," he was back at the races a month later. His passion for racing remained for more than 35 years and resulted in an unrivaled series of accomplishments, including securing a place in the prestigious Grant 200 MPH Club in 1963.
"In 1988 I was running down the Salt Flats at 185 mph and I thought to myself, 'this isn't fun anymore,'" LeSage said. "It wasn't that the ride was scary; it had just lost its luster. When I got out of the car, instead of folding up my fire suit like I usually did, I just rolled it up and threw it in the support car. I was done."
LeSage found his way to Santa Barbara, where he spent some time as a bookstore owner. He currently resides in Twenty-Nine Palms, California, where he says his good health has allowed him to be of service to some of those around him. As the need arises, he drives a local minister who is losing his eyesight to various functions. As LeSage noted, he started his wonderful adventure driving, and it's only fitting that the latest chapter continues that tradition.