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Saturday, July 5, 1997 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Exotic Pooper Race Car Is Better, Faster Than Ever

Seattle Times Staff Reporter

The name startles people today, causing some chuckles and bringing to mind a child's word: Pooper.

Forty-two years ago, however, mention of the unusual name, a blending of important international racing heritages of Porsche and Cooper, signified a giant killer in sports racing cars.

The Pooper was a one-year stepping stone to international recognition for Seattle driver Pete Lovely. Today, the exotic looking little racing car is better and faster than ever, driven by a repair shop owner who never before raced. It is the most prized of an impressive collection of cars restored and cherished by Denny Akers.

It still runs on ridiculously skinny treaded tires, 4 1/2 inches wide in front and 5 inches wide in back, in this day of foot-or-more wide racing slicks. Working within rules of the Society of Vintage Racing Enthusiasts (SOVREN), Akers has added 20 miles an hour to the Pooper's top speed.

Akers is confident it will reach 145 miles an hour on the Seattle International Raceway's straightaway during this weekend's Pacifc Northwest Historics fund-raising racing to benefit Children's Hospital and Medical Center.

Not bad for an English-made single seater originally intended only for straightline speed records powered by a 500 cubic centimeter motorcycle engine.

In the early 1950s, John Cooper's small race car shop in England was building an admired reputation for its tiny entrants in Europe's popular open wheel racing for cars with 500 cc motorcycle engines. Seeking glory that would translate into added sales, Cooper sought the class land speed record. One of two cars built for that purpose reached 116.6.33 at Montlery, France. It's unclear which car set the record. Cooper, like counterpart Colin Chapmen of Lotus Cars, went on to fame with Indianapolis 500 and world class two-seater racing cars. One of the little streamliners is now in a museum in Europe. The other nestles in Aker's Seattle shop.

Not long after the record was set, both cars were brought to the U.S. One sold to Lovely, without an engine, in 1954.

After a few modifications to the tubular frame, a street-stock 84 horsepower four-cylinder air-cooled engine from a Porsche 1500S sports car was slipped in behind the driver's seat.

Behind it was mounted a four-speed transaxle (combination transmission and differential) from a VW Beetle. Other modifications were needed to meet rules of the Sports Car Club of America, which sanctioned most races in those days. The biggest problem was the lack of a required seat for an imaginary passenger.

Like the builders of all land-speed record streamliners, which don't carry passengers, Cooper had placed the driver's seat in the middle of the cockpit. Lovely solved the problem with what looks to be a pair of child-size boat cushions, one horizontal and the other vertical, mounted to the driver's left and outside the frame tubes but within the sleek aluminum body. The aluminum was cut to make a totally useless but required door.

Gary Gove, then a teen-age wannabe racer who volunteered for Lovely's crew and later drove the Pooper, remembers, "It was good right out of the box. Everything else in those days was so heavy."

Lovely, however, recalls a testing session at the Shelton Airport, a popular road racing circuit at the time, that revealed a problem. Welds used to link driveshaft joints failed. The car did not have inner fender panels and sucked up a lot of water from the track, dumping it on Lovely. (Solving those problems, however, added some weight to the 890-pound car. Today, it weighs 920 pounds.)

Lovely towed it behind a Beetle to Santa Barbara, Calif., to confront a legend: Ken Miles and his MG special that was the scourge of small-engined classes.

"In practice, I could go out and catch and pass him. Then the engine would just stop after a few laps. Everyone was really wondering about this funny little car," Lovely recalls. "There was dirt in the fuel and we had not put in a fuel filter."

Lovely explains that "we ran enough of the national races that we won the national championship in F Modified" as if it were nothing. The legend was dethroned.

Lovely also ran numerous races against the top, large-engined modified sports car of the day. They had front-mounted monster V8 engines, were fast in a straight line but comparatively slow and clumsy in tight corners.

Many Puget Sound-area fans smile recalling those events. The Pooper was miles an hour quicker through those turns and Lovely devoured the cars that had far faster straightaway speeds.

"When I beat the big cars, their drivers all thought it was funny. But when I beat Miles and the rest of the small cars, they were all mad at me," Lovely remembers.

At Pebble Beach, Calif., in 1956, "The throttle cable broke. I pulled over and got out and looked at it. I had nothing there to fix it and I wanted to get back to the pits. So I got back in and started it and reached back" to the carburetor. "Gosh, it worked so well I went on for 15 laps and finished the race," steering and shifting with his right hand and operating the carburetor throttle with his left.

The Pooper's steering wheel is mounted bus-like, nearly horizontal. "It looks strange but it worked fine, like push or pull. The steering was so quick it didn't take more than a half-turn from center to lock. It was so good I just left it that way."

With engine modifications, Akers has pushed the horsepower to about 150. The transaxle is still the 1955 four-speed, although Akers has strengthened the gear clusters to match the added power. He bought the Pooper in 1987 from Boeing engineer Stan Staffen, 30 years after Lovely sold it.

Asked for the value today of this piece of history, Akers merely shrugs. "It's not for sale and never will be." Looking at other cars in his collection, including an old Rolls Royce, an Auburn V12, two Cords, a Stanley Steamer and a staggering number of various Porsches, he says, "It is my favorite of all of these."

------------ Benefit race ------------

Eight races are scheduled today and tomorrow in this weekend's Pacific Northwest Historics sports car races at Seattle International Raceway. More than 230 pre-1970 race cars are entered. The gates open at 8:30 a.m. each day and practice and qualifying start a half hour later. Tickets are $15 for one day, $20 for two.

Copyright (c) 1997 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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