Raoul ‘Sonny’ Balcaen
My Exciting True Life Story in Motor Racing from Top Fuel Drag Racing Pioneer to Jim Hall, Reventlow Scarab, Carroll Shelby and Beyond
by Raoul ‘Sonny’ Balcaen III
Smitten (my word choice, but turns out one that the subject of this book favors in conversation and writing, too) at a very early, single-digit age by all things mechanical set one Raoul Gregorius Francis Sylvanius Balcaen III on what would become one of his several lifelong passions and paying professions.
But it was returning from the movies one night with his mom that lit the automotive fire. As they approached an intersection they were asked to wait a moment because, “We’re were having a bit of a speed contest.” Raoul watched fascinated and “from that moment on I itched to have a racecar of my own, to figure out where I could improve its performance, and to go blow the doors off competitors.”
We’ve no control over who are parents are; it’s luck of the draw. But how a person grows from those beginnings is (mostly) in his or her control. Balcaen (b. 1936) was one of the fortunate ones. He paints a lovely picture of his childhood with parents and grandparents who nurtured his interests and encouraged his curiosity. Though not a particularly stellar student, in adulthood he did return to school eventually earning his bachelor and then masters degrees
Several talents lent their respective skills to this book’s creation starting with its subject. Balcean, at age 86, has sharp and clear memories of people, places, and details that filled his life. His own excellent communication skills enabled him to readily share those memories and experiences with co-writer Jill Amadio.
Amadio is no stranger to creating written words for magazines and books over her own long and accomplished career. She began by requesting Balcaen to create a timeline as the two set about completing a first draft which then was provided to the inimitable other co-writer Pete Lyons (think Shadow: The Magnificent Machines of a Man of Mystery, his latest of more than a dozen books) who, in Amadio’s words, “added his touches of history and interest.”
Balcaen’s book is a lively story chock full of names you’ll recognize for Balcean was in a right place at the right time with the right skills to first build and winningly campaign his own dragster while still in his teens to working for Warren Olsen wrenching on Mercedes, Porsche, and the like. Warren was friends with Lance Reventlow who asked Balcaen to restore his ’36 Bugatti Type 57 that set the stage for Balcaen to also eventually become part of Reventlow’s crew creating the Scarabs, America’s first Formula One car, with a stint in the midst of that as Jim Hall’s crew chief for a time.
Lest it be overlooked, Balcaen is also a licensed pilot with multi-engine rating and shares several “adventures” that led to including one that happened when Carroll Shelby asked Balcaen to go get his (Carroll’s) plane, fly it to LAX and pick up some visiting dignitaries and take them to Riverside Raceway. (Jill Amadio mentions this is perhaps her very favorite vignette in the entire book.)
It was that time in history that men in their early twenties were receiving draft notices and Balcaen was no exception. Being the son of a career Army officer, Balcaen served his required years. Once honorably discharged in 1961 he decided it was time to make some changes in his life. Having dropped out of high school before he’d graduated, he put some of his energy into satisfying his yearning to learn while concurrently trying his hand at developing an intake manifold to improve the stock Corvair’s performance.
Here it should be noted, Balcaen doesn’t mince words regarding his opinion of Ralph Nader. This follows a number of pages on which he describes his experiences with various Corvairs along with the aftermarket items he developed and successfully sold from the company he established. Balcaen writes in two different places about Nader with “I felt Nader’s accusation was spurious, and I came to Corvair’s defense.” Then later, “. . . the damage Ralph Nader did . . . made him out to be a consumer advocate, which I don’t think he deserved . . . from my standpoint as an automotive engineer, I questioned whether knowingly or not he distorted his conclusions.”
Balcaen isn’t just about cars. He also enjoys fine dining and fine wines and there are chapters and pages describing how he acquired those interests and knowledge as well as others regarding his learning more of our world and its cultures through travel. The “being curious” and satisfying as much of that curiosity with learning is very important to Balcaen for, as he writes, “I find that the more you know about something, the more you will enjoy it.”
Once the manuscript was in Evro Publishing’s hands, capable and experienced editor Mark Hughes, who is also a trustee of the Michael Sedgwick Memorial Trust that grants financial assistance to authors “to encourage the publication of new motoring research,” weighed in along with designer Richard Parsons prior to the finished files going to Malta for Gutenberg Press to print. Result: a nearly flawless and very readable and engagingly interesting tome about Raoul ‘Sonny’ Balcaen’s lifetime of remarkable motoring and other experiences and achievements.
Signed copies available from the publisher.
Copyright 2023 Helen V Hutchings, SAH (speedreaders.info)