Book Review: Raoul 'Sonny' Balcaen
Who Is This Guy?
The autobiography of a young high school dropout, fascinated by the call of street racing in his mother’s car.
By Don Taylor & Doug Stokes
Fri, Mar 3, 2023 08:25 AM PST
Images courtesy the publisher.
You might ask, “Who is this guy?”. I had heard of Raoul ‘Sonny’ Balcaen, which is also the title of this new book by Evro Publishing, but wasn’t even sure myself. It was the great photos from the 1950’s of the Reventlow Scarabs on this one’s dust cover that made me grab the book when it came out.
...Lo and behold, its the autobiography of a young high school dropout, fascinated by the call of street racing in his mother’s car, followed by building his own winning dragster, who then goes on to work for RAI (Reventlow Automobiles Inc.) building the legendary metallic blue and white Scarab sports-racers, that were designed and constructed in Culver City, CA.
The pinnacle for Balcaen being to work alongside the likes of Ken Miles, Phil Remington, Chuck Daigh, Warren Olson, Dick Troutman, Jim Travers, and Lance Reventlow himself, as well as rising to the level of crew chief for the number 3 car of Bruce Kessler. What a tale!
Whoa … No, Wait... that’s not the end; that’s just part of this story.
Much of his book is about those people, the heroes, icons and characters that he worked with and for, in what for him were the golden years of racing – the late ‘50’s – early ‘60’s… Beside those mentioned above they include racing legends Jim Hall, Carroll Shelby and Pete Brock, his memories of each given their own chapter.
...But getting back to his own life, this book is also about Sonny Balcaen’s drive and success as an entrepreneur, what he did after the Scarabs, and preparing Jim Hall’s Chaparrals, and his time at Shelby’s storied Cobra works.
Remember a company called IECO? The mail order catalog company originally featuring hop-up parts for the Chevy Corvair? ...That was Sonny’s own first company, applying the parts-marketing lessons he gathered working with Shelby’s accessory division and Pete Brock’s BRE. It was quite successful.
Along the way, he did finish his formal education, with a BS and MBA from UCLA no less. Balcaen’s inherit ability with numbers led him to a bit speculation in the market, and applying his marketing and financial skills to help build a couple of other companies.
Those successes enabled him to pursue an interest in gastronomy and viticulture. Reading the book late into the night, I’m seeing the words: “From the growing and harvesting of the grapes, the various critically important soils climates in which they grow, the selection, crushing and pressing, and on through fermentation and aging and bottling…” Huh? I had to stop and check that I was holding the same book that has the iconic Scarab race car, surrounded by hot-rod era mechanics on both the front and back covers. OK … Yup, it is.
A Transition: Cap Screws to Corkscrews
Further along the book takes a bit of a turn because by then Sonny had graduated from the “wine and cheese circuit” of sports car racing to the real wine and cheese circuit of international wine judging, investing in rare vintages, and developing an intimate knowledge of ‘The Grape’ which he did as a member of the Society of Oneologists. Being a member of such wine aficionado groups led to many great experiences for ‘Sonny’ far from racing.
Never forgetting where he began and seeing the opportunity to give back to the sport he fell in love with, Balcaen was instrumental in helping raise funds for creating something in LA’s backyard that didn’t exist before 1994, the Petersen Automotive Museum. He has also served on the board of the Motorsport Hall of Fame of America in Daytona Beach, and contributes his talents as an Associate in the Road Racing Drivers Club (RRDC).
As the overarching driver of his success, Sonny Balcaen gives credit to his early days in racing for fueling his passion for all that he has done in life:
“…everything I have achieved has been inspired, shaped and guided by the boyish excitement I felt that night so long ago when my mother inadvertently introduced me to hot rod street racing….Everything I did from then on, all the lessons I learned, all the success I earned, all the wisdom I may now be able to offer, I owe it all to the loud, colorful, intensely demanding sport of speed.”
And that may well be the case for many of us drawn to the sport from boyhood and awakening our passions, all starting with what’s shown on the cover, the Scarab, an American success story. I know that applies to at least two of us, me and my editor, Doug Stokes, who has added his own comments below.
Balcaen’s is a great narrative, told in this very well done book, complete with short, can’t-put-it-down chapters, and some great rarely-seen photos.
Raoul ‘Sonny’ Balcaen is still active today in his 80’s, living in the LA area, enjoying the life he earned, and quite happily for us, sharing his inspiring story of just how far passion can take one.
Sidebar By Doug Stokes
We hung out, but not together...
I was a young lad in 1958 (still a year away from high school graduation), but already a full-fledged car nut (with special emphasis on sports cars and sports car racing). I drove a 1953 Volkswagen Beetle with an 1131cc engine, oil bath air filter, fabric sunroof, flipper turn signals, the top of the back deck (hood) levered out to scoop air, no hubcaps (all the better cool the tiny brake drums), and no back seat, and thought that it was a damn Porsche.
I read about and knew far more about European style road racing than American paved ovals.
A year before (before I could drive), I had talked my stepfather, good sport Milt Bramstedt, into driving all the way out to Riverside (from our family home in Covina) to see the site of a brand-new racing facility that was a-building there that was grandly marked on the sign: “Riverside International Raceway”.
Many years later Jerry Titus signed my SCCA Regional license off at Riverside and I raced my (by then very out-of-date) Lotus 18 there. In early October of 1982, ended up being one of the very last persons to cut laps there before the place lost to the earth movers and urban sprawl in 1984.
Of course I witnessed the Scarabs race at RIR … perfect in their stunning metallic blue paint and pawing at the air in their trademark nose-high, full throttle attitude. They were just magical.
Back in 1957 I had made a number of trips (in that little VW) all the way out to Culver City near LAX (where I had heard that the Scarabs were being born) and watched from a respectful distance as the now iconic machines were crafted by the some of the best in the business.
In that case watching how magic was accomplished was not any kind of a letdown, the team that Lance Reventlow had assembled was an all-star one that was filled to the gunnels with true world-class design, mechanical, and operational talent and that included a very young hot-rodder with a rather regal-sounding name that everyone just called “Sonny”.
A few years later, I went to an engineering lecture/presentation at Cal Tech about the ill-fated Formula 1 Scarab by its young designer Marshall Whitfield.
My fellow racing zealots and I thought that it was very good news (at the time) that RAI (Reventlow Automobiles Inc. for it’s silver spoon founder Lance Reventlow, the heir to the Woolworth fortune, though his mother, Barbara Hutton) was going to challenge the best in the world on their own turf. (See the book for word on how that adventure turned out).
I don’t think I ever actually formally met Sonny Balcaen, but we surely breathed the same air at many West Coast sports car races as well as places like the Petersen Automotive Museum, that I had toured as a Motor Press Guild member when it as still a ghostly out-of-business department store, and that Balcaen had been very heavily involved in, helping Robert Petersen to get that amazing dream turned into steel and stone.
I was not until many years later that I met and became friends with one of the key players in the Scarab saga, Bruce Kessler. In his book Balcaen tells the story of how a young Kessler and Reventlow had visited a “well-known manufacturer” of high-powered sports racing cars in England looking to possibly buy a one (or maybe two) of them to race in America.
There was an awkward moment of disappointment in the deal, and the boys flew home sans race car(s) with Reventlow vowing (and Kessler wholeheartedly agreeing) to just build their own (damn) cars here. (SPOILER ALERT:) They did.
...Still a fan, and still (at least in my mind if not in my creaking joints) that young guy who long ago fell in love with sports car racing and was lucky to have been there to enjoy and observe some of the early days up close up. -Doug Stokes
Note: the two emphasized all the way out references refer to the days prior to virtually all of the freeway expanse that we take for granted now (that sadly killed a great many a cool roadside attractions on the way from Covina to Riverside.)
Sidebar 2, Also By Doug Stokes
There’s not a doubt in the world that this book is all Raoul F. Balcaen III, all the time but … as even he would surely admit, teamwork often wins the day. Here, his teammates are two of the best in the business, and why not? Both Jill Amadio and Pete Lyons are seasoned, gifted motorsports writers who have really made Balcaen’s personal story work. The vaunted Scarab racing cars had an all-star team, so ‘Sonny’ has here.
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...
With Pete Lyons and Jill Amadio
Publisher\ Evro Publishing Limited (December 6, 2022)
Hardcover: 320 pages
About The Authors
Don Taylor formerly ran the NASCAR program for General Motors, worked as a car stylist at the Ford Motor Company, and as a National Tech Director for the NHRA. He currently serves as Director of the Stand 21 Safety Foundation, and for the UK’s Motorsport Industry Association. Taylor also writes articles for the UK’s Racecar Engineering magazine. Don currently lives in Boston, but makes frequent trips to Charlotte and to the West Coast, still owning a home in Pasadena.
Doug has a long and wide-ranging history in the motoring business. He served five years as the Executive Director of the International Kart Federation, and was the PR guy for the Mickey Thompson's Off-Road Championship Gran Prix. He worked racing PR for both Honda and Suzuki and was a senior PR person on the first Los Angeles (Vintage) Grand Prix. He was also the first PR Manager for Perris Auto Speedway, and spent over 20 years as the VP of Communications at Irwindale Speedway. Stokes is the recipient of the American Autowriters and Broadcaster’s 2005 Chapman Award for Excellence in Public Relations and was honored in 2015 by the Motor Press Guild with their Dean Batchelor Lifetime Achievement Award. “… I’ve also been reviewing automobiles and books for over 20 years, and really enjoy my LA Car assignments.” he added.