Veda Orr – SCTA Pioneer and Lakes Racer
Nearly all the hot rod legends profiled on these pages did their magic following World War II, veterans who dreamed of racing glory while fighting for America’s. Upon returning home, bursting with a pent-up need for speed, they flocked to southern California dry lakes and Bonneville.
Yet, SoCal lakes racing predates the war, and one of the pioneers during this era was Karl Orr and his wife, Veda. First, a bit about Karl.
Born in Missouri in 1906, Karl began racing Model Ts as early as 1921. He relocated to Los Angeles in 1923, where he soon joined California’s burgeoning auto racing scene. Opportunities were a-plenty: dirt tracks, the dry lakes, street racing. By 1935 he was a member of the 90mph Club and his reputation as a racer became as well known as his prickly personality.
Karl married Veda in 1936, and while following Karl around the races, she became smitten with racing as well. But she aimed to do more than just spectate – she longed to drive. Her odds of doing so were long, as women were not encouraged to get behind the wheel. Thanks to Karl’s standing in the SCTA, he convinced the organizers to allow Veda to race.
Veda Orr became the first woman to race and gain membership into the SCTA. And she didn’t disappoint. At Muroc, she set the Full Fendered Roadster record at 104.40mph in her ’32 Ford roadster – which doubled as her daily driver – and later upped that to 114.24. Later, she ran 131-plus mph at the wheel of the Taylor-Blair modified machine. SCTA’s first distaff driver had proven that women could drive as well as men.
The Orr duo continued to tear up the dry lakes throughout the late 1930s and early 1940s. By this time Karl has also opened a speed shop, one of SoCal’s first. It was during this period that Veda embarked on a project that would define her legacy.
The SCTA was founded in November 1937, and to support its efforts it published a simple newsletter, the SCTA Racing News. The co-editors were Eldon Snapp and Wally Parks (who, as you all know, later edited Hot Rod magazine and founded the NHRA).
After Pearl Harbor and America’s entry into the war, Parks and Snapp joined the armed forces – and Veda took over the newsletter. More importantly, she sent copies to as many racers/soldiers stateside and oversea she could locate.
In his definitive history of rodding, “The American Hot Rod,” Dean Batchelor wrote: “[Veda] filled the void left in the lives of dry lakes racers. The newsletters published from 1943 to 1945 were filled with letters from SCTA members writing from Europe, North America, and the Pacific Theater of operations; all maintaining their ties with their chosen hobby and their racing buddies. And it was obvious that these guys were eager to get home and build a car if they hadn’t already, or race the one they left behind.”
Eventually, Veda would distribute the publication to more than 750 servicemen all around the world for free and personally corresponded with hundreds as well.One such serviceman was eventual Hot Rod magazine staffer Tom Medley. A car guy and cartoonist (later creating Stroker McGurk), Medley created cover art for several editions of Veda’s newsletter. At the time, Medley was stationed in Berlin as part of the postwar occupation force. How Medley successfully snail-mailed a drawing from Germany to Los Angeles in 1945 speaks volumes about the efficiency of the military’s postal system.
As Medley explained later, “Even with everything that was going on around us, lots of us were thinking and talking about our hot rods back home…Veda was the glue that held hot rodding together during the war years.”
Daniel Strohl, writing in Hemmings Muscle Machines magazine concurred. “Inevitably, those men who received the newsletters passed them on to their fellow soldiers,” he wrote, “infecting them with the need for speed and spreading the germ of hot rodding across the country.”
Following the war’s end, Veda passed the editorship baton back to Parks and Snapp. Veda later published two books – “Veda Orr’s Dry Lakes Pictorial” and “Veda Orr’s Hot Rod Pictorial” – both important records of this seminal period in hot rod history. Many consider Mrs. Orr the first hot rod journalist.
In later years, the Orrs divorced and Karl closed the speed shop, but they eventually reunited and reopened the shop, this time in Mint Canyon, on the road to the dry lakes. Karl died in 1988, and Veda followed a year later.
We rang up Alex Xydias to tap into the legend’s 100-year-old memory. “Ken and Veda Orr were both standouts in the early lakes racing scene, setting many records,” Xydias recalled. “But the best thing that Veda ever did was sending those newsletters to G.I.s. It played an important role in building interest in hot rodding.”