Saturday, February 25, 2012


Who remembers the manmade "mountain" that was The Houston Watercoaster located adjacent to Interstate 45 North where Stuebner Airline intersected with I-45, immediately north of the Little York and I-45 North intersection? Well, J.R. Gonzales, who blogs for the Houston Chronicle didn't mention it in the excellent article he wrote last week about the MALIBU GRAND PRIX that was right next door to the Watercoaster, but someone in the comments section did mention it and it brought back some memories for El Fisho.

Way back then, when the Watercoaster opened, I got a job there. It was a fun place to work, even though it was fatally flawed from the start. It had two troughs that came down the side of the manmade hill but the fatal flaw was that instead of covering the surface of the troughs with some sort of plastic compound, they were more or less bare concrete. Maybe gunnite. I'm not sure, but I know that many Watercoaster riders got strawberries on their bodies if part of their persons came off of the foam mats that were used to ride down the Watercoaster.

For historical information, since that Watercoaster and it's twin located at Stewart Beach in Galveston are long gone, I wanted to note it's existence somewhere. As far as I can recall, it was open the summer of 1978 and 1979. Several of us who worked at the North Houston Watercoaster were detailed on several occasions to go down to the Watercoaster in Galveston and work due to employee shortages at the beach. It was a lot of fun, sortof like a busman's holiday. They paid for our gas and food and several nights at a local motel down there to help train new employees and cover shortages in employees while they were getting fully staffed.

One thing that I soon learned was that if you were wearing the proper pair of tennis shoes you could surf the Watercoaster standing on the inch thick foam mats. At the time, various types of upscale tennis shoes were all the rage, like Adidas and Reebok. I had a pair of yellow mesh Reebok running shoes that were perfect for getting wet at the Watercoaster, as they were mesh and dried quickly, and it was hard to avoid your shoes getting wet. These shoes worked great for surfing the Watercoaster, but the best shoes were cheap Keds slip-on tennis shoes. Something about their sole gave great traction on the otherwise slippery foam mats.

Of course, regular customers weren't allowed to surf the Watercoaster, but before and after opening the employees would have at it. Not being a great athlete, I was pretty limited to straight surfing down the Watercoaster, but a few of the more athletic employees could do 180's and 360's without hurting themselves. I can't remember everyone who worked there, but I remember my friends Lionel, Stanley and a guy named Freddie who dealt with all of the plumbing and mechanical issues. All of us were either in high school or fresh out, about to go to college, and I often wonder what happened to the folks I worked there with.

When school started, the Watercoaster closed, and several of us went next door to the newly opened Malibu Grand Prix to get a job. Contrary to what some of the commenters said in J.R.'s article, the North Houston Malibu was located right there at the triangle of land that existed where Stuebner Airline intersected with I-45 North, with Little York to the immediate south. Malibu was an import from California, where it had been wildly successful, bringing a 28 horsepower Wankel engine powered fiberglass bodied mini-race car to the throngs who were tired of riding lawnmower engine powered go carts.

The course itself was designed to keep speeds down to the 30 mph range or so, as the many twists and turns and curves in the course made it necessary to slow down quite often. We soon found there were design flaws in the course, where either bad drivers or those who tried to go too fast would shoot off the course in certain spots and slam into the chain link fence that surrounded the course. Our solution was to put the used tires from the cars in these spots at the fence line, thus cushioning the crashes and keeping the fences from falling down on the errant drivers.

Malibu was even a better place to work than the Watercoaster. Of course, it was necessary for employees to "test" the cars, both before opening and during the day as issues arose with the cars. I never came close to beating the track records, but became pretty good at driving the cars simply out of fun.

All employees there began working "in the pits", helping drivers in and out of cars and taking tickets and such. After a couple of months working there, I got promoted to mechanic, which was a far better job than working in the pit area. I used to open the track on Saturdays, and soon myself and others made friends with several HPD officers who patrolled the area out of the North Shepherd Substation. Once we forgot to turn off the silent alarm and had a significant police response, but as we were all attired in Malibu shirts and were engaged in washing and servicing the cars when they arrived, they were quickly able to surmise we were actual employees and not burglars.

One thing led to another that day when HPD came by and soon they were regular visitors before we opened on Saturdays. On my red metal toolbox that was in the garage area was a popular pro-police HPD bumper sticker of the late seventies that featured an HPD badge and the words THE BADGE MEANS YOU CARE. I was already aspiring to be an officer myself, but as a college freshman was too young yet to apply for the force. Once these cops saw that sticker, they started talking to us. Of course, like everyone else, they liked driving the cars, and we would let them have free laps and give them comp tickets so they could come when off duty with their families and friends.

One of us, and I think it was one of my managers, mentioned to the HPD guys one Saturday morning that the Malibu cars were capable of doing nearly a hundred miles an hour if on a straight-a-way instead of on the curvy track. That led to some officers closing down a stretch of the I-45 feeder for a few minutes so we could all radar test the cars. Although covered in a fiberglass shell, the cars of course had an all metal chassis and frame, so as the cars raced down the feeder at speeds of close to, but not quite 100 miles an hour, an officer at the other end was shooting them with radar since the cars had no speedometer.

One of the more daredevil officers not only raced the Malibu car down the feeder, he then cut through the still empty in the early morning hours parking lot of the K-mart located next to the Watercoaster and onto Stuebner Airline, and on that longer stretch probably got the car up to close to 100 miles per hour. There was no radar set there, and the early morning traffic he was passing was quite surprised to see a mini-race car zipping past them.

I worked with some memorable folks there, and everyone of course had their own stories. One of the managers of the track, Kurt Koesters, had moved to Texas from California after starting work for Malibu there. When Warner Brothers bought Malibu, they transferred him to the new track and he relocated. He was a helluva nice guy to work for, and I often wonder what happened to him. The chief mechanic was an extremely interesting fellow named David Bennett. He too was from California but had not worked for Malibu before he joined in Houston.

David is a story in himself. He drove a new Chevy Z-28. At the time, I was driving a 1970 Mustang Mach One that my father and I had restored, and that a relocated-from-Detroit mechanic nicknamed "Mr. 289" had rebuild the 351 Cleveland engine in. It was a far faster car than anyone my age needed, and one day one of the older well heeled Malibu customers inquired about buying. One thing led to another and I sold the car to him for a tidy profit.

About that same time, David's parents had "relocated" to South America. The story about David's dad was always sketchy, but I knew he had what we called "large money" because every now and then David would show up for work with one of his dad's three new Cadillacs. David pulled me aside one day shortly after I had sold my Mustang and told me that his dad and young second wife and baby had moved to South America and that he would be joining them.

David needed to sell his car quickly and knew I was flush with cash after selling the Mustang. I bought the Z-28 from him in a couple of days, and ended up driving David to the Airport to catch his flight to South America via the Bahamas.

I didn't hear from David for about a year or so, and then one day got a call from him that he was in town, staying at the first location of the very upscale Guest Quarters Hotel, located then behind the Galleria a few blocks. I went over there and was visiting with him in his room when suddenly his dad burst in demanding to know who I was and calling David into the adjoining room to have a heated but undiscernable conversation with him. David came back in, quite embarrassed and told me his dad didn't like having strangers around and I had to leave.

And that was the last I saw of David Bennett. Several years later, a series of articles appeared in the Houston Chronicle or the long defunct Houston Post about David's dad and his upcoming testimony against a bunch of bankers and others who had been involved in the latest bank swindle. According to the article, at the time I knew David, his dad and indeed his whole family were in the Witness Protection program. His dad had been hooked up with some mob banks and had been involved in some sort of nefarious activities that involved siphoning off money for the mob from these banks, and if memory serves, some kind of money laundering.

After testifying against the mob in that situation, the family was relocated from California to Texas. Unfortunately, David's dad couldn't keep out of the business and soon got involved in some sort of multi-million dollar check kiting scheme involving out of state banks. Some form of organized crime was also involved in that endeavor, and when the family made their hasty departure to South America, that scheme had begun to fall apart.

One interesting thing I recall is that during that brief meeting at the Guest Quarters Hotel David had told me that after arriving in the Bahamas and taking a smaller plane to another locale enroute to South America, the plane had crashed and he had spent months/weeks in a Bahamian hospital recovering from injuries from that plane crash. From his telling of the story, once I later learned of his father's true identity from the news articles, I had strong doubts that the plane crash was accidental.

The news articles about David's dad indicated that he had really been a Vietnam fighter pilot, as David used to tell us, and a heroic one at that. David often wore an Air Force pilots flight jacket with the name tag reading Bennett. So the name tag was fake but the story about his dad being an ace fighter pilot was true. You could see that David was really taken with this father, and David's eyes would literally light up whenever he talked about him.

When I met with David at the Guest Quarters Hotel, his father was in town to turn yet another deal with the feds to testify against his former cohorts or enemies or whoever they were. So it appears he lucked out again, knowing enough that the feds were willing to offer him some sort of deal in exchange for his testimony. I haven't been able to locate the articles in the Houston Chronicle archives and if memory serves the Post's archives perhaps got merged with the Chronicles but I will keep looking, and if I find them I'll post a link here to them.

I have a feeling it's gonna take a trip to the downtown Houston Public Library. I haven't been there in decades, but hopefully somewhere they still have a microfiche copy of the Post from the early 80's. I remember it was a front page story, not "THE" headline story but it was on the front page.

Again, as memory serves, the Bennett family went back into the witness protection program and assumably changed identities and locales again, and who knows what happened to them. I know David was an honest guy, a couple of years older than me, but I never saw him engage in anything other than hard, honest work while we worked at Malibu. He never cheated on time or on buying his own tools from the Snap-On salesmen who frequented our location, and he worked like a dog. Like a fellow soldier stated in a statement about my great-grandfather's time in the Confederate Army, David was "allright as long as I knew him". 

Likewise, the Z-28 I bought from him was as he said, in perfect condition. Being an ace mechanic, he had maintained it in perfect like new condition and besides, when I bought it the car only had 7,000 miles or so on it. I remember when I bought it I went to a local Exxon station where a friend worked as a mechanic and we put the car up on a lift and took torque wrenches and the GM maintenance manual and checked all the nuts and bolts and such with the maintenance specs provided by GM. Everything was torqued to the exact specs it should have been, as David had said.

My more talented mechanic friends and I went over every inch of that car for several days, and everything was in perfect order. All scheduled maintenance had been done and had been done well. I paid slightly under book for the car, which had sold new at that time for about $7,500. It served me well for quite a few years.

I still wonder, thirty plus years on, whatever happened to David Bennett. Maybe he'll google his old Witness Protection name, that was outed by the Chronicle or Post way back when, and stumble across this posting one day and pull my email from my profile and contact me. Maybe he'll remember the 8 track tape that he left in the car he sold me.

So you see, my brief few months working at Malibu Grand Prix was a memorable experience. And not because of driving the mini-race cars. But that was fun too.

1 comment:

  1. Great story. I just bought some old malibu grand prix indy cars, and was searching for any information on them and found your story. I still have some fixing to do on them before I try 100 mph.