"I sometimes wonder what kids are doing today," said Armstrong as he relaxed between races in the quiet of his Lake Forest office in July. "I sometimes look out on the street, and about the only things I see are the little love trucks with boom boxes in back. Now every once in a while you'll run across a fellow into performance...."
Armstrong was that fellow in the 1950s, when white clouds of smoke could be seen puffing out of the open doors of the little garage behind a shingled one-story house on 23rd Avenue in Calgary, Alberta. The teenage Armstrong was working furiously on his latest car.
Born in 1941 on an Alberta wheat farm, Armstrong learned to take apart his father's tractor and reassemble it when he was 10 years old, sometimes running into the house to consult a dusty old Motors manual. When he was 14 he bought his first car, a '36 Ford Coupe, for $5 and had his mother tow it home behind her car. He would sneak hot rod magazines into his notebooks at school, and he traded cars with his friends as though they were baseball cards. "Knew one kid who must have had a different car every week," Armstrong says.
The American automobile changed dramatically in 1955, the year Ford and Chevy came out with their powerful V-8 engines. The new models also had more style. They had grace. They had nice interiors. "And then," says Armstrong, "here comes Elvis on the radio. Oh, what a great time it was."
Within days of getting his driver's license, in 1957, Armstrong took his Ford to a drag strip laid out on an old airfield outside Calgary. It took him five runs in the car to break 60 mph. After every run he ripped something out to lighten the load. Soon the Armstrongs' little garage was packed with the discarded parts—backseat, front seat, spare tire—and Armstrong started to earn a reputation as a first-rate mechanic. The alley behind the garage began to fill with hot rods from around town. It was Canadian Graffiti 15 years before George Lucas filmed American Graffiti.
When he sent away for parts, manuals and technical guides, he noticed that the addresses were always either in Los Angeles or New York City. In February '64 Armstrong and two friends towed his '62 Chevy Impala to the Winternationals in Pomona, Calif. Back in Calgary it was so cold that cars sometimes froze to the street. But down in L.A. a guy could go racing five nights a week at such tracks as Lions, Fontana and Carlsbad.
Eleven months later Armstrong closed up his performance shop in Calgary and returned to California, driving down U.S. Highway 99, known as the grapevine, as it wound over mountains and down toward the San Fernando Valley and Los Angeles. "You just start coming down into the valley and, oh, what a magnificent sight," Armstrong says. "It was just cars after cars after cars. Corvettes, Cobras, Ferraris...."
He walked into Lee White Chevrolet on the Pacific Coast Highway in Long Beach and got a job as a mechanic and began working his way up the grapevine of drag racing. By December 1966 his car, a Chevy II Nova called the Canuck, was on the cover of Hot Rod Parts Illustrated, about which the accompanying article said, "Even a diehard Chevy lover would have trouble telling just what had been the original vehicle."
Armstrong's office is testimony to his racing success in the 1970s: The shelves hold 14 trophies for national-event wins in alcohol-fueled dragsters during that decade. Back then he would drive 'em, fix 'em and drive 'em some more. But drag racing technology was becoming increasingly sophisticated, and equipment more expensive, and independent drivers, like Armstrong, had to dig a little deeper into their pockets to keep up.
By the '80s Armstrong was pushing 40. In 1981 he had two horrible accidents. One crash sent his Dodge Challenger hurtling down the track at Columbus, Ohio, on fire at 240 mph. "Yeah, that was kind of a bad one," he says. "It told me it was time to get out of driving."