The Man on the Corner
To get on the 101 Freeway heading south at San Ysidro Road, you must first turn left on South Jameson Lane and then drive past the Rosewood Miramar Beach until you come to a stop sign at the corner of Posilipo Lane, just north of the train tracks. In front of you is an unforgivingly abbreviated onramp leading to the curving highway full of traffic on your left. To your right, at least during daylight hours, a white SUV might be backed up in front of a wooden fence with the cabin facing the freeway and the mountains.
Between early morning and mid-afternoon you’ll also likely see a giant Santa Claus of a man with glasses and a white beard sitting in the truck. He appears simply to be watching the traffic go by. “Being watched getting on the 101,” began one recent message posted on Nextdoor, asking if anybody else had noticed the man in the white truck. “I’ve been baffled by this for a long time,” the writer added. “Especially as he doesn’t appear to be any kind of law enforcement.”
The man in the truck is 67-year-old Paul Madsen. He used to live in the house that, until recently, stood behind the wooden fence where he now parks his SUV. Madsen lost his home in the January 9, 2018 debris flow that killed 23 people in Montecito. The disaster completely destroyed the house he’d lived in since he was a child growing up in the 1950s. The only structure remaining on Madsen’s property is a cramped mechanic’s workspace that is decorated with racing posters. The space is lit up with electricity provided by a generator sitting nearby in the dirt next to a pile of concrete debris in what used to be his front yard. Inside the wooden structure, a mud line is still visible about four feet high on the wall.
“It’s three and a half feet, roughly,” Madsen says, quickly correcting his visitor. We are talking in his workshop and a rolled up copy of his building plans sit on a shelf behind him. “I had to dig it out,” he adds, laughing.
Although Madsen submitted his plans to rebuild two years ago, he still hasn’t received a building permit. “I started the process in about August of 2018 and well, it’s 2020 now. Supposedly, I am close but I just don’t know… It’s taken forever.”
Awaking after three a.m. on the morning of January 9, 2018, Madsen at first assumed that it was already daylight. “I was in the house and the power went out,” he recalls, now standing in approximately the same location as his former bedroom.
Stepping outside that night, Madsen realized that the light was from a massive fire on Park Lane. “It just lit up the sky,” he says. “I was standing up at the top of the driveway, looking over the fence, and that’s when I saw the mudflow coming.”
At first Madsen wasn’t sure what he was seeing was real. “It wasn’t raining here, really, but all of a sudden I just saw the mud coming across.”
With only 15 feet or so separating his property line from the freeway, Madsen knew he didn’t have much time to act. “The fence started to buckle and break, so I backed up my Suburban to hold that gate.”
But his property was a path of least resistance for the mud and it wouldn’t stop flowing in. “The mud got higher and higher and just came in and kept filling and filling until it was probably four and a half feet high in the back of the house.”
The mudflow wasn’t powerful enough to knock down Madsen’s house, but because the structure was already four feet below street level when the disaster struck, it had to be condemned. Madsen, who now lives in a small apartment a few miles away, says he’s spent much of the past two and a half years demolishing the house and preparing the lot for a new building. For a man who’s seemingly lost everything, he’s pretty stoic about his circumstances.
“Well, when it was built, it was built in a so-called flood plain,” Madsen tells me in his measured, matter-of-fact tone.” And when all these other projects came through, it just kept raising the exterior around my property, which allowed it to be so low. They were trying to eliminate their flood problem, but it just left us in a hole.”
His family moved into the house in 1953, when he was just a year old. The original part of the house was built in the 1920s and sat atop a raised foundation, its exterior decorated with creek sand and rocks. Madsen’s parents had been renting another small house on Eucalyptus Lane, but they moved to make room for a new freeway off-ramp. Two years after moving into the property, Madsen’s parents purchased the house and added an office.
There were past floods, including one in 1995 that temporarily swamped the house, but Madsen’s family was always able to rebuild. Until an insurance settlement related to the disaster paid for him to move into the one-bedroom apartment where he now lives, the house is the only place Madsen had ever called home.
“Montecito was a very nice, small community,” Madsen says, recalling his childhood. “It was a nice, easy place to grow up. You knew a lot of people and it wasn’t overbuilt.”
Back then, Madsen would take a bus up San Ysidro Road to attend Montecito Union School. He then went to Santa Barbara Junior High School and Santa Barbara High. “It was quaint,” he says. “You could get out and ride your bike without any traffic, and traffic on the freeway was minimal.
Montecito is all but unrecognizable to him nowadays.
“It’s like the Miramar,” he says, speaking of the recently refurbished beachside resort, which used to be a much (much, much) more modestly appointed motel for passing tourists. “Miramar was a nice quaint place where people could stop overnight along the freeway,” says Madsen. “I grew up playing at the Miramar, but now with all the security, it ain’t the same.”
In 1968, when Madsen was still in high school, he began working at J&S East Valley Garage, which at the time operated both a mechanic’s shop and a small gas station. Every day, he’d take the bus to the shop and a friend would drive him back down the hill to his home each evening. “It was still a gas station then,” says Madsen. “There were two gas pumps.”
After the 1973 oil crisis, the shop stopped pumping gas for customers, although it continued to operate a single pump for personal use. That lasted until the county made the shop shut the pump down. “They didn’t want gas tanks in the ground,” explains Madsen. “So we removed the tanks and all that and complied with all their rules and regulations and it is what it is now.”
Anyone familiar with J&S knows that the people who work at the shop aren’t your typical auto mechanics. J&S mechanics can service any car from classic to new, but they are also expert car builders who specialize in speed-seeking, high-power engines.
The shop also boasts a decades long tradition of sending teams to compete in various land-speed races, including the Mojave Valley’s El Mirage Lake, Muroc Dry Lake (now called Rogers Dry Lake) north of Lancaster, and the legendarily remote Bonneville Salt Flats race in northern Utah, which takes place every year in mid-August.
“I got into it with a bunch of friends,” Madsen recalls. “The first time I went up there was in 1985. Mostly, it was a lot of self-built vehicles going for time trials. You get the bug.”
Madsen and his crewmates ran a 1927 Model T Roadster, which they modified with an extended nose. “I helped them get into the 200-mile-an-hour club and then I decided, ‘Well, I’ll try this.'”
He assembled a 1929 High Boy Roadster with an open cockpit, building the motor and transmission from scratch. “Well, it wasn’t quite successful,” he admits. “It just didn’t have enough horsepower to do what I wanted it to do.”
Instead, Madsen turned his attention to repairing engine blocks for top-fuel racers. He built a four cylinder, 255-cubic-inch engine that ran on nitro methane. “It did pretty good,” Madsen says. “We had a few records. At El Mirage, we went 268 mph and qualified for a record run at Muroc in 1998. And then I qualified at Bonneville in 2002 at 300 mph. But we had our issues with the motor and I stopped running it since.”
Just before lunchtime on August 17, the crew at J&S East Valley Garage is just a few hours into their first shift since returning last week from Utah. Shop manager Hunter Self and the rest of the crew spent the week racing a 35-foot-long land rocket (a sleek automobile that somewhat resembles a U2 aircraft without the wings) at the Bonneville Speedway, hoping for a speed record.
When I visit, the vehicle is parked inside a trailer in the shop’s parking lot. Madsen, who worked at the shop from 1968 until he retired five years ago, didn’t attend the race. But according to Self and other former crewmembers, Madsen nonetheless played a critical role in the team’s efforts in Utah.
Several days into the event, the racecar’s engine broke down and the team’s only hope was a replacement part buried deep in an engine at the garage. Self immediately dialed Madsen on his cell phone and begged for help. “I called Paul, and he went over to the shop and pulled apart a whole motor to get the spare part out of it and then had it FedEx-ed to us that day,” Self tells me. “The gear box isn’t much bigger than a watermelon, but we couldn’t have done anything without it. He had to pull out the whole front assembly to get it out himself, which is a lot of work even for young guys, and then get it over to Montecito Executive Services in time so we could have it the next morning at the hotel.”
Self’s racing partner, Arley Langlo, was the driver of J&S team’s speed-record attempt at Bonneville. “I knew Paul when he first started here,” Langlo says. “He was always here, except for a few years in the 1970s when he was in the Navy. Back then, this place was, literally, hotrod world, and Paul got the bug when he came here. He used to go to the drag races with us, but never really got into drag racing on a personal level, but he got into building motors for the cars we raced at Bonneville.”
“He saved our butts,” confirms Tommy Delgado, reflecting on the Bonneville race. “He’s such an awesome person, if you need anything, he’s there. He’s the man you can call.” While at Bonneville, Delgado bumped into some of Madsen’s old racing cronies. “They gave me free t-shirts to bring back to him. His legacy just kind of goes that far.”
Delgado started working at J&S Auto in 2018, three years after Madsen retired, but he still knew him well, since Madsen was one of several old-timers who used to stop by on late afternoons to drink a beer and reminisce about past races.
“He would be here at 4:30, on the clock, so we called it ‘Paul thirty,’” he says, laughing. “He’d come by, have two beers and we’d chit chat while putting stuff away. He’s the last of the mechanics who still comes around.”
Self, who has been with the shop for the past decade, remembers Madsen as a “gentle giant” and a man of few words who could be a little hard to approach at first. “He’s an intimidating dude to look at, but he would do anything for you, no questions asked,” Self says. “He was always level-headed and had a wealth of information and could help you figure out anything.”
According to Self, Madsen and the shop’s previous owner, James “Jay” Roach, who died in 2012, used to get into regular arguments over the best approach to fixing a mechanical problem. “From what I heard, Jay fired him multiple times, but Paul would just show up for work the next day and sure enough, they’d bury the hatchet,” he says. “Paul put in his tenure here, for sure.”
For Madsen, reconstructing his house has proved to be a far more challenging proposition than fixing and bringing up to speed one of the world’s fastest terrestrial vehicles. First of all, he has to raise his property above street level, no easy task. To rebuild his home according to the county’s latest flood control guidelines, Madsen hired an architect to draw up plans for a two-story house with the first floor acting as a garage. A staircase would lead to the second story, which would contain the living quarters.
But according to Madsen, he still hasn’t received a building permit after submitting the plans two years ago. “Ideally, I wish I’d started years ago,” he says. “I’m ready to go. Once I get the grading permit and building permit, then we can start. Basically, I’m just sitting here waiting.”
When the 2018 debris flow wiped out Madsen’s home, his former coworkers at J&S Auto helped him salvage as much as they could after CalTrans had cleared off the 101 Freeway and opened the area up to traffic. The crew was able to rescue a few of Madsen’s cherished racecar motors, record-setters that are still on the books in major speedways.
“He had such a cool collection of tools, probably $100,000 worth of rare equipment he accumulated over the years; things they don’t make anymore. We saved what we could, but a lot of it was just wrecked,” says Self. “It’s a hell of a situation. I don’t know why it’s taken this long for him to be able to rebuild. He isn’t talking about building any higher than the other condos are around here, and there are a bunch of places that have already rebuilt that are now twice as tall as they used to be. He isn’t building a billion-dollar mansion, he just wants his house back.”