A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about missing my 30th high school reunion to be at the NHRA POWERade Drag Racing Series event in
On Saturday, I enjoyed a rare cake-and-eat-it-too experience as I got to go to the drags and a reunion at the same time courtesy of my first trip to the California Hot Rod Reunion. I'd somehow managed to dismiss or miss the first 16 versions of this "gathering of geezers" at the fabled Bakersfield-area "Patch," Famoso Raceway (now Auto Club Famoso Raceway), but was determined to make up for it this year, if only for a day.
With a little help from my friends (thanks Candida!), I took a day off from my normally hectic weekend national event duties here at the big .com and headed north up Interstate 5 and old Highway 99 to see what all the hubbub was about. A little Beach Boys music, some Bob Seger, and a touch of Lynyrd Skynyrd kept me company on the lonely climb over the fabled Grapevine (temperature: 36 degrees!) and the spectacular drop down into the state's breadbasket. Two short hours after pulling out of the driveway, I was taking the Highway 46 exit onto
I hadn't been to the track in more than 20 years, since what is arguably the last time that the March Meet was at all a relevant indicator of the best modern fuel cars in the nation. It was 1986, and Don Garlits drove his Swamp Rat XXX streamliner to the then quickest pass ever – a 5.37 – to win the event for the fourth time, and John Force, who had yet to win an NHRA national event, won Funny Car for the second time in three years.
I have looked at the photos and read the race coverage in National DRAGSTER of the past 16 Reunions, and I was determined to give the
I didn’t have to go more than a hundred yards into the place to realize that I had way underestimated the event. From the front gate, you're dumped almost right into the head of the staging lanes, where I was greeted by several front-engine dragsters and a boatload of early coupes and roadsters. It sounds almost cliché, but I could have sworn I had just stepped into 1964. Sure, there were very pretty recreations of some cars, but enough race-worn machinery to make it look authentic. I was blown away.
I headed to The Grove, where dozens of trees have been planted in honor and memory of the sport's greats and dedicated and inscribed benches line the walkway – the latest two for recently departed heroes Pat Foster and John Shoemaker -- and also the prime hangout for many. A lot of the cars from the Cacklefest reside there, and further down it's a veritable car show of early iron, both racing and street cars.
I got to meet some of the gang from the Standard 1320 e-mail group (which contains a veritable Who's Who of the early sport), who had their own area set aside, take part in their group photo, and get a brief primer on what to do and where to go.
The vendor areas are amazing, and I'm really glad that I only brought money to eat on. I easily could have spent a couple of hundred dollars on old dragstrip T-shirts, books, videos, and such. Former drag racing photographer/writer Don Gillespie was there and told me that his excellent three-part Lions documentary, on which he'd spent the last seven years, was now complete and selling like hotcakes. I spent about a half-hour bench racing with one of my true racing pals, the legendary Tom "the Mongoose" McEwen, who had an extensive collection of memorabilia – including some cool Hot Wheels stuff – for sale, then ran into longtime drag journo Dave Wallace at his Hot Rod Nostalgia booth, where drag photog superstar Steve Reyes was hanging (his first Reunion, too). Dave pointed me in the right direction, introduced me to a couple of famous old-time stars, and sent me on my way. "Kid, you'll never be the same after coming here," he told me.
I'd run into him occasionally throughout the event and he'd ask me, in almost raised-eyebrow/elbow-in-the-ribs-style, what I thought so far, kind of the way that an older brother might ask you what you thought of your first beer. The metaphor is appropriate because I found the whole thing rather tasty and quite intoxicating.
I pinballed from pit area to pit area, running into old faces at every turn and introducing myself (and being introduced to) all manner of heroes. I met John Peters and thanked him for his help on the Freight Train article earlier this year and met his former driver, past March Meet winner Sam Davis, who was driving the car in the Cacklefest. Former Top Fuel champ Rob Bruins, who was out of the sport before I began here at NHRA and with whom I have communicated extensively by e-mail, saw me and flagged me down to introduce himself.
I can’t tell you how many people stopped me to tell me how much they enjoy this column, including some who are out of touch with the modern sport but still visit NHRA.com just to read my ramblings. Thank you all.
Not everyone was from before my time. I stopped by to see Butch Leal, who had his old maroon Thunderbolt in his booth where he signed autographs and sold T-shirts and diecast. He looked great and is fully recovered from a five-way bypass five years ago. Other than the 'Bolt, he doesn't have any of his old cars but would love to find his old Logghe-chassised Barracuda flopper. If you know where any of the California Flash's stuff is, drop me a line, and I'll pass it on to him.
I was surprised to see NHRA.com blogger and currently sidelined Top Fuel driver Alan Bradshaw a long way from his
I spent some time hanging with old pals Willie Wolter and Henry Walther, who both were part of the magical Larry Minor team back in the early 1980s and now work on the Paso Posse Top Fueler with their world champ pilot Gary Beck, John Rodeck, and others. Beck's son, Randy, usually drives the car but crashed it earlier this year. He got to shake down the rebuilt car, but Jack Harris wheeled it this weekend. Willie, who works for Don Prudhomme helping "the Snake" find and restore his old Funny Cars, says they've got quite a collection and just recently began work on Prudhomme's old ramp truck.
As I was finishing up a long conversation with them, I spied former Orange County Int’l Raceway and Lions starter Larry Sutton across the way – still in his familiar black cowboy hat and pipe – and had a great conversation with him about both the old and new days. I'll be interviewing him for my upcoming piece on OCIR's last race and also putting together some tales from his years on the starting line. I don’t think I'd be out of line saying that, behind Buster Couch, Sutton is one of the most recognized and remembered starters in our sport's history.
Time was winding down to the first round of Top Fuel and the evening's much anticipated Cacklefest when from across the pit lane I spied an familiar face, at about the same time he spied me. Rodney Flournoy, who along with his dad, Eddie, fielded a low-on-dollars, big-on-heart nitro Funny Car in SoCal in the 1980s, looked just about the same as the last time I saw him some 10 years ago when he was driving Charlie Marquez's Urban Flyer Alcohol Dragster, and we reminisced about the good old days of OCIR. Rodney had even made it to the cover of ND back in 1984, on one of our special "low buck Funnys" issues, and it was great to catch up. He's always been one of my favorite people and, in a time before J.R. Todd. Antron Brown, Michael Phillips, and other African American stars, Rodney was out there making it happen. I'm going to meet up with him, too, in the future and write a column about those days.
I was standing there chatting with Rodney and Eddie when up rolled Pat "Ma" Green, a longtime friend to anyone who haunted
I never thought I'd go to a drag race and not care as much about what was happening on the track as I did in the pits, but that's what was happening. (Not to exclusion, mind you.)
We all reminisced for a while then, as the Top Fuel cars headed to the lanes, we took off, me riding on the back of Ma's golf cart behind her and Anita "Shoe Goddess" Smith. We grabbed some beers and headed for the stands to watch Top Fuel, just like Joe Fan. It was a great return to my roots, sitting there among all the fans – well, I also was sitting next to former Top Fuel racer
You're definitely transported back in time, sitting in those small wooden bleachers, hearing famed announcer Jon Lundberg call out "Attention in the pits ... attention in the pits..." Even though few of the modern front-engine Top Fuelers look exactly like they did -- the front ends look too much like they were grafted from today's rear-engined diggers and the rollcages sit up too high and too straight for my tastes -- they put on a great show with impressive performances, If you can look past the lack of breather masks and pretend that the guardwalls are guardrails (try squinting a bit), it's a real time trip.
It was getting
I chatted with Reyes and another '70s-era photo-area denizen, Tim Marshall, and James Drew, met Jamie Jackson (of Jackson Bros,. video fame) and talked writing with Cole Coonce, he of Nitronic Research fame. Coonce is, as I remarked to NHRA Musuem Director Tony Thacker, the wordsmithiest of the drag racing writers, a guy who apparently went to the Roget's
Before I knew it, it was time for the annual roll call of the lost, a somber – and way-too-long – reading of the names of the hot rod heroes who have left us since last year's
The cars cackled away into the cool
I fueled up on Jack in The Box tacos and climbed back into the
If this keeps up, I have to join Reunionoholics Anonymous to combat this addiction.