NHRA - National Hot Rod Association


My Bakersfield of Dreams

14 Oct 2008
Phil Burgess, NHRA National Dragster Editor

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 Dallas, and noted that, all things considered, I'd rather be at the drags than at the reunion.

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

Famoso Road
, trundling down the three-plus miles of side road and wondering how many quarter-mile greats had made this very trip on this very road over the last 50 years, heading for what they hoped would be a dose of March Meet glory.

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 Reunion every chance to live up to the hype. Instead of fast-tracking my way into the place in a high-and-mighty, credential-waving elitist fashion, I purposefully parked in the dusty general admission parking lot and waited in line to go through the general admission gate. I wanted to see this from a fan's point; was it going to be like a trip back in time?

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.

"The California Flash," Butch Leal, with his old Thunderbolt.

Former Lions and OCIR starter Larry Sutton (above) and Rodney and Eddie Flournoy (below) were just a couple of the old friends I ran into.

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 Texas home. He had brought his father out with him, fulfilling one half of his dad's two wishes: Go to the Reunion and go to Indy. I guess we'll be seeing poppa Bradshaw at the Big Go next year.

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 OrangeCounty and Irwindale back in those days. She was one of Bill Doner's trusted "A team" when he owned half a dozen tracks up and down the West Coast, and it was Pat who had the keys to the kingdom in the form of credentials for which racers and media people like me begged (and bribed) their way into the track. She's on the board of directors of the Standard 1320 group, a frequent contributor to this column, and, oh yeah, the mother of fuel crewman to the starts Randy Green (currently with Morgan Lucas).

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 Gary "Mr. C" Cochran, also part of the Standard 1320 group, quizzing him about his career between runs -- and watching the fuelers.

Yours truly, right, with Steve Reyes. left,  and James Drew. Drew and Tim Marshall cover the Hot Rod Heritage series for National DRAGSTER.

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 Bakersfield-cold about that time, so I scuffed my way to the parking lot for a heavy jacket, but before I could get back to the stands (sorry Ma), one of your favorite cars and mine, the Winged Express, was on the line and I just had to watch that up close. Driver Mike Boyd ended up in the other lane, which I think brought more cheers from the crowd than if he had made a full pull in his own lane.

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 School of Journalism and read the thesaurus when the rest of us were reading Curious George. He's one sesquipedalian scribe (look it up).

Don Ewald and BankAmericar Top Fueler prepares to cackle; Ewald runs the We Did It For Love site (wdifl.com). (Paul Hutchins photo)

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 Reunion. It's a somber couple of minutes and, following that and an introduction of the 60-plus cars in the Cacklefest, it was on with the main attraction. Car after car was pushed down the Famoso fire-up road, cackling to life in front of the fans lining the fences three deep, all waving to the newly-fired heroes. Art Chrisman, Tommy Ivo, Carl Olson, Kenny Safford, Jerry Ruth, Jeep and Ronnie Hampshire, Rob Bruins, and even Bruce Larson, the former NHRA Funny Car champion, who was at the wheel of Ivo's restored 1974 fueler – front wheel pants and all – that went on its head at that year's Winternationals. The Fighting Irish, the Magicar, the Frantic Four, Ivo's Barnstomer, a Swamp Rat (minus Garlits; Sonny Messner at the helm), the Addict, the Assassin … they just kept on coming, and the fans kept on cheering and waving. Bill Pitts, who owns and pushed the Magicar down with Hampshire at the wheel, said later, "Jeep requires respect from those along the fence and if they didn't tip him their hat, he blew it off with a friendly whack of the throttle." That's some old-school good times.

The cars cackled away into the cool Bakersfield night, the roar of the crowd competing with the nitro-fueled  rumble, and once they were all quieted, the roar may well have exceeded them. Them, it was time to go.

I fueled up on Jack in The Box tacos and climbed back into the Pontiac for the long drive home, having taste-tested my first Reunion and enjoyed it to the last drop. Cruising home into the night, it was hard not to smile to myself about the excitement I had felt. Next year's California Hot Rod Reunion does not fall on a national event weekend, so I'll be back, and for more than one day.

If this keeps up, I have to join Reunionoholics Anonymous to combat this addiction.

Bakersfield-bound. Actually, the track is in neither Bakersfield nor Famoso, but in the town of McFarland. Go figure.

Anyone who's ever been to "the Patch" knows that these signs along Highway 99 mean that you just five minutes east of drag racing history.

I couldn't help myself. I've spied the sign on the freeway and driven by the Rain for Rent offices many times before, but never stopped. This time I did. The operation fills a city block.

If you're a fan of '70s Top Fuelers, you know this logo all too well. Rain for Rent, a portable irrigation company, sponsored the famous Bakerfield-based Warren-Coburn-Miller team throughout the decade.

No fancy tower or mega suites here. This is the announcer's tower.

Inside the Grove, you can imagine it's a '60s pit area. Well, I could.

Breather masks are the fashion accessory of choice.

Nothing against the rest, but this  just looks right.

Not all the cars were drag cars. I loved this Olds 88 coupe with a beat up moonshiner interior, down to the half-full mason jar on the seat and the wrenches in the ashtray.

The Standard 1320 newsgroup purchased this memorial bench to honor one of their own, the late great Pat Foster, inscribing it with one of Patty's favorite closing lines. (Paul Hutchins photo)

Up close and personal with the cockpit of the MagiCar. Wanna drive?

Everyone's favorite fuel altered: Mike Boyd and the Winged Express.

Close your eyes and it's Happy Days all over again.

Headed home, tired, happy, and ready for next year