Guest columnist Darr Hawthorne is covering Getting Nostaligic this month. Jeff Utterback will be back next month. Look for Darr Hawthorne's same-day coverage of the California Hot Rod Reunion this weekend!
Learning from our past.
It’s October and for me and a lot of my friends it’s the time of the year many of us have been waiting for since last October. The California Hot Rod Reunion, there’s nothing quite like it for geezers and newbie’s alike. Most of the throng assembled at Auto Club Famoso Raceway probably won’t attend the NHRA BIG Show events, except maybe Pomona.
Nowhere on Earth will there be a broader cross-section of former drag racing World Champs, fuel shoes, gasser pilots, star crew chiefs and the folks who put the cars together, built the chassis, towed cross-country, formed the aluminum and put in new sets of bearings with hot oil dripping in their eyes and hair.
In many ways the Reunion is our yearly High School Reunion, there are people I saw as a teenager in the pits down at Lions… just a lot older now. Their wrinkled faces still light up around Nitro the same way they did when seeing and hearing a pair of dragsters pushing down the quarter mile from the top end of the Beach, back in the day.
With all of us getting older, those good old days of the 50’s 60’s & 70’s have a growing list that’s read every year at the Reunion of the racers, journalists and industry leaders who have passed away in the year since our last gathering. It’s tough to listen to the Reunion Twilight Memorial list being read over the PA every year, this year that list has over seventy-five names. And, with the passing of the members of that hallowed list – the old drag racing stories told over the years have passed on as well.
Since the Reunion is primarily a benefit for the Wally Parks NHRA Motorsports Museum it is now time to preserve those stories that are passing away every year. Whether recording these stories in a video form or by digital audio recording this human record of the achievements, foibles, after midnight engine swaps in the Sleaze-bag Inn parking lot or the middle of a cornfield need to be preserved. Those stories of sleeping under ramp trucks and racing four different tracks in a week are in such stark contrast to the corporate hospitality centers and multiple team eighteen-wheelers in the NHRA Big Show and many know as drag racing, today.
The young drag fan of today enters the Wally Parks NHRA Motorsports Museum in Pomona and sees antiques and reproductions of those early flying machines, but without the human element they’ll have a tough time relating to the fast machines sitting dormant and very silent. Integrating those stories of our past heroes could bring those incredible barnstorming hot rods of a distant era back to life with the stories of the men who drove them, tuned them and built them.
Before we loose another seventy-five vintage stories to the gravedigger I’m going to interview some of the legendary stars of yesterday at the Reunion this week and plan to do more during the coming year. While most would be sanitized for someone’s protection, I’m hoping to hear frank, honest stories while those guys are still here.
With the recent influx of “corporate” involvement in the Wally Parks NHRA Motorsports Museum from Toyota, Coker Tire, Edelbrock, Auto Club of Southern California and others, how about siphoning off a couple of thou for the human story. I’m sure the small Museum staff is cringing at the thought of this kind of effort, but hooking up with a local film school, journalism school, film making department or young filmmaker interns to preserve our heritage is a logical, low cost way to go for the Museum.
To preserve those stories is the most important job, to show them off is yet another. Simpler technology, memory chips and miniaturization of playback equipment will make it easier to see and hear those stories someday soon on a strategically placed kiosk in the Museum. However, once those opportunities and stories are gone and buried, they can’t be recreated in nearly the same way.
With 1,000 foot drag racing probably coming to Nostalgia Racing as well in 2009 it seems like this Reunion – number seventeen will mark the end of another era so many of us grew up on. Aww come on NHRA and your insurance company, can’t you leave Nostalgia Drag Racing alone? Nostalgia racing by far has a much better safety record than the NHRA Big Show.
All in all, life is good… I’m NOT on the Reunion Twilight Memorial list again this year.
According to the Pre-entry list, this year’s California Hot Rod Reunion will feature twenty-one Top Fuelers and twenty-four nitro funny cars compared to the 2007 Reunion where we found twenty-one diggers and sixteen AA/FC’s. The ‘06 Reunion fielded twenty-two dragsters and thirteen funnies. With floppers growing like no other class in drag racing there are more on the way as former nitro racers like Paul Romine, RJ Trotter, Jim Glenn and others are jumping back into the fiberglass nostalgia pool.
Here’s a preview of some of the flopper owners and drivers I spoke with who are heading to Famoso Road in McFarland, CA for their Sunday only show. Former top fuel pilot Mendy Fry has made the move solidly over to funny cars and now pilots “McCain’s Bomb Squad”, a ’73 Duster with veteran Donnie Couch as crew chief carrying new Jeg’s, Justice Brothers and Lucas Oil sponsorship. Richard Stannard and the Estrus Racing team are bringing the “Beach City Chevrolet” topless Corvette replica and have added a special tribute to pioneer Pat Foster on the sleek red car. Mark Sanders’ in his “Mr. Explosive” ’71 Nova is packed-up and loaded for bear with his crew chief, teenage son Jake. After the Reunion they’ll tow to Phoenix for the Funny Car Finals at Firebird Int’l Raceway. If you haven’t met the Sanders dudes yet, you’ve got to.
Boise Nightfire Nationals champ Kris Krabill is driving Gary Turner’s Plymouth Arrow and in the off-season will be mounting a new 70’s Mustang body and are probably going to build a second funny car to field next year. DRO columnist Jeff Utterback is back in Danny Pisano’s “Pisano & Matsubara” Vega carrying new sponsorship from a very familiar source, veteran Dale Emery will tune it. Rian Konno is piloting George Doty’s Hot Wheels-sponsored ‘First in the 5’s’ “Crazy Horse” Mustang with nitro veterans Bob Noice tuning and Sonny Diaz assisting. “Northwest Hitter” Bucky Austin and Dickies Girl Leah Pruett-LeDuc will pilot Steve Plueger’s stout duo of racecars and the “Lil’ Nate” Cuda, the Las Vegas Hot Rod Heritage Series AA/FC Champs are headed to Mecca with Aussie Vic Wood to help with their nitro tune-up. None of the NHRA drivers like Ron Capps will make it this year with a conflicting NHRA Countdown Race on the same weekend.
At press time, conspicuous by their absence are the funny cars of the strangely nicknamed “Arizona Mafia”, a handful of Arizona-based racers who stick basically to their own Nostalgia Funny Car Association events like the one they are putting on in late November at Firebird in Phoenix. Evidently the pay at the reunion isn’t enough for them. I respect their view on that issue.
Freedom of choice for racers – deciding where you choose to race your car – deciding where you can afford to race your car are the only things that should matter in any form of motorsports. No organization should decide that for you. I don’t care where you want to race your nitro funny car these days, but 1950’s Jimmy Hoffa-style Big Labor –vs- Management tactics will do nothing to unite a burgeoning nitro class like AA/FC. It’ll hinder the movement’s growth because no promoter wants a hassle.