race reports

California Hot Rod Reunion at Bakersfield, CA

Going Back to Back, Twice

Words by Brian Losness

Photos by Dave Stoltz, Jamie Shores-Fraijo and Doug Adams

James Day in the Speed Sport Omni. 


It has been stated that winning a championship is hard but the real difficulty lies in winning again. This was the mountain that faced Mendy Fry and Bobby Cottrell during the 2019 NHRA Hot Rod Heritage season. Both of these drivers were attempting to go back-to-back in championships. While Fry’s journey was pretty much decided on the Top Fuel championship front going into the final event of the year, there was the fact that the team was looking to win the race as well as taking the title for their fallen leader, Tom Shelar, who died unexpectedly in August.


Cottrell was in third place in Funny Car points coming into the event and was 28 points back of Dan Horan and leader Jeff Arend. He needed to qualify better than Arend and go at least one more round than Arend and Horan during eliminations. This endeavor was not going to be a cake walk, and Cottrell was aware of that.


For Fry it was it was more like don’t mess with a winning combination.


“We have had such a dominant car and just didn’t want to mess it up,” she said. However, not everybody, or everything with Team High Speed was on the plan. “Ever since Tulsa, we had no data; the computer wasn’t working.” This continued at Bakersfield. “I think Tom is messing with us. We had no data, and I just think Tom wanted us earn this one,” she added with a very thunderous laugh.


This didn’t seem to hamper the team as they hit the track in Q1 and promptly laid down a very stout 5.59/237.42 suggesting that Fry had shut the car off early. She was followed by Jim Murphy at 5.73/247.07. Rounding out the top eight was a big surprise, Adam Sorokin at 6.31/165.23.

Adam Sorokin


There were fourteen TF cars on the grounds for the Reunion, which is the largest field in a good while. It appears as though Top Fuel might be making a resurgence. There was some talk of sixteen or seventeen cars showing up at next year’s March Meet, so it will be interesting to see.


As qualifying drew to a close there were some very interesting situations developing. Fry was very much the class of the field, however ending up in the second slot was the legendary “Circuit Breaker” with Pete Wittenberg at the controls, his 5.69/252.37 good for that slot. Murphy was third, fourth was the Neal and White dragster at 5.79/230.72, after taking a year off to go play on the salt. Bret Williamson in the resurgent “Forever Young” dragster was fifth at 5.88/226.51.

Bret Williamson (near lane) and Jim Murphy. 


Following Williamson was the gang from Exeter, California, Rick McGee and the “Overtime Special.” Their 5.89/223.99 was good for sixth. In the seventh slot was a new car of Frank McBee Jr. His beautiful red dragster was in at a fine 5.90/249.90 and rounding out the eight-car field was Dan Horan Jr. in his new Bowen constructed dragster. His 5.94/248.48 just beat out Tyler Hilton who ran a 5.98/235.19 to take the number-one alternate spot. For the first time in a long time Adam Sorokin did not make the show. In a text message to this reporter he stated, ”We are not running good enough. Way slow. Need to get the engine combo sorted.”


Others who were a surprise to not get in were Dusty Green, Bryan Hall, Phil Ruskowski, and Brendan Murry. All capable of getting in.


During the first round of eliminations there were a couple of upsets. Both Wittenberg and Fry took wins which was expected. The “Nitro Cougar” flexing her muscles with a 5.52/256.60 charge.


This first upset was a minor one as number-five Williamson took out number-four White 5.89/229.20 to cover the San Diego runner’s up-in-smoke 6.52/200.62.


The bigger upset came when Rick McGee took out the former champ Jim Murphy who went up in smoke and could not chase down the early shut off 6.14/188.52.  Murphy stated that “I was just over center on the clutch.”


There was no drama in the semifinals as both Fry and Wittenberg took care of business. Bringing up the final round pitting the number-one and number-two qualifiers.


Going into the final Wittenberg knew he had to do everything in his power. He went deep, and when the light came on he was gone; Fry on the other hand was .257 on the tree. The High Speed car started hauling the mail however and it went across the finish line a car length behind Wittenberg.


Fry was mortified. She had let the team down. “I got out of the car and just walked over into that field and didn’t want to face anybody,” she admitted.


However, a voice of reason spoke up, in the form of NHRA Nostalgia Tech Inspector Ken Gentry. “Mendy, he was red.” Fry spun around “Don’t f^#% with me, Ken. Are you sure?”


Gentry was sure. Fry was so hyper-focused on running down Wittenberg, that she didn’t notice the win light come on in her lane. She had not let the team down, and the gallon jug of Apple Crown Royal would flow in the High-Speed pits once again.


There are many questions about whether or not the High Speed team will run again next season and beyond.


“Tom was our energy in the pits, and the energy was different these past two races,” Fry explained. “Tom was full of energy and it was missing.” Fry went on to say that it would take the right leader, and at this point the team has lost its leader and visionary.


The Funny Car championship came down to three cars: Horan, Cottrell and Arend, with Arend having a very slight lead going into the final event.


Qualifying round one, Uncle Bucky Austin was serious about his chances of going back to back. Austin put a tune up in the Camaro and Cottrell showed his prowess as a driver and the Bardahl Camaro went to the top of the Q1 sheet with a stout 5.63 at 259.61 mph.


Horan was a tenth back at 5.73/257.92 which was good for fourth. Arend was in sixth at 5.77/252.05


One of the big surprises came in the form of James Day at the wheel of Jim Broome’s Speed Sport Omni. Day ran an all-time best of 5.69.

In Q2, none of the championship contenders improved. However, Arend took a hit when he went from fifth to eighth. 


The final session for the floppers on Saturday early afternoon saw huge changes. Ryan Hodgson and his Bob Papernick-tuned aero Camaro went to the top with a 5.62 at 250.41.


Number two went to Billy Morris with a very fine 5.63/255.29. “Huggy Bear” David Fears tuned Horan to a 5.63/262.44, which was a thousandth of a second quicker than Cottrell’s 5.63/259.61. Arend was the last of the championship contenders, even though he stepped up to a very stout 5.66/255.92.

Kris Krabill rounded out the 16-car show with a 5.91/243.99.


Saturday evening the first round of the floppers ran and as far as the points contenders were concerned there were no major upsets or strange and unusual happenings.


There were two upsets down the list as Brad Thompson put James Day on the trailer. The big one was when Justin Taylor who was number 15 picked Billy Morris’ pocket. Last but not least number 7 Tony Jurado stole one from Matt Bynum.


Round two of the floppers, and this is when it got interesting. Since both Arend and Cottrell had been victorious in round one, this pretty much put an end to Horan’s championship hopes. It came down to who would go farther in eliminations. As luck would have it they would meet up in round two. So, this match up would be for all the marbles.


Arend was out first by four thousandths of a second with Cottrell right behind him. However, by halftrack the bright green Camaro had pulled alongside the bright yellow Trans Am. As they two cars crossed the finish line it would be Cottrell taking the win 5.73/241.72 to Arend’s 5.75/255.15. MOV .0011 or about two feet. The title would be Cottrell’s for a second year in a row, and now his job was to win this race as well.


In the semifinals it was Jarado vs Horan and past champ Steven Densham and newly crowned two-time champ Bobby Cottrell.


Jarado was ready for this one as he was over six hundredths better than Horan on the starting line, and that is all he needed as he took the win 5.74/257.53 to a quicker but losing 5.73/259.11.

Steve Densham in “Teacher’s Pet.” 


Cottrell and Densham then faced off. The two cars left together and ran side by side until about 1,000 feet and then the green Camaro started to pull away. It crossed the finish line in a huge cloud of smoke and then what looked like a secondary explosion occurred. There was no fire that could be seen from the starting line, but it didn’t look like there were many usable pistons left in that motor. Cottrell’s number was 5.69/239.70, Densham 5.79/246.70.


The finals would match up for form erPro Mod driver and the former 7.0 Pro star. At the green it was Jarado out first with Cottrell right behind, but that Uncle Bucky Austin tune up once again showed its strength taking the win at 5.67/249.90, along with killing another set of pistons and god knows how many mosquitos. Jarado would have to settle for second with his 5.85/233.80.


Afterwards a very grateful Cottrell stated that “This has been a very hectic day. We hurt a lot of parts today, and anybody that hung around our pits between rounds knew we didn’t back into this one for sure.” Cottrell was grateful also to the crew for their hard work and efforts. “The crew worked their butts off and I can’t thank them enough.” He also knows that he as an awesome car owner and management team with Bucky and Dennis Austin, along with Mike O’Brien. “I’m really, really happy, I couldn’t have asked for a better team.”




Going back-to-back to win a championship is hard enough, but having both cars in the nitro categories win two consecutive championships is crazy. Congrats to both teams.


If High Speed decides not to come back to compete next year, it might get interesting where some of those crew members might end up, and how much if any of that data garnered from working at High Speed Motorsports will start to migrate to other teams?


Where would Mendy Fry end up driving next year, or would she be the guest analysist on her hubby’s webcast of the Top Fuel races? (Sorry, Whit, she is a damn sight prettier than you.)


There were fourteen Top Fuel cars this year at the Reunion, the most in years. Three new cars are confirmed built and ready to go.


Twenty Funny Cars at this year’s Reunion, the least in many years. Could this be a trend? We’ll have to find out. Next season should be very interesting.



Drew Austin in A / Fuel; Brad Woodard in Jr. Fuel; Steve Faller in 7.0 Pro; Dave Lawson in Nostalgia Eliminator 1; Eddie Lucas in NE 2; Don Morris in NE 3; Casey Treuer in A/Gas; Neal Westbrook in B/Gas; Mike Rabener in C/Gas; Bill Norton in D/Gas; and Henry Roberson in Hot Rod.



JUNIOR FUEL: Brad Woodard, Dragster, 7.522, 190.40 def. Matt Baldonado, Farr, 8.934, 178.90.

A FUEL: Shayne Stewart, Tuttle, 12.867, 76.98 def. Wayne Ramay, N + P, Foul - Red Light.


AA/FUEL ALTERED: Jason Richey, Fiat, 6.019, 231.28 def. Kyle Hough, Ford, 6.243, 205.94.


AA/FUEL ALTERED (CONSOLATION): Rodney Flournoy, Ford, 6.520, 212.79 def. Jeff Bennett, Bantam, 8.770, 110.91.


7.0 PRO: Brad Denney, Bantam, 7.053, 175.62 def. Richard Phillips, Bantam, Foul - Red Light.


A/FX: Rob Patten, Roadrunner, 10.563, 115.05 def. Paull Searle, Sport Fury, Foul - Red Light.


AA GAS: Howard Anderson, Chevrolet, 6.454, 209.72 def. Mike Molea, Willys, 10.648, 78.51.


PRO MOD: Mike Maggio, Camaro, 12.748, 59.91 def. Ed Thornton, Camaro, Foul - Red Light.


HOT ROD: AJ Thomas, El Camino, 11.989, 96.23 def. Jerry Cooksey, Nova, Foul - Red Light.


NOSTALGIA ELIMINATOR III: Darren Hopkins, Camaro, 9.657, 137.95 def. Mike Gillespie, Roadster, 9.695, 127.39.


NE II: Eddie Lucas, Austin Bantam, 10.256, 102.03 def. Troy Moyle, Ford T, Foul - Red Light.

NE I: Dan Schrokosch, Tuttle, 7.618, 170.45 def. Lloyd Harder (shown), FED, 7.718, 160.94.


D GAS: Don Fournier, Anglia, 10.577, 126.87 def. Daniel Brown, Vega, 10.573, 127.65.


C GAS: Mike Rabener, Camaro, 9.602, 139.08 def. Meghan Anita Gorman, Camaro, 9.630, 142.36.


B GAS: Brent Handley, Nova, 8.678, 150.03 def. Jim Black, Nova, 8.702, 153.33.


A GAS: Brian Rogers, Nova, 7.619, 179.59 def. Al White, GTO, 7.581, 180.96


The California Hot Rod Reunion attracts a wide variety of cars. Here are just some of them.


The CHRR is held right before Halloween and we took a special look at some of the appropriately named cars and appropriately dressed participants at here



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