Sometimes life’s cruelty to others can make you stop and think long and hard about your own mortality. When my great friend and photography buddy Stuart Mitchell, told me he had terminal cancer, I decided that I had to try and cross off one of the top things on my drag racing bucket list, and that was to attend the California Hot Rod reunion as a photographer and reporter. It was something that Stu and I had wished about doing together, but was sadly never going to happen.
Despite being in a less than favourable employment situation to say the least and following a year of sacrifices, scrimping and saving – Last October my wife and I boarded the plane to sunny California.
The 27th annual NHRA Motorsport’s Museum California Hot Rod Reunion presented by the Auto Club of Southern California, is the premier nostalgia drag racing event in the world.
The event was created by Steve Gibbs in October 1992, as a one-off event but has since become an annual event in early October at the historic Auto Club Famoso Raceway, affectionately known as the patch.
The meeting is the final round of ten, in the NHRA heritage series. The series has 13 featured classes including Nostalgia Top Fuel Dragster and Nostalgia Funny Car, A/Fuel, Jr. Fuel,7.0 Pro, Nostalgia Eliminator, several gas classes and Hot Rod. Although not all of the classes run at every event
Oh, did I forget to mention at the reunion they invited ten of those wild fuel altereds that we all love.
The hot Bakersfield sun bakes the track and the fans.
To get people in the mood before the official event starts, there’s a gathering of some of the neatest rods, customs and muscle cars to drool over in a car park between Chuy’s grill and the original roadhouse grill on the Bakersﬁeld’s Rosedale Highway.
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A typical Cali sunset over the parking lot car show.
Come race day, I have to admit that driving to the track with my camera in the boot I was more excited than a kid on Christmas eve. The track from most motels takes around 30 minutes and the raceway itself seems to be stuck in the middle of nowhere. Driving there you pass hundreds of gas and energy extraction machines, but then the track appears up on the left-hand side and your excitement levels jump up a dozen notches.
Some of the drive to the patch
The reunion differs from the March Meet because it has a huge gathering of original dragsters and altereds from days gone by, cars that we had never seen in the flesh but only in magazines growing up this side of the pond.
Many of these cars are continually fired up throughout the day, treating the crowd’s senses to the glorious cackle of a blown hemi whilst at the same time the strangely attractive smell of nitro methane fills the air. Many of these cars also take place in the Cacklefest on Saturday night, which is a huge draw to spectators. Words can’t do justice to the sights, sounds and smells of the 50+ cars that come rumbling past you with flames belching from the headers.
Tony “The Loner” Nancy’s Sizzler. “The Loner” nickname came from his ability to practically field a car by himself. The Sizzler was not only one of the best-looking cars of its time but was a hugely successful one and once beat a 32 car field at the Famoso March Meet in 1970.
Running parallel behind the track and sandwiched between the trade area and the pit area is what’s called the grove. A long dusty area which is not only a drive-in car show for some of the neatest rods and customs you have ever seen, but also another home to some more rare and stunning dragsters
At the end of the pits is a seamlessly endless swap meet selling vintage parts, memorabilia and whole cars that would be worth a few quid over here, if we didn’t have a huge lump of water between us.
On track action is hard, fast and entertaining.
The modern-day nostalgia top fuel dragster may not look like the golden era diggers that we love but they still take a huge amount of tuning and driving with that huge motor stuck right in your face, plus they are extremely entertaining
Mendy Fry (pronounced “Mindy”) had already wrapped up the Nostalgia Top Fuel Dragster title before the reunion but still went on to the event win.
Casey Treur runs this really neat 33 Willys in A-Gas.
Kamaka Pocock’s stunning 1948 Ford Anglia is powered by a small-block Chevy with a BDS 8-71 blower injected on alcohol.
Many of the old cars are continually fired up throughout the day, treating the crowd to the glorious cackle of a blown nitro motor.
The Magicar coughs some raw fuel from the headers before the motor roars in to life.
84 years young Jesse Scrank at the helm of his Desoto 276ci firedome powered recreation digger. Jesse built the original version of this car in 1960 and this recreation 40 years later. The push car is a Desoto that was a division of the Chrysler Corporation.
Simon Groves from the UK enjoying the em, fuel altereds.
Although I love all drag racing my main passion has always been AA Fuel Altereds. At the reunion the class is invitational and was limted to 10, which is about 6 more than we have in total in the UK. Due to some down time which bumped the class and my limted time at the track in the interest of remaining married, I only got te see the class run once (unfinished business )
Mike Boyd in the Winged Express was one the topcars I wanted to see and photograph. Mike never disappointed with huge burnouts and crazy lane swapping passes.
Ron and Brian Hope discuss matters before qualifying. Brain went on to win the class in Pure Hell.
John Force and Robery Hight were on sponsor duties at the event
As the light starts to fade ‘General’ Jerry Lee puts on a show in the last remaining wheelstander from the 60s that’s still getting track action
Brendan Murray’s AA fuel dragster looking stunning as the sun sets behind the track.
It’s 6 pm, the lanes are packed with nitro cars, I’m still in shorts and a T shirt, life’s good
One of the big draws of the reunion is the Cacklefest. Cars are pushed started in front of the main grandstand and run down the track to take there place in the line-up.
Words and images don’t do justice to the sights, sounds and smells of the 50+ cars rumbling past you with flames belching from the headers.
The Bevins & Fisher “Checkmate” digger powers along the track in the Cacklefest ready to take it’s place. I tried to make it look like it was on a pass.
The Burkholder Brothers Fuel Altered back where it began it’s racing career in 1970. Cackled by Pete in tribute to his brother Harry. Nice header pipe glow.
The reuinon is not all just about the fuel cars. Throw in all the other classes like the 25+ nostalgia pro mods running as quick as 5.6 seconds. Pretty gassers and rails galore and the entertaining AFX beasties doing 100 ft long wheelies and you have the perfect nostalgia racing meeting.
The Hot Rod reunion is a fantastic meeting and it’s very easy to get lost in time and sample the vibe of the venue’s long history.
Famoso Raceway itself is a fantastic venue for the meeting because you have a top condition racing track with all the modern extras but at the same time the venue still has a real old-school feel to it
If you ever get the chance to go to the reunion, I totally recommend it. With no disrespect to our European meetings – which I love – nothing even comes close to it. For $65 entry for all 3 days this also has the best value drag show on earth. Plus, you also get to eat at In and Out Burger!
Yes, it’s a bit of a trek and jet lag will play a big part of your first few days but it’s well worth it. Flights from the UK can be found for around the £300 return mark and the motels are as cheap as £30 a night, so not as inexcusable as you might think.
Word of warning, once you’ve been you will want to get back again, and again. I know I do.