The NHRA’s Big Show has seen its share of controversy in the last few years, with dwindling crowds and car counts, and the persistent feeling among the sportsman racers of being treated like step-children. Whatever take you have on the national events, the NHRA gets it right when it comes to nostalgia racing with the NHRA Hot Rod Heritage Racing Series. NHRA vice president and general manager Peter Clifford says it best; “This series appeals to drag racing fans young and old. It’s a great way to introduce the younger generation to the history of our sport and give fans young and old a glimpse of racing the way it used to be.”
Used to be is right. You won’t see Tony Schumacher in a 10,000 horsepower rear-engine dragster at a vintage event, but you will see guys like Tony Bartone in a front-engine dragster, and Funny Cars that actually look like ’69 Camaros and ’67 Mustangs. The fans love it, as evidenced by the huge crowds at this weekend’s California Hot Rod Reunion at Famoso Raceway outside of Bakersfield.
There are 10 Heritage events during the year, three of which are called Reunions since they bring out the past heroes of the sport, and the biggest crowds. The first Heritage event of the year is the famous March Meet in Bakersfield, which we reported on last March. The first Reunion this year was in Bowling Green, Kentucky in June, followed by the New England Reunion in Epping, New Hampshire, and the final one, which is also the final Heritage event of the season, back in Bakersfield.
This year’s California Hot Rod Reunion absolutely packed the place, with an estimated 35,000 spectators, about 100 vendors on the midway, and a completely full pit area with everything from Top Fuel cars to bracket racers. As veteran spectators know, you have to be there early to get a spot in the parking lot, otherwise you’re one of the hundreds that have to park on Highway 46 that runs by the track.
The California Hot rod Reunion isn’t just a drag race either. There’s a big swap meet that rivals the best swaps out there, and which focuses heavily on vintage speed parts and even a few race cars for sale. Looking for an original Hilborn setup for your Gasser project? It’s here, right next to a guy selling 100 Fenton slot mags. Your author even bought a ‘70s Honda CL360 Scrambler here a few years ago.
‘The Grove’ is what Famoso calls the tree-lined area immediately behind the grandstands, and both the HRR and the March Meet are known for the incredibly diverse cars and trucks that park here to create the “car show area,” for lack of a better term. This year there was everything from historic, vintage race cars to a group of hardcore rat rods and customs at the end of the ‘stands, and more ’32 Fords than you could shake a stick at. It’s a great place to not only see some cool hot rods, but also get off your feet and enjoy some good BBQ and a cold one.
As far as the action on the track, there are 14 classes; Nostalgia Top Fuel Dragster; Nostalgia Funny Car; A/Fuel, AA Supercharged, Jr. Fuel, 7.0 Pro, Nostalgia I, II, and III, A, B, C, and D/Gas and Hot Rod. The 7.0 Pro class is an index class with breakout rules and is intended for front-engine dragsters, center-steer Altereds and pre-1980 Nostalgia Funny Cars. But just like NHRA’s Big Show, it’s the Funny Cars that steal the bulk of the attention, and this year there was an amazing 29 floppers trying to qualify for the 16-car ladder. The top spot was held by Washington’s Mark Sanders in his ’70 Mustang-bodied fueler, but the Wally went home with Dan Horan and his red, white, and blue ’66 Mustang when he ran a 5.724 at 254 mph against John Hale in the final round. That win also gave Horan the Nostalgia Funny Car championship, and marked the last race with his veteran crew chief Ron Swearingen. Horan also had some coaching from NHRA Funny Car racer and Frank Hawley Drag Racing School instructor Jack Beckman in his pit.
In Top Fuel, Tony Bartone continued his sweep of the series by making it five-for-five on the year, taking the win at Bakersfield. Bartone didn’t lose a single round of eliminations all year, and this last one was probably the easiest, when his final-round competitor Rick White staged too deep and redlit. Bartone said, “I was nervous from the semifinals on and I was nervous in the car. We wanted to pull off the deed and wanted to pull off the sweep and win the race. I’ve been at this a long time but I was nervous today. We have the broom in the truck to celebrate the sweep and the great season.”
In the other classes, Pro Mod was won by Mike Maggio; the Junior Fuel title was taken by Don Enriquez; A/Fuel winner and 7.0 Pro winner was Bobby Cottrell; the 7.0 Pro B winner was Jesse Adams; Nostalgia Eliminator 1 was Jason Barta; the A/Gas winner was Eric Bush; and A/FX was won by Doug Hampton. And as per usual, the Winged Express Fuel Altered put on a burnout clinic, which never gets old. We’d love to drive that thing, but we’re not sure we have the cajones to actually get behind the wheel and pin the loud pedal.
For sure, there’s a lot of awesome drag racing, but the biggest crowd-pleaser of the whole weekend was the Cacklefest, where roughly 40 legendary vintage, fuel-burning cars paraded up the dragstrip, then down the return road, finally parking near the top end of the track with nitro flames exploding out of the zoomies. It was a sight to see, and it was standing room-only along the fence and in the packed grandstands. Some guys even wept, and it wasn’t from the fumes.
Special awards were given out, including the Cacklefest award given to an entrant that best represented the golden age of Top Fuel racing. That went to the Jenkins, T-Bar, Cortines, ‘71 front engine dragster owned by Bob Gibson of Texas. Classic photographs were on display during the weekend and with veteran drag racing historian Dave Wallace presiding, Don Hale won first prize for his photo taken at a very early March Meet.
The 2015 California Hot Rod Reunion, presented by Automobile Club of Southern California, will be back at Famoso on Oct. 23-25, 2015 and if you’ve never been, you really can’t call yourself a drag racing fan. For more information on the California Hot Rod Reunion presented by Automobile Club of Southern California, please visit www.nhramuseum.org.