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HomeEventsDrag racing’s ‘golden era’ lives on at Hot Rod Reunion

Drag racing’s ‘golden era’ lives on at Hot Rod Reunion

NHRA museum, SoCal Auto Club provide place for vintage drag racers to return and race

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The long-awaited “Hot Rod Hootenanny” — aka California Hot Rod Reunion — was finally held October 22-24, 2021 after the dreaded Covid-19 delay last year. 

When Steve Gibbs and Bernie Partridge came up with the idea of the California Hot Rod Reunion in 1991 and the inaugural was held a year later, the fragile balance of nature on this beautiful planet was of no concern. We take so much for granted in this busy world, but sometimes there is a “wake up call” and we have to regroup and examine what is important for our survival. 

drag racing, Drag racing’s ‘golden era’ lives on at Hot Rod Reunion, ClassicCars.com Journal
Vintage gassers in action again

The California Hot Rod Reunion is not necessary for survival but, in a strange way, its staging is a step toward normality and a reassurance to keep our sanity and mental balance.

Not only does the Reunion still run on the old Famoso drag strip in Bakersfield, but it is a hard-core, nitro-fumed, quarter-mile display of speed, passion and dedication born on the dry lakes and streets of Southern California just before and especially after World War II. The running theme of the Reunion is “celebrating the way things once were in drag racing when cars were home brewed and the racing was more unpredictable.”

The Reunion ran for three days, and with cloudy weather and temperatures in the 70s, the track was perfect for nitro-burning front-engine dragsters, nostalgic Funny Cars, muscle cars, street rods, super stockers and gassers.  

The non-profit Wally Parks NHRA Motorsports Museum in Pomona produces and benefits from the event, which is presented by the Automobile Club of Southern California. It is said that the Reunion puts “history in motion and allows spectators and participants to experience the smoke and thunder of drag racing history up close and personal.” 

drag racing, Drag racing’s ‘golden era’ lives on at Hot Rod Reunion, ClassicCars.com Journal
drag racing, Drag racing’s ‘golden era’ lives on at Hot Rod Reunion, ClassicCars.com Journal
‘Barnstormer’ tribute and its trailer

The Auto Club is involved in preserving and celebrating drag racing’s roots where fans, drivers, mechanics and legends of the sport can share stories and mingle and relive memories. Past Reunions has been highlighted by the presence of “Big Daddy” Don Garlits, Chris “the Greek” Karamesines, Don “the Snake” Prudhomme, Tom “Mongoose” McEwin, Linda Vaughn and many more.

This year at the free Friday night honoree reception at the Double Tree Hotel, Grand Marshal “Isky” Ed Iskenderian (who recently celebrated his 100th birthday) was unable to attend, but the honorees were in full force including Ron Attebury, Sherm Gunn, Dick Kalivoda, and Mike Thermos.

At the track, as a stroll-a-long break from the racing, fans enjoyed walking along Famoso Grove, capturing sights of hot rods, customs, classics and trucks on display, and winding up at the huge automotive swap meet at the top end. A vendors midway kept enthusiasts enthralled with the latest automotive innovations while thundering sounds of blown and injected Hemis reverberated in the background.

By early evening, the highly popular “Cackle Fest” was staging with dozens of nitro-burning front-engine fuelers gathered together on the strip with engines running, their nitro-fueled flames lighting up the night say.

A big attraction in the “cackle” group was the tribute “TV Tommy” Ivo Barnstormer Top Fuel dragster and the see-through glass trailer that built by the late Ron Johnson. Connie Braun, Johnson’s daughter, and her siblings Kol Johnson and Christine Griffin brought the Barnstormer for all see and hear and to “share in dad’s passions for historic race cars. We love racing because dad loved it,” she said.

Of the 23 race cars the TV star and drag racer owned, the Barnstormer was his favorite.

drag racing, Drag racing’s ‘golden era’ lives on at Hot Rod Reunion, ClassicCars.com Journal
Dan Horan raced both in Funny Car and in Top Fuel, winning the later category (above)
drag racing, Drag racing’s ‘golden era’ lives on at Hot Rod Reunion, ClassicCars.com Journal
Drew Austin (right lane) and Jerry Espeth line up for the start of the Funny Car finale

On Sunday morning the National Anthem and pre-race ceremonies kicked off the ear-splitting final eliminations for all classes. In a field of 16 Nostalgic Funny Cars, a newcomer in the Funny Car ranks, Drew Austin in his 1970 Chevrolet Camaro, had qualified 11th in the 16-car field but opened the final day with an incredible 5.548-second, 260.11-mph performance to beat Bill Morris’ ’69 Camaro (5.799 at 222.11 mph). In the semi-final round, Austin beat Jerry Espeseth’s 5.663 (69 Camaro) and won the Wally Trophy with a 5.636 blast at 256.60 mph. 

Even though Dan Horan did not win in his 1969 Camaro Funny car, he got a Wally Trophy by taking the final round of the Nostalgic Top Fuel competition, putting away Adam Sorokin with a 5.716 at 256.60 mph to Sorokin’s 5.98 at 226.66 mph. Horan also claimed top speed at 5.652/261.78 mph,.

He also said this would be his final ride in the dragster, announcing, “Next year I’m handing that car over to my son Ryan.” 

In the wild and wooly Fuel Altered, Randy Bradford in the ’48 Fiat housing a big 417 Donovan engine ran 6.276 at 195.8, sending home Shawn Callen in a Chevy-powered  ’32 Batam, which did a 6.570 at 203.98 mph.

The California Hot Rod Reunion is the concluding round of the NHRA Hot Rod Heritage racing series, won this year by Dan Horan (Top Fuel) and Bobby Cottrell (Funny Car).

“The Reunions have become part of the museum’s core programming,” noted the facility’s curator Greg Sharp, “and we consider them a living history exhibition that keep our history vibrant and relevant.”  

drag racing, Drag racing’s ‘golden era’ lives on at Hot Rod Reunion, ClassicCars.com Journal
Howard Koby
Howard graduated with honors from the Art Center College of Design in California. He has been a photographer and automotive journalist for 35 years out of his Los Angeles studio. He has been published in Hot Rod, AutoWeek, Road & Track, Car and Driver, Jaguar Journal, Forza, Vintage Motorsport, Classic Motorsports, Robb Report, Motor Trend Classic, Hemmings Muscle Machines, and 50 Years of Road & Track (MBI Publishing). He has served on the Advisory Committee of the Transportation Design Department at Art Center College of Design. He is the author of the books Top Fuel Dragsters of the 1970s and Pro Stock Dragsters of the 1970s, both available on amazon.com.

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