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15th Annual NHRA Hot Rod Reunion

Three days of family fun, exciting racing action and a festival of American car culture have come to a conclusion as the 15th Annual NHRA California Hot Rod Reunion, presented by the Automobile Club of Southern California enters the history books.

“Hotels were packed, we had a massive crowd at our Honorees reception on Friday and our vendor and swap meet areas were better than ever,” said Tony Thacker, executive director of the Wally Parks NHRA Motorsports Museum, which produces and benefits from the Reunion. ”

Merchants in Kern County were also pleased with the turnout.  George Rangel, of performance parts marketer Powerhouse in Bakersfield said, “We had lots of people come in and buy parts this weekend.  One person bought more than $2,400 worth.  This event helps us more than the March Meet.  These guys actually work on their cars and that helps us.”

Wally Parks, the 93-year-old founder of the NHRA and Chairman of the Museum that bears his name, attended the event all three days.  Parks could be found “on the line” watching the racing, at the Honorees reception – where he received a standing ovation from the overflow crowd, and along the fence during the popular “Cacklefest.”  Parks was interviewed by many members of the media gathered from around the world.

With the addition of a “Chicago-style” one-day qualifying and elimination event on Sunday for Nostalgia Funny Cars, Auto Club Famoso Raceway saw more racing action than in any previous event.  That action included the final round of rain-postponed Top Fuel eliminations from the fourth annual Holley NHRA National Hot Rod Reunion, presented by DuPont Automotive Finishes.  Sean Bellemeur won his third consecutive NHRR title as he and Adam Sorokin came to the line during qualifying on Saturday, but his weekend ended in that evening’s first round of eliminations.

Sean Bellemeur took theTop Fuel title

Low elapsed time for the meet belonged to Sorokin of Los Angeles, whose dragster was quickest in the quarter mile at 5.806 seconds.  Top speed belonged to second-generation driver Brett Harris of Kaysville, Utah, at 260.19 mph.  Both were in the Top Fuel class. Nine champions were crowned in all, including Jim Murphy of Santa Rosa, Calif., in Top Fuel and Kris Krabill of Orange, Calif., in Funny Car.  A/Fuel belonged to Kin Bates of Anderson, Calif., while Junior Fuel A went to Scott Parks of Burlingame, Kan.  In Junior Fuel B, John Rasmussen of Littleton, Colo., took home the trophy and Ed Moss of Ontario, Calif. was the winner in AA/Gas.  A/Gas Eliminator honors were taken by Bob Patten of Tracy, Calif., Nostalgia Eliminator belonged to Dan Schrokosch of San Marcos, Calif., and AFX went to Kurt Chambers of Visalia, Calif.

Jim Murphy launches off the line

But it wasn’t just a racing meet.  Auto Club Famoso Raceway was improved with additional paved areas for the vendors and an all-new track surface praised by the racers.  John and Blake Bowser, who operate the track, have pledged to continue upgrading the facility for the future.  They also put on warm and sunny 85 deg F weather for the entire weekend.

During the Reunion Reception on Friday, Grand Marshal Roland Leong and Honorees Junior Conway, Bill Crossley, Fred Crow, Don Enriquez and Don Hampton shared the limelight with “Golden Age” award recipient Tommy Auger, who set records on a Vincent Black Shadow motorcycle during the early ’50s.  The Justice Bros. Reunion Spotlight Award winner, Chris “The Greek” Karamesines, got into his restored “Chizler,” and fired it up for a mini-Cacklefest at the Doubletree Hotel.

On Saturday night, 50 cars filled the night with flames and thunder for the big “Cacklefest,” including “The Greek” and Don “Big Daddy” Garlits, who brought out Swamp Rat III for the occasion.  Garlits had been ill early in the week, but got special permission from his doctor to attend the event. 

The event saw the return of Roland Leong's Hawaiian Funny Car

On the Sunday, a real highlight was the promised “Chicago-style” competition, which is different from traditional drag racing, where competitors attempt to qualify for the final day’s eliminations by setting the best times during one or more qualifying sessions.  In Chicago-style competition, all entered cars raced side by side in a qualifying round.  The eight quickest cars (win or lose) returned for the first round of eliminations.  From the four first-round elimination winners, the two quickest returned for the final event later in the afternoon. 

Dennis La Charite's 'Vette

“Chicago-style racing is a throwback to the match race days of the ’60s and ’70s.” said Greg Sharp, curator of the non-profit Wally Parks NHRA Motorsports Museum, “It’s a way to run a complete programme in a short length of time and each competitor has to give it their best shot every time down the strip, or face elimination.”

Steren Romanazzi's Vega ran a 5.98/232 charge

Among the notable 13 Funny Cars competing on Sunday were “Back in Black,” the 2004 California Independent Funny Car Association (CIFCA) Champion, from Torrance, Calif.; “Estrus,” an original fiberglass Vega-bodied car from the ‘70s entered from Santa Fe Springs, Calif.; “Hard Times,” a 1971 Dodge Challenger from Riverside, Calif.; “Pedaler,” a 1979 Plymouth Arrow from Orange, Calif.; and a “Pisano & Matsubara,” 1971 Vega from Los Angeles.

Estrus funny car driven by Ed Schwarz - he also pilots the ex- Mike Sullivan Stars & Stripes Topolino altered

“It was an incredible meeting, the best I’ve attended,” said Tony Thacker. “ We had a great response to the funny car shootout and it’s something we’ll be continuing to develop next year.  One thing is very much apparent and that is the whole nostalgia movement is continuing to grow - people are still digging out old race cars.    The  Smirnoff dragster from 1968/69 was on display as a barn find and that car will shortly be rebuilt, plus we know of others including the old Mondello Matsubara Fiat that will soon see the light of day.  It seems that there are at least two or three new cars which debut each year.  The knock-on effect is that the cacklefest is growing year on year and we are already wondering how we are going to cope – but that's a nice problem to have!"

"What’s also interesting," says Tony, "is that a lot of cities have discovered that if they put on a hot rod show, people come in and spend a lot of money on beer, gas, food etc  - apparently as much as $5 million worth in Kern County where the reunion is held."

Story & Photos: NHRA Hot Rod Reunion media team

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