Retro Racing At The 2018 California Hot Rod Reunion

Famoso Raceway in Bakersfield, California is steeped in drag racing history. Not only has it absorbed the literal run-off of NHRA racing since 1959, but the passion and enthusiasm of the racers lingers in the air, every bit as potent as a cloud of nitro fumes and still-spinning tires as the nostalgia and vintage racers tear down the quarter-mile. Today, the two biggest races held at Auto Club Famoso are the March Meet run in (duh) March, and the California Hot Rod Reunion (CHRR), which closes out the NHRA Heritage Racing Series season.

This year’s Top Fuel and Funny Car winners were Mendy Fry, who has been on a ferocious rampage in 2018, and Jason Rupert, who had a difficult weekend but still claimed top spot and ran a 5.61 in the final round in his 1969 Camaro-shaped Funny Car.

Fry drives the High Speed Motorsports front-engine dragster, and set an absolutely scalding pace for the rest of the field, running low ET for the weekend in the semifinals with a 5.55. Earlier in the weekend, fellow dragster driver, Adam Sorokin of the Champion Speed Shop team had told me 5.60s were a solid ET goal, and earlier in the weekend, they were! Fry clearly decided to make all the dragster teams work double time over this winter break, because 5.50s are the new 5.60s. Along with the event win, Fry also gets to celebrate the Heritage Series championship title for 2018.

While the nitro cars draw the biggest crowds, CHRR has classes for gas-burning front engine dragsters, altered, gassers, muscle cars, and hot rods, as well as a show field for folks who’d rather watch than race. Everyone has a cool car, and a cooler story. Some of our favorites were people who kept the vintage vibe in their push-cars as well as their race machines, and that’s what initially caught our attention when we saw a small Hemi-powered dragster being bumped through the staging lanes by a red and white DeSoto.

It turns out the dragster was DeSoto power too, hosting a 276ci Firedome between its framerails. The driver joked that he was vintage too, still piloting the digger at age 84. “I built the original version of this car in 1960,” Jesse Schrank told me as he suited up for his run. “We set a record in 1963 as the first car to run quicker than a 9.61. We won Top Eliminator at Lions Dragstrip and won a case of oil.” Schrank and his son Jerry raced until the 1990s, took a short break, and then recreated the dragster in the 2000s to get the “Schrank Bros” rail back on the racetrack.

A few staging lanes over, in the Hot Rod class, Jen Galambos was waiting her turn to qualify in her 1968 Dodge Charger. The Dodge was powered by a 440 big-block stroked to 511 ci, and Jen was eager to see what it could do. Her husband, John, was a few spots back, racing a 9-second A/FX car named the “Daggum Dart.”

Out in the show field, there were a variety of fantastic paint jobs to admire at leisure, since they weren’t squirting down a dragstrip in a cloud of tire smoke. A cracked and faded lace-painted Austin A-40 Devon acted as a reminder of how many early gassers were a mix of American engines shoved into small British run-abouts. Across the row, we met Kyle Gann, whose candy and fine-lined 1951 Cadillac acted as another interesting look at changing hot rod style. “I’m a member of a car club up here in Bakersfield called the ‘Loco Bandits,’” he said. “We like this paint style, it’s sort of an early version of what morphed into lowriders, but it’s still also very custom hot rod.”

That really sums up the appeal of the California Hot Rod Reunion. It’s a place where you can trace the evolution of our hobby, and the sport of drag racing, all while enjoying a corn dog. If you missed it this year, scroll through the photos in the gallery, and put CHRR on your calendar for 2019!

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