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The 2007 California Hot Rod Reunion at Famoso Raceway, Bakersfield, California.
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California Dreaming

For most rodders the ultimate dream would be to drive your own hotrod through the Californian sunshine. If you had already achieved this and at the same time that same car had appeared at The Oakland Roadster Show what is there left? How about taking your Gasser race car to The Hotrod Reunion at Bakersfield? For Lee Pike and Jerry Denning this was reality not a dream! It had been a few years since the Bristol duo took Lee's '32 to the Oakland show, and this year was to surpass that.

The Hotrod reunion is an invitation-only race meeting, so to be asked to take part is indeed an honour; but with the aid of ex-pats Tony Thacker and John Reid, two British teams had been asked. The other team was the Extreme Racing team from Bridgewater with their Topolino bodied car. Both teams knew before leaving the UK that they would not be competing, but making exhibition runs.
When I found out that Honky Tonkin' with full Bristol crew plus support were to make the pilgrimage to the States, a plan began to form in my head. I knew my wife and her sister wanted to tour California, so a few hints were dropped and before you knew it plane, hotel, and car were booked. With three days racing, that would leave 15 days to see the sights.

A couple of months before we were due to leave, the '57 Chevy Gasser along with John Golding's '32 3-window and a Harley were shipped out in a 40 foot container. Once in Los Angeles, John Reid picked up the cars and stored them at his house. John and So-Cal were good enough to supply a mini bus with tow bar and a trailer to be used by the team during the tour.

The main crew flew out a day before we did to pick up the car: Tina, Jerry and AJ Denning, Lee Pike, Dave Tucker, John Gay, Nick Wait, Shane Moore, Jim Pantal and the father and son team of Hotch and Daniel Grant. Spence and his wife Pear had flown out the previous week. Our party of Sue, Dawn, and myself met up with Dr Bob and Jane at Heathrow airport and flew out together.
Upon arrival at LAX airport we picked up both rental cars (Bobs was not as booked so he was far from happy) and started our trip inland to Bakersfield. The first ten miles took about an hour, but once clear of the city the roads were easy. It was dark when we arrived at the Marriott - we booked in, went for a quick Taco Bell, and then returned for a well deserved nights sleep. Apart from Spence, we were all booked into the same hotel.

The next morning (Friday) I thought we would have caught the Bristol crew at breakfast but as we found out later they left for the track at 6 o'clock to prepare the car for racing. I arranged a lift to the Famoso track with Bob and Jane as Dawn and Sue were off shopping. It takes about 30 plus minutes to reach the track, which is found in the middle of nowhere, having passed many oil fields on the way.
Bob and Jane had pre-booked their tickets so I handed my 52 dollars over to the attendant and we were let inside. The pits are so big that it took a long time to find the So-Cal gazebo housing the car and crew. Except for a huge icebox, the Honky Tonkin' pit area was almost bare. In fact one American racing team could not believe their eyes when they saw Redface checking and setting the race tyres with a cheap foot pump, and quickly offered the use of a compressor.
With a full programme of racing taking place, the exhibition cars being called was at a premium. All you could do was wait in the fire up road and hope for a slot. I heard there were 70 exhibition cars present. To walk around the pits for a nostalgia race fan it must be heaven with so many famous cars and racers present talking and signing autographs. Besides the cars, there are plenty of stalls catering for all your needs, and a vast auto jumble of bygone parts for sale.
Late in the afternoon a light drizzle came down, so racing was stopped and we returned to our hotel. Friday night is the main night at The Doubletree Hotel in Bakersfield, with the car park full of rods and race cars on display. When we went into the hotel reception Tommy Ivo's twin engined race car was on display and he was talking to anyone who asked questions. The foyer was so packed that getting a drink was difficult, and so some of us returned to our own hotel for the remainder of the night.
Saturday was to be a long and full day, a couple of passes were achieved but the car was still all over the track - so speeds and times were below par. Steve Dennish came over for a long chat as did another ex-pat and his wife bringing their custom pick-up. I cannot remember their names but I do remember his brother runs The Paintbox back in the UK.
After the days qualifying, the cacklefest took place. There were so many cars taking part that the first entrants had to be turned off before the late runners had started, due to the temperatures the race engines were up to. I think a total of 80 cars was mentioned - many having traveled hundreds even thousands of miles just for this part of the show. When the cars had finished a presentation programme took place honoring many rodders and racers and their achievements in their lifetimes.

Sunday was finals day, and surprisingly it was also the quietest of the three days. Due to the distance many racers travel to reach the track, if they don't reach the last rounds many leave and return home. This was good for us as some spare track time appeared allowing the Chevy to run. Mind you it did cause problems as well because the engine needs to cool down between runs. Still, on its last run of the day with Jerry at the wheel the car went straight and fast. At last the crowd had seen its true potential, and applauded with enthusiasm.

Over three days, six runs were made. Five of the runs had the car launch as usual, but track conditions made the big car slip after landing its front wheels. The final run saw the car achieving a 9.1s at 148mph, the previous runs all being around the 9.5s 140mph mark. Asking Lee and Jerry was it worth it: 'forget the times' they said, 'the thrill was in the taking part - of course it was worth it!'

Phil Mitchell
     
From Jane:

We got talking to a few guys in our hotel lounge on the Saturday night following the Cacklefest at the strip. One of them had brought two 'Team Scorpions' nostalgia dragsters to the event purely to take part in the Cacklefest. You can check out out the cars of these Dallas-based engine builders at www.atinkersmotorsupply.com - be sure to visit the gallery page for some more Hot Rod Reunion pictures.

Another guy had been one of legendary Top Fuel driver Eddie Hill’s crew team, and had many great stories to tell. They were all amazed and impressed that Honky Tonkin’ had come to the event, and were keen to know more about the drag racing scene in the UK. Right on cue the Tonkin’ crew arrived, easily recognisable by their crew uniform of red race jackets, and there was much Bud drinking and bench racing into the small hours.
The next morning the guy from Tinkers even came over to us at breakfast and gave us a pack of beers to pass on to the crew. This hospitality reflected the appreciation and goodwill seen in the stands each time Tonkin’ made a run, with much cheering and clapping for the UK crew.

Leaving the track on Sunday evening was eventful, with Lee having a 'burn out' in the tow vehicle, a burn out under the bonnet that is! Luckily quick thinking Hotch put the flames out fast. With Honky Tonkin’ safely back at the hotel all sixteen of us decided to go out for a meal at the local Denny’s restaurant where all eleven of the crew had been having their breakfast each day. We don’t know what they did to the place that Sunday morning because by the evening the restaurant was closed with workmen in there refurbishing or rebuilding it!

Jane Jeffries
 
It seems the UK visitors made a good impression on US racers and fans alike. You can find more accounts and pictures of the UK teams, and the Hot Rod Reunion in general, at these web sites:

maziracing.com
eurodragster.com
nitrogeezers.com
gassermadness.com
hotrodhotline.com
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