It began with a glorious Thursday evening parade of 150 colorful rods and muscle cars cruising through historic Bowling Green, Ky., and ended on a blue-sky Sunday at Beech Bend Raceway Park with a young top fueler hoisting a trophy triumphantly. In between, the 2nd annual National Holley NHRA National Hot Rod Reunion, presented by DuPont Automotive Finishes, brought joy, nostalgia and good old family fun to the tens of thousands of folks who attended.
Based on the wildly successful NHRA California Hot Rod Reunion - now in its 13th year in Bakersfield - the National Reunion struck a major chord during its inaugural run last year. The positive buzz resonated the entire year, and the show's producers, the Wally Parks NHRA Motorsports Museum in Pomona, Calif., had a strong feeling the second National event would surpass the first.
They were right...and then some.
According to Sam Jackson, executive director of the Parks Motorsports Museum, the National Reunion was bigger and better in all areas. "The Reunion almost doubled in size across the board," Jackson said. "The crowds, the racers, the street rods, the vendors - everything was way up, and best of all, everyone went away thrilled with the event."
And the talk and planning for next year's event, set for June 17-19, 2005, has already begun.
Here's a brief daily recap of the highlights of the 2004 Holley NHRA National Hot Rod Reunion, presented by DuPont Automotive Finishes:
Thurs., June 17:
A nice crowd watched as Bowling Green Mayor Sandy Jones and Gary West, director of the Bowling Green Area Convention and Visitor's Bureau, kick things off with Reunion Event Director Bob Daniels at the ribbon-cutting ceremony in the parking lot of the convention center at the Holiday Inn University Plaza. Mayor Jones and West also judged the 150 hot rods, street rods, muscle cars and classics that were part of the "early-bird" cruise night festivities that went from the convention center through historic downtown to party-time at Beech Bend Park. Jones tabbed a red 1966 Chevelle convertible owned by Gary Miller of Fairfield, Ohio, while West picked Ron Hassel's yellow '37 Ford Roadster. Hassel was the "Best of the Best" winner at the 2003 Reunion.
Daniels called Bowling Green "the perfect place for the Reunion."
No one would ever argue with that.
The Reunion officially opened at Beech Bend...and the crowds poured in. Roddin' and racin' at the track, then a grand nighttime awards reception capped a perfect Reunion day. At Beech Bend, Charlie Meyers and his group of judges began the difficult task of choosing the eventual winners of the SoffSeal Show 'N Shine competition. On the racing side, Steve Gibbs had to figure out how to squeeze in 400 racers when only 300 were expected. Later in the evening, Jackson told the reception crowd that Gibbs "may have to do a Blackie Gejeian-type of event and run six cars together side by side."
At the reception, which was packed, Bowling Green's finest showed up, including Mayor Jones, West, Sheriff Peanuts Gaines and prominent businessman David Garvin. Garvin, whose dad founded Beech Bend Park, was given a Wally award for his contributions to sport and National Hot Rod Reunion.
Mayor Jones not only read a proclamation making June 18-20 "National Hot Rod Reunion Days," but jumped in dragster afterwards and fired it up to the delight of a cheering crowd. It's no wonder Mayor Jones called the Reunion "one of the most fun, colorful events in Bowling Green."
Master of Ceremonies Dave McClelland charmed the audience throughout the evening with his anecdotes on this year's Heritage Award Honorees: Al Bergler, Bob Larivee Sr., Jim and Alison Lee, Art Malone and Bill Smith, plus Linda Vaughn, the Justice Brothers Spotlight Award winner.
One by one the Honorees came up on stage to applause and appreciation from the crowd. McClelland wove his magic with each introduction, sprinkling history with insightful personal stories.
First up was Al Bergler, who began his career building aluminum dragster bodies and racing in Top Fuel. In competition, he drove cars such as "More Aggravation," a competition coupe and the "Motown Shaker," one of the earliest Funny Cars. A master craftsman at bodybuilding, with aluminum interior work his specialty, Bergler won the first Don Ridler Award at the Detroit Autorama in 1964.
"I'm glad us old guys can come out and have fun drag racing," he said to the crowd. "I'm honored to be a part of drag racing history."
Next up was Bob Larivee Sr., best known as the creator of the International Show Car Association (ISCA), the International Auto Show Producers Association (IASPA), and Promotions Inc., the promoter of the Detroit Autorama. Larivee, who said he was "bitten by the hot rod bug as a young boy," was one of the organizers of the Michigan Hot Rod Association (MHRA).
McClelland introduced Jim and Alison Lee as one word: "JimandAlisonLee." He told the crowd "Every time they were mentioned, I thought it was one word. People said it together because they were always together." The Lees were veteran dragster owners who epitomize the best in class and style. The Virginians began racing sportsman dragsters in the early 1960s with a '32 Ford that ran in A/Altered. Jim then moved up to Top Gas with a Blown Olds clocked at 170 mph in the 8.90 second range. Alison Lee became one of the top female mechanics in drag racing. At the end of 1966, Jim retired from driving, but the couple continued as an owner/mechanic team in Top Fuel.
Honoree Art Malone was referred to by McClelland as "a renaissance man," and it was easy to see why. He raced for "Big Daddy" Don Garlits in 1959 at Carlisle, Ark., - the first drag race announced by McClelland - and also drove for Lee Petty (Richard's dad) and Andy Granatelli, among others. He partnered with Garlits beginning at the 1984 U.S. Nationals. Malone's support allowed Garlits to turn a 5.52 in the finals gaving him the Indy win and arguably re-created the Top Fuel category. He was one of the few drag racers who also drove in the Indy 500. Malone's best finish at the Brickyard was 11th in the 1964 race, driving the famous Novi-powered Kurtis Kraft. Malone operated the Sunshine Dragstrip and DeSoto Memorial Dragway. In 1962, he drove the "Osecki-Malone Special," powered by a nitro-fueled, supercharged Dodge hemi to World's Closed Course Speed Record at Daytona International Speedway.
"Fifty-one years of racing...and it seems like yesterday," Malone said. "I'm very appreciative of the award. Thanks for the memories."
"No, thank you for the memories," McClelland immediately told the crowd.
Bill Smith joked with McClelland when he got on stage, telling him that he should have amended his statement that the National Hot Rod Reunion was his favorite event. "Dave should have added '...with his clothes on."' Smith is famous for Speedway Motors, the self-proclaimed Oldest Speed Shop in America. It's the largest supplier of auto racing and street rod parts, and provides products for enthusiasts around the world. Smith opened his shop in Lincoln, Neb., in 1952. It now houses one of the great automotive museums around. He built his own cars and helped others as well. His cars have won in sprint car racing, NASCAR, modifieds, super modifieds, drag racing, in Land Speed Record runs at the Bonneville Salt Flats and rallying at the Pikes Peak Hill Climb.
Last up, and certainly not least was the crowd favorite, Linda Vaughn. Referred to as "the first lady of motorsports," Vaughn won the title of "Miss Atlanta International Raceway" in 1961 at age 18. She earned a ride in the pace car for the Daytona 500 the following year, as "Miss Pontiac." In 1963, she was named "Miss Firebird" and was featured in Esquire magazine.
She's best known as "Miss Hurst Golden Shifter," which she got after winning a national contest coordinated by Hot Rod Magazine. Vaughn has represented Hurst ever since. Hurst promoted Linda to Vice President, Public Relations in 1983 and she was honored with a special citation during a SEMA Salute to the American Automotive Performance and Motorsports Industry.
During a very emotional speech, Vaughn thanked many folks for helping her, including Garlits, Buster Couch and Dick Wells. "I grew up with all of you. I've had so much fun, I just want to thank y'all."
The evening ended with all the honorees being swamped with autograph requests and a big party in the parking lot.
Hard to top Friday, but Day Two was just as good. With the mix of rods and vintage dragsters, along with Linda Vaughn on the Hurst Shifter car, "Big Daddy" Don Garlits in the Swamp Rat, a concert by the Diamonds and the fabled "Cacklefest," it seemed like everyone was transported back in time about 35 years.
And everyone went along for the ride because that's what makes the Reunion so special and for many, sentimental. That's especially true during Cacklefest, the Reunion's ultimate blast-from-the-past event.
For the uninitiated, Cacklefest is where vintage dragsters return to the track for a special run. Since some of the cars haven't been seen in 30 or more years, the memories they evoke are priceless. This year, 23 dragsters, some push started, went down Beech Bend's strip, and then parked with engines still on, still bellowing flames, still cackling.
How fitting to have Linda Vaughn lead the charge in the Hurst car and Garlits finish the hit parade in famous Swamp Rat drasgster.
That's a crowd-pleaser in any decade, and always will be.
And on Father's Day Sunday, they raced.
Before the drag racing action took center stage, the SoffSeal Show 'N Shine winners, who were announced before the Diamonds' concert the night before, not only received their awards, but they got to blast down Beech Bend's legendary strip.
Fifty Top Class awards were handed out, as were six Best of the Best awards. They went to: Tom O'Brien, Pittsburgh, Pa., '40 Chevy Coupe; Dan Button, Glasgow, Ky., '55 Chevrolet Bel Air; Larry Frederick, Petersburg, Ind., '62 Chevrolet Bel Air; Rick Gregorski, Largo, Fla., '41 Willys Coupe; Bill Wellman, Largo, Fla., '32 Ford Pickup; and Donna Russell, Horse Cave, Ky., '67 Chevrolet Chevelle.
Class winners included the father and son duo of Keith and Bill Hallett. Bill Hallett, the son, entered a '35 Ford Coupe, while his father entered a '55 Chevrolet station wagon. Two entrants each won with two different cars. Troy Fellers had two different '69 Chevrolet Camaros in the top 50, while Steve
Honnell had a '64 Ford Thunderbird and a '72 Merc Spoiler II.
The rest of the day was dedicated to racing. Sam Jackson personally thanked each of the competitors as he or she was eliminated and congratulated the winners. "We're glad you're here," said Jackson to each in turn. "You are the show."
Competitors were unanimous in their praise for the event. Scott Parks, who drives the fastest Jr. Fuel car in the world, said, "it's a blast. I can't thank these guys enough for putting on this race."
Tony Feil, who won the Nostalgia Gas class, said "it's been a great day for me. I've been racing seven days in the last two weeks. Ending up winning the second Hot Rod Reunion at Bowling Green is great."
Top Fuel champion Sean Bellemeur of Camarillo, Calif., brought a new car to this event. He had high praise for his Plaza Hotel and Casino crew. "Hats off to all these guys," said Bellemeur. "They got the job done on Tuesday night. This car first saw asphalt at Bowling Green. It proves the heart this team has."
Mary Ann Cooke of Ocala, Fla., was ecstatic after her win in the Oldies class. "I beat the boys," said the driver of a '50 Slingshot dragster as she raised her trophy high in the air. She beat Terry Stewart of Tampa, Fla. in the final round when Stewart red-lighted, leaving before the starting light turned green.
Jim Swedberg, who won the Open Fuel class, was emotional about his victory. "It's been so long, I didn't know how to act," he said in Victory Circle.
An exhibition match race that really defines the Hot Rod Reunion, saw 70-year-old Joe Jacono get back into his old ride, a funny car called "Rollin' Stoned," 30 years after he last raced it. He roared to victory over long-time rival Lou Sgro's "Black Magic."
After the match race, Jacono said, "I'm here and the car's all in one piece. I didn't hit the wall."
Neither did the National Hot Rod Reunion, which looks like it has lots of victories runs in it for years to come.