As the NHRA enters it's 12th consecutive year hosting the highly successful California Hot Rod Reunion in Bakersfield, California, Beech Bend Raceway Park seemed like the perfect choice to host the Inaugural NHRA Holley National Hot Rod Reunion. Hidden deep in the hills of Bowling Green, Kentucky, it's the perfect site for a vintage-style drag race and car show.
Okay, let's forget the term "Old School". . . this place is the real deal as far as nostalgia goes. Seats in the grandstands look like they could have been hand-me-downs from the original "House that Ruth Built." The rusted, sweat-pitted armrests make you believe this may honestly be the case. As Street Rodder's Editor, Brian Brennan, and I rolled into Bowling Green, and then Beech Bend on Friday afternoon in our beautiful '32 roadster built by Alloway's Hot Rod Shop (since dubbed "The Rent-a-Rod" by the NHRA museum staff) we were pleasantly greeted by a feeling of being transported back to the late '60s. Willys Gassers, restored A/FX cars, and a few vintage Funny Cars were all taking part, which really gave us the notion we were in for a spectacular weekend.
Before we could even park the little green highboy roadster, we were awestruck by our initial sights of vintage drag cars. Some of the coolest racers in NHRA history were sitting right before our starry eyes. Like two overly excited kids roaming the pits of the fabled Lions Drag Strip in 1968, we hurriedly grabbed our cameras and shot frame after frame in fear that the cars would soon disappear before the shutter could finish its final exposure.
Also on hand were Bill "Grumpy" Jenkins' legendary '74 Vega, Gapp & Roush's '71 Pinto, and Bob Glidden's vaunted 1980 Ford Fairmont. All this, and we were only 20 feet from our "rental" car's parking spot.
Naturally, we collectively ventured forth, but not before giving ourselves a quick pinch just to make sure this wasn't a dream. Continuing on, we ran into a plethora of famous vintage racers. Arnie "The Farmer" Beswick was there with two of his familiar Pontiacs; "Big Daddy" Don Garlits brought an early Swamp Rat dragster sporting a small-block Chevy; making the trek all the way from California was the awesome Winged Express Fuel Altered, one of Dick Harrell's early Camaro Funny Cars; and two of Roger Lindamood's "Color Me Gone" A/FX cars were also on display.
The majority of the event's drag racing action was geared towards being more of a show, as opposed to an all-out competition. After all, some of these famous vehicles are relegated to "museum specimens" these days. Although there were Top Fuel and Junior Fuel Dragsters in attendance, there were not enough entries to complete 16-car fields like the California event. Nonetheless, the racing was fierce. Low 6-second elapsed times by the Top Fuel cars got the assembled crowd on its feet. The Kentucky fans showed their sincere and emphatic appreciation with a standing ovation after each Top Fuel pass, even if the engine went silent at half-track.
Saturday afternoon's capacity crowd was treated to a spectacular "Jungle Jim-style" burnout by Randy Walls. His beautifully restored '70 Super Nova Funny Car lined up against Joe Jacono in the Rollin' Stoned Cuda Funny Car for a featured match race, reminiscent of Irwindale Raceway on a Friday night in 1971. And, if that wasn't enough, Bruce Larson made a run in his '68 USA-1 Camaro Funny Car like it was the final round at the 1969 World Finals -- complete with front wheels hiked up for the first 120 feet.
Then, with the stands packed to the tin-roofed rafters and the fence dwellers four deep, it was time for the weekend's main event . . . Cacklefest! This has become the highlight of the NHRA Reunions since it's inception at the 2001 California Hot Rod Reunion. This inaugural event's participants included many famous Top Fuel and Top Gas originals, along with re-creations from NHRA's glorious past. The spectacular Jade Grenade, Tom Hanna's immaculate re-creation, Kuhl & Olson, Raymond Godman's Tennessee Bo-Weevil, the Howard Cams "Rattler" (with original driver Larry Dixon Sr. in the seat), the amazing Freight Train, and countless others all took part.
For those not fortunate enough to witness Cacklefest first-hand, the idea is to bring out famous cars from drag racing's glorious past and actually push start them -- exactly the way it was done in the golden years of drag racing. Then, the cars stop side-by-side and cackle until they run out of fuel. Even hearing these beasts run lean (and ultimately silent) is exciting, in itself. The sights and sounds of such a spectacular event are truly magical to those of us who remember these vintage fuel legends.
As the cars came out of the darkness from the top end of the track, they were followed by their push cars, then, slowly paraded around the starting line (under power in all their cackling glory) to make the final turn and face the top end of the track. The first car stopped diagonally just past the Christmas tree. The others followed suit and stopped next to one another creating a line of cars that extended almost to the 600-foot mark.
The crowd stood silent until the last drop of nitro was exhausted through the glowing zoomie headers of the beautiful King & Marshall Top Fuel Dragster. Suddenly, an unscripted roar of applause echoed through the hills of Beech Bend Raceway Park as the fans expressed their utmost appreciation for what has become a night no one in attendance will ever forget. In all honesty, the Beech Bend Cacklefest was Nitro Nirvana!
This picture-perfect facility, brimming with our sport's memorable old-day charm may never be the same . . . that is, of course, until next year's Reunion.