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Bakersfield Cacklefest 2013

The Night of the Living Nitromaniacs

By Cole Coonce, Photography by Ted Soqui

It's dusk at the 22nd California Hot Rod Reunion at Famoso Raceway, north of Bakersfield, and the dust, grit, and soot kicked up from hundreds of weed-burning headers smears the setting sun in the atomic-orange Western sky. Over the public-address system, venerable National Hot Rod Association announcer emeritus Dave McClelland starts reciting names. "Bill Alexander..." Somberly working his way through a list of 80 recently deceased drag racers, McClelland's commanding voice caroms over the 170-acre facility. "Walt Arfons.... Paul Candies... Kelly Chadwick..."

These echoes of the dead are a macabre but poignant preamble to the Cacklefest, an exhibition of 70 museum-perfect fuel dragsters from the 1950s and 1960s, all of which come roaring to life like a Tyrannosaurus skeleton in that Ben Stiller movie. Indeed, the Cacklefest is the final act to a long day of racing, when period-specific, nitro-burning dragsters are push-started one after another in front of thousands of monopropellant-addled drag fiends and parked at idle with header flames dancing, while belching fire and cackling maniacally before swelling to a climax that would shake, rattle, and roll like Jericho. The noise only stops when the machines are bled dry of fuel.

Before the exhibition, the dragsters are paraded down the Famoso strip and past race announcers Ron Leek and Mike English, who take turns reading index cards with the details of each restored race car, its push car, and its driver. Among them, there is Jeep Hampshire in the MagiCar, the same sparkling gold digger he shoe'd in 1965. "TV Tommy" Ivo waves to the crowd from the confines of Ron Johnson's re-creation of Ivo's first-into-the-7s Barnstormer. Dave West pushes past in his tribute to the world-beating Beebe & Mulligan slingshot that crashed at Indy in 1969. Then Larry Dixon, Sr. goes by, scrunched in the seat of the same swoopy, sexy streamlined Smirnoff's AA/Fuel Dragster he drove here at the 1967 March Meet, and whose spoils from its sponsor often left the denizens of the dragstrip's pits bumbling, if not besotted.

Earlier, I had asked Bill Pitts, current owner of the Kent Fuller–built MagiCar, about the inspiration to rebuild these steeds of yore. As a gangly towheaded bleacher bum, fueler fan, and nitro nerd, Pitts merely wanted to own a piece of history. He had no idea what he got himself into.

"At one time [Top Fuel dragsters] were thoroughbred horses on the racetrack, and the people stood when they went by," Pitts exclaimed. "I missed that so badly that I had to have it back. I needed the sound, the smell, and the feel of a front-motored dragster from the 1960s."

Pitts, who had bought Don Prudhomme's dormant and obsolete Shelby Super Snake on a whim in 1989, traded it for a weatherworn and motor-less MagiCar in 1990, after the latter was deemed unsafe to ever participate at a Nostalgia Drag Racing Association event. In essence, he exchanged one lawn sculpture for another.

"We brought the MagiCar to the first Hot Rod Reunion; it was on display in Lee Schelin's booth," Pitts continued. "Kent Fuller shows up, and we talk. And [ex-driver] Gerry Glenn shows up. And Jeep Hampshire shows up. I couldn't believe how lucky I was. I had made the connection between the people who were my heroes. As a single fan, I made connections with these guys that I never thought I would. The MagiCar was the conduit to my heroes."

Still, Pitts was like a Civil War re-enactor who didn't know how to pack his musket. To be taken seriously by the real racers he grew up admiring, he needed to learn how to load his own weapon.

"Having it on display wasn't enough for me," he said. "I needed the thing to come to life. Over that next year, I went about the process of rebuilding Gary Cochran's [old] motor. I had [help from] Rick McDonald, who was instrumental in making the car live again. And I had help from guys like Gene Adams, who lived 15 miles up the road from me in Oceanside. I'd take parts to him in a cardboard box. I would say, 'Look at these, Gene.' And he'd look at 'em and shake the box, and he'd go, 'They look fine. Keep going.'

"It was one of those things where your energy within you would not allow you to stop. It wouldn't allow you to feel embarrassed. It made you go forward, because you knew what could possibly happen when the car came to life."

Finally, in 1993, it lit.

"The second Hot Rod Reunion is when we started the car. For probably six years, all we started it on was alcohol. We even had blower restraints on it, because I didn't know. I was worried. We had just enough help to get it lit and make blue flames at sunset. We would gather a crowd as we got ready to fire it up—people would come around."

Even at idle, the Cackle phenomena slowly began to catch traction.

"We were seeing more cars that were going, 'I don't want to just sit there static on display and silent. I want to come to life, too.' Fans were realizing that maybe going through this, they could make contact with their heroes, too, and bring back a piece of drag racing. All these pieces of the puzzle started coming up out of the tar.

"In 1999, for the first memorial ceremony, [then-NHRA Competition Director] Steve Gibbs had come up and asked me to bring the car out. We didn't even have a driveline in it. We pulled it out in front of the grandstands and started it up after he called out all the names of the people who had died during the year. It was an honor and a half, and the car actually started, running on nitro."

By 2000, there were nine cackle-ready dragsters, including Vagabond, MagiCar, Lincoln/Ted Cyr, Kuhl & Olson, Safford-Gaide-Ratican, Howard Cams Rattler, Greer-Black-Prudhomme, Steinegger & Eshenbaugh, the Chrisman & Cannon Hustler I. All of these restoration and re-creations participated in the inaugural Cacklefest, at that year's Hot Rod Reunion.

"After that came the push to get them coupled-up to where we could push-start them," Pitts explained. "That was the next step. That is what Steve [Gibbs] wanted to do. We went about the business of assembling the driveline for it. Then we had the first magical push down. It was amazing. The guys in the other cars pulled aside to let us move up to be the first car to push down in the first Cacklefest. Jeep went to work and was waving to the crowd, and people were crying.

"I sat on the cement wall after the last car came to a stop, and Steve Gibbs walked up to me and shook my hand, and he said, 'We're onto something here.'"

Gibbs was right. During the next decade, the whole megillah took off. Chassis builders and tin benders have been as busy rebuilding or re-creating machines that only lived in torn, yellowed pages of Drag News, arguably, and more so than building new race cars.

By Cole Coonce
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