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Bakersfield Cacklefest 2013

The Night of the Living Nitromaniacs

By Cole Coonce, Photography by Ted Soqui

Knowing that Pitts was the point of singularity for this whole Cacklefest phenomenon, I asked if I could embed myself with the MagiCar team for the push down that night. Pitts obliged. When McClelland ended his recital, I climbed onto the tailgate of the Bone, Pitts' trusty 1963 Ford Country Squire station wagon, which is already under a load with too many crewmembers and two dragster slicks strapped to the roof rack.

As Pitts pushes the MagiCar down the dragstrip during the parade, the crowd is silent and reverent. The announcers' descriptions reverberate through tinny speakers, like Gary Cooper giving his farewell speech in Pride of the Yankees. Finally, Pitts makes the turnout, and the MagiCar creeps down the return road. Behind the scoreboards, the push-cars and the dragsters are stopped and lined up at the behest of Gibbs, who will orchestrate the Cacklefest. On the other side of a chain-link fence, campfires burn as gearheads huddle around to stay warm, like peasants in a Russian novel. Whatever the announcers are saying is indistinguishable in the nether regions of the track. More fuelers gather at the top end of the dragstrip on the return road. It really feels like the moments before an epic battle. It's all laughter and nervous energy, as Pitts helps Jeep Hampshire put on his firesuit, gloves, helmet, and goggles. It is a muted ritual all the assembled teams perform in the moments before show time.

And then it's on. Under Steve Gibbs' authority, dragster after dragster is pushed forward methodically in front of thousands in the wooden bleachers and hanging on the fence. You hear the grunt of the push car and the soft ruhhr-ruhhr of the motor's crank and pulleys, and then the driver hits the mag switch and whaap, whaap, uh-whaap, the fueler comes to life on nitro and fire starts shooting toward the sky.

Twenty cars perform this feat before its Pitts and Jeep's turn. I stand up on the tailgate and grab the roof rack. Gibbs gives the "Go!" hand signal and we're off. The Bone butts up against the dragster's push bar and it's rolling. The impact pushes me back and the crowd goes nuts, and the nitro motor hasn't even fired yet. Pitts gives the Bone more throttle and the MagiCar still hasn't lit. Meanwhile, almost two-dozen fuelers are gathered on the track, all burping fire and bellowing to the heavens. It's Sturm und Drang, except for the MagiCar, which, for some reason, won't light. Pitts guns it some more and nothing happens on Jeep's end. The railbirds look confused. They would have gestured "What?" with open palms, if they didn't drop their beers.

Sigh. It's a swing and a miss for the MagiCar. It never lights. As the Bone approaches the startling line with a sleeping dragster, I think to myself, I would myself embed with the only Cackle car that didn't cackle. I jump off the tailgate. Pitts pushes toward the pits, away from the action. Pitts is pissed. Me, I've got to catch the action because I have to file a story. With another 50 fiery, fuel-burning dragsters that have yet to cackle, I join the saluting spectators in the grandstands, where it is a sloshy bacchanal if not revelry. Every time a fuel dragster had drained its fuel tank, two or three have pushed by and taken their place on the track with the pipes a-blazin'. It is a glorious, cacophonous mess. It's like the old song, "Cities on Flame with Rock and Roll," when Blue Oyster Cult sings, "My ears will melt, and then my eye." Everything is on fire, everything is melting, and it never felt so good.

And everyone is euphoric. Except for Pitts, Hampshire, and crew—the guys who started this whole thing in 1993. They are in Famoso's unlit back 40 acres somewhere, nursing their bruised egos after having stunk up the joint. Somebody forgot to put the MagiCar in gear. It never fired.

Another two-dozen fuelers go by, ratcheting up the delirium. Finally, two dragsters are left to push-start, including Don Garlits' old Swamp Rat III and—who is this? Defying protocol, the MagiCar comes down the return road a second time, and this time it catches fire. The crowd goes nuts,and the guys in the Bone are ecstatic, while Jeep Hampshire has a 1965 flashback and whaps the throttle repeatedly, happy as a pig in Play-Doh.

Eventually, the phalanx of Top Fuel cars begins to run out of fuel. The silence cascades, accompanied by disappearing ripples of light. Jeep, however, continues to blithely cackle, making music with his loud pedal like Esa-Pekka Salonen with a baton. The program called for Swamp Rat III to be the last dragster burning. Eventually, the only two still making noise are the Garlits machine and the MagiCar. And Jeep ain't budging. Finally, the flame goes out on Swamp Rat III. But Jeep is still blipping the throttle on his mount. It cackles some more. He whacks it some more. Steve Gibbs walks over and mimes his finger across the throat. Jeep takes a minute to find the switch, and then he cuts the fuel. For a second, there is actual quiet. As Steve Gibbs leans into Jeep's cockpit to talk, the crowd lets out cheers and thundering whoops and storms the gates, rushing with pulmonary passages wide open into a candy-colored, toxic cloud that covers the dragstrip.

Moments later, I ask Jeep Hampshire what went wrong. "Everybody forgot to put it in gear," he said. I asked him what Steve Gibbs told him when the fire finally went out. "He said: 'OK, you guys win.'"

Somebody in the crowd yells, "Epic burndown!" Jeep just smiles.

Through the pandemonium and back-patting, I see "TV Tommy" Ivo climbing out of the Barnstormer and accepting accolades. I ask him what's next. "I think this is about it," he answers. "I don't think I should make any passes in this thing. I back over trash cans and drive over curbs nowadays."

The next day, I point out to Bill Pitts that in 1993 the MagiCar is the first "Cackle car" to come to life—and on the night of the '13 Bakersfield Cacklefest, the last one to die.

"Life works in mysterious ways," he replied. "I am the luckiest fan in the world. I feel like a lot of people have enjoyed this, as well, and that's all I can say."

By Cole Coonce
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