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..."
Behind the butterflies in the re-created Swamp Rat III, Sonny Messner’s fire-mask and gogg
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."
Famed first-wave fueler shoe Larry Dixon has a Famoso flashback in the faithfully restored
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."
One-time Division 6 Top Fuel tyrant Jerry “the King” Ruth returns to the throne.
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."
Bill Pitts said his MagiCar was “painted before the very first CHRR” by the late Tom Morri
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.
Chassis builder Bobby Hansen enjoys the spoils of his labor in his vintage Wynn’s Spoiler.
On the MagiCar’s epic burndown that closed the Cacklefest, Bill Pitts reported, “Many of t
Making its first track appearance in five decades, Bob DeBurn’s nailhead digger was resurr
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.
This detail from Swamp Rat III shows original owner Don Garlits had a flair for pop art as
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.
"The movie Field of Dreams did a lot for me because it came out about the time that I was
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.
Drag racers may get a bad rap from environmental groups, but when given the right material
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."
In the hours before the sensory assault, Tom “the Mongoose” McEwen’s hangs his hat quietly
Red Greth’s restored Speed Sport Roadster out of Tucson (aka Ol’ Noisy) lit off its 331 He
By the light of his header flames, retired journeyman Bob Muravez looks as menacing as he
Smoke & Ash
It was June 2001, and my best friend, Lee, was in a coma at St. Joseph's ICU in Burbank. He had beat cancer, but complications developed due to a staph infection. Because of belated concerns about germs only three visitors were allowed in his room, including his mom, his common-law wife, and me. I'd go visit Lee every day and bullshit and tell him stories. It was my understanding that he could hear me, despite the lack of response.
I was telling Lee about people I had talked to who had extended their salutations. I knew he was going to die, but I never let on. I just talked like I was a passenger in his truck, and we were going to get a burrito. While I told him who said hello, he started to well up, despite his inability to move any part of his body. Maybe he had a speck of dust in his eye. Or maybe he heard me and was sad that he would never see these people again.
Leaning ’er out until she runs out of nitro, Bobby Hirsch creates some fierce heat in his
In my travels while interviewing people for drag-racing magazines, I knew two guys who had been in comas—"Wild Bill" Alexander and "Jet Car" Bob Smith, both race-car drivers and both of whom had erroneously been declared dead after crashes—and they had told me that when they were comatose they heard what people were saying, and even knew when loved ones were crying.
When my visit was over, I had to take my Chrysler to my mechanic on San Fernando Road in Sun Valley. I had to leave it overnight, so one of the shop lackeys—this cool Chicano dude—was ordered to shuttle me home in the company pickup on a 20-minute ride to Tujunga. As we went up Sunland Boulevard, this young guy played the radio and wanted to shoot the breeze about female rappers and the Lakers. I tried to answer and stay involved in the banal banter, but I zoned it out.
He asked if anything was wrong, and I told him about my friend in the coma. I also said that I knew two other guys who had been in comas and came out of it.
We motored further, and Sunland became Foothill Boulevard, and then I blurted, "There's one of them right there!"
It was freaking uncanny, but as we approached Rose's Liquor on Foothill, I saw "Wild Bill" Alexander walking out of the store with a 12-pack of Keystone Lights under his right arm. "Stop the car!" I said. The kid obliged. I wormed my way into the open truck window, raised up and shouted across four lanes of traffic: "Wild Bill!" He looked up, startled. "Can you give me a ride home?" He said, "Get in the truck, amigo."
I lived up a winding, narrow canyon. Alexander and I gathered at my kitchen table and opened up a couple of beers. I told him about my friend in the coma. "Been there," he said. I reminded him that we had talked about that in the story I did on him for Drag Racing USA, when he discussed his crash at San Fernando Raceway in 1963. I told him about Lee tearing up as I talked to him. This kind of made "Wild Bill" uneasy, as he was like most drag racers and didn't like talking about hospitals or death. But, he confirmed that my friend could hear me when I talked. Our talk was comforting but also awkward. I don't know what I wanted out of this chat. My friend was going to die, and that was that. Bill knew it, and I knew it. It could've been him. It could've been me. It wasn't. It was Lee. Those were the breaks.
We had two or three beers each, and then Bill went home.
Lee died two days later.
In 2009, "Wild Bill" was in Rose's Liquor again (as per his daily ritual) and a paroled mental patient was threatening the clerk. Alexander was in line with his Keystones and said, "Leave him alone, amigo." The psychopath turned around and sucker-punched Bill, dropping him and then beating him into a coma.
He came to in a hospital in South Pasadena. I went to visit him every couple of days as Bill slowly came back to senses. The hospital vigil seemed all too familiar. Bill would live, but his brain was so rattled I knew he would never be the same.
This year, he got sick with pancreatic and liver cancer. It is my understanding Bill called his sister from the hospital last Friday and said, "I'm gonna croak." The next day he did.
Subsequently, he has been cremated.
I have been told here are no plans for a memorial. But I'll never forget him.