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How I Survived The 1979 Street Machine Nationals

The night Car Craft lit up 21st and Shadeland

By , Photography by Scott Sullivan

It was more than just another car show. It was the beginning of the end. The Car Craft Street Machine Nationals was just beginning its third turn at the Indiana State Fairgrounds on the seedy side of Indianapolis. A scant two years after the inaugural event, the Nats had exploded. It was the must-see, must-attend event of the year at a time when traditional car shows were wimpy, sedate, indoor affairs with neat rows of roped-off cars festooned with angel hair. The Car Craft Nationals blew that all apart with an astonishing 4,000-plus street machines tightly bound by lure of participating in Woodstock with Wheels, but it was also tinged by the thought that maybe some magazine guy might photograph your ride.

I was one of those roving magazine guys. I was the rookie, commonly referred to around the office as the FNG (f-ing new guy). Editor Rick Voegelin had hired me a scant two months earlier and I barely knew how to find my way to work. But there I was on a plane to Indy to meet with the rest of the CC staff of malcontents—Jon Asher, John Baechtel, Neil Britt, and art director Charlie Hayward—to cover the event. And because I was the FNG, I got to do the story.

Baechtel, on the other hand, had volunteered along with Britt to transport the Grand Prize '79 Mustang behind John's turbocharged Suburban. This spawned the story "Missouri Loves Company" in the Oct. '79 issue, where Britt recounted how the 'Burban's big-block blew up in the Show-Me State and the pair had to drive the Mustang the final leg to Indianapolis. All this drama and the Nationals had yet to start.

The official story, however, was the jam-packed attendance for this third rendition of the Nats, the year that Scott Sullivan showed up with his blue, 6-71 supercharged, big-block '67 Nova and absolutely blew everyone away. In terms of cars that set trends, this one clearly pointed the way for blowers, four-link suspensions, narrowed rears, and giant tires. According to Scott, the Nova "really didn't attract a lot of attention at the show." It was almost as if it was lost in the sea of Camaros, 'Cudas, and cut-off jeans.

But that would change the following year when the Nova won just about every award there is, five of them altogether. This was after all three of the major magazines had featured it. Scott's was not the first significant Pro Street car. He's of a mind that that distinction belongs to Gary Kollofski's black, blown '55 that had stormed the beaches at the '77 Nationals. But if you had to pick one car as a prototype for what would soon be called the Pro Street movement, you could not go wrong with Scott's Nova. It's still around and has changed very little, owned as it has been for decades by a friend of his in Rhode Island.

While the official story focused on the amazing attendance, the real event, the one that everybody remembers, is the near riot on 21st and Shadeland Avenues on Saturday night. This intersection was the confluence of several hotels filled with young street machiners with not much else to do except cruise the boulevard. Official accounts lay the blame directly on the participants, which is indirectly true. Yes, the sheer number of high-performance cars combined with adult beverages and overflowing testosterone all contributed to what went down. Yes, many participants were doing their best to cloud the area with tire smoke that might have looked to the uninitiated like that corner of Indy was on fire. But this torque-fest atmosphere also brought out the worst in the local populace, people who were veterans of the bacchanalian rites that had gushed from the Indy 500 infield just weeks before. The devilish locals knew what was coming. They spilled out, crowding the intersections, congregating with pails of water, encouraging burnouts. There was even one enterprising soul who had cleaned out a store and was selling gallon jugs of bleach from a purloined grocery cart. It was not unlike like Mardi Gras except that the revelers were tossing tire rubber instead of love beads.

Of course, all this activity attracted the police. By 10 p.m., the cops had allowed the burnouts and the exhibitions of speed to continue unabated for way too long. Soon after that hour struck, Indy's riot squad lined up and began to disperse the crowds, police dogs in the lead. It was a scene from television replays of the street action at the '68 Democratic Convention in Chicago. Luckily for us, the only thing lacking was tear gas. Nobody wrote a song about this confrontation, but it was no less real for the unlucky ones caught up in the melee. Car Craft's tag line at the time was "Takin' It to the Streets" and CC's following was doing exactly that. Sullivan was staying at the (ground zero) Motel 6 and remembered, "The dogs chased people right into the hotel. We had 20 people in my hotel room we didn't know because of the dogs."

Frankly, it was a black eye for the event—and for the city. It was clear that the police allowed the burnouts to continue too long without intervention and then overreacted when it came time to reestablish order. So there was plenty of blame to go around and along with it at least one lawsuit against the city. While the Nationals returned to Indy for two more years before moving to Springfield, Illinois, in 1982, it was the insanity of 21st and Shadeland that eventually led the city fathers to banish Car Craft forever.

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