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NHRA National Hot Rod Reunion • June 19-21, 2009

story and photos by Dennis Sammon and Corey Stover

Has anyone noticed how time flies? On June 19-21, 2009 it had been 6 years since we attended the inaugural NHRA Hot Rod Reunion in 2003 at the beautiful Beech Bend Dragway in Bowling Green, Kentucky. We attended that year with a group of 6 hot rods that caravaned to the Blue Grass State for the event. Everyone agreed this was a show we would never miss. Guess what? Time flew, things happened, other things took priority, etc. Well, for 2009 by golly, I was bound and determined to make it. It was an event I wasn’t missing again. It had been way too long.

The Tub was not done yet, so that just meant my son Corey, my buddy Ziggy and I had room in the truck for parts to bring home. The comfort of a quad cab Hemi Dodge made the trip efficient, although not as much of an adventure as if we drove hot rods, but making Bowling Green in 13 hours including lunch wasn’t bad. Just shy of 800 miles in one day seems about the norm for me. We rolled into the Baymont Inn a day earlier than expected. No problem, our suite was ready and waiting.

Thursday was basically set-up at the track. NHRA had a reception for the Media folks, and at the host hotel late in the afternoon they gathered a bunch of cars to go on a tour/cruise of town showing off the finer sights. One of the stops was a restored Standard Oil gas station, where pictures were taken of all the participants on the cruise. It took us a while, but we finally found it on one of our “missed turn” episodes the next day.

Bowling Green has a lot to offer. It’s a very nice size town, and its claim to fame of course is that it is home of the Corvette. Yes, the Corvette assembly plant, along with the Cadillac XLR are both built side by side, and nearby is the Corvette Museum. Tours are available for both. Also, Holley Performance is based in town, as well as the Rail Park and Train Museum. It’s also home of Western Kentucky University Hill-toppers and the Minor League baseball team, the Bowling Green Hot Rods. Now how cool is that? And how can we forget about the Beech Bend Water Park within crawling distance of the racetrack?

On Friday we met up with hometown rodder, Larry B. in the campground where he had his travel trailer. Larry is from Melbourne, and had gotten there a few days before us - thus witnessed the downpours before the arrival of the over 1,700 show cars and 400+ nostalgic race cars. There was still some standing water in spots, but no evidence of mud wrestling anywhere. With no chance of rain in the upcoming forecast, we were ready for the show of all shows. Just an awesome setting, with it’s rolling hills and large shade trees, killer cars and nostalgic race cars….and CackleFest! What could be better you ask? How about cooler temperatures? It was crazy hot. At one point I was complaining about the 104 heat index until I found out back home in the Sunshine State it was a heat index of 112! Ugh. After doubling up the cooler with water, Gatorade and sodas, we felt we had the heat covered, which was about to come down upon us, with sweltering vengeance.

The qualifying racing action was going on while we checked out the vendor area. Cool stuff, cool giveaways and even Candy Clarke (Debbie) of American Graffiti fame was there signing autographs. A very nice lady and she’s still looking good. They had the American Graffiti tribute cars on display as well. The NHRA tent was where the goodie bags and shirt sales were. They had some great designs, as always, and a good variety of apparel available. The Sox & Martin cars were on display, and after paying homage to the late, great Ronnie Sox, I was off in another direction to check out the Swap meet stuff. The swap meet was a fairly good size. I didn’t find anything I couldn’t live without, but the weekend was just starting.

That evening they had a welcoming get-together for everyone at the Holiday Inn host hotel. The party was inside and there was a lot full of cool cars outside. Hemi’s, Gassers, muscle cars, rat rods, etc. We were treated to the Smirnoff Top Fuel car and the King Chassis Jr. Fuel car popping off in front of the hotel lobby - Just to get everyone jazzed up. It’s a Hot Rod Reunion tradition. What fun! After everyone had their fill of burning eyes and coughing from the nitro it was time to head out.

Saturday was yet another beautiful day. Hotter than heck, but clear. There were so many killer cars like the Model A roadster powered by a Ford Indy motor. Different. The black ’69 Hemi ‘Cuda notchback from Wisconsin that was home built with incredible workmanship. Wild. The twin turbo black ’40 sedan was a killer, and one of my favorites; a ’30 American Austin with a big ol’ injected stacked Hemi. Just plain wicked.

What’s that rumbling in the distance you ask? The sound of race cars were all over, but the difference is when those Top Fuel cars crank up, people listen...and usually stop in their tracks...or run for cover. Nitro madness at its finest. A lot of fuel cars came out from the Left coast for this event, and there were a lot of beautiful cars. There were some on display, others that were just as clean, only running W.F.O. on the 1320. One of the great things about Beech Bend Raceway is that the grandstands are covered. Yes, something that a lot of southern tracks may think about doing. Nothing like checking out hot race action under the comfort of covered stands. Ahhhhh!

One of the many highlights about the NHRA Museums Hot Rod Reunion is the Funny car action. Back when funny cars actually looked like the cars you would drive, unlike the space odyssey things they have now. NASCAR has the Car of Tomorrow, but Funny cars nowadays are the Cars of Outer Space. Nothing is more entertaining than seeing the old cars reliving the past; Jungle Jim’s 70’s Camaro was there lighting them up, Don Schumacher’s Wonder Wagon ‘72 ‘Cuda, Bruce Larson’s USA-1 ’70 Camaro, Crazy Horses Hot Wheels ’71 Mustang, and Randy Walls ’69 Super Nova. There were even a few new Funny Cars out, like the Punisher ’69 Camaro, the Mutiny ‘’70 Mustang and the “Danger Zone” ’73 Vega funny car, along with the display cars, the Chi-Town Hustler and Roland Leongs Hawaiian Chargers. Brian Hitton from Nashville showed up with the Paul Stafansky ’69 Super ‘Stang which was recently discovered in a barn. Brian’s Dad was in partnership with Stafansky in an earlier car venture and he still had his hand in this one by way of the paint and lettering. What a cool barn find.

Did I mention all of the Willys that showed up for this fabulous event? It looked like a Willys convention. Gasser City, and I’m not just talking about the chili dogs from the Pork Chop Express trailer either. Yes, there were Gassers by the truckloads, and everything you can imagine was there racing and enjoying the weekend with even the Stone, Woods & Cook ’40 Willys leading the pack.

Towards the end of the hot, but fabulous Saturday were the show car awards. Everyone that got an award got to take a cruise down the track in front of a few thousand fans. With lots of worthy cars, it had to be a tough job picking 20 fine rides out of 1700 show cars.

After the sun drops, everyone knows what’s coming next. The famous CackleFest! That’s where all of the Top Fuel cars come out, line up, fire up and just rock ‘n roll in idle on the track. They all face the stands to pop, cackle and snort until they run out of fuel. Total mayhem. The finale was Big Daddy Don Garlits rumbling up in his Swamp Rat 12-A powered by Chrysler’s late model 392 crate motor Hemi. Let me tell ya, it sounded every bit as good as the original 392. Flames, fuel, ground shaking, you name it, it’s all at CackleFest. It’s something to witness, and that was just nitro-icing on the cake!

Now after all that, on Sunday there was still some great racing. The finals going on, as well as most of the show cars still on the grounds, but we decided it was time to head for home after an awesome 4 days of hot rod bliss. A great big thank you goes out to Tony Thacker and the rest of the NHRA Museum crew for putting on this fabulous event. Thank you especially for bringing it to the east coast and Beech Bend Raceway!

The trip home was uneventful, which is a good thing. That means we got home safe with no trouble. Thanks for reading about our adventures, and I hope you don’t miss CackleFest along with all the other great race and show cars on June 18-20, 2010 at the infamous NHRA Museums Hot Rod Reunion. Until then I’ll see ya on the streets. Be safe, be good and be ready! -Dennis Sammon