2016 NHRA CALIFORNIA HOT ROD REUNION - EVENT NOTEBOOK
MUST WIN SITUATION - Tony Bartone knew he could not lose the Top Fuel final round at the California Hot Rod Reunion in Bakersfield, Ca. With a third consecutive championship on the line, Bartone defeated past Heritage Series champion Jim Murphy to take home yet another title.
Bartone, who entered the final round as the No. 1 qualifier, ran a 5.600 elapsed time at 247.25 miles per hour to easily defeat Murphy's 9.519, 74.74.
You know something, you go, you try to win them all," Bartone said. "You battle a lot of things that could go wrong. You know I gotta tell you something, as soon as I won today, somebody texted me. They said, “You are the man”. I said, “Nope”, I said, 'We’ve got the TEAM."
"It takes a team effort. We got great guys, a lot of depth, and we just squeaked out this championship this year, and we’re all proud as hell of it. And, you know, we worked hard, we put a lot of effort into the program. We’re here to do one thing, and we’ve been doing that."
Bartone earned his way into the finals on the strength of wins over Bret Williamson and Adam Sorokin. This year, unlike the previous two, Bartone was forced to battle to the very end to preserve his chances of winning.
"You know, there’s nothing like winning," Bartone said. "There’s nothing like winning a race. There’s nothing like winning a championship. There’s excitement on the line anyway you shake it. I’m an emotional guy; I get pumped up for this stuff. We had a great day, great team, and I couldn’t be happier."
While Bartone is unsure of his racing future, he is sure of one aspect.
"I hope they add races," Bartone said. "We need races. We need more races. I’d like to see another couple, two, three, four races in the series. But, we’ll see."
NO PAIN, NO GAIN - Tony Bartone came into the weekend nursing a sore back which has kept him out of his Top Alcohol Funny Car ride. There was no way he was missing this weekend's event.
“Sometimes you got to do what you got to do and there was no way I was not driving it—this was for the Title,” Bartone said.
HOW THEY ARRIVED HERE - The Nostalgia Top Fuel division came into Bakersfield locked in a four-way battle. AA/Fuel Dragster drivers Tony Bartone, Jim Murphy, Adam Sorokin and Rick Williamson all entered the event with a strong mathematical championship opportunity.
Bartone, the two-time and defending Series Champ in his family’s “Bartone Bros.” fueler, had less than one round of eliminations’ worth of points on both Murphy and Sorokin, and was 30 points ahead of fourth-place Williamson.
It's not often that the champions of the two major series for racing Nostalgia Funny Cars get the opportunity to race in the final round of the last race of the season.
Jason Rupert entered the California Hot Rod Reunion having won the IHRA Funny Car title a little over a month ago. He was the No. 1 qualifier from start to finish.
Kris Krabill earlier in the day clinched the NHRA Heritage Series Funny car crown.
In the clash of the Titans, Rupert never lost his vision as he laid down a 5.592, 250.32 to beat Kris Krabill, who smoked the tires and lifting, slowing down to 7.494, 116.19.
"It meant everything to win this," Rupert said. "I mean, those guys are tough racers. I knew they were going to stand on it. Basically, Bakersfield’s always been a really hard race for us to do good at. We’ve qualified well, went to the final round once, went to the semifinals. But it’s an awesome feeling."
Rupert battled his way to the final round by beating James Day, John Weaver and Rick Rodgers. For Rupert, the victory marked the first time his father was able to witness his son at work.
The elder Rupert is an ex-Top Fuel drag racer who lost both legs in a racing accident back in 1979.
"That means a lot," said Rupert. "I wish my Mom would have been here, but she had to stay home with the dogs. Actually, my Dad has some friends down that he grew up with from Spokane, so that was pretty special that they were there. Richard Bays, just a big family operation pretty much."
Rupert is undecided in regards to his 2017 racing plans.
"I’d like to do the same thing next year as we did this year," Rupert admitted. "But we’re still waiting on scheduling. I just hope there’s no overlapping scheduling for the March Meet, because I’d really like to come and try to win that one. But, you know, that’s a hard question to answer because I really don’t know what’s going on."
Rupert said his team's key to success this weekend were simple.
"We pretty much just took the same car, same combination and just kept going the way we’ve been going," Rupert said. "We tried some different things we’ve wanted to try, and it really worked out good. We were able to run the car a little easier. Basically, kind of take it easy until we had to stand on it. And obviously, you saw all the smoke come out of the headers. We stood on it that time.
"It had actually the best numbers, the early numbers here were actually better than the .52 in Martin. It was just wicked up a little bit too much in high gear. The pistons didn’t like it very much, so it slowed down."
LABOR OF LOVE - Dave Wallace has been in drag racing long enough to understand the feeling of being under fire. The fire Wallace faces has nothing to do with driving a race car, however.
Wallace, a seasoned journalist with five decades of experience, undertook the challenge of administrating the Les Lovett Photo Contest, a friendly competition featured at the California Hot Rod Reunion [CHRR] amongst veteran drag racing photographers to determine the best photo 25 years or older.
The position could be a headache to some, but for Wallace, who thrives on preserving the history of the sport, the assignment is a labor of love.
"At some point, for whatever reason, the [NHRA] Museum needed somebody to try and manage it, because they didn’t want the headaches," Wallace admitted. "They figured I knew everybody and I could take the beating."
While Wallace takes a beating each year from those who fall short of winning, the selection committee is comprised of veteran journalists and prominent drag racing personalities.
Each winner must fit the criteria unintentionally established by Lovett, the popular photo editor of National DRAGSTER.
Lovett, as Wallace recalls, was a real champion for those seeking to find a place in drag racing photojournalism, and was known to help as many as he could on their climb up the ladder.
"He was an NHRA guy, but he always went out of his way to help other guys get published because he started as a freelancer," Wallace said. "Widely loved, great taste, great photographer.
"If Leslie liked a photo, he didn’t show a lot of emotion. He was a Texan. But if he liked a photo, he’d sit and look at it. He wouldn’t say much, he’d just move the photos. And then if he got to one he really liked, he would look at it and go, 'That’s bitchin.”
Wallace encourages his selection committee to employ those same attributes in their decision making.
"Leslie would have looked at the photo, not because it was necessarily the action in the picture, or the composition, or the color, or whatever, but the combination," Wallace explained. "I like photos that tell at least three stories. It can be a good photo, but if it has no significance to anything, to me that’s not a great photo. But sometimes, you get like here, we’ll get a photo that has historical significance and also it’s also just a bitchin’ photo. Something Leslie would have said, 'That’s bitchin."
The selection carries more prestige than monetary gain, as winners get 15 minutes on the starting line during pre-race festivities and a trophy. The contest attracts participants from as far as Australia and other countries. This years field is comprised of 40 entrants.
"They get to hold their picture up for the whole crowd. And they get a little trophy. And that’s it," Wallace said.
There aren't many happy campers when their photo doesn't win.
"Everybody thinks I’m a jerk except one guy," Wallace said. "Everybody else thinks they should have won. By the time next year comes around, they all stop grumbling, and they enter the photo contest again."
Wallace does have a vote when in the rare instance a tie presents itself.
"It’s a pretty big deal on Sunday," Wallace said. "You’ll see one person smiling, and forty people here who think I don’t have any idea."
IT'S THE REAL THING - A crude green 1955 Chevrolet called the Night Stalker was the result of a conversation between two dudes, literally.
Greenville, South Carolina's Greg Porter, who is known for his penchant to call his friends Dude, was at a cruise-in about seven years ago and befriended an old school drag racer named Dude Moore.
Moore revealed to Porter that he still had an old original Gasser sitting out behind his shop in the South Carolina countryside, and if he could do a restoration on the classic machine justice, the car was his. Though he could have gotten the car for free, he still gave Moore $3,000 for the basket-case Gasser.
Little did Porter know the classic Chevrolet would one day be the impetus for crossing off an item on his bucket list.
Sunday afternoon in Bakersfield, California, Porter made the most of his 2,075-plus mile journey from Greenville to the California Hot Rod Reunion by scoring the Geezer Gassers crown in his first trip west of the Mississippi with the honest-to- goodness real Gasser.
“At Bakersfield. Isn’t that amazing? At Bakersfield. you couldn’t ask for nothing no better. I mean, it’s amazing. This old car come from a Piedmont slab town, and it’s sitting in Bakersfield in the winner’s circle. Amazing.
“It ain’t even sank in yet, really. I pulled this thing out of the bushes and it’s sitting in Bakersfield. The most prestigious place there are for Gassers.”
Porter is no stranger to building hot rods and participated in a reality show pilot which aired on the Discovery Channel. He built a ’23 T roadster complete with a whiskey still. http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/video/discovery-channels-rebel-road-sneak-698571
The fabricating experience came in handy as the car definitely needed some work.
"It was in rough shape, and that's putting it mildly," Porter admitted.
The car was first prepared for the drag strip in 1963, with the only modification being the addition of wheel-wells. Four years later, the inside was gutted to make it a true purpose-built Gasser.
Friday Porter's run look every bit like an original gasser with the bumper dragging the ground, and front wheels in the air with each shift of the clutch-assisted four-speed transmission.
"I got up there, the burnout was perfect, made a lot of smoke," Porter said. "The damn track had so much grip. So I stood on the bumper in first gear, I got it out, then I pulled second, and it stood on the bumper again. It was a heck of a show, you should have seen it."
All weekend Porter was beseiged by adoring drag racing fans who had nothing but praise for the all-steel shoebox which runs in the South East Gassers series, which holds the most stringent period correct rules in the Gasser realm.
"It’s pretty exciting for everybody to come up, look at the car and just stand there in amazement that I have a real honest-to-goodness 1960s Gasser running out here," Porter said. "I never knew how much of a following this car had until I got here and the race fans were thanking me for being here."
THE MAILMAN DELIVERETH - John Hale describes his off-weekends from the NHRA Mello Drag Racing Series as a walking mailman, going for a long walk on his off-days.
"Drag racing’s in our blood," Hale admitted. "That’s what we do. As a driver, you just want to drive as much as you can. This really is the biggest nostalgia race of the year."
Hale races a 1969 Camaro in the NHRA Heritage Series' Nostalgia Funny Car Series, and competed in the California Hot Rod Reunion, one of the most prestigious events in the series. But for the Texan, it's not all about the competition.
"We’ve done well here before," Hale said. "I always look forward to coming here and seeing all our friends. We had about 31 of these nostalgia cars. It just brings back, like reading in the magazines about the old manufacturer’s meets with 32 car shows, and stuff like that when I was growing up. A lot of history here, and just happy to be a part of it."
Hale has been to the finals three times in the last five years of the Bakersfield events. He won twice.
"Winning this race here is probably some of my biggest and fondest memories about drag racing," Hale said. "To win here, you’ve got to beat the best of the best. There’s a lot of good cars here in California. And there’s some cars that come from the Midwest to race here. But when you won here you can say that you’ve beaten the best of the best."
So what light's Hale's fire about driving a car with all the aerodynamic attributes of sanitation truck?
"They look like the cars they were built to resemble," Hale said. I’m not taking anything away from the Mello Yello cars, but we can’t tell if it’s a Camaro or a Charger. With these cars, you can tell if it’s a Camaro, or an Omni, or a Cuda. There’s a little bit of all breeds out here, and you can tell what they are."
Before Hale left the starting line during Friday's first session, it was clear he was racing a Funny Car. Sixty-feet into the run, it morphed into a 747 jet as he carried the front wheels a full 100 - 200 feet before lifting.
"It was going for the wall," Hale explained. "I was trying to correct it and it wasn’t coming back. And then when I stepped off of it, I felt it come down and bounce, so I didn’t slap the pedal down again. Because I know it would come right back up. I think we fixed that problem."
NOTHING LIKE IT - Richard Hartman's actions told the story. An hour before first round of elimination, he stood beside his 1969 Camaro Funny Car enjoying a hot dog, while he rested his meal on the back deck of his Funny Car.
Hartman blames it on his residence, Williamston, SC, the place where he relocated with his family over three decades ago from California.
"I’m from South Carolina, man," reasoned Hartman. "It's burned hot dogs. The good kind."
Hartman works 24 weekends each year tuning Tim Wilkerson in the NHRA's big show. On a rare weekend to himself, he's got the family with him including his father, Virgil and wife Tina.
"What else you gonna do?" Hartman asked. "I don’t fish, I can’t bowl no more, I like to golf, but I don’t get time to do it. So, go racing."
Hartman's Funny Car is based on an original but revamped J. Ed Horton race car chassis built for Terry Mullins back in the 1990’s. The chassis saw time with former Top Alcohol Funny Car racer Rob Atchison who parked the car in favor of a newer chassis.
"We built this thing. It was about a year-long project to get it done," Hartman explained. "And we’ve run it, this is about our eighth race, and we are just having fun. I get to race with Dad and a bunch of good crew guys that have helped us over the years. We just all come out and have a good time."
Hartman said, in fact, there are parts of the experience which remind him of a simpler day when he and his family campaigned an independent Funny Car back in the NHRA Winston days.
"It’s similar to the late 1980’s when we ran," Hartman said. "Except, back then, Dad and I, we don’t get paid enough now to be able to say we’ve got to qualify to make the next race. Back then, when Dad and I started, we had to qualify. That made it so we could go to the next race. So, we qualified for it and went to the next one. That was our goal, was just to qualify. They obviously don’t pay us enough to do that now. But, it’s just to have fun. And we used to have fun back then too."
Hartman qualified No. 9 but lost in the first round to John Weaver.
A DOMINANCE FRONT - Jason Rupert, fresh off of clinching another IHRA Funny Car championship, showed why he's the driver to beat. He qualified No. 1 in the quickest-ever NHRA Heritage Series field with a 5.605 elapsed time at 256.94 miles per hour.
AERDYNAMICS MATTER - Ironically a pair of '69 Camaros earned to the top marks in qualifying with Rupert's 5.605 was .006 quicker than Ryan Hodgson's sleek version. The real difference was in speed where Hodgson was 4.52 miles per hour faster.
DRAGGING THE LINE - James Day pedaled his way into the field, although the experience was similar to a bicycle on a high wire.
Day made a strong run which vaulted him to the top early in qualifying with a 5.790, 236.30, but in the process oiled the track. Heritage Series rules mandate runs resulting in an oildown are stricken from the record.
"You know, it’s our fault," Day confessed. "The thing shouldn’t have gone out there and thrown oil out. But, you know, I guess when the pros are in town, we’ll play by their rules. It’s our fault, we shouldn’t have done it. But, now we’re behind the eight ball."
Day's second run resulted in a engine malfunction and it only went an 5.875. He failed to improve in the final session and anchored the quickest field in AA/FC drag racing history. Unfortunately he met up with Jason Rupert in the first round, ending his weekend early.
The way the rules are structured, Day admits, makes it tough on a team who falls behind early.
"You’re on pins and needles because the thing's got to run hard early, but with this small fuel pump, if you pull on it too hard, it just burns the rack out of it," Day explained. "And all of a sudden you’ve got burnt pistons, and it puts it in the puke tank, and throws it out the back. You take every precaution you’ve got, you tape everything up and hope for the best."
CHANGE OF PACE - Chris Graves was busier than usually over the weekend.
Graves, who along with wife Tera, have for the last five years supplied CompetitionPlus.com with thousands of incredible photos in covering both spring and fall events at the Auto Club Raceway in Bakersfield.
This time the Graves' had a different assignment.
Graves, who has a Nostalgia Eliminator 1, front-engine dragster made his driving debut here, and when not racing his car still managed to make his way back to the starting line to shoot photographer.
Tera was also racing this weekend, in a dragster which competes in 7.0 Pro.
"We race a lot of eighth mile in Texas, so going quarter mile was a big difference just in itself," Graves explained, "But doing it on this track, you know, you get first run Friday morning, definitely had goosebumps. Got down to the end, it’s like wow. That was a big bucket list thing. A major feeling there. It wasn’t a normal run. It’s one I’ll never forget, that’s for sure."
Unfortunately for Graves, his day ended in the opening round, while Tera reached the second.
"It’s busy. But it’s good," Graves said. "And with Tara running 7.0 Pro, running two cars, you know we don’t have a lot of data from running out here in the good air. Going up against these guys that run out here four or five times a year is a big challenge. But we managed to run pretty good, qualified for the field, and enjoyed ourselves this weekend."