When it comes to high velocity, American hotrodders of the '50s, '60s and '70s were like gastronomic athletes at Hometown Buffet. Horsepower and low E.T.'s were like potatos and gravy, and nothing could stop them from getting their share. Slicks got stickier, Double-A rails stretched longer and funny cars got sillier in drag racing's Golden Age, and Wide World of Sports was there to give young speed freaks like me a peek inside the bleach box from a bean bag chair in front of grandma's Quasar.
Thanks to Mattel, hot wheels like Tom "The Mongoose" McEwen and Don "The Snake" Prudhomme spit 1:64 scale fire across kitchen floors from coast to coast. In my own home "Big Daddy" Don Garlits was king, and I got to witness the fast Floridian and his Swamp Rat break the 6-second barrier live at DeSoto Memorial Speedway in 1972. I never had enough money in my pockets or grease under my nails to squeeze real speed out of my own muscle car, but I love drag racing and I respect the men who breathe nitro fumes in their perilous pursuit of quarter-mile glory. Compared to NASCAR, America's true speed demons cheat death in relative obscurity. Don't agree? OK—who won the '73 Daytona 500? Say "Richard Petty" and I'll say "great guess." Now, who won the funny car title at the NHRA Gator Nationals that same year? Pat Foster. Never heard of him? I rest my case.
One man who has heard of Pat Foster is a hotrodder and master motorcycle crafstman named Cole. On a crisp fall day in October, Duane Ballard, Lowbrow Weirdo Tyler Malinky and I met Cole Foster and his high-school buddy Noah Greenberg in Bakersfield, CA, for the California Auto Club Hot Rod Reunion at Famoso Raceway. The Hot Rod Reunion is a three-day cacklefest featuring blown dinosaurs a handful of hardcore old-timers and silver-haired millionaires have restored to their former glory. Many of the weathered gentlemen Cole introduced me to have known the younger Foster since he was in knee pants.
After paying a modest $25 fee to enter Famoso's top fuel time machine, Duane, Tyler, Noah and I jumped into a rented golf cart and scooted around like hotrod royalty. I haven't been to a drag race in 30 years, but like the NHRA nationals I attended in the '70s, the pits at this event were open to everyone. If you had a camera and didn't look like a bottle of sun screen the leathery codgers slumped in lawn chairs beside their prides-and-joy were eager to give you peek inside. When the view from the pits no longer suited us, we cruised our golf cart through staging to within 50 feet of the timing lights. At one point ODB and I were so close to the action we were temporarily blinded by the nitro exhaust spewing from Gary Turner's funny car.
In the pantheon of drag-racing legends, Gary Turner will never see his face on NHRA's Mt. Rushmore. In bicycle circles, however, Gary leaves a BIG burnout. You might recognize the grizzled guy in the photo with this humble fan by his ubiquitous initials: GT. When GT Bicycles hit the big time in the mid '80s, Gary Turner stopped building BMX bikes and turned his torch to alcohol-powered dragsters. I worked for Gary in those heady times, and the boss used to let me poke around his racecar from time to time. I still own a titanium valve from one of Gary's blown Ed Pink hemis. When Turner's business partner died in the late '90s, Gary liquidated his drag-racing assets to support his son's desert truck addiction. In '03 Gary dumped the prerunner and bought a fiberglass flopper. To give you an idea just how competitive nostalgia drag racing is, Gary's Pedaler ran in the high fives and still wasn't fast enough to make the third round. The eventual winner was Mike Lewis in Brand X, who turned a 5.765 at 244.39 mph. These guys may be old, but they’re not dead. Yet.
After watching early qualifiers for a few hours, we cruised our golf cart to the far end of the pits to check out the swap meet. There was nothing in that dusty goldmine we couldn’t live without, so Tyler, Duane and Noah joined Cole in the bleachers on the west side of the quarter mile. Tyler’s daughter seemed unimpressed, so while dad entertained sleepyhead with some Doc McStuffins on the iPad, I shot more photos in the twilight creeping over Famoso Raceway.
Now before any keyboard commandos bomb us with some banal comment about cages, let me explain why I chose this retro cacklefest to deviate from our editorial norm. If you’ve ever inspected one of his custom motorcycles, it’s clear Cole Foster looks far beyond the pages of old chopper rags for inspiration. Drag racing—especially the era his father thrived in—is Cole’s preferred muse. After huffing nitro fumes with the man whose father was a pioneer in the scene, now I know why.
Thanks for dragging me back to my own childhood, Mr. Foster.