15th Annual California Hot Rod Reunion
SCAC Famoso Raceway
15th Annual California Hot Rod Reunion (The Honorees)
Story by Richard Parks and Photographs by Roger Rohrdanz
It’s hard to believe, but the 15th Annual NHRA California Hot Rod Reunion, presented by the Automobile Club of Southern California, took place on October 6-8, 2006. The event grows bigger and bigger every year. The Wally Parks NHRA Motorsports Museum thought that one reunion, to honor those racers from the early days of drag racing, would be enough. Instead, the enthusiasm of hot rodders and drag racers throughout the country has made this an annual event. Held at Auto Club Famoso Raceway, just north of Bakersfield, California, the three-day event began on Friday night, October 6th, with an awards program held at the Double Tree Hotel. Dave McClelland was the emcee and in his mellifluous southern voice, introduced the guests of honor.
Roland Leong was the Grandmaster of this reunion. His exploits and prowess as a car owner is legendary. In the mid-1960’s, The Hawaiian plowed through the opposition with ease, first with Don Prudhomme at the wheel, and then Mike Snively. Roland employed 22 drivers over his long tenure as one of drag racing’s most successful winners. Larry Reyes was another of Leong’s drivers on hand to pay his respects. Wally Parks, founder of the NHRA, spoke about how pleased he was with the turnout. Steve “Big Hook” Gibbs, first director of the Museum, told the audience of over 300 people how honored he was to play a part in the reunion. “No one thought it would ever grow like this,” said Gibbs, “but we have over 50 Cacklefest cars on hand and this event has helped to bring people back into the sport they once loved so much.” Tony Thacker, present Museum director spoke about the growth of the reunion and how it has helped the Museum. McClelland told the audience that Don Garlits got out of a sickbed to fly to the reunion from Florida, and brought Don to the podium to speak to the crowd.
Chris “The Greek” Karamesines came from Chicago to speak at the program. “Kansas John” Wiebe came and brought his recently restored dragster, the Iron Horse. The Golden Age Award was presented to Tommy Auger, a motorcycle racer from Orange County, California. Auger raced in the early 1950’s at the original dragstrip, Santa Ana Airport, and beat not only the bikes, but any cars that challenged him. His bike was painstakingly restored for this event. Ed Justice Jr and “TV” Tom Ivo presented the Spotlight Award to Chris Karamesines, reported to be the first dragster driver to break the 200-mile per hour barrier. McClelland asked, “Did you really go 200mph?” The Greek replied, “You better believe it,” and the crowd roared their approval. “I love the people here in California,” said Karamesines, “they called me the Leader of the Fleet.” Karamesines’ car, The Chizler, was restored by Yan Johnson. Kenny Youngblood was commissioned to paint “The Greek goes 204,” and was sponsored by Stage Engineering.
Hershel “Junior” Conway was the next to be honored. Junior started to paint and stripe cars at the age of 16 for George Barris. Conway’s paint jobs can be seen on cars owned by Jay Leno, Joe MacPherson, Tony Nancy, Big John Mazmanian and many others. Junior gives all the credit to Barris. “Without George Barris, I wouldn’t have accomplished what I’ve done so far.” Bill Crossley was honored as a driver, car owner and mechanic. “We won the 1959 Smokers Meet in Bakersfield, which is now called the US National Fuel and Gas Championship,” said Crossley. “We were considered outlaws in those days, but were very fortunate to have good sponsors. We were very lucky in 1964, and we had a great crew and driver.” Fred Crow was the next honoree. He won the 1965 Winternationals, which was run in one day due to a rain out of the other 3 days of qualifying. Fred worked for Mickey Thompson and Bill Simpson. “I remember selling nitro to the Beach Boys Band members who used to put it in their VW Bug,” said Crow. Don Enriquez was the next honoree. He raced for car owner Gene Adams, then went to work for Stu Hilborn. Don Hampton was honored as a driver. Hampton drove Kenny Lindley’s car, then went into business making Hampton Superchargers. Don won the Nationals at Indy, then retired in 1984, to concentrate on his blower business. “I work 12 hours a day, 7 days a week, and I love drag racing,” he said.
Roland Leong was the last to speak, and he admitted he wasn’t a very good driver. “I raced only once, but I picked some great drivers to race my cars,” he said. Roland listed some of the drivers that raced his cars; Don Prudhomme, Danny Ongais, Mike Snively, Larry Arnold, Mike Sirokin, Leroy Chatterton, Butch Maas, Mike Dunn, Rich Dunn, Ron Capps, Jim Epler and many more. “There were 22 drivers that raced my cars,” he said. After The Hawaiian had won the 1965 Winternationals and Nationals, NHRA announcer Bernie Partridge told the crowd, “hey, here comes Roland Leong, the best Chinese racer.” Roland Leong was one of the greatest racecar team owners in the sport of drag racing. Leong praised Steve Carbone, Jack Williams, Sush Matsubara, Sam Harris, and Johnny Loper as those who set an example for him.