The Bean Bandits Turn 60 Aug. 29, 2009

The Bean Bandits Turn 60 Aug. 29, 2009
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The Bean Bandits Turn 60!

Ocean Beach, CA
Aug 29, ‘09


Story by Richard Parks, photographs by Roger Rohrdanz

The Bean Bandits of San Diego are a storied car club. They were in the forefront of drag racing in the early 1950's, helped to form and manage Paradise Mesa Drag Strip and were players in land speed racing for the last six decades. They are a well-known club and their t-shirts, hats and memorabilia are sought after by fans around the world. Roger and I received an invitation for the event, which was held at the Masonic Temple, in Ocean Beach, California on Saturday, August 29, 2009. We made the trip down the coast in very good time and luckily we found a parking spot, a rarity in a beach town. The parking lot was rather small, but the Bean Bandits made use of every inch to park some nice looking race cars and hot rods. The building was smaller than normal, but the crowds of fans and some who just wandered in, had no trouble finding a spot to sit and talk. People would come and go, making room for latecomers. The Bean Bandits are famous for their hospitality, food and quiet ambience. They are also famous for being late. Rather than this being viewed negatively, it should be pointed out that the Bandits know what is important in life and that is their friends and family. They also know how to throw a good party and how to make their guests feel welcome and at ease. The original group of Bean Bandits formed in the late 1940's and the club was a major player in land speed and drag racing, especially in the early 1950's. Whether it was Joaquin Arnett Jr or his brother-in-law, Emery Cook, a good drag racer of the time was likely to meet one or the other in the finals of a major drag race. The Bandits claim that Paradise Mesa was the third drag strip in operation after Goleta and Santa Ana, and I wouldn't doubt that at all. Like so many clubs, the young men married and many of them found that having families kept them from actively pursuing the sport that they were founders of.

The Bean Bandits never really went away, but by the 1960's the club had disbanded much of their racing programs, yet they kept in close contact with each other. Then in the 1990's the Bean Bandits reformed under Joaquin's son, also called Joaquin Arnett III, or Sonny to his family and friends. This began a new phase of the club, separated by a generation and came to be called the New Bean Bandits, or often as the Young Bean Bandits. Sonny had all the organizational skill, charm, friendliness and zeal of his father and soon the club was humming again and making a name for them selves in land speed racing. I was at El Mirage the day Sonny set a record in the streamliner at around 240 mph. Normally the Bandits trailer the car after a run and take it home to be checked out and made ready for the next meet. A news crew missed a video shot that they wanted and Sonny graciously agreed to take the car out and make a second run, with that bravado and good natured that is a mark of all the Bandits. The dry lake gets a little beat up after a day of runs, but no one thought at the time that it wouldn't be just another successful run for the streamliner. I didn't see the crash, few people did see it, for a land speed race is really a timing trial and is run over a mile. It's almost impossible to see that far, but some people out near the timing stand saw it and described the crash as one of the most horrific that they ever saw. It was a crushing blow for the Bean Bandits, but they refused to stay down. Sonny would become a legendary figure among the group and within the land speed racing community. His work though was built on solid ground for he brought in young car guys from other San Diego clubs and inspired them to take over the mantle and run the club the way his father had and then himself.

The older Bean Bandits form a sort of framework around which the younger group functions. Even those that have passed away have a sort of Iconic stature among the new Bandits. This is a club steeped in land speed and drag racing lore. To be a member of the Bean Bandits is to belong to a tradition unparalleled in auto sports racing. After Sonny, Joaquin's youngest son, Jeff took over the driving duties and raced at Bonneville and El Mirage. The oldest of Joaquin and Vi Arnett's children is Jackie Arnett Sonka and she is one of the historians for the club, maintaining much of the history and photographic knowledge. This recap hardly begins to tell the story of the Bean Bandits and perhaps it would be best to have the Bandits recount the stories of their successes and losses in order to really get a true understanding of this trendsetting club. As we entered the building I noticed Bill and Susan Freeman. Bill was the club secretary for many years and is one of the historians of the Bandits. I went with Bill to Bonneville in the 1990's and what a time we had. The Bean Bandits are famous for putting a record setting car together from virtually nothing. Joaquin was a master welder and the Bandits managed to always have just enough cash to get them from one place to another. If they sold a fair amount of their t-shirts or hats then they all ate well, if not then there was Dave Marquez's Beans and Pasta Party. You could always count on the Bandits to bring the Tequila mixer made from an old lawn mower engine. We slept on the ground at the KOA Kampgrounds, in horse blankets and if it rained the stoic Bandits would find something good in that too. They would always laugh and tell me how much better they had it at the KOA Kampgrounds than out on the Salt in "the good old days. The humor of this never failed to bring a smile. You couldn't get any closer to what it was like at Bonneville in 1949 than by being with the Bandits.

   Quite a few people were busy getting the Reunion started. Diana and Tom Branch and their son Thomas were putting up decorations. Diana and Tom drag race in a '37 sedan and drove the Bandit's Belly Tank at Bonneville. Thomas is only 14, but he is working on a '32 Ford 5-window coupe. Tom drives a '32 roadster at the drag races. Mary Norman and Mike Latus were watching the cars coming in and helping with set-up duties. In a shaded corner were the guys from the United Racing Association (URA). The group was formed in the 1930's and reorganized in the 1980's. Jack Helgren told me that some of their members who went on to racing fame included; Billy Vukovich, Sam Hanks, Walt Faulkner, Rodger Ward, and Johnnie Parsons. San Diego was a hotbed for early oval track racing and Balboa Stadium was a first class track with the grandstands surrounding the entire oval. More than 15,000 spectators would watch the great drivers of the day, those included above and also Jimmy Bryan, Allen Heath, Johnny Mantz, Frank “Satan” Brewer, Danny Oakes, Billy Cantrell, Bob Pankratz, “Wild Bill” Zaring and many more. Other URA members on hand at the reunion included Bernie Griggs and Jan Hunt. The URA and the Bean Bandits always help to support each others events, and the roundy round guys brought some beautiful old racers to show off. Helgren brought his midget #97, the Torco Special that first raced in 1947 with a V8-60 power plant. It was a Curtis midget driven by Johnny Moorhouse. While I was looking at the cars in the parking lot I spoke to Bill Larson, who was the president of the Prowlers of San Diego. They meet now in El Cajon, California and they were formed in San Diego in 1947. Some of their members are; Monte Hale, Dan Biggs, Jim Reid, Marty Moore, Dave Hayward, Les Hilgers, Ken Poleski, Pete Morrow, Carl Burnett, Clem Chavez, Ace Carnahan, Swede Sommers, Bob Smith, Bob Wolin, Marty Simonedes and Andy Bekech. Burnett was an original member of the club, Bekech is the club historian and David Aguilar takes photographs for the Prowlers. They were originally affiliated with the Russetta Timing Association and their website is www.prowlers.org.

   Parked at the entrance to the building was the impressive Bean Bandit's streamliner and painted on the sides were the names of past and present members. Ruben Lovato, Pat Durant, Mike Uribe and other Bean Bandits told me the early history of the club. The Bandits formed from other early car clubs, like the Cam Pounders. The Bandits then were key players in establishing and operating the Paradise Mesa Drag Strip. The club officially formed in 1951, though the young Bandits had known each other for years. The members were; Joaquin Arnett Jr, Mike Nagem, Andrew Ortega, Carlos Ramirez, Bill Galvin (who designed and painted the Bean Bandit logo that is still in use today), Louie Najera, Harold Miller, Ruben Lovato, Pat Durant, Mike Uribe, Gilbert Martinez, Fred Angelo, Richard Agundez, and Eddie Galvin. This group left the Cam Pounders and formed the Bean Bandits around 1951. That was the year that the new National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) was formed and the young Bean Bandits became involved in the new sport of drag racing. By 1952 the following members joined the club; Marco Miranda, Albert Calderella, Wayne Finley, Charley Elias, John Wright, John Burke, Gene Espinoza, Eddie Espinoza, Leroy Mattar, Tony Diaz, Mel Carlson, M.R. Scott, Albert Ortiz, Lalo Lopez, Buddy Bunshoe, Emery Cook, Robert Martinez, Sammy Garcia and Gus Montalvo. Scott helped get the club an airplane engine, probably an Allison. While at a garage they had the engine stored, the Bandits wanted to hear the motor run and it went full throttle and through the back of the shop. In 1953 the new additions to the club included; Eddie Diaz, George Nagem, Robert Diaz, Carl Kurk, Leo Leyba, Joel Palaccio, Val Cervantes, Eddie Villagas, Tom Honda, M.N. Scott, Lupe Tirado, and Jimmy Papas. Dondey Alzona and Nestor Gomez joined the club in 1954. The Bandits gradually phased out their racing activities and the next growth spurt happened in the 1980’s when Sonny Arnett encouraged Mike Nagem and Joaquin to get the old guys back together again and also to add some younger members. This reorganized Bean Bandits club included the old members and some new recruits, such as; Dick Curry, Chad Arnett, Ian Arnett, Jeff Arnett, John Jack McLenachen, Buddy Arnett.

   By 1990 the Bandits grew to include; Bill Freeman, Buff Marquand, Andy Frelinger, Jerry Marchand, Lloyd and Kenny Yenawine, Jerry Freitas, and Ray Torres. Torres raced against the Bandits in the '50's at Santa Ana, but joined them later. The group grew larger in 1993 with the following additional men; James ‘Cowboy’ Patterson, Bob Maddocks, J.J. Jensen, Jerry Baltes (who bought drums of nitro for Bonneville), Dave Burner, Paul Green, Jim Fueling, Bernie Griggs, Ron Wagner, Bill Tincup, Kelly Soloman, and Mathias Ponce.  Others who entered the club were; Roger Harrison (the member from Australia who spent a couple of months going racing with the Bandits), Mike Shundo, Junior Robles (whose band played for the Bandits reunion), Dennis Johnston (who bought tires and parts for the car). Other members of the Bandits not listed above but who came in later include; Dave Marquez, Jimmy Wilson, Richard Lux, Mike Latus, Jose Soriano, Frank Schmidt, Paul Sutherland, Al Jimenez, Chris Heavin, Creighton Hunter, Mike Lopez, Rick Reid, Joe Sanchez, Karen Arnett, Jackie Arnett Sonka, Jack "Butch" Graham, Norbert Wolfswinkle, Walter Tucker, Fred Castro, Ray Muller (from Tucson, Arizona), Frank Castro, Guy Espinoza, C. J. Hart, Eric ‘Rick’ Rickman, and Fred Martinez. Dan Cortez told me that he has been a Bandit for fifty years and Richard Lux for nearly forty years. After Sonny passed away the club drifted for awhile and then new members joined and revitalized the club. I spoke to Joaquin’s daughter Jackie, who said, “The term ‘young bandit’ refers to the club after Sonny passed away, and the addition of the young members. Most of the current young guys did not know Sonny. That is why mom and I made the distinction when we loaned the cars to them. They in turn renamed the club to the Bean Bandit Racing Team.” The Young Bean Bandits who joined the club include; Victor Arrequin, Jeff Bachar, Tom and Diana Branch, B. J. Burkdoll, Jake Doomey, Julio Hernandez, Jake Hummel, Rene Lugo, Aron Oakes, Derby Pattengill, Adam Rogers, Jose Soriano, Gen Tanaka, Zap Teshima, Fabian Valdez, Dan Waldrop, Brad White.  

   The King Pins car club of La Mesa, California, was there to pay their respects to the Bandits. The original members formed from a group that attended Helix High School in 1954 and a charter member still active in the club is Bob Lambert. Other members included Ed Iagmin, Joe Pooley, Gary Rozelle, Joe Martin, Earl Kendrick, Junior Garcia and Warren Schneider. I spoke to Terry and Dorothy Torres who told me that Ray Torres, who has since passed away, was an early member of the car club scene in San Diego. I spoke to good friends; Jack Dolan, Bob McMillian and Fred Lobello, who reminisced about the good old days of San Diego land speed, drag and oval track racing. Ernie Cook, son of Emery Cook, attended the reunion. Ernie is the nephew of Joaquin. His mother was Joaquin's sister. We spoke about the early days when his father was a nationally known drag racer. A tough looking group with kind hearts was the Warriors of the Cross Motorcycle club of San Diego. They have eight members and formed in 1980 and ride mostly Harley's. Their website is www.warriorsofthecross.com.  A newer hot rodding car club is the Conquistadors from the N&S Park area in San Diego and they formed in 2002. They have eight members; Julian Vazquez, David Vazquez, Mike Gardner, Josh Schlosser, Aaron Felt, Justin Niotti, Chris "Ribs" Conklin and Nino Ballesteri. The Chiefs of San Diego were represented by Don Reddick and Mike Hannock. The Marauders of Los Angeles and San Diego were also in attendance. This group includes six guys and they go by Joe, Johnny, Jason, George, Craze and Tony. Try as I might, they are known by first names only and they formed their club in 2009. The Strays Car Club from San Diego and the San Fernando Valley organized their club in 2005 and they now have 13 members. The Strays that attended the reunion were; Manuel Cisneros, Jesse Winchel, Rob Martinez, Johnny Akins, Miguel Zarate, Frankie Ybarra, Johnny Chop, Rudy Garcia, Stevie, Lorenzo, Sal and Roger. They told us about the Viejitos Car Show in September at the Anaheim Convention Center and said it will be a huge event. Finally, I stopped by to thank the cooks who helped to put on the great feast. They were Diana, Dan, Rene, Jose, Julia and Morgan. The Bean Bandits serve beef, tortillas, beans, salad and drinks the way they have always done and it is filling, tasty and inexpensive. The entire cost for attending the reunion is only $5. They raise the rest of the cost for the building rental from a raffle and auction. Johnny Mars from www.Ink-n-Iron.com mentioned the Rockabilly car show and event at the Queen Mary in June, on the first weekend as an annual event not to be missed. He also mentioned the car show in September and for more information go to www.runwayrumblesokshow.com. It's always a pleasure to see the Bandits again and relive their history.