Alex Xydias collected old videos in his possession and created a tape which he called The Hot Rod Story. It is an eclectic series of videos that tells the story of hot rodding in the traditional sense, from those who lived through the Great Depression and World War II. Xydias narrates most of the movie himself, in a style reminiscent of those long ago hot rodders who believed in equality based on performance. They had a rough wit about them and ability to coin words and phrases that seem distantly familiar to us today. They had a nickname or a phrase for just about anything and though it seems old-fashioned to us today, they were the cut-ups of their day. I reviewed the old VHS tape; but since then Xydias has had the tape transferred to DVD discs and they can be purchased at www.so-calspeedshop.com or at the Wally Parks NHRA Motorsports Museum by calling 909-622-2133. In addition to the tape, the DVD contains 7 additional minutes on how the film was made. It is well worth the effort to obtain this DVD from Alex as it has some great footage that I have not seen before. I learned a great deal and some of my beliefs have been changed upon seeing segments in the video. The title page on the video box isn’t the clearest, or is the credits in the film, but here are the details. The producer and narrator is Alex Xydias. Dean Moon and Judy Thompson Creach assisted Alex in the creation of the movie and provided details. Ron Van Matta, Bob Van Matta, Les Melmena, the Southern California Timing Association (SCTA) and the National Hot Rod Foundation (NHRA) provided assistance. The film is dedicated to the late John Wenderski. Alex Xydias also shot some of the original sequences. Not stated, but most likely, Wally Parks, a close friend gave considerable encouragement to Alex in the production of this movie.
The Hot Rod Story contains original footage of the first NHRA Nationals meet at Great Bend, Kansas, and the second NHRA Nationals at Kansas City, Kansas. It also has footage of one of the greatest drag cars ever created, the 880 of Dave Marquez and the Motor Monarchs of Santa Paula. Additionally there is footage of the Santa Maria, Santa Ana, Pomona and San Gabriel drag strips. Xydias adds some very valuable historical scenes of boat drag racing at Marine Stadium in Long Beach, California. Throughout the movie he adds scenes of hot rodding at the dry lakes in Southern
California and the Salt Flats in Bonneville, located in western Utah. He concludes with a half hour segment from a sports TV show on various high speed events. The total running time of The Hot Rod Story comes to one hour and forty-four minutes. There is no date as to the production of the movie, but it shows Al Teague’s run in 1991 and alludes to future land speed runs, so I would date the production time around the mid 1990’s. The quality of the film runs anywhere from very good to below average and the taped from TV film is poor, but understandable. The sound quality also rates between very good all the way down to below average, but I didn’t have a problem making out what was said. A few times there was a humming noise that was distracting, but it never lasted more than a few minutes at any given time. No matter what deficiencies there are in The Hot Rod Story, having Alex Xydias as the narrator makes this a must have video for one’s library. Unfortunately, there were segments with no narration and that was a loss, especially during the 880/Motor Monarch’s section.
The Hot Rod Story begins with a parade of roadsters on the road and then going through the famed Pasadena freeway tunnel. The film starts off a little grainy and the sound quality isn’t quite up to par, but it improves as it goes along. “Hot rod isn’t a term that we liked, we preferred the term roadster,” said Xydias. But over time the pejorative word became accepted and liked. “This is a story about a climb up the mountain of respectability, skill and creativity,” Alex continued. “Hot rodding, he added, began in the 1930’s and ‘40’s in Southern California. We tested our cars out in the Mojave Desert on dry lakes,” Alex said. There were still photographs of Karl and Veda Orr, Chuck Potvin and many other early hot rodders of the era. Along with some outstanding early video home movies, Xydias also had some early Hot Rod magazine movie footage. He quickly and easily moved from one setting and scene to the next, showing how wide and varied the culture of hot rodding was back then. There was Robert Petersen, also known as Bob, “Pete,” and the Boss, in his office at Trend Publications in Los Angeles. Bob Green and Tom Medley showed up in the next scene and the feeling came to me, “Did Alex shoot these videos or were they rescued from the infamous dumpster dive at Petersen Publishing during one of the many sales of the company to outside publishers?” Then it was back at the dry lakes for some really great quality taping of land speed racing. Alex has a talent for explaining the most mundane point in an interesting way. He went on to explain what was in the photographs and videos with an easy manner. He pointed out the differences in car class; streamliners, roadsters and how war surplus airplane belly tanks morphed into the famous lakester class of cars.
With an excitement that belied his 80 plus years, he explained how the sport of hot rodding found a new venue site to race on at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah. He told us that he was one of the original racers at that fabled site during the first SCTA meet held there in 1949. He was thorough and complete, mentioning little details that the average viewer would overlook or not think very important. He listed a huge number of cars and people who were there at that time. We could look right into the engine compartment and see what the racers were doing and the components and what may have gone wrong under speed. Some of the names of the drivers that were there included; Ak Miller, Kenz/Leslie, Howard Johanson, Don Waite, Hill/Davis, Bob Herta, and the Summers Brothers. There was a great amount of detail on Mickey Thompson’s attempts to break the unlimited land speed record and how Mickey finally was able to make a one-way run of 406 miles per hour, the first man to do so, though it wasn’t backed up with a second run in order to set an official record. Xydias runs about 15 years of Bonneville footage into one segment, but does it effortlessly. The next segment of the film shows how hot rodders helped to create a new sport, separate from illegal street racing and dry lakes land speed racing. That sport was drag racing and for the fan of very early drags, this was perhaps the most interesting. For Xydias, drag racing is equated with Wally Parks and the founding of the NHRA by Parks, Ak Miller and Marvin Lee in 1951. Xydias and Parks were close friends and sometimes business partners, who formed a lifetime friendship after World War II that didn’t end until Parks’ death in 2007.
Xydias points out in the film that there were many individuals and organizations that created drag racing. He shows footage of the first drag races at the airport just north of Santa Barbara in Goleta, California. There is footage of C. J. Hart who founded the Santa Ana Airport drag strip in Orange County. But it is the NHRA that focuses a wild and crazy new youth sport into a national mania that grows overnight into the biggest motorsport phenomenon in America. There is lots of footage of the 1955 Nationals at Great Bend, Kansas. Jim Nelson is shown inspecting cars while action on the rough track shows Mel Heath, Calvin Rice, Art Chrisman, Mickey Thompson, the Bean Bandits of San Diego and Dave Marquez in the 880. The next segment is an un-narrated excerpt of drag racing at Santa Maria in the very early 1950’s, compiled by the Motor Monarch’s of Santa Paula. Two clubs were very influential and set the example for other clubs to follow them. One was the Bean Bandits of San Diego in their flashy yellow colors and hard to beat land and drag racing cars. Joaquin Arnett was the leader of this group and they accepted everyone into their group even though they represented local Hispanics and were often looked as outcasts even in a sport full of outcasts. But they were hard to beat and super-competitive. The Bean Bandits established a drag strip in northern San Diego County at Paradise Mesa.
The other group of outstanding racers was the Motor Monarch’s of Santa Paula and though they were founded by Dave Marquez and other local Latinos, they accepted everyone and anyone in the Ventura area into their club who would uphold the true hot rodding experience. Besides Marquez, the group included Ed and Ben Martinez, John Davison, Howard Clarkson, Robert Olinger and other Santa Paula hot rodders. Dave was a high school track star who ran in the 440 and 880 yard events and so he named his two famous cars the 880 (roadster) and 440 (coupe). The 880 simply was the most beautiful and deadly car in its class and won the B Roadster class at the NHRA Nationals in 1955 and 1956. Marquez might have gone on to national recognition and acclaim except for a tragic accident that ended in a lawsuit. The result was that Dave had to sell the car and distance himself from the sport that he loved. The 880 had a detachable body that was secured by fasteners. The team was arrayed in colorful uniforms and wowed the crowds of young people by quickly lifting the body off the frame, then going through the engine and making repairs quickly. The paint scheme was a fluorescent orange and white, from a special paint “borrowed” from the military at Point Mugu. The 880 was designed as one of the top 75 all-time best 1932 Ford built roadsters at the Grand National Roadster Show in 2007. In my opinion, it is the most beautiful ’32 ever modified and lethal on the drag strip. The car was sold to interests in the South and has not been seen for decades, but may still be around in a barn somewhere.
A new segment follows and the voice of Xydias reestablished the history of drag racing as we listen in. We see several drag strips and see drivers such as Thompson, Chrisman, Lakewood Muffler, the Bean Bandits, Bustle Bomb, Calvin Rice, and Mel Heath. Now the action is back at Great Bend, which is rained out on the last day and the event had to be finished in Arizona at a later date. We are shown some of the manufacturers of speed equipment and I liked the Bell Auto Parts segment and Roy Richter. Among early manufacturers, Richter is often overlooked since he died so long ago, but his impact on all forms of hot rodding and racing and his leading of SEMA meant so much to our sport. Xydias now takes us to footage of the 1963 U. S. Nationals in Indianapolis, Indiana. Here we see scenes of Don Garlits, Jack Chrisman, Connie Kalitta, John Peters and others competing for the championship. The next drag race is the famous Smokers Meet in Bakersfield, California and here we see Art Malone, Garlits, ‘Terrible’ Tommy Ivo, Petersen/Frank, Don Prudhomme, Tom McEwen, Gordon Collett and others in their fantastic old dragsters. In a few short years since 1950 these machines have gone from ancient to modern. From here we are taken to some boat drags footage at Marine Stadium in Long Beach, California in the mid-1960’s, the ‘Golden Age’ of boat racing. There are racers such as Bob Ellis and Ed Olson. Among the boats there are the White Mist, Witch, X-P and Golden Thing. Some of the boats are wood and some are fiberglass hulls. There are several crashes and we are left to wonder how in the world these drivers survived a crash at 140 mph.
The Hot Rod Story now reverts back to more footage of later NHRA Nationals in Indianapolis, with a mix of old and new drivers. There is an interesting view of the campers in their tents and cars. A new invention, the Christmas Tree, is debuted and stops cheaters from leaving early before the flagman has dropped his flag. The NHRA has brought in a man dressed as a Native American Indian to scare away the rain, but it isn’t always effective. The drivers at this meet are Tony Nancy, Garlits, ‘Sneaky’ Pete Robinson, Kalitta, Ron Abbott, Don Montgomery and cars with expressive names like Bo Weevil, Lawman and Ramchargers. Garlits beats Abbott for the championship. To show that hot rodders can also do more than build and race cars, Xydias shows us some footage of hot rodder Don Waite and the space program at Cape Canaveral. At this point there is some un-narrated footage of joyful hot rodders on the road, at the dry lakes or at local drag strips. By breaking up the narrated and un-narrated sections it isn’t quite as irritating and the lack of narration only lasts for a short time. Following this is the last segment of The Hot Rod Story; a taped television program called the “Fastest men on Earth. The sound and picture quality suffers as it was taped from the TV set and the transfer doesn’t take very well. But it is highly interesting, especially the historical footage of land speed record setting and the interviews with a young Donald Campbell and Richard Noble. Others interviewed or on tape include Craig Breedlove, Malcolm Campbell, Al Teague and Stan Barrett. There is footage of John Cobb and Gary Gabelich. All considered this is an important and very fascinating movie and done quite well by Alex Xydias, one of the true hot rodders of all times. I rate this a 7 spark plugs out of an 8 possible.
Gone Racin’ is at RNPARKS1@JUNO.COM.