the Roadsters show, but first we needed to talk to the exhibitors and vendors.
I always make it a point to go and talk to the vendors. Most writers ignore them, feeling that they have nothing to say and that the cars are the main focus. This is a big mistake. If you want to know about the health and success of the car show, then talk to the vendors, for they have a vested interest in the success of the event. They might only sell knickknacks and curios, or they might have car parts and supplies that you need, but one thing that they do that is vital for the promoters is to pay space fees. The vendors have to pay anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars for rental space, plus gas, oil, food and lodging, in order to attend the show and try and make a living. Every vendor that I’ve talked to has been brutally honest in their assessment of the show. So don’t avoid them, they’re a vital part of the event. I spoke to Don Puhto, who was selling Ford Wishbone bars, both stock and customized. This was his second year at the L.A. Roadsters Show and he comes from Las Vegas, Nevada, where he has had a shop for forty years. His website is at www.hotrodwishbones.com. Tony Baron makes heads, manifolds and racing equipment and he has been supporting the roadster show for fifteen years.
Cindy Sammons and her husband are from the Sacramento, California area and are members of the Bay Area Roadster car club. The Bay Area Roadster car club has 25 members and 19 of them showed up with their cars for this show. They formed in 1959 and they are still an active club. The Sammons were selling die cast cars and collectibles and have done this since 1991, ten years in all at the L.A. Roadsters Show. They travel to about thirty shows a year all around the country and she told me that all the big shows are good. “On some of the shows we do really well and some of the smaller shows we barely get by. We’re going to see how much the increase in the gas prices affects our business this year,” she told us. Jack Hamilton owns Jack’s Graphic Station, and he resides in Orange, California. “I’ve been selling for six years and have had a booth at the roadster show for the same amount of time. This is a good show for me and I do about twenty shows a year. The high gas prices might curtail some of the out-of-state shows that I’ve done in the past though,” he opined. Jack sells apparel, pedal cars, gear shift knobs and other souvenir products. We walked by the booth of Delson Products, located in Santa Fe Springs, California. They sell all kinds of tool boxes for the home mechanic and the professional race teams. Some of the boxes were huge and were meant to be built in to trailers for mobile diagnostic and race repair centers. Delson sells world wide and attends only two shows, the PRI Show in Florida and the L.A. Roadsters Show. It didn’t appear like the high gas prices were going to hurt their business.
Jack Stewart, who is in charge of media relations for the show, offered us a ride in his cart and told us, “We are a once-a-year show and we let people sell whatever they like at our show.” He gave us a tour around the expansive grounds of the show. The first place that he took us to was the swap meet area and we encountered Keith Allen. Keith is a member of the Southern California Timing Association (SCTA) and he has set many speed records. He was selling Winfield carburetors and parts and his partners were Gene Barbee, Steve Straw and Roy Creel. They are all members of the SCTA and Creel is this year’s president of the Association. They arrive early and wait in line to get the same spot under the trees that they have been doing for years. The prices for the swap meet are reasonable and it seems that socializing with fellow hot rodders is often as important as actually selling parts that they no longer need. In fact, the early arriving vendors and ‘regulars’ as they are called, begin swapping, bartering, buying and selling even before the show opens to the public. Allen said that Stormin’ Norman Benham was around, but I missed seeing this land speeder at his usual spot. Benham and his father are well-known and liked in the racing community. Ron Benham passed away several years ago and was known for his ability to build very fast land speed cars.
“Our swap meet is going to be big this year, although we won’t know about the gate until Sunday,” Stewart said. Jack introduced us to Dick and Linda Hiltz, who have been coming to the L.A. Roadsters Show since 1960, when it was held in the Hollywood Bowl. The Hiltz’ are from the Los Angeles area and came to the show in their ’32 Ford Hiboy roadster. Dick said that he is struggling with his health, but that he wouldn’t miss the Roadsters Show for anything. “It’s where my friends are,” Hiltz said. Stewart told us that he just turned eighty and remarked that health is a big issue with the hot rodders, but that they just keep on doing what they have always loved to do, show off their great cars. Stewart drove on through the pits, then stopped say hello to Wayne Yeats. Wayne came all the way from Salina, Utah to sell fiberglass reproductions of airplane fuel tanks that the land speed racers call Belly Tanks. Wayne purchased the belly tank molds and tooling from Kelly/Hall racing and makes about four of the tanks a year, selling them for about $2000 each. “I always try to have one of the belly tanks in stock at all times and they’re really popular right now,” Yeats said. Wayne is originally from Temple City, California and moved out of state recently. The belly tanks are extra fuel tanks that were used during World War II in order to enhance the range of fighters and bombers. Once the fuel was used up the tanks were jettisoned. They saved many a pilot’s life. The Army Air Corp had them designed so that they were aerodynamically suited for adding to the wings. After the war, many fuel tanks were bought by war surplus stores and land speed racers purchased them and redesigned them to work as streamlined bodies for their cars.
Another hot rodder attending the show was Jeff Wussow from Ventura, California, who was a member of the L.A. Roadsters club from 1968-72. He came to the show in his ’23 T touring car, which is his ‘real driver.’ “I’ve made almost every swap meet since 1960 and you might say that I’m what they call a regular,” Wussow told us. He works for Baron Industries. “Part of the business is selling diesel fuel, but the prices are killing the trucking industry. Locking gas caps are big business right now, though the thieves simply cut the fuel lines or drill a hole in the gas tanks,” he added. We talked to another regular, Dave Cuellar and asked him how many years he has been coming to the show. “I can’t remember that far back,” said Dave. Cuellar is a member of the Norwalk Butchers car club as was Jack Stewart. The swap meet leader for the L.A. Roadsters is Jerry Olds and it is his job to see that all 1200 swap meet spots are filled and order is maintained in the pits. Jerry joined the club in 1968, and told us, “Even though the high price of gas is a problem, it might increase our swap meet, as guys are looking to get a little cash by selling what they have at the shows and meets. It has been tough on the guys coming from the East Coast; they are doubling up and bringing fewer cars.” Dick Bergren was in charge of the Specialty car exhibit, next to the swap meet area. “This area is reserved for 1500 cars that we call our specialty car show. It is cars that are classic and antiques, but not necessarily roadster. It’s a car show all in itself. We only allow pre-1975 cars and it costs $10 to park, plus $15 per person, but you are right in the middle of the show and don’t have to walk very far. The only trouble is that we have lost a lot of space to the off-road event,” Bergren said.
What off-road event I asked. Bergren and Stewart tugged at my arm and I turned in the direction they pointed to and a mountain of dirt and stands rose up behind them. I was so enrapt in the roadster show and swap meet that I never looked at the parking lot, which by the way, wasn’t there anymore. What had once been the Los Angeles County Fairplex parking lot was now just a mound of dirt, stands and concrete barriers. The drag strip took up what was left. Stewart said something under his breath, and I thought he said something to the effect that the L.A. Roadsters Show was treated as a stepchild of sorts. Here they were, holding a huge and successful show and their parking lot for their fans was no where to be seen. We drove over to a young man in a truck who was monitoring the track. His name was Brandon Stephens and he was with the Parking Department for the Fairplex. “The track was built by CORR, or Championship Off-Road Racing. CORR brings in the dirt, grades the course, puts up the stands, barricades and safety nets in April and then after three races, takes it all down and repairs everything by the end of August, so that we can use the parking lot for the Los Angeles County Fair,” Stephens told us. It was an impressive looking course and I asked him how big he would estimate the size of the track. “It takes up about 4000 parking spaces and the events are usually 2 day affairs. They race dune buggies, trucks and even kid’s go-karts. I think the last race drew a gate of 17,000 spectators and they are confident the coming events will draw around 30,000 a day. They have a race here in July and August, and they also race in Chula Vista and other venues around the country,” Stephens concluded.
We were given permission to go around the course, past the jumps, over to the drag strip and then back around and in front of the stands and we guessed that it cost a pretty penny to build all of this and then tear it down after only four months and three races. Certainly the NHRA drag strip is happy that they didn’t lose any parking to the CORR people, but it certainly irritated the L.A. Roadster club and probably a lot of other groups that rent the fairgrounds for their events. We re-entered the swap meet area and Stewart told us that the cost to rent a 15x20 foot space was only $65 for the two day show. “That’s a bargain, because many of the vendors are over in the canopied area, where we charge $350 to rent spaces in the shade. We stopped by Smitty’s Toys and talked to the owner, James Smith, from Monrovia, California. “That’s right,” said Smitty, “I couldn’t afford to pay out $350, but I can get a good turnout in the swap meet pit area and by setting up my own pop-up tent, make it comfortable. I’ve been coming to the roadster show for ten years and this year they’ve been very organized. The high gasoline prices have caused a drop in my sales a bit and the older guys won’t walk through the pits and that’s hurt. Die cast is dying and I’ve switched to selling antique stuff that I’ve collected over the years. I’m turning it into cash, which is what a lot of guys are doing right now in order to keep up with inflation,” he added. Smitty was originally from Aurora, Illinois and drag raced from 1966-69 in B/Gas, pro-stock and funny car classes. Smitty owned and wrenched on the car and Johnny Yokum was his driver. This year he is going back to the Oswego Dragstrip reunion.
Ken Hillberg walked by and said hello. Ken is a member of the Western Racing Association (WRA) and shows his cars at the California Racing Association (CRA) Reunions. The WRA and CRA are sprint and midget car oval track racing groups with a long and storied history in Southern California. He has a super modified sprint car for sale. It raced at the Chili Bowl in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1985 and was driven by John Schirra. Grant King built the champ car in 1960. Hillberg will sell the car and the trailer built especially for the car for $25,000. “With modifications it can be raced today,” Hillberg said. I asked him why he is selling his car. “I’ve got too many cars and not enough room. I own nine of them,” said the gregarious Hillberg. “I sold another car, the Edmunds midget to Ray Jimenez in Salt Lake City. Ray was a crew member on the car’s team and he wanted the car,” added Ken. His sons, Dan and Darren Hillberg, are still racing. Ken’s grandson, Nick Hillberg, is racing mini-sprints at Perris Speedway and other tracks. Stewart relished this job of taking the media around the grounds and he does a great job of it. We appreciate the chance to see the show from the perspective of the club members. Stewart stopped and introduced us to Richard Boeltl, son of club member Lanny Boeltl. Richard told us that he was a member of the ‘Scroungers,’ also called the ‘Regulars,’ those that come in a day ahead of time to find all the wonderful old things for sale. The two day event becomes a three day event for those hardy hot rodders who just can’t get enough of those special cars and swap meet parts and who won’t let a gas shortage and high prices stop them from that which they love.
Gone Racin’ is at RNPARKS1@JUNO.COM.