The 62nd Grand National Roadster Show (GNRS) was held on January 28-30, 2011 at the Los Angeles County Fairplex in Pomona, California. There are bigger car shows held around the world, but none quite so traditional and historic. The GNRS is one of the longest and most prestigious of all car shows. It is also one of my favorites. The GNRS attracts people from all over the country and from foreign lands as well. It is an opportunity to meet old friends and make new ones; to see the new car styles and also the traditional ones. The GNRS has truly blossomed since John and Annika Buck purchased the show and made changes to the format. Those changes have reinvigorated the GNRS and made it bubble with enthusiasm. There is much more to the GNRS than just the America’s Most Beautiful Roadster (AMBR) contest. Yes, that is a major category and it takes up an entire article all by itself. But the GNRS has become a meeting place as much as a show place. There is the Suede Palace, where customs, Kustoms, traditional and other old school hot rodders gather. This is the place to go to live the 1940’s and ‘50’s all over again. This is the place for the rockin’ Rockabilly scene where the guys are just like James Dean and Elvis Presley and the girls wear their hair up and with lipstick blood red. The music is real and loud and the cars are real steel.
The Saturday drive-in car show is just like the old days too. The participants park around the buildings, set up their fold up chairs and hold impromptu parties with their friends, many of whom they haven’t seen since the last GNRS. The vendors are an often overlooked group. Normally we just see them to buy something that we need or what our impulse tells us that we need. But the vendors are often car people too and they have a wealth of knowledge to share if they are not too busy with customers. Most vendors go to at least 10 to 15 car shows a year and often this is a side job. Many of the vendors make this a payable hobby so that they can afford to travel and see the shows. I love to talk to the vendors and the information that they can give me tells me a great deal about which shows to attend and what’s in the shows. The Pinstripers Reunion is another all day event. I could spend days with these men and women with big hearts and generous spirits. Their artistry is amazing and their skills are fascinating to watch as they make their intricate designs. Then they auction off their work to raise money for worthy charities. Building after building has something for everyone. There are famous celebrities, old show cars, racing vehicles, motorcycles and even a race boat or two. I can barely cover the event in three days if I move along. The trouble is that if you catch someone’s eye there is a fascinating story waiting to be told. That’s why the GNRS is so rich an event to attend; the stories of the people who participate. There is also the Wally Parks NHRA Motorsports Museum next door. While it is not specifically a part of the GNRS, but a separate entity, the museum and the GNRS cooperate in bringing out the history of hot rodding. I always suggest that you buy a dual admission, one that allows you to see the museum and the GNRS.
Roger Rohrdanz and I drove out to the GNRS on Thursday with special passes to get in, because this was a set up day and the public wasn’t invited. We like to go on Thursday because we can shoot photographs without a lot of problems and to interview participants before the crowds arrive. This isn’t for the faint hearted as the show car owners, participants, vendors, sponsors, media and many other parties are trying to get in and set. There’s just a single gate and it’s a mad house. A few people had frayed nerves and angry looks, but most people were very stoical and when I asked them if this was an inconvenience they usually told me that other shows were much worse. The problem is that if the cars all made a mad dash through the entrance that the logjams inside and around the buildings would make it impossible for anyone to get through. John Buck set up a system that slows the cars down in the parking lot, but speeds up the process of unloading cars around and inside the buildings. Since the cars weren’t moving, I got out and started poking my nose around. I even crossed some yellow tape and found myself inside a Swat Team training exercise. It seems the Los Angeles County Fairplex is used for a lot of various events. The police let me know, in a friendly manner, that crossing those yellow tapes can get you into serious trouble. I was about to ignore that advice and cross another yellow tape when the flash grenades went off and the police wrestled a “bad guy” to the ground in a training exercise.
We met John Duran driving a cart around the parking lot. That’s important, because when John is around things tend to go a lot smoother and we get a lot of great information about what is happening at the show. Duran is one of those guys who is always volunteering at events and he knows what’s going on. He also knows how to make the impossible easier to bear. He explained that there are times when participants are supposed to show up; like morning, noon and afternoon. “If everyone would only follow the rules and show up when they are supposed to, we wouldn’t have any trouble,” said an exasperated Duran. He ran up and down the rows of cars and like an experienced cowboy, lined up the participants in one line and the vendors in another line and soon there was an organized movement. John is a good friend and he knows who’s coming and often holds a parking spot open for guys like Blackie Gejeian or George Barris. I walked along the line of cars and spoke to the Mooneyes team; Chico Kodama, Go Akagawa, and Keita Matsui. Chico was in charge of the Mooneyes booth this year. Matsui is from the subsidiary in Japan, which has a staff of 40 people. The shop in Santa Fe Springs, California employs ten more employees. Mooneyes is really big in Japan with small automotive parts and decals that depict the hot rodding culture which the Japanese love.
At the entrance I met David Fetherston from Northern California. David has written 38 books on the car culture, including; Heroes of Hot Rodding, Woodies, Hot Rod Collectibles, George Barris Customs of the ‘50’s, George Barris Customs of the ‘60’s, George Barris Movie Cars, George Barris Custom Techniques (4 books), Cars of the Stars and many more. His website is located at www.fetherston.com. He has a new book on Woodies coming out that will be 400 pages and only 500 copies of the book will be published. He explained that the cover will be made out of the same wood used in the making of the woody wagons. Fetherston was originally from Canberra, Australia, but wanted to see the hot rodding scene in America. He went to an art school in the 1970’s and met his wife in San Francisco. They returned to Australia, but soon realized that they were living on the “wrong continent” and came back to live in the states. “You could knock my head off my shoulders with the variety of hot rods in America,” he told me. “I just love it here. I worked for McMullen Press, VW Trends, Street Rodder, Kit Car and then I went to work for Pete Pestlere at Popular Hot Rodding and Cam Benty at Super Chevy. At one time I was writing for 22 magazines at once. I wrote Heroes of Hot Rodding, which was the first of the hot rodding books for Ryan Publishing. I couldn’t convince Motorbooks to do it,” Fetherston added. He is still writing, for publications like Hot Rod Deluxe and the Australian magazine Street Machine. “I can do a 50 to 100 page specialty book, one hundred copies, plus the editing for $5000. That includes color photographs and a hard cover for $50 a book. If anyone is interested they can contact me at [email protected] for details,” he said.
“I do journals as well as books. I take your photographs, newspaper clippings and whatever else you have and turn it into a printed book. It’s a great way to store your historical records. I’ll give you the finished book and a disk for your computer. I also do car journals, from the beginning of construction to the finished product and whatever shows that you exhibited your car at,” Fetherston concluded. I’ve talked to other people and these prices were really fair. Look Fetherston up if you would like to save your history for your family.
I entered Building 4 and strolled past the cars and booths until I came to the Hotrodhotline booth. Jack and Mary Ann Lawford from Boise, Idaho own the company and they sell advertising on the website. If you want to buy or to sell a hot rod this is the place to do it. They have some ridiculous number of people log on each day to look at the ads and have become so successful that they now take ads for homes. The homes have to be special though. They have to have huge garages for car guys to work on their vehicles and lots of acreage to store those cars. “The Lawfords lived in Southern California for most of their life but in 1992 decided to move out of California.. We chose Boise, Idaho, which turned out to be a great place to live. They had many types of businesses and ventures in years past and at one point Jack had created a logo with flames for another business they thought they might start. That business was never started but in 2000 they created www.hotrodhotline.com to stay with our love for hot rodding and talent with computers. We were the first in this line of business and we’re still going strong after eleven years,” We're doing something we love, and working with people who are hot rodders just like us. That's what makes it so great ! .
Jack added, “Now we have www.BikerHotline.com for motorcycle enthusiasts, which is run by my son, Jack Junior. We attend lots of shows around the country and sponsor lots of car shows and activities,” and Mary Ann and Junior nodded in agreement. They also sponsor me. I use their two websites for my newsletters and articles. They even let me do book, magazine and movie reviews on hot rodding and car racing. You can find The Society of Land Speed Racing Historians Newsletter on their website at www.landspeedracing.com. You can find the Gone Racin’ series of stories and articles on www.hotrodhotline.com, Guest Columnist/Richard Parks and Roger Rohrdanz. I spent the entire day on Thursday in Building 4, so on Friday we returned to try and finish our photographing and articles. I ran into Debbie Baker, who is one of the promoters and producers for the Cruisin’ For A Cure car show at the Orange County Fairgrounds in Costa Mesa, California. This event is held in September and raises money for Prostate Cancer research. Debbie lost her husband to that terrible disease and has made it her life’s work to raise money to help with the research into a cure for this disease that decimates so many hot rodding families. Cruisin’ For A Cure attracts over 3000 cars and there is also a free prostate screening test on the grounds for any man who wants to take the test. You can also see Debbie at the John Force Christmas car show in Yorba Linda, California in December.
Roger and I went over to the Wally Parks NHRA Motorsports Museum next door for the opening presentations by John Buck and the museum administration. Greg Sharp, the curator for the museum and a most knowledgeable hot rodder, made the introductions. He introduced Gale Banks to the crowd of media people. Banks is a major sponsor of the GNRS and the museum. “I am afflicted by this sport,” Gale intoned. “Where are the young people that hot rodding and racing needs to survive? There was a time when the schools provided manual arts and technical skills for the car culture, but today there are few schools that do that. We need courses that teach our young people to work with their hands as well as their brains,” Banks told the crowd. He then invited us to view the museum and see the rich automotive racing history in the building and the Gale Banks exhibit. Alyssa Magnuson welcomed the crowd of reporters on behalf of the GNRS and then introduced her boss, John Buck. “We have an exciting show for you this year,” Buck said. “There are 90 reporters, writers, photographers and live media (ABC News) on hand to cover this event for the world. Von Hot Rod is back to organize the Pinstripers Reunion, which raises money for charity and is always a big draw, especially with the youth. Alyssa Magnuson is now working for us. She is back from a trip to Africa working with a religious group. The Suede Palace has traditional hot rods and we have an exciting AMBR contest this year,” Buck added.
I spoke to Alyssa Magnuson, who made the event accessible for the reporters. “I was a volunteer at the Kawangwari Evangelical Lutheran Church outreach program in Africa,” Alyssa said. “I was over there for six months and then John Buck called me and offered me a job in public and media relations. It’s an interesting job as the media is so important to our ability to get the word out to the public, but we have to be careful with credentialing. We need the exposure, but we have to make sure that when we give out credentials that we get the media to write about us. The media has been really great this year even though parking has been difficult. My job is to see to the needs of the media. On-line exposure can be a powerful tool, but not all on-line sites are going to get the message out to the public. We have to be flexible and take care of the media people. I never raise my voice no matter how badly the media can be. It’s a job that calls for a lot of action and rushing to keep everything going well,” Alyssa ended. She had to leave to take care of an emergency and I met Vic Cunnyngham. One of these days I will have to ask him how he managed to get a Y instead of an i in his name. Vic is a Cal-Rods car club member and major reason why the “Wally’s Roadster” project got off the ground. The “Wally’s Roadster” is a clone of the car that my father, Wally Parks, used to own and drive. I still remember driving with him and my cousin, John Ziebarth, down the back roads of Los Angeles County at 90 mph without any seat belts. We did things like that in those days and the doors were always opening unexplainably.
Vic was involved with the judges and explained how the rules have changed for this year’s judging. The judges are new this year and they want to see how the drivers fit into the cars that they are driving. I always enjoy talking to a few of the vendors, for they can tell you a lot about what is going on at a car show and in the economy. Ed and Cindy Dillard own Remember Then and attend at least 25 shows a year. They said that the hot shows for them are the Good Guys shows. The Los Angeles Roadsters car club also has a booth and Jack Stewart was on hand. The club has seen a few members leave and have increased the membership and brought in new blood, if you consider fifty and sixty year olds to be young (I do). Blackie Gejeian and Tom Simonian (from Fresno, California) were with Stewart. Gejeian was in his electric cart, the one that I challenged last year. He beat me then and I’m afraid that he can do it again. Hot rodders may age, but they still find ways to go racing. There were a lot of those electric one-man carts this year; we are an aging group. Blackie has a great show up in the Fresno area of Northern California. He issues an invitation and you show up. Without the invitation you can’t exhibit your car and to receive an invitation is a great honor. Ol’ Skool Rodz and Car Kulture DeLuxe magazines had a booth manned by Melvin Warrick. These new magazines tap into the youthful hot rodding cultures. Wayne’s dad, Wayne Warrick worked for Firestone Tires and sold tires to Art Arfons. Melvin worked for Petersen Publishing and now Koolhouse Publishing.
Another interesting booth is the Model car contest run by Rusty Price. “We had 202 entrants last year and have a rather regular attendance. Some of the competitors and contestants are from model car clubs and their average age is in the 30 and 40 age bracket, although we do have younger modelers and a few women. If you come back later you can see Alishya Phipps, who has a lot of talent. My assistants are Harry Halterman and John Hilkert. We have 32nd scale all the way to 1/8th scale models in the GNRS Model contest,” Price told me. I asked him how many modeling clubs were in the southern California area and he told me, “Club 321 has eight members in the Riverside area, Kit Bashers of Riverside has about 18 members, MCBA has 30 members in the Hacienda Heights area, Down to Scale has 20 members in the Riverside region and the Model Geeks of Ontario have another 15 members. There are model shows all over the area,” he concluded. Rat Fink Memorabilia is owned by Vince Magnante and this is his 2nd GNRS. He’s from Anaheim and he did very well in 2009 and last year. “I expect to do well with sales in 2011 as well. Rat Fink merchandise sells well in any kind of market,” he told me. Jose and Luisa Hernandez rented thirty feet of space at the GNRS for their company called JRH Books. This is their first year at the show and they are hoping to do well. They have over 10,000 books, many of them hard to find and out of print as well as rare and valuable books. As the economy has slowed, book selling has become a full time job for them.
When walking through the buildings it helps to read a GNRS program first. There are so many trucks, cars, motorcycles, Woodie Wagons, pickups and other vehicles that you could spend hours searching for your favorites and then completely miss a building that you really want to see. In Building Six I came across Tom Fritz, one of the best of all the hot rod artists. He told me that he just got back from the Barrett/Jackson auction in Scottsdale, Arizona. “January is a killer month for me; tiring but always successful,” he added. Tom also does portraiture paintings as well as his trademark hot rods and dry lake cars. I told him that I’d love to have a Fritz over the mantle, but that his paintings have become favorites and out of my price range. “I’ll give you terms; you can pay a bit each month,” he countered. I found out that for 50% down and the rest on completion anyone can afford a Tom Fritz painting. He keeps busy right now with posters and prints, which are more affordable as original paintings have flat-lined in this economy. He also has some of his art work displayed in the new hot rod movie, “Deuce of Spades.” Building 6 is where they have the motorcycles and they are beautiful. About a fourth of the building is dedicated to bikes and they crammed a lot of them into a small space. I would have liked to have seen an entire building given over to the bikes so that they could expand and have room for people to mingle. Several bikes were in the America’s Most Beautiful Motorcycle (AMBM) category. Roger has a different view. He says that bikes and cars really don’t mix and this is meant for a display rather than a show. Whatever opinion you have on the matter, the bikes were still an awesome part of the GNRS and attracted a huge audience.
In Building Nine I met Dennis and Sue O’Brien, from Charlton, Massachusetts. I was told to look them up by the Lawford’s and also by Stan Chersky. Dennis and Sue own O’Brien Truckers and for many years I had assumed that they ran a trucking and transportation company. I have known Chersky for many years. Stan helped me get started in car show and racing reporting by befriending me at The Automotive Calendar of Events Miss Information magazine. Chersky seems to know everyone in the car business, but his biggest claim to fame is the 6000 car club plaques that he has been collecting for years and which hang on the wall of his metal recycling building. Stan is a walking encyclopedia of car club history. In many cases he is the only one who knows the history of a particular car club or owns one of those rare plaques. He told me about the O’Brien’s, who have a collection even bigger than his. So when I met Dennis and Sue there was this anticipation built up over many years. “We’re not a trucking company,” Sue told me. “We brag that we’re ‘trucking on.’ But making plaques for people is our business,” she added. Dennis said, “I was a program manager prior to creating our plaque business. There were two clubs that wanted plaques made and they asked me to do them and I learned how it was done. We’ve been doing this for 32 years now. We love to be on the road going from show to show and we visit all the shops around the car shows. We love taking the truck on the road and being together. We enjoy making friends in the automotive world and seeing them each year.” Sue added, “We have one daughter, Tracey Lynn Coleman, and a grand-daughter Katherine. My grand-daughter told me, ‘Grandma, don’t screw up the business because I want to run it someday.’ Katherine has a Junior dragster and loves to compete in drag racing.”
In addition to the plaques, the O’Brien’s also sell valve covers, barrel scoops, teardrop finned air cleaners and other automotive accessories. But their bread and butter is their more than 12,000 club plaques, the biggest collection that we know of. You can check them out at www.obrientruckers.com. Sue and Dennis are also official sponsors of the GNRS and presented free plaques to every car owner in a special category in their building. They also brought with them a GNRS plaque that they designed and sold in a limited number. If you want to purchase a stock plaque in their inventory the price is $30 and they are always looking for unique and new car club plaques to add to their collection or to make for your group. The O’Brien’s also have Bronze Buckles for sale. What impressed me the most was the number of people who stopped by to see them and who were their friends. Truly the O’Brien’s loved what they were doing and people loved them for the work that they do. Neal East dropped by to see the O’Brien’s. He is from Centennial, Colorado and has a colorful history. His ’32 Ford roadster was displayed at the Autorama and was on the cover of the September, 1961 issue of Rod & Custom magazine. His roadster is one of the 75 best judged Ford Deuces at the 2007 GNRS. The original owner of the East Deuce was Bill Woodward. A similar business to the car club plaques is Steve Bucher’s Buy/Sell/Or/Trade company. His business is located in Santa Ana and he sells license plates. John Larson is from Pasadena and he occupied a part of Bucher’s booth. Larson has been restoring license plates for the last six years. He can take an old beat up license plate and beat and bend it back into shape, sand down the corrosion, fill in the rust holes and then repaint the plate so that it is as good as new.
I visited Building 8 next and it was filled with custom cars, 1950’s and ‘60’s convertibles, sedans, muscle cars and dragsters from the slingshot era. The Barbee Brothers and their friends from the Southern California Timing Association (SCTA) waved hello. I meet them often over at Jack’s Garage in Fountain Valley. The garage is just that, a garage, and the proprietor is Jack Underwood who opens his garage each and every morning for a meeting place for hot rodders. Everyday Joes meet with hot rodding’s A-list of celebrities and if you haven’t been to Jack’s Garage then you are truly missing out on a real treasure trove of history. I returned to the Hotrodhotline booth to rest from the day’s journey and met Anita Schwartz, who receives all my writings and Roger’s photographs, which she posts on www.landspeedracing.com. Anita is the office manager at the websites owned by the Lawford’s up in Boise, Idaho. I don’t know how we would manage without Anita and Mary Ann Lawford to help us out. Anita was born in Illinois. She married Robin Schwartz who was in the Air Force and they moved around the country until her husband retired from the service. Then Robin’s sister, Sue Lawford, suggested that they come to Boise, Idaho to live and work for Jack and Mary Ann’s www.hotrodhotline.com. Sue married Jack Lawford Jr, Jack and Mary Ann’s son, who now run www.Bikeronline.com. Anita began working for hotrodhotline in 2000 and this is her eleventh year with the company. At first Anita worked in the classified section but gradually she was promoted to the position of office manager and oversees the operations while Jack and Mary Ann are traveling to various car shows around the country. Her husband works for Micron in Boise, a growing city that has become a hub of hot rodding and car enthusiasts and even boasts their own Dragstrip. Anita has a daughter Victoria and a grandson, Alexander. Others in the office include; Janice, who is in charge of press releases, Heather who is the sales representative, Jack and Sue Lawford who run BikerOnline, Mary Ann who “puts out fires,” and Jack Lawford who specializes in show displays and marketing. For further stories on the GNRS see the articles on the Suede Palace, the GNRS Hall of Fame Banquet and the Pinstripers Reunion.