Down in Bakersfield: A Pictorial
A few Sundays ago, I slipped away from my post in the Manufacturers Midway™ at Bakersfield’s Famoso Raceway. It didn’t take long to realize that over the summer, the Southern California sun had dried out just about everything around me, from the dirt in the parking lot to the tired looking souls who slinked by clenching $7 beers. Some were shirtless, their faces blank; they looked like they weren’t looking for anything in particular. Come to think of it, neither was I.
It had been a long weekend, and the only people who seemed to be moving fast at that point were those with the cars. No, not the all-wheel drive golf carts with plastic rims and stereos blasting Pop Country hits, but the diggers, Funnies, Gassers and Altereds whose stories somehow tie back to that quarter-mile stretch of asphalt just beyond the grandstands and the very long chain link fence. You know, Famoso.
As I wandered around the property, the last sets of cars hurdled down the racetrack. The show was essentially over. The pits—a hotbed of calamity and chaos just 24 hours prior—now felt like an RV campground that had been stripped of its greenery. “That’s okay,” I thought, “I’ve seen everything there is to see.”
Right about then, I noticed a red Metalflake dragster resting near a single-axle open trailer. I immediately knew it was the “Western Manufacturing Special,” with its Kent Fuller chassis, Arnie Roberts bodywork and signature 6-71-blown smallblock. I had heard it cackle the day before. It sure sounded healthy. I shuffled over to take a look.
Next to the car, I didn’t find fast-moving people. Instead, I found a couple in their 80s staring as if they were about to take on some sort of Sisyphean task. I took note of the man’s “Juggers” baseball cap and tape-measurer suspenders, then asked the woman if they needed help loading up the dragster. “Of course,” she said.
The couple laid down skinny channel-like ramps for the front wheels and then the three of us began to push. A bystander joined the charge. Once the front wheels were safely on the trailer, we shifted the ramps inward to accommodate the narrow rear track. With a little bit of jockeying, the slingshot was in position. “See that piece of wood?” the man asked, pointing toward the well-worn plank holding down the clutch. “Pull that out, would ya?” I reached my hand into the cockpit and released the clutch. Just like that, the car was safe. We all felt a little better.
Every trip to the California Hot Rod Reunion is filled with hundreds of little scenes, from the guy speed-walking through the staging lanes armed with a beaker full of some volatile substance to the two men reenacting a Samurai duel as part of their swap meet haggling ritual. Yes, I saw burnouts and wheeltands and pieces of flaming debris shoot into the grandstands, but through it all, that moment with the Western Manufacturing Special stood out to me the most. Why?
The answer is simple, really. For all intents and purposes, the Cackle cars are museum pieces. You’re not supposed to touch or even get too close to the things for fear of causing a ding or a scratch or a dent or some sort of imperfection. Fifty-some years ago, these cars were warhorses. They were run hard and pushed to their limit weekend after weekend. Parts broke, repairs were made and many of them soon became less-than-perfect—which is how I feel they should be. Grabbing the roll bar, pushing the big Blue Streak and dipping my arm into the interior brings the car out from behind the velvet ropes and into reality. It makes it tactile. It makes it real.
As of late, I’ve been searching to the point of insanity to find that feeling—that grit, that authenticity. Time and time again I ask myself, “What is it about all this stuff that’s so appealing? Is it the speed or the style or the history or the danger or the fact that these cars just make sense?” That’s not a question I’m able to answer today, and I’ll wager I’ll spend the rest of my days trying to pinpoint it.
I kept those thoughts in the back of my mind as I drove down Highway 5 towards Bakersfield, scanning the radio and watching the orchards of the San Joaquin Valley pop into my peripheral. I’ve worked this event plenty of times—seen the cars, explored the town, went to a Honky Tonk, drank light beer in the Courtyard parking lot until the sun came up—but this time I knew I wanted to do Bako a little differently. I had places to go, things to do and not a lot of time to do them.
And so, throughout the trip, I carried my camera with me. Not my usual Nikon, but instead my extremely basic Konica loaded with an old roll of 400 ISO color film that my girlfriend so graciously pulled from her fridge. For that weekend, I strived for imperfection. I wanted to feel like a fan going to the races back in the ’50s or ’60s, not knowing how good (or bad) my photos were until I got the film processed. Hey, that’s era correct right? Anyways, without further ado, this is what I saw down in Bakersfield.
Oh, and a few more things. Looking at these photos, I should have named this report “Bad Pictures of Good Cars.” Maybe I’ll save that title for another day? Also, the shot of the Western Manufacturing Special isn’t technically film, but the rest are.