Smokin’ in Santa Margarita: A RPM Nationals Pictorial
Over on the West Coast, the RPM Nationals have been the talk of the town. How could then not be? Take more than 100 of the region’s best flathead and four-banger powered hot rods and throw them out on a picturesque Central California ranch and you have a recipe for success. It’s an event that’s been on my must-attend list since its inception—yet I’ve missed it every time. “Enough was enough,” I told myself. “I need to go this year.” So, I did—and I brought my roommate Michael with me.
These days, authenticity is hard to find. As we wound down highway 101, I wondered if the race was going to live up to all the hype. “Have all the Instagram posts and magazine articles been a bunch of smoke and mirrors?” I asked myself. “How many people will be there? Are they actually going to spin tires and bang gears?”
Well, as we turned onto the road to Santa Margarita Ranch—which was marked with a Model A sport coupe and a hand-painted sign—I found my answers. First and foremost, the event was huge. Flathead fanatics from across the West (and beyond) made the trek for the same reason we did. Southern California, Northern California, Colorado, New Mexico, the list went on. I overheard multiple people say that this was the biggest the Nationals have ever been. I believe it.
Walking through the unpaved pits, we were swallowed by a swarm of traditional hot rods. A flathead-powered T Altered here and a ’32 Ford roadster with a blown Ardun there. How about a Concourse-level sports rod or a perfectly patina’d Deuce sedan built by a 15-year-old and his dad? From four-bangers to full-house flatheads, I found myself gravitating towards every engine and every car. That’s saying something.
At the RPM Nationals, it was refreshing to check out cars that I had only seen online or in magazines. I studied details, crawled underneath frame rails and took notes on everything from suspension geometry to fuel-line routing. There was no pressure, there was no rush. It was pure leisure.
On top of that, I was able to meet so many folks that I had only talked to online. Since we have all been cooped up for so long wrenching on our projects, it was refreshing to see what everyone else out there was working on. I loved hearing stories of Covid builds, mad thrashes, and unreal finds, some of which were running down the track that day in Santa Margarita.
The entire event was surprisingly informal and undeniably fun. It became immediately clear that the organizers are passionate about these cars; they were enjoying every moment just as much—if not more—than the racers and spectators combined.
I’ve spent the past week thinking about what it was that made this event so special. The answer is hard to pinpoint. Did it feel like the early days at Santa Ana? An NHRA Safety Safari stop? Or the vintage resurgence at the Antique Nationals? I’m not sure. But I can say this—traditional hot rodding is alive and well, and the RPM Nationals are the perfect place to watch it thrive like never before.
A special thank you to the Hop Up x RPM Nationals team for putting on such a stellar event. I’m already looking forward to next year.
Also, a big thank you to Michael Christen for the photography assistance…and DJ expertise.