Reborn at the Gathering at the Roc
This article almost didn’t happen. Twice. Writing was the first and last thing on my mind as I curled into a ball in the front seat of a 1934 Ford crossing the Mississippi River. Although the air was warm for early fall, I could tell something was wrong. Very wrong. Not with the car, but with me. Teeth chattering, forehead pounding, I squinted over the top of the door to see where we were. “The Arch,” I said to myself. “We made it to St. Louis.”
St. Louis was the 500-mile mark of our 880-mile haul from Michigan’s capital city to Bartlesville, Oklahoma, for the Gathering at the Roc. I could feel myself collapsing from the inside as our trio of early Fords ripped down the highway. There was Tim Traylor in his nailhead-powered Deuce five-window, Colton Leigeb in his freshly finished ’32 Ford, and Dave Gray—who was stuck with me—in his survivor ’34 Ford roadster.
I persuaded my shaky hands to pull my beanie down low. I pushed my ear plugs into my ears as far as they could go. My mind began to skip. “The Roc. The Roc. We need to make it to the Gathering at the Roc.”
In all my years of journalism, I’ve learned to accept that plans are always changing. Nothing is set in stone, and you have to be able to react, adapt and report on the fly. Even if it’s hard. Even if it’s uncomfortable. That’s when the best stories emerge.
It’s hard to say where this Gathering at the Roc road trip story actually started, but right now the neon signs point to a conversation outside the Crowne Plaza hotel bar in Louisville, Kentucky. After a full day at the 2022 Nationals, I ran into my longtime friend Joel Kokoska.
“Hey Joel, I have a question for you,” I said. “Does your Dad’s Deuce sedan have roll-down rear windows?”
“It does,” Joel said. “What’s up?”
From there, I introduced an idea that I had been ruminating over for quite some time. Take a Ridetech-equipped early Ford and drive the highways and biways to Northern Oklahoma for the Roc. I had never been, but from what I had seen and heard, it was a show that couldn’t be missed.
Before we move further, it’s important to note that Joel and his dad are masters of the American road trip. Not only do they own and drive world-class hot rods, they also know where to take them. Old towns. Scenic routes. Hot rod shops. Diners. Everything. In the months following that conversation in Louisville, I couldn’t stop thinking about our pilgrimage to the Roc.
Then, the weekend before the trip, I got a phone call from Joel. The sedan was acting up, and they wouldn’t be able to fix it in time. As old car owners, we all know how this goes. Some things are worth taking a gamble on, and we all agreed that this wasn’t one of them.
We were down but certainly not out. He and his dad planned to tow their show-winning ’34 Ford roadster, hitting a myriad of shops, stops and byways along their route from Atlanta. I had an image of a rough-and-tumble early Ford adventure rattling around in my head, and I was determined to make it happen.
Instagram. DMs. Phone calls with friends. Phone calls with strangers. Phone calls with my brother. Phone call with the airline. An email. Another email. A red eye. Next thing I know, it’s 5 a.m. Tuesday and I’m in Newark, New Jersey, some 3,000 miles away from home. I pick up my backpack. “Pack light,” they said. “There isn’t much room in the trunk of this ’32 Ford.”
When my Uber drops me off in Lansing, Michigan, I’m in somewhat of a haze. I’ve spent the lion’s share of the past 12 hours on the move, and it feels good to plop down on my brother’s couch as I wait for the hot rods to arrive. When they do, we run outside to see what kind of machines I’ll be calling home for the next three days.
Maybe it was the sleep deprivation, but Dave’s ’34 and Colton’s ’32 looked like some sort of mechanical mirage in my brother’s driveway. After greeting the guys, I studied the cars. Dave’s ’34 is an honest-to-goodness survivor with well-worn paint and dash plaques from 1970s and ’80s Street Rod Nationals. Colton’s coupe was chopped back in the day and has been completely reworked from nose to tail. It’s low, louvered and smallblock powered. Oh, and did I mention that he’s only 20 years old?
Once we leave town, the two Fords hum along on the highway. I start riding shotgun in Colton’s coupe, periodically peeking out the side window to shoot Dave’s ’34 on the move. I had never met Colton, but it didn’t take long to realize that he’s an expert when it comes to early Ford hot rods. They run in his blood, and he’s spent plenty of time behind the wheel of his dad’s smallblock-powered ’32 roadster. (I later learned that the engine in the coupe came from that very car.)
Despite the heavy chop, it’s surprisingly spacious inside the five-window. Sitting way back in a minivan seat, I watch Colton row the T-5 and man the drilled four-spoke wheel. “See that steering box?” he says, pointing towards his feet. “I built the car around that side cover. It’s a 1941 combine box.” I study it. Through a fair bit of trial and error, he says the car steers well.
After a fast evening on the freeway, we arrive in Fort Wayne, Indiana. As the sun set, we rolled up to Tim Traylor’s house in the suburbs. Tim is a veteran hot rodder who has logged thousands upon thousands of miles in early Fords. Before that, he was heavily into motorcycles, having spent nearly a decade riding a chopped early Ironhead with a raked neck and a springer front end. These days, he drives a 1932 Ford five-window and a Model A roadster.
As Colton adjusts his brakes, Dave, Tim and I tell tales of past trips. Between sips of beer and slices of pizza, we plan the route using an old road atlas with crinkled pages. “I’m fine with whatever,” Tim says, “As long as we avoid major cities.” We all agree. Less traffic, more open road.
The following morning, I watch the sun rise from the front seat of Dave’s roadster. The fall air is crisp, and the sun breaks through the clouds in beams of magenta, gold and blue. We fill up with gas and hit the road.
Out on the Super Slab (as they say in the CB world), we stick together. V8s opened up, wind whipping, traffic looking on as if we came from some far away world. I watch our reflection in tanker trucks, and I peer up at big rigs. The landscape shifts. I soak it all in.
Somewhere in Indiana, Colton’s rear brakes need to be adjusted. We come to a stop at a rest area, and Tim pulls a jack from his trunk. Up goes the five-window’s rear as Dave and I look on. As we do, an older couple approaches us. “What year are these from?” the woman asks. “1932 and 1934,” Dave replies. “Can I take a picture for my son?” “Of course!” We soon learn that she’s in the business of buying and selling furs, and her son wants to build one of these cars. (If you’re reading this, please let us know!)
Soon thereafter, Colton is blasting hot laps around the rest stop. On his final pass, he grabs a Mountain Dew Code Red from the vending machine. That was our sign; it’s time to keep moving.
“If you’re going to Oklahoma, you have to have the right hat,” Colton reminds me at every possible opportunity. Longtime readers know that I have a wide variety of journalism hats, most of which I packed for this trip. Nonetheless, I figured a Western lid might be a wise investment.
As we finished up lunch, he hinted that he found the perfect one for me by the checkout at the Love’s Truck Stop. I walked over and pulled a plasticky, woven cowboy hat off a metal rack. Much like trying on shoes, I take it for a mini runway walk around the area between the Subway line and the CB radio accessories.
I look over at the cashier, who looks back at me. “Hun, you’re still in Indiana,” she says. “Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.” With that, I returned the hat to the shelf and continued on my way.
After lunch, I spend time in Tim’s coupe. While we’re cruising along, the column-mounted speedometer reads 80mph. I ask him the specs on his car. Nailhead with three-twos, “a very tired T-5,” and the number 77 on the doors. It’s the most complete of the three on the trip, and the guys gave him a good ribbing for having roll up windows and a heater. I don’t blame him one bit. It’s extremely comfortable going down the road; it’s clear that Tim thought out every aspect of the build. No squeaks. No rattles. No problems.
Like any hot rod, however, there are changes on the horizon. Thanks to a fair amount of peer pressure from his friends and family, he’ll be chopping the top in the not-so-distant future. I know I’m not alone when I say I can’t wait to see the haircut.
Time passes and I don’t pay too much attention to what state we’re in. Indiana turns to Illinois, and then Missouri came sneaking up. Towards the end of my time in Tim’s coupe, I start to feel nauseous. Not thinking much of it, I migrate to Dave’s car for some fresh air.
That’s when things seemed to spiral. I felt a sharp pain in my stomach that radiated outwards. My head was throbbing, and I was shivering uncontrollably. At first, I tried to power through, not saying anything and just hunkering down. I faded fast.
Next thing I knew, I was on the side of the road, spilling my guts by the gates of a wildlife preserve. Earth’s gravitational pull has never been stronger. I wanted nothing more than to lay down in the grass. I wanted the world to just stop, even for just a minute, so I could catch up.
Well, I didn’t lay down and the world didn’t stop. Instead, I slinked back to the cars. Tim pulled some Dramamine out of his medicine bag, and I took a big gulp of water. If I weren’t so exhausted, I would have been disappointed and, above all, embarrassed.
Due to my rapidly declining condition, we checked into a hotel south of St. Louis for the night. I spent the next 12 hours locked in my room trying to figure out how to get better. Bottled waters piled up on my nightstand. I would fall asleep and then wake up thinking it was the next day. I’d sleep for 37 minutes, 44 minutes, 12 minutes and then two hours.
I kept on buying overpriced drinks from the vending machine, and it would give me my change in Sacagawea dollar coins. It’s as if I were in some strange, early 2000s alternate universe. The kids in the Holidome™ pool finally went to sleep. Is that someone peering in my window? Why is the ceiling leaking extremely cold water? Should I do something about it? Should I care?
Then, around 7 a.m., I got a text from the guys. “You alive?” Technically, I was. Throughout the course of my stay, I was trying to figure out what to do next. If I kept on being as sick as I was, I would be of no use to anyone on the trip. I couldn’t shoot photos, I couldn’t interview and I most certainly couldn’t enjoy the show. As I squinted at that text, I thought about the events leading up to that very moment. “Get up,” I told myself. “It’s time to go.”
Remember that part about Tim’s car having roll up windows and a heater? Between those, his camp blanket and my Bose headphones, I locked myself into his coupe for the final leg of the trip. Every gas stop became an opportunity to stretch out and buy a ginger ale. By the time we reached the Oklahoma state line, the sun was out. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t relieved.
The Bartlesville Bounce Back
It was Thursday afternoon when we arrived in the town of Bartlesville, Oklahoma. I intentionally didn’t dig too deep into the area because I wanted to experience it for myself with a fresh set of eyes. Well, in the beginning my eyes were far from that. I managed to sneak away to my hotel room, write my Jalopy Journal column, and then fall asleep.
Sometime after dark, I woke up. I lifted myself out of bed and peered out my fourth-floor window. While I was sleeping, a pack of hot rods had filled the parking lot. People stood in semi-circles, talking, laughing and sipping beers.
Walking around my room, I felt stable. Before I knew it, I was in the elevator. Then the parking lot. With water bottle in hand, I scanned my surroundings. The cars. All the cars. The ones I knew from Rodder’s Journal, Hop Up, Instagram, books and just about everywhere else. Oh, and there were plenty that I had never seen before either. I was in awe.
It was at that moment, underneath the yellow glow of the streetlamps, that I knew it was all going to be okay. I was going to be okay. I was still numb, still weak, but very grateful to be standing right there in Bartlesville.
Running for Reliability
Before leaving San Francisco, I got in touch with Jason Smith and Brandon McCullough. They’re a pair of Oklahoma hot rodders who are responsible for bringing the Gathering at the Roc to life. Within a minute of meeting them in the host hotel parking lot, I felt as if we had known each other since childhood.
Sure, they run the show, but that’s just a small piece of who they are. Although we had a great time talking cars, it was even more fun learning about their families, friends and lives. And, for reasons I’m still not totally clear on, they entrusted me with Todd Stamm’s 1932 Ford sedan for Friday’s reliability run.
Todd’s ’32 is simply in a league of its own. Built by Jason and his team at The Hot Rod Garage in Sand Springs, Oklahoma, the Tudor takes everything I like about hot rods and bumps it up about 10 levels. Talking points include an 8BA flathead with Grancor heads, the smoothest ’39 transmission I’ve ever shifted, an original Halibrand quickchange and a Mitchell overdrive. Every inch of this thing has been detailed to the max; it was an honor to sit in it, let alone drive it.
And drive it I did. On Friday morning, I paired up with Chris Chapman for the reliability run. Chris is from Oregon, and it was also his first year at the Roc. I soon learned that I wasn’t the only one who had changed their travel plans at the last minute. You see, he and his friend Eric Black originally set out to tow Eric’s newly finished T roadster from Portland to Bartlesville behind Chris’ 1951 Mercury. Even though the Merc is his daily driver, they realized that the cross-country trip would simply put too much strain on the old custom. Nonetheless, they subbed a modern pickup into the equation and made the 2,000-mile trek to debut Eric’s orange T.
The reliability run was expertly planned. It brought our pack of more than 100 hot rods along scenic roads and through small towns. It was designed to slow the pace and give everyone a chance to enjoy the world around them. I was feeling much better, especially as I was shifting gears and watching the horizon through the sedan’s chopped windshield.
Sidebar 31: Winding Up
Let’s skip back in time for a second here. During the driver’s meeting, I was taking photos of the cars and listening to Jason’s announcements. When I put my camera down, I took a moment to take it all in. A bearded man to my right looked right at me and said, “What’s your name?”
“Joey,” I replied.
“Joey Ukrop?” he said. “I’m Larry, Winduptoy on the H.A.M.B.”
“Larry!” I said, letting down all guard and giving him the biggest hug. “So good to finally meet you!”
Larry is a traditional hot rodder in every sense of the word. Longtime H.A.M.B. folks know that he’s an absolute master of all things ’banger, specifically Model A. He has helped me with my Model A roadster project since day one, and I couldn’t believe that he was standing there next to me.
“So,” I asked. “Did you drive your car here from Zuzax, New Mexico?”
“Yes!” he said with a smile. “The ’31 cabriolet. The only casualty was the speedometer cable.”
After the Reliability Run came to a close, Larry and I crossed paths again. “You know what, Joey,” he said. “I want you to drive my car.” Soon thereafter, I was behind the wheel.
Larry’s cabriolet is the perfect Model A. Its black paint is checked, and the chrome on the windshield frame is slowly shedding like snake’s skin. The doors close with a click, and the Apple Green ’35 Ford wires and Firestone blackwalls give it a hot rod stance. “That’s factory pinstriping,” Larry says, pointing to the green brushwork on the back side of the gas tank.
With the top down, he shows me his startup technique. The ’banger roars to life and idles just like Henry Ford intended. He then gives me the tour. It’s all familiar, apart from a second, straight rod next to the shifter. The knob reads “Dictator.”
“That’s the Mitchell overdrive,” he says. I mention that I probably won’t be needing that for around-town driving. “No, no,” he tells me. “You’re going to drive this car and I’m going to show you how to split gears.”
With that, we pull out of the parking lot and into the street. We wind through town and dip into an older neighborhood. It’s late afternoon, and the world is quiet—with the exception of our hopped up four-banger buzzing down the empty streets. Larry introduces the concept of having a low and high in all three forward gears. Within a few minutes, I feel comfortable with the whole setup.
We drive by fieldstone houses with neatly mowed yards and ranches with Conestoga wagon wheels in their landscaping. I wave at the family standing on their front porch, and at the kid on the dirtbike who was born 70 years after this car was built. We drive beneath the canopy of trees, their leaves hinting that the season could change at any moment.
Let’s Go to the Roc
Saturday is the grand finale. Right before sunrise, 400 hot rods and customs flood into the Woolaroc Wildlife preserve and take up residence out on the grass, beneath the trees or over by the animals. The setting is as organic as it sounds. There isn’t assigned parking per se, but Jason and Brandon work to keep similar cars together. Hot rods here, customs there, it makes the whole thing very pleasing to spectators and photographers alike.
I rolled in with Colton, which really brought the trip full circle. It didn’t take long to be immersed in the landscape. Mist rose off the lake, and we navigated through the trees. We ultimately ended up parking by the goats, an ostrich and a zebra.
I spent the rest of the day catching up with friends from here and there. One minute I was discussing road trips with Joel Kokoska and his dad, the next I was talking writing with Eric Black. By lunchtime, I discovered that I hadn’t seen close to half the cars. I did what I could to remedy that.
The Gathering at the Roc was never supposed to be about awards. But in the past three years, they’ve turned their trophies into an art show in and of itself. This year’s hardware included an engraved luchador belt, a custom-painted skateboard, an electric guitar, a full-size airplane propeller, a V8 crown, and a polished aluminum cowboy hat scratchbuilt by Cory Taulbert. People laughed and people cried as they watched one of the most entertaining trophy presentations in all of hot rodding.
As the show wound down, I asked my pal Joey Wagner if he could give me a ride back to the host hotel with one stipulation—we had to stop at the gas station for Slurpees. He agreed, and we crammed into his 1922 Model T, the “Tamale Wagon,” and set our sights on Bartlesville.
Driving through the Roc on the way out, we noticed all the hot rod traffic had stopped. After a moment of confusion, we spotted a herd of buffalo in the road. When they finished their crossing, I waved goodbye not only to them, but also to an exciting weekend at the Gathering at the Roc.
To Tulsa, and Beyond
On Sunday morning, Brandon gave me a ride to Tulsa International Airport in his flathead-powered 1932 Ford roadster. I don’t know how many times I’ve flown in my life, but I know for a fact that this was the best airport Uber I’d ever taken. Soon after I arrived, I realized that I had half a day to burn before my flight. Could I have stayed at the airport and relaxed? Most definitely. But I had one more stop I wanted to make.
Fifteen minutes later, I was on the outskirts of Tulsa on Route 66. It was lunchtime, and I had finally started to regain my appetite. I dropped into a local café. “On the road again?” the waitress said, pointing to my backpack and camera slung over my shoulder. “Very much so,” I replied.
Since I was in no particular rush, I broke out my journal and my stack of Polaroids that I had shot throughout the trip. With a Coke in one hand and a pen in the other, I tried to organize my thoughts. Per usual, I made a bulleted list—with notes—that most would find illegible. I wrote, sifted through the stack of photos, and then I wrote some more.
When my food arrived, I ate like I was the only one in the restaurant. Not wanting to overdo it, I left a little bit of my omelet on the plate. The hostess asked me if I’d like a to-go box, and I explained to her that I was about to hop on a flight back to San Francisco.
She asked what I was doing in Oklahoma, and I told her all about my time on the road. The redeye, Michigan, the cars, the small towns, the people and more. “Here,” I said, handing her the Polaroids. “Take a look through these if you’d like.”
As she did, I saw her face light up. She introduced herself as Liz, and I learned that she’s one of Tulsa’s original bartenders. “I knew some guys who were pretty into these cars,” she said. “A long time ago, they asked my friends and I if we wanted to go to this big show in Tulsa. Of course, we went. While we were there, they had us do all sorts of weird games, like one where you had to change spark plugs. As a matter of fact, they ended up putting my picture in Rod & Custom magazine. I have a picture of the article right here on my phone.”
Lo and behold, there was Liz in the December 1973 coverage of the Street Rod Nationals. I remembered the photo, and I knew I had a copy of the issue back at my house. Talk about a small world. I thanked her for sharing her stories and, before I knew it, I was on my way.
It was after midnight when I finally touched down in San Francisco. My backpack was still overpacked, and I still had my Polaroid camera around my neck. I was sunburnt, seven pounds lighter and still processing everything that happened in the past six days. When I reached the door of the plane, the flight attendant looked at me, then at my camera, and then back at me again.
“Wow,” she said. “That’s quite the camera. Have you taken any good pictures with it?”
“I try to,” I told her. “I really, really do.”
A huge thank you to Ridetech for sending me on such an action-packed trip. For my complete RT coverage, click here. Also, a big thank you to Jason, Brandon and their families, as well as Tim, Colton and Dave. You guys are the best, seriously.
A Gathering Gallery