Is time travel really possible? I appreciate science fiction as much as anyone, but I never gave this space-time-continuum stuff much thought until I began spending Father’s day weekends at the Holley National Hot Rod Reunion (NHRR) in Bowling Green, Kentucky. After the 17th-edition of this event was held June 13 through 15 at Beech Bend Raceway, I’m beginning to think this entire facility may be a sort of black hole that serves as a portal to drag racing’s past.
A Horse of a Different Color
Bowling Green is horse country, and not the sort of place that speaks drag racing at first glance. The pastoral road that leads to the track looks as though it’s heading for a stable full of equestrian champions. Yet, as you travel under a canopy of trees and fields of baled hay, you will suddenly find yourself staring down the Kentucky Rumbler wooden roller coaster at Beech Bend Amusement Park. Veer to the left, and one of the country’s oldest, continuously operating drag strips comes into view.
Beech Bend Raceway has been contesting drag races on this property since 1956. It’s a fully functional racetrack, complete with Compulink timing equipment and an experienced staff who diligently maintains the quarter-mile track surface. Survey the landscape, and you’ll notice some distinctive old-world features that give this facility its unmistakable nostalgic aura.
Almost everything at this track takes you back to a bygone era. You can spend your nights at the on-site campground, and the grandstands are covered with a proper roof, a true rarity that protects spectators from the ravages of intense summer sun.
The spectator side of the track has vintage baseball-stadium seating that was probably made when the Dodgers were still in Brooklyn. Behind the starting line is a 1/3-mile bullring race track. Originally intended for stock cars, it is now mostly used as vendor space, and for drifting competitions. Most things on the facility are made of wood, and are cracked and worn. The paint is old and faded, but this place is the real deal. It’s a perfect venue for a look back at drag racing history.
Everyone is Welcome
The NHRR is inclusive of all eras of drag racing, and despite Chevy power being the dominant choice at drag strips everywhere, for generations, other time-honored brands make their presence known at this event. Mopars are abundant. In fact, I’ve never seen more Hemi engines, in as many cars, than here. Fords are favorites with many, and even a Dearborn die-hard like “Ohio” George Montgomery can be found working the crowd next to one of his freaky turbocharged Mustangs.
Traditional gasser racing is a crowd favorite, with a host of Willys, Anglias, and Austins (among others) providing wheel-standing action on the track. Nitro fans will witness fuel dragsters, funny cars, and blown altereds duke it out on the Beech Bend quarter-mile. Vintage Pro Stock racers from the ’70s through the ’90s reappear at the NHRR. Keep your eyes open, and you’ll even spot an occasional Studebaker or Hudson in the staging lanes. Don’t be surprised by what shows up here — isn’t that part of the appeal of nostalgia racing anyway?
The Best of the Best
Besides the yesteryear-oriented drag racing action, there is also a sizable display of street-driven hot rods and muscle cars participating in the Axalta show-n-shine along the grassy picnic grounds adjacent to the racetrack. The cars range from the most fundamentally basic home-built cars wearing a natural patina finish, to professionally built showpieces with stunning paint and polish throughout.
NHRA selects its choice of the top-50 cars from close to 2,000 entries, to receive an award and a parade lap down the track. The variety of cars is astounding, and reflect all angles of our hot rodding hobby. On Friday evening, an honoree reception is held at the National Corvette Museum, and this year, the Grand Marshall was none other than Chevy stalwart Randy Walls. Additional honorees included Steve Earwood, Army Armstrong, Paul Smith, Art Marshall, and Richard Maskin.
The Cacklefest Conclusion
This year, the restored race cars that participated in the event-ending Cacklefest, fittingly fired their engines during the moments when twilight began to transition to darkness. This is when the reunion takes on a celebratory feel. All eyes are focused on the “living museum” assembled near the starting line. A “Cacklefest” is a way to see these historically important restorations come alive in their natural setting. These mass fire-ups began at the very first California Hot Rod Reunion in 1992, and have remained immensely popular ever since.
The cackling begins after “mostly retired” NHRA announcer Bob Frey makes the call, and the push-start cars are towed to the top end of the track. Then, the static start machines begin to assemble near the pit-side guard wall. The static cars are then started, and are soon joined by a parade of push start dragsters that begin to line the spectator side wall. It’s a spectacular sight to see and hear so many fuel-burning engines come to life at the same time. The crowd never fails to roar in approval after the last engine is shut down, while the acrid aroma of Nitromethane hangs in the air. All in all, a very satisfying way to end an action-packed weekend.
The original intent of both the Holley National Hot Rod Reunion, and the California Hot Rod Reunion was to simply celebrate drag racing history and reconnect with old racing friends from years past. That continues to the present day, but both events have gained an additional purpose to serve as benefits for the Wally Parks NHRA Motorsports Museum located in Pomona, California.
The museum produces these long-standing popular events to help support its mission of celebrating the impact of motorsports on American culture. Each reunion is an important fundraiser for the museum’s year-round agenda of programs and activities. The museum is obviously committed to chronicling drag racing history, but it also routinely honors additional forms of motorsports as well.
The Holley National Hot Rod Reunion is a group effort staged by NHRA Division 3 staff, along with museum staff, volunteers, and track personnel working in concert to deliver a positive nostalgia racing experience for participants and spectators alike. If you’ve never been to an NHRA Reunion, try to put one on your annual event calendar and see what the excitement is all about. That necktie you got for Father’s Day will pale in comparison to a trip down memory lane with a wheel-standing gasser.