Hot Rods Redux

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This is hardly to suggest that street racing was a harmless activity in those woolly days. Veterans of the sport recall night races on vacant stretches of such main Los Angeles thoroughfares as Sepulveda, Artesia, and Culver Boulevards —now jammed with buildings and traffic, but in those days deserted straightaways coursing through oil fields and truck farms. Sometimes as many as two hundred hot rods would engage in what came to be known as drag racing , a term believed to have arisen from a drive-in parking lot challenge to “drag it out” for a race.

In the early days following me war, the races would sometimes run for a mile or two until one of the competitors’ cars broke or the driver gave up. The noisy, tire^ burning contests generally continued until the police arrived, at which point the crowds roared off, often churning through adjacent bean fields or dodging oil rigs in reckless attempts to escape. Most made it. Those who did not were often jailed for a variety of traffic offenses and sometimes had their “rods” impounded by angry judges. As the impromptu duels evolved, the “track”—i.e., street—became limited to about one-quarter mile, a distance that was to become standard as the sport grew organized.

 
 

With street racing booming and the authorities and media in ever-higher dudgeon, some enthusiasts realized that reforms had to be instituted before a major disaster occurred. Wally Parks, a brilliant organizer and hot rodder who had helped form the SCTA, quit his job at General Motors and became the SCTA’s first employee, in order to formalize and regulate something on the edge of anarchy. Parks is the single visionary who understood that if drag racing could be controlled, it held the potential to become a popular mainstream motor sport.

A breakthrough came in January 1948, when Parks and other members of the SCTA organized the “First Annual Automotive Equipment Display and Hot Rod Exposition” at the National Guard Armory in Los Angeles’s Exposition Park. They made the daring decision to publicly employ the term hot rod for the event; heretofore even insiders had considered it a darkly menacing phrase. Robert Petersen, a struggling Hollywood publicity agent, was assigned to sell ads for the program. But Petersen and his partner, Robert Eindsay, had bigger ideas. They produced the first issue of Hot Rod magazine (a title they chose after considering “Autocraft”) in time to sell their tiny press run on the steps of Exposition Hall. The little magazine was a runaway success, and in less than two years Parks had been hired as the editor and circulation ballooned to three hundred thousand a month. Hot Rod would lead to Petersen’s creating Motor Trend and other automotive enthusiast magazines and would elevate him into the lofty realms of the annual FORBES list of America’s richest citizens.

The Hearst press hammered out lurid stories of “Juvenile Daredevils” in “hopped-up” jalopies.

Hundreds of small manufacturers opened shop in Los Angeles in the late forties to fabricate all manner of speed equipment for the booming sport while Parks wrestled with the problem of sanitizing the racing and creating a more positive public image. Organized drag racing had begun in 1950 on a little-used landing strip in Santa Ana, a suburb in Orange County south of L.A., thereby launching a sport that now attracts millions to watch five-thousand-horse-power Top Fuel dragsters explode through the quartermile at more than 300 mph. Parks formed the National Hot Rod Association the next year, and through his efforts the organization has flourished in the United States and inspired similar associations around the world.

Meanwhile, the once-tinv speed-equipment business has expanded into an eighteen-billion-dollar-a-year industry, and in the past thirty years a revival movement called “street rodding” has produced the masterfully styled re-creations of the early hot rods. Powered by modern V-8 engines, street rods utilize original steel bodies and fiberglass replications of 1920–48 Fords, Chevrolets, and other roadsters, coupes, and sedans; but these vivid forms, mounted on special frames, carry modern accouterments—air conditioning, power windows and steering, CD players, disc brakes, automatic transmissions—that make them thoroughly contemporary automobiles in every sense except for their retro-styled bodies. Master craftsmen like Boyd Coddington and Pete Chapouris and his staff at the So-Cal Speed Shop in Pomona annually handcraft street rods that can cost an enthusiast up to two hundred thousand dollars. Well-built machines of all types regularly sell for twenty to thirty thousand dollars and sometimes considerably more.