So You Heard That Hot Rodding Was Dead…
Maybe you overheard somebody say that all the old tin was gone, rusted away. That the scrap yards are empty of old cars. The voluptuous fenders of 1936 all melted down to build some bridge in China. Or that all the HEMIs, not the recent attempts you see in new car ads, but the real HEMIs, had long ago been pulled out of the yards and blown up at the drag strip, that you just couldn’t find muscle like that anymore.
Maybe you didn’t even know that drag racing still existed. Sure, you saw the carbon fiber delay box space machines doing battle on ESPN2. Rolling billboards owned by corporations and driven by wind-up dolls repeating mantras of sponsor names. But you didn’t think regular guys still drag raced; jamming great big motors into little tiny cars and pitting their reflexes against the timing tree, building engines strong enough to tear the cars apart, boil rear tires like banshees on spokes, jerk the front tires for the skies like it was their rapture on a Saturday night.
You really thought hot rodding was dead. Something must have given you this idea. Maybe you saw all the slick fiberglass rides cruising fairgrounds. Rows of identical $500 steering wheels, the crying baby dolls leaned up against fenders and thought these Jolly Rancher colored cartoons were what hot rodding had become. That you could buy it out of a catalog now – like a toaster, or a vibrator. And if that was hot rodding, I’d call it dead too. Maybe some of those six-figure rides represent craftsmanship, but it’s hard to take a guy seriously who paid $6,000 to have his car painted like an Easter egg.
You knew that hot rodding, or at least some part of it, had started out on the Salt Flats – where Dead Sea’s came to life in pursuit of all-out speed, where you could run anything as long as it was safe, and you could win if you had the skills to build it and the balls to keep your foot in it. But maybe you thought that the salt flats were abandoned, or they were just a tourist attraction now, with a little plaque erected out there to memorialize an era gone by. You saw all those magazines on the news stand racks selling products with fake tech articles and the ones in the Honda magazines look just like the ones in the so-called hot rod magazines, and you came to a conclusion: that nobody who read things like that would get out on the salt flats. And I can’t say I blame you for that conclusion either.
You saw something on the History Channel about the early days of NASCAR, the beach races with truly stock cars, the dirt ovals of the Midwest and South and grainy black and white, and wished that kind of thing still happened. Wondered what it felt like they picked the dirt and bugs out of your teeth, clean the mud off the doors before you went on a date the next night. But you didn’t think that kind of thing happened anymore. You thought hot rodding was dead, but you didn’t look close enough. It’s 2006. You can put that store-bought obituary away. From the drag strips in New England to the dirt tracks of Middle America, to the hallowed salt flats of Bonneville — hot-rodding lives — and most importantly it lives in the garage down the street from you, where the lights are on until 2:00 a.m. on weeknights, where you see sparks bouncing off the window panes, and where someday that door will open. The ground will start to shake a little. And you’ll see the same guy you saw staggering off to work red-eyed for years pull out of that garage and a car built exactly the way he dreamed it, as fast as he dared make it, and most importantly, a car that he’ll tell you is a hot rod. And now, he won’t have to explain it to you.
Eric Darby – Published on Dec 5, 2006