I remember it like it was yesterday. My buddy’s older brother invited the two of us along with him to the drag strip to race his ’67 Nova. I didn’t quite understand it on that day, why he had a smile a mile wide that wouldn’t leave his face the whole way home, because he had lost in the second round. It was a just a short time later that I learned it was a bigger deal to run a 13.96 ET on a 14.25 index than it was to bring home a trophy. Owning a 13-second car was a bigger thrill than bringing home the cup! Something else I remember from that day was getting to watch one of my favorite drivers, Gene Altizer, racing a funny car. Here it is, many years later and I’m back at the scene of the crime, Mason Dixon Dragway, for the 1st Rocking Chair Nationals and Gene Altizer is there once again, still involved in the sport.
Altizer was in attendance as a part of the legendary S&S Racing crew to kick off this inaugural event, and what an event it was! If your heart didn’t flutter when you entered the grounds, you either don’t care about cars or your heart wasn’t beating. As soon as you entered the gate, you came face-to-face with the car show area. There was certainly something there for everyone regardless of your automotive leanings and all the cars displayed in the car show were all top-shelf material. Amidst all the fine hot rods, I ran across one guy who was showing his car for the prime purpose of showing everyone a good time. Jeff Nutter had his HHR there decked out as the Haunted Hot Rod with all sorts of macabre visuals. As Jeff stated, “most guys here are saying don’t touch my car, while I’m pulling people in to see and touch everything. The kids really love it!” To me, it sounded like a good way to have fun and get people interested in the car show!
The drag cars on hand were right up to par with the show cars too. There were some really fine examples of front-engined dragsters, some altereds, a handful of “she’s real fine” 409s, and muscle cars galore. What really stood out and made the event special was the “bridge” between the old and new. One of the personalities interviewed at the start of the event was Rick Osburn, whose “38 Special” Chevy truck is a familiar sight to fans who frequent the gasser and nostalgia events. Osburn’s truck is sporting a new look of late that ties his modern day hot rod to the glory days of the past. Gone is the once familiar blower. In its’ place is Hilborn injection by none other than Gene Altizer. As evidenced by Rick’s massive wheelstands, Altizer obviously still knows a thing or two about how things go together.
Of course, that’s not surprising if you had heard S&S team member, Fred Bear, talking about how Altizer remembered everything, like who was in other lane, the elapsed time, etc. from years gone by. While I was visiting with Bear and Hales, Altizer produced a photo of them racing identical S&S cars at Mason Dixon 52 years ago! What a way to connect the old memories with the present day! There were other connections between past and present days as well. One that immediately caught my attention was an “Old Reliable” Camaro. It was one of my favorites back in the day, when I’d pour over all the hot rodding magazines to see what Dave Strickler and Grumpy Jenkins were up to. I just had to find out if this was the real car or a tribute car and what I found out was even more special than I imagined. Turns out that it was a tribute car, but it was owned by Mike Strickler, Dave’s son. Dave bought Mike the car when he was 16 and it was the very car that he taught Mike how to drive a stick shift in. Mike thought it only fitting the car be a tribute to his dad. I will say that, although no one’s as good as Dave Strickler was back in the day for shifting a four-speed, Mike does a pretty fine job.
Mike Etchberger’s wheelstanding Willys gasser is another good connection from past to present day. Mike’s car bears a healthy resemblance to Pork Zartman’s old car and the old-time gasser heroes love to watch Mike’s wheelstanding launches. Mike proudly displays his wheelstanding competition victories on his fenders and couldn’t wait to display his latest victory on his front fenders.
All in all, this first Rocking Chair Nationals seemed to be more about getting out of the rocking chair and getting down to the strip to make new memories, not about sitting in the chair and reminiscing about the old ones. What do you think?