We asked Car Guy Chronicles’ Jim Palam to travel back to the Halcyon Days of Flathead hot rods and drag racing. He didn’t need a time machine – just a tank of gas, an alarm clock set for 4 am, and directions to Santa Margarita Ranch in Central California for the ’21 RPM NATIONALS: FLATHEAD DRAGS, SHOW & SWAP MEET.
I started sticking my head into dimly lit garages and greasy engine compartments when I was 14 years old. My older brother Tommy – AKA Tommy Tuner – who at 16 was already building a reputation in blue collar Queens, NY as a talented engine tuner. Factory Musclecars had yet to launch big and if you wanted a good Bench Racing story, you relied on engine swaps, bargain-priced or home-made speed equipment, and guys like Tommy to help you collect “Win” stickers and bragging rights! It was Tommy’s involvement with early-1960s drag racing that got me hopped-up on the sights, sounds and thrills of hot rodding. Needless to say, I was excited about covering the ’21 RPM NATIONALS: FLATHEAD DRAGS, SHOW & SWAP MEET for CGC.
As planned, I arrived early Saturday morning at the entry gate to Santa Margarita Ranch, drove across its cow barrier rails and then a rickety wood plank bridge before traveling about a mile up the dirt road that led to the South end of the ranch’s private airstrip. As a red sun rose in the East, racers, hot rod clubs and swap meet vendors were setting up their pit areas at the North end of the strip. Spectators parked their vehicles West of the airstrip on the shoulders of an access road. Non-participating Hot Rods, Rat Rods, Customs and vendors lined the East side of the airstrip. A K-Rail protected the spectator’s area and ran about 3/4 the length of the 1/8-mile section of the airstrip where the rubber would be laid-down.
The races were broken into 6 classes: 4 Cylinder Flathead Street cars, V8 Flathead Street cars, 4 Cylinder power-boosted Street cars (OHV conversion and/or blower), V8 power-boosted Street cars, and two Full-Race classes – Flathead Fours and V8s. Anything goes in the Full-Race – OHV conversions, blowers and even Nitro. Street cars had to or could be registered for the street; removal of windshield, headlights and fenders was just fine. Non-Street, Full-Race classes included dragsters, sprint cars and Dry Lakes belly-tankers, though these classes had limited participation.
Santa Margarita Ranch, is a 17,735-acre Mexican “land grant” in the Santa Lucia Mountains, in Central California’s San Luis Obispo County. Local folklore maintains that Frank and Jesse James passed through the ranch in 1874. The red, “Fire Sun” that rose over the ranch and the Flatheads on race day was a result of smoke from the many wildfires that have been burning in California.
Here’s what can happen when you decide to hop-up your Model B Ford four-banger. Back in 2020, Firefighter Cody Clem decided to do a Covid Hot Rod project. He started with a ’28 Model A and then installed a race-ready Model B motor from Max Herman at H&H Flatheads. Two Stromberg 97 carbs sit atop a Dan Price Cragar four-port cylinder head. Cody grabbed a win on Saturday before an electrical issue stymied follow-up runs.
The RPM Nationals is a flag-started event and, in many cases, a Pall family affair. Jason Pall directed all the activity at the staging area and starting line. His daughter Riley served as Flag Girl and his wife Rochelle was one of the higher-profile racers who was focused and flawless when blasting her ’31 F/S #81 roadster down the 1/8th mile track.
While some of the old Flathead V8s and Four Bangers at The RPM Nationals had race numbers applied using chalk or shoe polish, a number of them were professionally rendered in paint – like Vic Jr’s beautiful No. 88 Red’s Headers ’30 Ford Sports Coupe. (Racing Lore: If your race number looks fast, you will go faster!)
Another hop-up from Vic Jr was his No. 76 tire-smokin’ ’31 Ford Roadster shown here coming hot off the line. While burn-outs put smiles on the faces of the spectators, it’s a frown-inducer for the racer as they will inevitably burn-off MPH and add time to the clock – not that there was a clock! There were two checkered flag men positioned at the 1/8th-mile mark – one to indicate a win in the left, K-Rail Lane; the other for a win in the right, Tower-side Lane.
The view from behind Greg Lazzerini’s hand-built No. 18 V/S Class ’32 racer shows the relative short distance to the finish line – and Greg’s love of low and louvered race cars. Here Greg grabs a quick look at the competition before launching down the airstrip. EMTs and fire fighters were on-hand and safety rules were enforced.
If you’re thinking this sweet machine has the profile of a Lakes racer, you’d be right. With fully-adjustable front and rear suspensions and tube chassis, Greg Lazzerini’s hand-built ’32 roadster has spent time as a road racer, a Flathead drag car, and has also seasoned its provenance with time on the Dry Lakes. The car was a strong competitor throughout race day.
Whether you call it a Souped-up Jalopy, a Hot Iron, a Gow Job, a Hot Rod or a Hop Up, the Garcia No. 35 Special out of Visalia, CA is certainly “Up” and riding high. If you like your drag racing in Nitro-fueled four-second bursts, you might find events like the ’21 RPM NATIONALS: FLATHEAD DRAGS, SHOW & SWAP MEET a bit tame. But the racers take things seriously and they have a ball honoring the roots of American drag racing history.
Racer Jesse Nickell motors back from his V/S Class run along the dirt return road in his primer black and lime green ’27 T Roadster. Somewhere along the way it looks like he picked up a thin-as-a-rail passenger. Not sure if that’s legal. At very least, that little skull should be wearing a helmet!
Three of the famous Will Baldwin Specials made a special appearance at the RPM Nationals. This is Baldwin’s second build in the series – the Baldwin Mercury Special – which has a steel and aluminum body wrapped over a shortened ‘46 Mercury frame. It was built to race in SCCA’s modified classes and competed on the short tracks of America from 1949 to 1959. Almost completely destroyed while racing in 1960 it was resurrected in 1990 and underwent a complete restoration in 2006. Note the reversed headlights for RPM race day!
The ‘Pomp’ of this Flathead Drags ‘Circumstance’ has as much to do about style and attitude as it does with vintage race machines and performance. The only background I could dig up on roadster No. “6” (then add “1”) – The Slippery Eel – is that his name might be “Adrion,” and that he always races in his terrycloth sweater with matching terrycloth covered helmet. I do know that he ran well and looked speedy doing it.
One of the more photogenic and competitive Flathead Roadsters at the meet was Timmy McMaster’s sharp-looking burgundy V8- powered ’27 T Roadster. I grabbed this shot early in the day when I spotted it parked in front of the Baron Racing Equipment tent. We’ve also used a shot of No. 416 blasting off the starting line as this report’s masthead photo.
We had a saying back in my early street racing days: “Run What You Brung!” To us, it didn’t matter if your car wasn’t in-style, wasn’t perfect. What mattered is that you participated and had fun. The RPM Nationals is a bit like that, the difference being that you had to meet race class specs and follow safety regulations – like roll bars for “fast” open cars and helmets, pants and closed shoes for the drivers. Looks like we’re good to go here!
Now that the racers and spectators are gone and the hot rod dust has settled at Santa Margarita Ranch, I find myself looking forward to other vintage racing events. I’ve been encouraged to attend other West Coast events like The Antique Nationals in Irwindale and The Eagle Field Fresno Dragways Reunion. Be sure to check for vintage Hot Rod racing events in your neck of the woods. It’s Old-Timey good fun for the whole family!
Words & Photos © by Jim Palam, https://www.jimpalamphotos.com/
For more information about the ’21 RPM NATIONALS: FLATHEAD DRAGS, SHOW & SWAP MEET , please visit https://www.rpmnationals.com/
EDITOR’S NOTE: I encouraged Jim to cover the RPM Nationals because my introduction to hot rodding and drag racing – in the 1950s – was a rare ’40 Merc convertible sedan, shaved and decked, painted dark Cadillac Blue, and powered by a dual carb, dual exhaust Flathead. Replacing that car was a ’47 MG-TC with a pro-built Ford V8-60 Flathead! Those cars, and my membership in the Draggin Wheels Hot Rod Club, Yonkers, NY kicked off my career as an editor of enthusiast magazines – from CUSTOM RODDER and Hi-Performance CARS to VETTE. Reading Jim’s piece and soaking in his stunning photos brought back priceless memories, and reminded me just how much I miss my old ’40 Merc. Thanks, Jim!