The RPM Nationals – A Day Filled with Flatheads, Fuel and Fun
Santa Margarita Ranch is located on the central coast of California, halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco. The 14,000-acre property has everything one would expect: rolling hills, lots of trees, a working cattle ranch and, nestled in the middle, an old airstrip, the perfect location for an old-school eighth-mile drag race.
The 4th annual RPM Nationals was held on Saturday, September 26, under sunny skies on a beautiful California day. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the event was only open to participants and a couple of crew members per car. Unfortunately this meant no spectators, no car show and no swap meet.
If you were one of the lucky ones to be inside you would have seen hot rodders having the time of their lives. Finally, after six months of being cooped up in their garages, tinkering on their cars, week in and week out, the time had finally come to stomp on the gas pedal.
After a brief drivers’ meeting to go over the rules it was time to race. In what has become a tradition at the RPM Nationals, the first car down the track was the famed Bean Bandits dragster originally driven by the late Joaquin Arnett. But this year the honor went to Diana Branch, who was presented with the inaugural Veda Award, named after Veda Orr, the first female member of the SCTA who also raced roadsters, modifieds and streamliners on the dry lakes of California in the ’30s and ’40s.
It didn’t take long for the nearly 100 participants to fill the staging lanes with their roadsters, coupes, sedans, customs and trucks. Once the first flag dropped the racing was non-stop. There was plenty of time for grudge racing (and a few side bets) before eliminations got under way. To make the racing as fair as possible, the cars were split into six classes based on engine size and modifications.
The rules for the RPM Nationals were simple: entries had to be 1936 and earlier and be powered by a flathead or a 4-cylinder engine. All hot rods had to be period correct and be representative of the hot rod stylings from the 1950s or earlier.
For those who are into drag racing history, the RPM Nationals was held just 100 miles north of the old Goleta airstrip, the site of the first organized drag race…ever. On April 10, 1949, the Santa Barbara Acceleration Association presented a well-publicized match race between dry lakes racers Fran Hernandez and his ’32 Ford coupe and Tom Cobbs and his ’34 Ford. Hernandez took the win, and many believe drag racing was born that day.
RPM Nationals organizers Justin Baas and Russ Hare have created a unique event that takes us back to those early days of hot rodding and pays homage to drag racing’s pioneers. Although it was only for one day, the RPM Nationals reminded us why we love our hot rods and the hot rodding lifestyle, and how much we’ve missed it since the Coronavirus pandemic started. Who knew that screeching bias-ply tires, the sound of flathead engines, vintage racing goggles and car club jackets were all we needed to make the world seem right again?
Next year’s date has already been set for September 25, 2021
Photos by Marc Gewertz