Retro Rumblings – Chief Lunney
Goodguys works with our fair share of police departments across America. Communication with the local police is vital. Road closures and traffic flow are the main areas of focus. Our alliances with the police departments are 99-percent seamless and fruitful. In rare cases, a few issues pop up. An “issue” arose at the 1995 Rod & Custom Classic at the Merced Fairgrounds. It was 26 years ago but seems like it was only yesterday. Let’s call it a learning experience.
Twenty years earlier in the mid-’70s, a relationship with the Merced County Fairgrounds was solidified. The Fairgrounds held a special place in Goodguy Gary’s heart. Gary forged a strong relationship not only with the fairgrounds but with the city, the press (shout out to Merced Sun Star alum Doane Yawger) and the local businesses. The Western Nationals Gary and Marilyn Meadors built up through hard work and promotion was a big, big deal to hot rodders throughout the Golden State and elsewhere. When Gary coined the phrase “Motate to Merced” it became a rallying cry for any rodder west of the Rockies. Motate they did!
The event eventually migrated to the Alameda County Fairgrounds in Pleasanton in the late-’80s and became known as the Goodguys West Coast Nationals. But Gary always yearned to return to Merced, which was just a hop, skip and a jump from his hometown of Dinuba.
When Goodguys was looking to add another early summer event to the schedule in the early-’90s, Merced was an easy choice. Everyone in town remembered the boom the Western Nationals brought to the city. The local car club, the Merced Valve Burners (under then-president Johnny Wood), signed on to help run the event. Merced Mayor Richard Bernasconi was so excited, he drafted a Proclamation proclaiming “Goodguys Weekend” in the city.
However, Police Chief Pat Lunney and the city cops were not as excited as the other townsfolk. In fact, they were quite agitated. I’ll explain.
During the ’70s all the way through the early-’90s, “Graffiti Night,” an outgrowth of the 1973 hit movie “American Graffiti,” had reached a point where it had overwhelmed the city of Modesto. As you may remember, the city of Modesto famously served as the backdrop for the popular George Lucas film. Graffiti Night had grown so big, it forced the city to shut it down. Tens of thousands of cruisers, rambunctious youth, and people looking for a party were left without one of their favorite annual events.
During an offseason Goodguys staff meeting in the winter of 1995, a few of us were sitting around Gary’s desk and we came up with the grand plan of doing a special “Graffiti Weekend” theme for the Merced Classic. With Modesto abandoning the Graffiti cruise we thought, “Hey, this might really help attendance at our event and give all those car guys that went to Modesto a good reason to cruise south to Merced for the weekend, enter the event, and head downtown Saturday night for a cruise.” It seemed so logical.
Radio ads were written, print ads were placed, and our TV ads blared across the local channels. “Goodguys Rod & Custom Classic featuring Graffiti Weekend,” was how it went. The Wednesday preceding the event the phone rang.
The man asked to speak to John Drummond, as I was the hype man doing pre-event interviews in the Merced press. “This is Merced Police Chief Pat Lunney,” he said with a stern voice. “Do you have any idea whatsoever what you’re doing?” he exclaimed. “You’re out here promoting Graffiti weekend in our city of Merced. We want no part of that. Are you prepared to handle the Saturday night cruise you’re promoting downtown?”
I was baffled and played coy. “You’re gonna have at least a thousand cars and 10-15 thousand people in our city. We’re gonna have to call in every beating heart on our force to try and deal with this. We’re going to send you the bill for overtime,” he warned. At that point, we promised Chief Lunney we would cease any further cruise promotion. But it was too late.
The event at the fairgrounds went on as scheduled. The local news affiliates were crawling all over the place filming stories about the Graffiti controversy. The Modesto Bee quoted me out of context as dismissing the situation as “media hype.”
Then came Saturday night. A few of us went downtown after dark and witnessed firsthand the power and significance of the term Graffiti and what it meant to California’s Central Valley. Teenagers lined the half mile stretch of W. Main Street at least 10 deep as mini trucks, lowriders, early “tuner” cars, and lifted trucks cruised, popped their airbags and blared rap music. Gasp! As Chief Lunney had predicted, the masses had arrived. And they weren’t Goodguys people.
Thankfully, the evening went off without any serious problems. At least 10,000 were in attendance. The Merced gas stations and liquor stores saw their cash registers humming but the police force had all hands on deck insuring their presence made a difference.
Following the event, Chief Lunney called back. We “dodged a bullet,” he said. “Nothing happened other than some cleanup and a few exhibition of speed tickets. We got lucky. We don’t want anymore Graffiti stuff here in Merced. Period!”
The lesson? Words have a lot of power. In the case of “Graffiti,” just like the phrase “Motate to Merced,” had the power to pull people from hundreds, even thousands of miles away.
After 42 years on the job, Pat Lunney retired. During his tenure, he served as Merced Police Chief, Director of Law Enforcement for the California Department of Justice and finally as Chief of investigations for Merced County District Attorney’s Office.