The 2022 California Hot Rod Reunion – Nostalgia Drag Racing’s Season Finale at Famoso
“We were only going to do this once,” said NHRA founder Wally Parks, after the first California Hot Rod Reunion was held back in 1992. But on October 21-23, historic Famoso Dragstrip in Bakersfield, CA, hosted the 30th annual California Hot Rod Reunion benefiting the NHRA Motorsports Museum.
While the California Hot Rod Reunion is an event that honors drag racing legends and hot rodding icons from the last 50 years, it also serves as the final race of NHRA’s Hot Rod Heritage Series, which features quarter-mile drag racing in 13 classes ranging from 250mph nostalgia top fuel dragsters to classic Camaros, Novas, and Corvettes that compete in Hot Rod Eliminator.
With 15 top fuel dragsters vying for a spot in the eight-car field, all eyes were focused on Bret Williamson and Tyler Hilton, the top two drivers in the points standings. There was a good chance one of them was going to leave with the championship trophy, but Adam Sorokin and Bryan Hall were still mathematically alive.
Hilton qualified number one with a 5.63 at 241mph followed closely by Pete Kaiser’s 5.65 in Dan Horan’s top fueler, which Kaiser tuned to the championship last year. Bryan Hall anchored the field with a 5.88. After the final session, points leader Williamson’s best run was a 5.99, which just missed the field and left the door wide open for Hilton to take over the points lead if he could go rounds on Sunday.
But then the drama started. Shayne Stewart, who had qualified in the number seven spot, was unable to make the call for eliminations, which gave Williamson his spot in the field due to the break rule. But Williamson was unable to take advantage of his good fortune, losing to Kaiser 5.68 to 7.38 in round one. Before Williamson was even back at his pit, Hilton ripped off a 5.59, low E.T. of eliminations, to defeat Hall and advance to round two. Sorokin beat Tyler Hester on a holeshot, 5.81 to 5.76, but it was costly as the engine exploded at the finish line.
In the semifinals, Kaiser had a single after Adam Sorokin and the Champion Speed Shop team could not repair the car. On the other side of the ladder, Hilton knocked off Pete Wittenberg, who smoked the tires at the hit. With the championship already locked up for Hilton, he and Kaiser pulled into the beams for the final time in 2022. They were side by side all the way down the track with Hilton taking the win, 5.64 to 5.70, capping off a dream season for the Great Expectations team.
In the funny car class, everyone was chasing the 4x Heritage Series funny car world champion, Bobby Cottrell, who came into the event undefeated in 2022. Cottrell, driving Bucky Austin’s 1969 Camaro-bodied funny car, thundered to the number one qualifying spot with a 5.59, 261mph blast. Tim Boychuck, Billy Morris, and Tony Jurado rounded out the top four qualifying spots while Geoff Monise anchored the 16-car field with a 6.39.
The first round of eliminations was run under the lights on Saturday night, where the top four qualifiers all advanced to round two along with Cory Lee, Nathan Sitko, Matt Bynum, and James Day. In the second round, Jurado got past Lee, Morris outran Sitko, Cottrell beat Day, and Boychuck eliminated Bynum to set up a semifinal-round clash with the four quickest floppers on the property.
In the first semifinal match, Jurado pulled off the upset of the year when his 5.80 was enough to get by Cottrell, who slowed to a 7.05 after the rear end broke. Morris then outran Boychuck, 5.62 to 5.85, setting up a final-round match-up between Morris and Jurado. As the sun began to set, both drivers pulled into the beams. Morris left first and never looked back, beating Jurado to the stripe, 5.58 to 5.66, for his first funny car win.
Eleven wild and crazy nitro-burning fuel altereds were also part of the Hot Rod Reunion, including famous names like Pure Hell, Pure Heaven, Nanook, and the Rat Trap. Ron Hope was the sentimental favorite, as the driver of the Rat Trap would be retiring after 25 years behind the wheel. The fuel altereds typically run Chicago-style eliminations, which means the fastest four cars advance to the final round (an A Field and a B Field). In the B Field final, Brian Hope wheeled Rich Guasco’s legendary Pure Hell past James Generalao Jr., 6.29 to 6.58. In the A final, nitro veteran Johnny West outran Tom Padilla, 6.06 to 6.70.
The West Coast-based pro mod group are considered an exhibition class at the California Hot Rod Reunion, but don’t be mistaken, the nine drivers who showed up to battle for the trophy definitely came to race. Justin Wake qualified his 1953 Corvette in the number one spot with a 5.84 while Bret Williamson recorded top speed of the meet with a 259mph blast in his silver 1963 ’Vette. In the opening round of eliminations, Wake defeated Josh Kalish, Garrett Richards got by John Durden, Karl Wilson ousted Wade Sjostrom, and Williamson outran Rob Moore.
The Pro Mods were flying in the semifinals: every car ran at least 245mph. Williamson edged Wilson, 5.99 to 6.02, and Wake outran Richards, 5.89 to 6.01, setting up a final-round race between a pair of classic Corvettes. Unfortunately, the final round was anticlimactic as Williamson red-lighted and coasted down the track while Wake took the win light with an impressive 5.77, 250mph pass.
The California Hot Rod Reunion had a little bit of everything: drama, emotion, and heartbreak. The Heritage Series provided fantastic racing in all classes, with a variety of cars that can’t be found anywhere else. It’s no wonder fans have been returning to Famoso for 30 years.
2022 California Hot Rod Reunion Photo Extra!
Photos by Marc Gewertz