In a world where newer, faster and sleeker is often the mantra, a small group of racers have taken the opposite approach.
Sure, they like to go fast. But in an old school way.
Welcome to the world of the Bakersfield Hard Tops, a racing division conceived to replicate the post-war boom of stock car racing in the 1940s and 1950s.
A dozen times a year, guys climb into vehicles such as a 1940 Plymouth, a 1950 Chevy, a 1940 Hudson or a 1938 Desoto and step on the gas. The division competed at Bakersfield Speedway last Saturday night and will be in action at The Dirt Track at Kern County Raceway on Friday night.
“We try to stay traditional,” said Bakersfield’s Marc McCaslin, noting that while drivetrains (engine, transmission and rearend) are modern the cars are as close to stock as they can be.
The idea, conceived by Brad Pesheck of San Bernardino and the late “Crazy” Kenny Farris of Oildale, was to give race fans a glimpse of how racing used to be.
“It was just a wild idea and as soon as they told me about it I jumped in and I can’t get out of it,” said McCaslin, a farmer whose shop is now used to build and maintain numerous cars.
The cars have been taking to the track for more than a dozen years and until just a few years ago it was mainly exhibition-style racing.
Not any more. The drivers now push cars to their limits in an attempt to win.
Like most of the drivers in the division, Bobby Courtney got sucked into driving five years ago by McCaslin, who has been a key cog in the division since it was formed.
Courtney, who drove Open Competition stock cars at Mesa Marin in the early 1980s, was not impressed after his first run in a Hard Top.
“When I came back into the pits my wife asked me how it was and I said boring,” Courtney said. “Hell, I drove faster getting over here. The next year it got a little faster, and the next year was faster and now we’re only a couple of tenths (of a second) off what Hobby Stocks run.
We’re cooking and basically the bodies and suspensions is what came with the cars way back when.”
Courtney drives a ’56 Plymouth that has been around the block a few times.
“Brad (Pesheck) owned it and it was a Figure 8 car back in the early 1960s,” Courtney said. “It’s probably got over 600 races on it.”
While he wasn’t sold on the division at first, Courtney said driving the cars, and going faster, has grown on him and he’s not ready to toss in the towel.
“I’ll be 71 in September and I can guarantee you if I wasn’t having fun I’d be home in a rocking chair,” he said.
James Bradburn got into the Hard Tops division (yes, sucked in by McCaslin) nine years ago and just bought the 1940 Plymouth he drives from Pesheck.
“It’s a fun class,” said Bradburn, who has never driven any other type of race car. “This has stock steering, stock brakes and stock suspension. The original frame for the back seat is still in there.”
But, like many of the cars, it’s not all stock as stock replacement pieces are often difficult to find.
“This is actually a front end off a 1955 Chevy pickup,” he said. “We’re fabbing a lot of our own stuff, making things work, trying to keep it in the same era. These things are very top heavy. They have a roll to them like no other."
As the division has gotten racier — it now features a $4,000 point fund sponsored by Broken Yolk Cafe and Homewood Suites — there’s been a bit more carnage.
“We like to put on a show for the fans and do get a couple of cars wadded up now and then,” McCaslin said. “If you snap a kingpin you just can’t go buy it off the shelf from NAPA. You’re searching for a few weeks.” Sometimes those parts can’t be found.
“We use what we have to try to keep the car count up. We just want period correctness, to stay traditional.”
And have a little fun as well.
“It’s original roots racing, original NASCAR, original dirt track,” Bradburn said. “It’s a fun class. It really is.”