The NSRA Street Rod Nationals is the granddaddy of events that pulls street rodders together from every corner of the U.S. But did you know that a couple of fishing buddies at R&C kick started the whole shebang?
The year was 1970. The average cost of a new home was $26,000. Regular gas was 36 cents a gallon.
Tom Medley and Bud Bryan stayed...
Tom Medley and Bud Bryan stayed at the Peoria Sands, the show's headquarters. At the crack of dawn, the day before the big event, Tex Smith and his late wife, Peggy, motored over to Tom and Bud's digs. To their utter surprise, street rods littered the parking lot. "I woke Tom up," said Tex, "and pulled the curtains of his room open, and, looking out at the parking lot, Tom said, 'Holy ...'" Tex had been the field director with NHRA and Peggy had handled the registration at the drags. Peggy talked to the motel manager, and he had some folding tables they could put up in the motel parking lot. In short order, registration was open. Tom, in turn, had accumulated some catalogs from various West Coast street rod companies, and Louie Senter of Ansen Automotive Engineering had donated some bags that Tom brought along. As the folks registered, they were each given a bag with some catalogs.
I thought it would be fun to revisit Tom "Stroker McGurk" Medley-since I wrote about the beloved Rod & Custom former publisher in the June 2000 issue of R&C-plus learn, firsthand, from Tom how the Nats got started. Trying to get a straight answer out of a gag cartoonist is another matter. Tom's speech is laced with laughter because he is constantly tickling his own funny bone.
Tom got involved with R&C in the late '60s after moving over from Hot Rod magazine. He recognized that street rodders had pulled away from the hardcore hot rod racers who read HRM. Tom saw a need to not only cover street rods in R&C, but promote a national car show as well. "Street rodding is practically a religion," Tom declared, and he had the perfect pulpit to spread the gospel: Rod & Custom.
"Pete (Petersen) asked me if I wanted to take over R&C when I was advertising manager of Hot Rod," Tom began. "He asked me, if I did, which way I wanted to go editorially. I said, no drag racing-that's for Car Craft. Let Hot Rod do the competition stuff; we're going to the street ... street rod stuff. None of those guys had much faith in the street rods. Pete left me alone to do what I wanted to do.
"We didn't get entirely away from racing," continued Tom. "We still went to Bonneville, covered stuff like the '70 Baja 500 (where rodders like Ray Brock, Ak Miller, and Mickey Thompson competed). Guys who are interested in cars are interested in anything with wheels. We manufactured the Street Rod Nationals. When I had R&C, I had the perfect platform that other publications didn't have. We had a way to the source-street rodders every month.
"(LeRoi) 'Tex' (Smith) and I used to talk all the time about trying to get a street rod nationals going. We picked out a bunch of guys who were in this car club called the Slo-Pokes in Peoria, Illinois. The reason we picked Peoria was it was almost the center of the population of the U.S.
"I had to go back to Peoria a couple of times to talk to the mayor and the city council to let them know we weren't a bunch of greasy fingered motorcycle guys. We told them we didn't know how many people would attend.
"We couldn't get an OK from the 7th floor (Petersen Publishing upper management), but we were already into this thing so we went ahead and did it. We had to scrape together some money so we could get on with it." Through the cooperation of Gary Magner of the Minnesota Street Rod Association, which jointly hosted the event, the run to "Big P Nats" began to take shape.
Forest Lemmons of Timberline...
Forest Lemmons of Timberline Farms gave his consent for Tom to use his hayfield for the event. "We used a hay wagon for the trophy presentation," Tom said, "and we had the longest extension cord in life so we could have a microphone."
Jim Babbs' It-T-Bits, with...
Jim Babbs' It-T-Bits, with 80 sneering horses, got around the tight slalom course like a sports car with the top time of the event. Maybe because Jim probably wore, rather than drove, the Subaru-powered C-cab. Second went to Bob Burton in his VW-powered '23 T. Who said there's no substitute for cubic inches?
Ken Grimes and his buddy Bill...
Ken Grimes and his buddy Bill Achberger decided they were going to Peoria as soon as Ken read about it in R&C. The pair made the trip in Bill's channeled Model A coupe (which he still owns).
This '32 roadster, called...
This '32 roadster, called Mister B, had to be at the top of the game in the early '70s.
The Highland Plating Special...
The Highland Plating Special Track T perfectly illustrates how timeless a traditional car is when done right. It looked great 36 years ago and looks even better today. The radiator "wings" are an unusual, but most likely necessary touch to keep the Flathead cooled with the restrictive track nose.
Many states were passing laws that were detrimental to the sport. Street rodders of the '60s had become lightning rods, much like the hot rodders of the '40s. The public perception was poor. Tom wanted more than an association dedicated to a yearly car show-he wanted clout.
"Street is Neat" was more than a catchy phrase coined by Tom. He surrounded himself with a now-legendary staff that was as proficient at changing typewriter ribbons (remember those?) as they were changing a cam in a Riley four-port: Editor Bud Bryan, Associate Editor Jim "Jake" Jacobs, and freelancer Tex Smith.
Dave Lukkari of Apple Valley,...
Dave Lukkari of Apple Valley, CA, has made every Street Rod Nationals since Peoria. Dave resided in Southfield, MI, at the time, and his answer to a spiffy SUV back in 1970 was his 283 Chevy-powered '47 woodie.
"The idea of having a street rod nationals blossomed right in Tom Medley's office," Bud stated. "We all went, "Let's do it!' The sport, at that point, was fragmented nationally. The Midwest and the East Coast guys didn't know much about the West Coast guys, and visa versa. Our plans were to get these guys together. Everybody was talking about cruises, but not many ventured out of state."
One of the reasons Tom chose "Jitney Jake" to become a staffer at R&C was he not only had a Ph.D. in early Ford parts, he was a street rodder to the core. "My daily driver was my street rod," Jake said. "I didn't own a store-bought automobile."
Tex Smith met Tom in 1957 when he was an associate editor with HRM. "We became instant fishing buddies," Tex said. "When Tom went to R&C, I had already left Petersen Publishing, I think in 1963, and began freelancing for a number of aircraft publications. On staff, I was making $125 a week. The year that I quit, I was making over $30,000 freelancing. I was busting my butt, but I was making some bread. I wasn't about to go back on the staff."
Fresh off the Road, bugs and...
Fresh off the Road, bugs and all, Jim Jacobs' Ford Panel (which he still owns) was made to order: The Cavernous commercial rod provided ideal to carry camping gear, rusty vintage tin found along the way, plus lots of baling wire. Jim put his '29 to the test on the 5,500-mile round trip from SoCal to Peoria.
Tex began freelancing in a big way for R&C: "Tom and I were fishing all of the time and we got to talking about where to take R&C. We felt that traditional street rodding was making a move and nobody was covering it," Tex said. "None of the other publications wanted anything to do with it. The advertisers felt that there was no market in street rodding and would not advertise at first. We got that niche and really took it over.
"We heard about this group in Madison, Wisconsin, that held some kind of event they called The Mid-States Rod Roundup with about a hundred or so rods. That sparked an idea," Tex continued. "Tom and I decided we would have the Rod & Custom Street Rod Nationals, which is what we called it.
"The problem was, R&C didn't have any feed money to put on such an event. We didn't have five bucks," laughed Tex.
Streetkhana was Greek to the...
Streetkhana was Greek to the uninformed passing by. And unless some of the street rodders had a Sprite or Jag at home, so was gymkhana. Tom's play-on-words was a hit with all who participated.
What the boys came up with was a plan to fund the project. Tex had some articles in R&C, like "How to Start a Car Club," so "when I got the check," he said, "I cashed it and gave the cash to Tom. That's how we got around [the money issue]. I think we had $700 to fund the first event."
The June '70 issue of R&C began promoting the August event: "It's official," began Tom's article. "All you thousands of street-oriented car enthusiasts are finally going to have a Big Thing all your own. All Roads Lead to Peoria."
R&C Americruise In The Making
Excitement and adventure awaited the rodders boogying across the country. Those experiences have stayed with those who went-including Bud, who rode shotgun in Jake's newly constructed '29 Model A panel truck. The two stopped at roadside diners and slept under the stars along the way.
"America was different then," pondered Jake. "You could sleep by the side of the road without worrying about getting robbed or worse."
Jake was a veteran when it came to long-distance driving, having driven to Iowa from California in his Model A pickup two years before Peoria, plus a number of trips with his folks. "I remember riding with my parents back to Iowa when they couldn't wait to get to Vegas. Not for the casinos, but to get to one of the air-conditioned department stores to cool off. I knew early on what it took to drive cross-county. I knew what to take and what not to take. But baling wire was a must," laughed Jake. "I actually wrapped it around the valve stem to keep a tire from going down on the trip.
"Every time my foot would slip off the spoon (throttle pedal) on the trip to Peoria, Bud would sit bolt-upright in the seat thinking something had happened," Jake continued. "Bud thought you couldn't drive an old Model A from California to Peoria without something going wrong."
Bud's reasoning was a bit different-he said the pedal was so "slippery" because Jake was falling asleep at the wheel.
Jake hadn't earned the handle "Jitney Jake" for nothing. He spotted a pile of old cars on a farmer's property in the middle of Nebraska. Unfortunately Bud ended up in the hospital in the process. Not from the farmer's blunderbuss either: "We asked the farmer if we could buy some parts," Bud said. "Jake had a couple of shop towel bags. The farmer said we could fill the bags for 10 bucks a bag. Jacobs got a set of original '29 headlights; I got a dash panel and an instrument cluster with a cat-eye glass gauge in it. When I released the pressure in the gas gauge line, it stirred up a nest of hornets in the seat and they stung me on both arms."
Tex traveled to Peoria pulling a tent trailer with his Chevy Suburban and camped in the hayfield where the event was held, along his wife, Peggy, his three girls, and his son.
Ken Grimes of Wellsville, Ohio, (who supplied many of the photos of the first Nats) motored from eastern Ohio to the Nats. "As soon as R&C announced it, me and my buddy Bill Achberger decided we were going," Ken said. "Back then, you built a car to go maybe 20 or 30 miles to a car show, not through several states. We took Achberger's 8-inch channeled Model A coupe with the gas tank in the trunk, so you know how much space we had. Bill still owns the coupe. We didn't have reservations or anything; it was something that we had never experienced before. Seeing cars that we'd seen in the magazines and meeting Tom Medley, Bud Brian, and Jim Jacobs was like meeting your heroes. I met people there I still see every year at the Street Rod Nationals. I know people all over the country because of it."
"We're about to launch the most popular hot rodding event ever," Tom wrote in his introductory article publicizing the Nats. This was to be more than a car show. Tom and his staff had an action-packed event in store for the participants. Besides the hayfield that a Mr. Forest Lemmons allowed them to use for the show 'n' shine, a large parking lot was also pressed into service. There was also vintage tin to rummage through at the Swapfest, plus there was a driving rally taking approximately 45 minutes, which was a whole new experience for the majority of the 200 street rodders who navigated the course.
"Some of the guys went out and found traffic cones to set up a slalom course," explained Tex. "Tom and I circulated, through word of mouth, to head to the parking lot. A map was handed out for the drivers to follow. We called it a Streetkhana."
There was a restaurant right next door to the parking lot where the Streetkhana took place. "I went over there the night before and I told the manager that we had a bunch of guys who were going to be at the place early the next morning for breakfast so he'd better be ready for them," Tom recalled. "'No problem,' he said, 'We handle the conventions around here.' Late the next morning, I went over to get something to eat and I thought a bomb went off in the place. There were dirty dishes everywhere and the cook had stormed out and quit. They had never seen so many guys go through the place in such a short period of time."
Needless to say, all who attended were not disappointed, and deemed the 1st Annual Rod & Custom Street Rod Nationals a success; 1,200 participants and nearly 600 pre-'49 street rods made the show.
After the first Nats, street rods were beginning to be looked upon as more than parade cars or wedding fodder. The event was proof you could actually drive the damned things out of state!
Life After R&C
What has Mr. Medley been doing since he retired? "I've been campaigning vintage go-carts for the last five years," Tom said. "I was in Quincy, Illinois. I drove 4,000 miles round-trip with Randy Holtz; they have a class for drivers 60 years and over, and Randy won with my engine. All of the old-time cart drivers going back to the '50s get together out here in SoCal. We're called the Geritol Gang.
"I was in Alaska (Tom goes every year) terrorizing the salmon," chuckled Tom. "I was up there for the Fourth of July with my high school classmate friend Ken Eichar. Ken took his mighty Huey helicopter (Ken has a fleet of choppers) and hooked onto an American flag, 25 feet high and 50 feet long. We pulled that thing down over the town of Ketchikan. There were 10,000 or 11,000 people there for the big annual Fourth of July parade. Ken kicked the door off on his side and I rode shotgun with him ... he does this every year."
As you can see, the only thing that will slow down Tom Medley is the CHP. No retirement-home living for this street rodder. Stroker-hats off to you, sir.
Tex splits his time between Kauai, Hawaii, Idaho, and an area of Australia that is billed the street rod capital, Castlemaine. He's working on a number of books.
Bud has returned to his roots working part-time at a model train shop (he's a train nut) near Sacramento. But, after going to the Goodguys event in Pleasanton this past year, Bud said, "It got the juices flowing again." He is about to embark on a roadster project after years of being out of the sport.
Jake had a little business going with a guy named Pete (Pete & Jake's Hot Rod Parts), sold it, and semi-retired to his home garage in Apple Valley, California. I joke with Jake (he's a chum) that he should contact Meals on Wheels and NAPA to make house calls; then he'd never have to leave the premises. Plus, his property is starting to look like that farmer with the stack of old cars in Nebraska-tin everywhere! But you wouldn't expect anything less from Jake.
On A Personal Note
It was important to interview the movers and shakers on Sunset Boulevard who put the Nats together. After so many years, I had to become a sleuth to track down Tex and Bud. It was after many dead ends and a phone call to a publishing house in Australia that I learn Tex was back in the states for Bonneville, where I eventually met with him. The same thing goes for Bud Bryan, until Andy Brizio came through.
The gratifying part in locating the old R&C staff was to get these fellows talking to one another after all these years. They had simply lost contact with one another.
The Rod & Custom Street Rod Nationals got ordinary street rodders like Ken Grimes and his friend Bill Achberger to travel-and not 20 or 30 miles in their rods, but in many cases, thousands of miles to attend a car show.
Thanks to the boys on the 3rd floor who wouldn't take no for an answer.
We left California with five cars to drive to Peoria. I had my '23 T-bucket for which I had won America's Most Beautiful Roadster at the Oakland Roadster Show in 1970, and I wanted to prove to people that you could drive those kinds of cars to car shows. Also along for the trip were Lance Miller in a '23 T-bucket with a blown Chevy, George Solomine in a '32 Ford three-window, Bob Burton in a '23 T Volksrod, and Don Specht in a '15 T roadster.
We left San Francisco and got as far as Reno, where Lance lost a starter and radiator (which fell into the fan). We called back to my shop and had Sue ship a radiator to Cheyenne, Wyoming. Don hooked a 6ft towrope to his roadster and towed Lance 740 miles to Cheyenne doing 70 mph!
After getting repaired and back on the road, Lance lost the blower. Luckily we had a spare intake and carburetor under the hood of Bob's Volksrod. That was the last major repair we had to do and made it into Peoria.
After all of this, and driving 2,000 miles one way, a guy wins the Best Car Award with a car that got there on a trailer. -Andy Brizio