ARLINGTON – When Mike Hayes was a 13-year-old in 1960s Marysville, he used to walk by a black, stylish classic car on his way home from school that belonged to his family’s newspaper delivery boy.
The ride he admired was a 1939 Chevy De Luxe. It was owned by a soft-spoken legend on the drag racing circuit, “Gentleman” Hank Johnson, Jr., who left his mark on the sport as well as on the Arlington Drag Strip sanctioned by the National Hot Rod Association.
“I never dreamed the car would be mine,” said Hayes, standing aside the restored vehicle at the 15th Annual Drag Strip Reunion and Car Show off the drag raceway at Arlington Airport Saturday.
Hayes said he waited a long time to buy the race car that Johnson originally purchased for $130. “I went to the races in Bakersfield, California with a friend about six years ago. He took me for a ride in the car and I said, ‘Man, if you’re ever going to sell this car, I’ve got to have it.”
That same friend pulled up in Hayes’ driveway about a year ago, and they made a deal. Hayes contacted Johnson to share his good fortune, and let him reminisce about his first car.
“Before he died, Hank told me he had a ball in this car,” Hayes said.
Nostalgic stories such as these are the fuel that fires up drag racers and classic car afficionados who return each year to the reunion and car show out of sheer passion for the sport.
This year’s show was dedicated in remembrance of Johnson, winner of the National Hot Rod Association Super Nationals in 1971, who passed away April 8 following a four-year battle with carcenoid cancer. He was 74.
And to show that the sport had its share of trailblazing women, too, the event also honored the memory of Dorothy “Diamond Dee” Morris, editor and publisher of Gasser Wars Magazine and a doyenne of the Northwest drag racing world, who died last December at the age of 70 after her own battle with cancer.
The reunion drew about 350 classic, hot rod and funny cars from across the decades, and a dozen full-fledged dragsters that over-revved their engines occasionally, while the public address system blasted out “Good Vibrations” and other cruising music from the ’60s for an added touch of nostalgia at the event enjoyed by some 2,000 attendees.
In its heyday, the Arlington Drag Strip regularly drew crowds of 2,000 to watch, for example, the governor’s Championship Drag Races, dubbed “The greatest wheel-smoking extravaganza in the Pacific Northwest.” Winners in the stock car and hot rod race division were presented trophies by then Gov. Albert Rosollini.
Former longtime Arlington Boys and Girl Club Director Bill Kinney is founder and chairman of the reunion. He started the event in 2003 in part as a fundraiser for the club and other organizations that help families and youth. He invited the Port Gardner Vintage Auto Club in later years to join in, help out and manage the car show.
The reunion exists at all thanks to a bet between buddies. “A friend of mine had a car that raced here, Jim Howell, who owned the old Shell gas station in town on Olympic. I made him a bet. I said I’ll do a car show if you get your race car running, and he did.”
While not a competitor behind the wheel, Kinney said, “I love the race cars; the cars are nothing but fun to me, and I love the history.”
The FAA stopped history in its dust, shutting down the track in 1969. Kinney was 10 at the time.
For champion drag racers like Jim Green, who was at the reunion with family and friends and had just fired up his dragster and blew away everybody’s eardrums, the end came too soon. Several decades later, though, he still has many great memories.
In 1961, Green, driving his B/Dragster, set two strip records at Pacific Raceways in Kent by beating the previous mark of 141.73 mph, and a time of 10.17 seconds. Green also held the Arlington strip’s speed record driving his “Straight Arrow” dragster with a speed of 140.84 and time of 10.05 seconds, which came within .01 of second of tying the world records.
What Green laughs about most now is how nobody wanted to race him. In modern drag racing, racers draw for spots and pair out.
“In the old days, whoever got to the front of the line would race whoever was next to him,” Green said. “Nobody wanted to race me, so they would hide at the end of the line. I would sneak around, then move to the back so they would have to race me the first time.”
The Port Gardner Club members love doing the show.
“We meet so many wonderful people with fantastic stories about their cars,” said Ann Horton, whose husband Bill is club president, raced at the track, and was showing off his white Roadster that just got a fresh coat of white paint overnight.
“It’s the love of cars, the people out here that do the work themselves, and they have so much knowledge about the history of them,” Horton said.
Genelle Ackley with the auto club said, “I like seeing the same people come back every year with their cars, I like hearing that this is the best car show they’ve ever been to, and that they’re gonna come back next year.”
Proceeds raised all go to charity, generally amounting to about $12,000. Organizations that have received funds in past years include the Boys & Girls Club, local food banks, Cocoon House, the Burned Children Recovery Foundation, the North Cascades Concert Band and MPHS auto-tech program.