The Beasts Will Always Win

A nostalgia funny car suffers an engine fire after crossing the finish line during the California Hot Rod Reunion at the Auto Club Famoso Raceway.

In the die-hard world of drag racing, a community of lifelong fans and devoted technicians alike fills the racetrack grounds with an unmistakable drive and passion. The group is present to do everything in their power to witness and attain two simple goals: Go fast, and be the fastest. Team members for each car are noble gear warriors, wielding chrome lances (usually taking the form of socket wrenches) between their fingers blackened with grease, fighting to tame their beasts on wheels.

When these angry beasts finally lurch to life and breathe, the air is enveloped with a sweet, warm aroma (this from nitromethane racing fuel), almost pleasant at first. As the fumes build, however, one quickly realizes the beasts care not for your comfort. Burning eyes or burning throat – I can’t decide which side effect from a close encounter with a top-fuel beast is more uncomfortable.

Did you think your ears would be spared from the wrath of the beast? Think again. While standing at the starting line for the first time sans ear plugs (I had lots of them, but they weren’t on me at the time of my casual stroll around the track), one of the monsters decided to stretch out before its run (in the form of a burn-out).

The sound that emanated from the car was arguably the loudest thing I’ve ever heard in my life. Startled and suffering from sensory meltdown, I’m sure my body lurched back and shook much like a complete pansy. My fingers immediately shot up to plug my ears, not because I thought it would be a good idea, but as a result of my body’s reflexes. The sound was so powerful that I could feel my teeth vibrating in their sockets in my jaws.

Later, while photographing this burn-out spectacle, my camera vibrated uncomfortably in my hands and against my face as the wall of sound pummeled my body. I focused on the acrid smoke pouring from the treadless feet, err, tires of the beast, and began to realize what was so intriguing, almost primal, about this desire for speed. The ability to tame these monsters for the sole purpose of victory is quite alluring, even if you’re not a fan of the sport per se.

Hear the roar of the beasts for yourself in the above video clip I produced, featuring fellow photographer and friend Mark J. Rebilas. Also see Mark’s unfortunate loss of an $11,000 remote camera after it was hit by an out-of-control dragster.

One of the beasts stretches its legs prior to hurdling down the quarter-mile track in less than 7 seconds.

Birds near the track react to the beasts’ roars.

In the blink of an eye, and with a deafening roar, they’re gone.

In the blink of an eye, summoned by a yellow-green sequence of light bulbs on a tower dubbed “The Christmas Tree”, the monsters disappear into the distance, and a hush falls over the world once more – that is until the results of the race pop up instantly on two large boards near the finish line. The gear warriors rejoice for their team’s victory, or saunter back to their garage, accepting defeat.

Throughout my weekend at the 19th Annual California Hot Rod Reunion held at Auto Club Famoso in Bakersfield, California, I was able to document the raw power these machines were capable of through the lenses of both my still and video cameras, from the ground and from the air. I also documented, unfortunately, one of fellow photographer and friend Mark J. Rebilas’ cameras being attacked and killed by one of the beasts (see video above). The poor camera thought it had a chance, but we were reminded through its death the age-old lesson of the gear warriors: The beasts will always win.

Defeated, nostalgia top fuel dragster driver John Weaver crashes during qualifying for the California Hot Rod Reunion at the Auto Club Famoso Raceway. This image, displayed here nearly full-frame, was shot with a 400mm + 1.4 extender on a 1.3x crop body. I’m surprised I kept the car in the frame as well as I did, with the crash occurring less than 40 yards away. A remote still camera, seen mounted along the wall and just forward of Weaver’s rear tire, was destroyed in the crash (see video above).

The level of detail on the paint jobs adorning most of the race car bodies is remarkable.

Crew members carefully pack a parachute into the rear of their car following a qualifying run.

Vintage racing helmets glisten in the sun, waiting for one last run.

Have I ever mentioned how much I love flying? Thanks to San Joaquin Helicopters, I was able to take to the skies for an aerial view of Auto Club Famoso and the surrounding countryside. I also ended up with a great photograph to show my worrisome mother. (Photo by Justin Kase Conder)

Auto Club Famoso from the air, looking southwest. The quarter-mile drag strip is visible near the top left of the image.

A “fuel altered” class car heads toward the finish line.

When you grew up in flat northern Indiana like me, the gold mountains of the California countryside are a sight to behold.

Posted in Aviation, Photography, Sports, Video Production by Guy Rhodes on October 21st, 2010.

5 Responses to “The Beasts Will Always Win”

  1. Paul Grant says:

    Great stuff, always unique, always inspiring.

  2. Oscar says:


  3. Jahaira says:

    The cloudy sky is gorgeous and the video is very entertaining!

  4. Denny Guinta RFC Chaplain says:

    Great work! God Bless

  5. Eve says:

    These images are amazing.. I love how the one of the people at the beach reminds me of those “where’s Waldo” books. I love those!