The Hot Rod Dirt Drags shake up an 86-year-old airstrip in Monte Vista, Colorado
FOR over 60 years, the Movie Manor has put on drive-in movies for the township of Monte Vista, nestled in mountainous Rio Grande County, Colorado. But for even longer, the sound of engines has reverberated across the adjacent dirt airstrip. First carved out in 1931, this strip primarily saw action as an auxiliary airfield during the Second World War, but has remained in use for most of its 86-year life. But when the Hot Rod Dirt Drags come to town, it sees action of a very different kind.
Mike Nicholas and the Nick’s Garage crew are the heartbeat of the Colorado hot rod scene, and their penchant for preserving local history sees them working tirelessly to restore iconic local cars and put on both the Hot Rod Hill Climb and these Dirt Drags every year. Now in its third running, the event takes place over a weekend each spring and features drive-in classic movies, live music, lots of barbecuing and beer, and of course, eighth-mile heads-up dirt racing!
There are many events that follow this winning formula these days (and who’s complaining?), but the Hot Rod Dirt Drags is a real diamond in the rough in the way it captures the spirit of early hot rodding. There’s no glam and no trends, just a committed group of rodders who’ll genuinely race until their wheels fall off.
The field of 107 cars this year was the biggest and most varied yet, with everything from rickety four-banger Ts to blown altereds like the Outlaw Express. Throw a few slinky customs and survivor hot rods into the mix and you’ve got a whole lotta fun on the dirt.
When you meet Mike ‘Nick’ Nicholas you instantly become family, and early on Saturday morning, before the crowd of racers and spectators, he officially tied the knot with his missus, Amy. But no sooner had they driven away with cans rattling behind them than Amy was back on the starting line, having swapped her wedding whites for shorts and waving a chequered flag.
And there’s no better wedding reception than two days of racing in the surrounds of the beautiful Colorado mountains. There are no prizes or competition, just friendly grudge matches and lots of smiles. The lure of this kind of racing draws folk from across the country, including Victor Garcia and Mo Vargas, who drove all the way from California in their traditional flatty-powered hot rods, or Simone and David Finch who hauled a nitro-fed Model T roadster all the way from Vancouver, Canada.
It was wild and wonderful on the starting line too, with rides like Chad Warne’s ’38 Dodge pick-up sporting a blown Hemi and Chrysler New Yorker fins; the ever-whining McCulloch supercharger on Jim and Sue Starr’s mean ’26 tudor; the amazing engineering feat that is the Kenz & Leslie Odd Rod. The Nick’s Garage team recently finished this faithful re-creation of the Colorado-built twin-flathead racer from the late 40s, which despite its ungainly aerodynamics turned 140mph at the first Bonneville Speed Trials in 1949.
With a focus on reliving the past and having a damn good time doing it, the run-what-ya-brung ethos of the event carried through to the bottom of the field. While painfully slow for the amount of noise made, seeing a few early Ford gow-jobs and breathless Chevy six-pots putt down the track was a reminder of where the sport had come from – right down to the frustrated racer on board, foot buried in the floor, hoping for a skerrick of extra horsepower.
With the only rule being ‘don’t be an idiot’, anyone who wanted to could get their arse on a seat to join the fun, and before long whole families were racing each other, dickie seats filled and trash talk coming from the kids – most of whom were the drivers! Despite the odd gear crunch or stall, the newest generation of hot rodders – some 12 and 13 years young – caught the racing fire in their bellies and developed a taste for speed. Thankfully it’s vintage speed, so no one is really in a true hurry.
Nothing but pure, honest fun with old cars is the name of the game when you get to the Hot Rod Dirt Drags. The small-town location, well off the main highway system, helps filter the riff-raff and doubles as a beautiful backdrop.
“We do this for the people,” Mike says. “It’s great to be a conduit for everyone to have fun and people actually want to come hang out. It’s a hidden gem out here.”
1. The weekend’s festivities kicked off with a twilight session on the Friday night. All the cars lined the strip and turned on their headlights, lighting the way for the racers
2. David Finch hauled his T-bucket down from Vancouver with his missus Simone and father Dale. The engine is a Dale-built quad-carb ’40 Merc flathead V8, running 90 per cent nitro and quite possibly the loudest side-whacker around. David had jetting issues at Monte Vista’s 2336m altitude, so couldn’t get the orchestra to sing for a full pass. “We’ll give you a real pull next year,” he assured us
3. Mike and Amy Nicholas took the opportunity to tie the knot on the Saturday morning at this year’s Hot Rod Dirt Drags. They met at the very first event, and the date was the same as Mike’s father’s wedding day 50 years ago. Who would turn down a drag racing wedding reception?
4. The historic T33 Chevy (SM Hot Rod #16) is synonymous with Nick’s Garage, and both Mike Nicholas and original owner/builder Cal Kennedy took it for a few hits before mechanical issues sidelined it for the rest of the weekend. The Wayne 12-port-equipped Chevy six sounds as mean today as it did over 50 years ago
5. Detroit man ‘Crazy’ Larry brought his flathead-powered T75 ’29 roadster out, and was happy to hand the keys to anyone who wanted them, as well as take as many people for a ride as would fit!
6. Nick Warinner hand-built the body on the #21 special. The entire build only took about six months and consists of a stock Model A chassis with mechanical brakes and a Snyder high-comp head on an otherwise stock Ford ’banger
7. Victor Garcia and Mo Vargas trekked it over from Los Angeles for the dirt drags in their beautifully built traditional hot rods
8. Rob Byg’s vintage rail was originally built in ’58 in New Jersey, but he picked it up last year and fixed the typical poorly done gas welds before putting a small-block Chev and Powerglide ’box in it
9. Shane Lehr brought his 60s-styled ’23 T roadster pick-up over from Alva, Oklahoma. It’s powered by an early 327 with double-hump heads, and sounds mean with 10.5:1 compression and drag headers. Shane’s had the car for about 10 years and has twice taken home top spot in the Gas Roadster class at the HAMB Drags
10. Bill Coffey’s ’31 Model A coupe was thriving in the dirty conditions. The mint-coloured Lincoln flathead is topped with some bronzed Edelbrock heads and a pair of Stromberg 97s
11. Sheldon Roberts’s Outlaw Express cut a mean figure and proved to be a handful on the slippery dirt strip. The ’34 Ford altered coupe is powered by a blown 371ci Olds backed by a Powerglide with transbrake. Sheldon hails from Julesberg, Colorado, but the Express originally came from Albuquerque, New Mexico
12. This #7 early A roadster was blisteringly quick, even taking down some of the more hi-po V8s with its Ford ’banger. It’s believed the engine is an old Kenz & Leslie mill – the old-timer flathead gurus of Colorado
13. “Is that the one that goes: ‘Eeeeeeee’?” was the question on one kid’s lips when looking at Jim and Sue Starr’s radical ’26 tudor. The whining sound comes from the McCulloch supercharger mounted high and proud above the Edelbrock-equipped flathead Ford
14. Duane Helms faithfully recreated the Kenz & Leslie Odd Rod with the help of Mike Nicholas and Nick’s Garage. It’s a ’31 Model A pick-up powered by two Edelbrock-equipped flathead V8s. The original took a 140mph record in the Lakester class at the first Bonneville Speed Trials in 1949, before Bill Kenz took the concept and created the famous 777 streamliner – the first hot rod to break 200mph on the Bonneville salt