The showcase actually grew from a memorial. During the first Hot Rod Reunion in 1992, an announcer read a list of names of those dear to the drag-racing community who died during the previous year.
Bill Pitts, who owns the Magicar and is a key organizer of the long-running Cruisin’ Grand Nitro Night in Escondido, Calif., gave the ceremony a special touch.
Gibbs said Pitts “volunteered one year to bring his car up to the starting line and, after we read the list of the departed people, to fire the engine with a static start as a salute to those people. It was cool.
“Somewhere prior to the 2000 Hot Rod Reunion, Greg (Sharp) and I got talking about it. We said, ‘You know, we haven’t push-started cars in a long time.’ That used to be the normal way of doing things. They quit doing that back in the early ’70s. It wasn’t a safety thing; it was because the cars became rear-engine cars and the wheelbases got so long that you couldn’t do it anymore. So they went to self-start,” Gibbs said. “But that used to be a really neat part of this sport, those cars pushing down from the top end, waiting for the engines to light, and making the turn. It just had that whole aura to it.
“So Greg and I said, ‘Let’s see what we can do to round up as many cars as we can that could be push-started.’ It wasn’t on the schedule. We were talking about having all these engines running. Greg goes, ‘Yeah, it’ll be a regular cacklefest.’ That’s where the word came from, just an impromptu thing out of his mouth. And it stuck. In drag-racing parlance, ‘cackle’ the engine — that term has been around forever. That’s how it got started,” Gibbs explained.
Among the original Cacklefest machines was The Lincoln, which Ted Cyr parked behind his shop in Southern California and let it collect dust until Gibbs and Sharp tapped him for the inaugural honors. Today, it’s on display at the Museum in Pomona.
Another of the Original Nine Cacklefest cars was Vagabond, which popular 1989 Top Fuel champion Gary Ormsby once drove. Included was the no-frills but take-no-prisoners two-season wonder out of Phoenix’s Beeline Dragway that simply bore the name of owners and business partners Larry Steinegger and Al Eschenbaugh.
That car won 15 straight races on its home track.
“It was really an emotional moment,” Gibbs said of the first Cacklefest. “A lot guys said, ‘Wow, I forgot how cool that was, and others said, ‘I’m going to find my car.’ And that’s how it got started. The next year we had maybe 15 cars. The cool part is that there were a lot of racers who had retired, but this was a chance for them to get involved again. You had Tom Hoover and Herm Peterson and Jerry Ruth — you could list name after name of guys who were out of the sport and it got them back in on a different level, and it created a museum, almost. There were some barn finds that were totally original. There are a lot of recreated cars, cars that didn’t exist anymore (for example, the Beebe & Mulligan “Fighting Irish”), and a lot of them were restored. There were no hard and fast rules as to what qualified as a cackle car. Since we started that deal, there have been well over 200 cars that have been push-started at various events.”
And, Dixon mused, “It started with nine.
“I think that’s cool what they do. These guys only get once or twice a year the opportunity to fire their cars up and live that moment. You don’t want to keep them from doing it. Some of them are getting older, and the opportunities are fewer and fewer for some of them. People enjoy that. They get to reminisce and tell stories, and it’s awesome. It’s an awesome event. That’s my childhood,” Dixon said.
Don Prieto, an early member of the dauntless Road Kings Car Club and drag-racing historian, said, “If you yearn to stand around a thundering Chrysler engine that is consuming 100-percent nitromethane and belching flames three feet tall, just to drink in the sights, sounds and aromas, the Cacklefest is for you.”