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The Grand National Roadster Show is like church, with chrome trim

Fri, 29 Jan 2010

You can argue all day about which is the best and most influential hot-rod show in the world, but we'll take the Grand National Roadster Show, which will be held this weekend at the Fairplex in Pomona, Calif.

This is the 61st running of what grizzled veterans have simply called "Oakland," after the city that hosted it for its first half-century. This is the seventh year the show has been held in the Art Deco halls and sprawling avenues of the Fairplex, all of which will be under sunny skies and balmy temps all weekend.

This year there will be a special exhibit on the History of the Race Car, with the expansive Hall 9 packed with them. This history could more appropriately be titled that of California race cars, though, since those are mostly what you'll see, with a good collection of Bonneville cars in amongst the midgets and historical circle-track jalopies. Peer inside the cockpits and imagine the courage it must have taken to fly sideways around a board track with a differential between your knees, ready to grenade at any moment.

The new generation of rodders, those guys with new tattoos, slicked-back hair and rolled up jeans, will gather in the Suede Palace, another large hall that will be jammed with rat rods. The creativity expressed by these young builders is every bit as amazing as their more senior rodmates, and the cars we saw on setup day were no exception. These entrants will choose a queen on Saturday night in the Pinup Girl Contest.

Other halls will feature cars that have been on the covers of magazines. The Drive-In takes place on Saturday and Sunday and features what is promised to be 400 to 800 rods and customs not entered in the show but cool in their own way. They'll be parked in the spaces between the halls.

There are always more awards given out at this show than there are entries, so anyone who doesn't walk away with at least one trophy for something ought to consider another hobby.

But the main draw at Oakland, er, Pomona, is the competition for America's Most Beautiful Roadster, a title diluted by the cognoscenti to its abbreviation, AMBR (pronounced "amber"). Entrants in this category are rumored to spend more than a million dollars trying to get their name on the ridiculously huge (nine-foot-tall) trophy. While East Coast and Midwest rodders will swear that the Ridler Award, awarded at Detroit's Autorama, is more prestigious, the Ridler is open to all custom cars. The AMBR is limited to the most quintessential of hot rods, the roadster. At the GNRS the term "roadster" has almost always been interpreted by designers, builders and wealthy entrant/owners as some variation of a '32 Ford, though '34 Fords and even some other makes have won over the years.

For 2010, one of the standout entries in the AMBR category is not a '32 Ford but Metallica frontman James Hetfield's Rick Dore-built 1936 Auburn Boattail Speedster. An Auburn boattail is a pretty impressive shape to begin with, and it's a wonder these are not as common in the Roadster Show as Delages and Delahayes are at Pebble Beach.

The rest of the contenders we saw were different takes on the '32 theme.

Racer and rodder Fred Stoke's entry was titled, appropriately, Stoked. It is a celebration of tiny details, from the machined 24-karat gold pinstripes to the Ferrari-esque seat trim. Stoked is powered by a blown, injected 392 Hemi.

Dan Smith's Goldenrod is a '32 Ford pickup with paint so deep and bright he named the truck after it. Then he hauled it all the way out from Mansfield, Texas.

On the other end of the spectrum, a guy with no money but a lot of time, Wayne Halabury, built his Hot Rod Heaven '32 in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.

"The car was built on a very limited budget but the tradeoff was time," Halabury said in his build book. "Rather than a few years, this one took 10."

Who will walk away with the AMBR? The award is given on Sunday night at about 8, the last of something, like, 450 trophies. We'll be there.

By Mark Vaughn