Photos by Greg Blasingame
Just as rules are made to be broken, so are some traditions. That’s especially true of anything related to rods and kustoms. After all, they’re rebels by nature, altering conventional cars with outrageous personal statements. So it shouldn’t have come as a surprise that, after 26 years of being held in Paso Robles, the annual West Coast Kustoms Cruisin’ Nationals pulled up stakes last year and headed a few miles down the road to Santa Maria.
Originally, Paso Robles was chosen as a halfway meeting point for kustoms clubs hailing from both Socal and Norcal, and that’s still pretty much the case. So why make the move?
“We really outgrew Paso,” admits Penny Pichette, who, along with husband Rich, founded the event in the 1982. By her own description, they used to own a funky little burger joint called the Jet Drive-In, located in Moreno Valley near Riverside, California, but were discouraged by the lack of events for kustoms, since Rich used to own a chopped 1941 Chevy pickup.
“We just weren’t welcome at any shows,” Penny recalls. “So we sent out letters to all the cities in the Central Coast of California, and Paso Robles was the only one that answered.”
After a somewhat rocky start (literally) on the shores of a nearby lake, the event grew quickly, after it was moved to the park in the center of town, drawing visitors and participants from all over the country. It eventually became the premier kustom car show – but also became a victim of its own success.
The limit on the number of cars (800 total), along with the amount of motel accommodations and space for vendors, eventually tapped out the setting. So last year, Santa Maria welcomed Cruisin’ Nats with open arms. The number of pre-1961 cars showing up has grown well beyond those in years past, and the setting at the “Fairpark” (the local fairgrounds) makes for a much easier venue, along with indoor display areas for the vendors.
“We had so many new kustoms coming out of the woodwork,” says Penny. “It was amazing – especially considering the economy. We’re real happy with Santa Maria, and they’re happy with us.”
Of course, a few details are still getting ironed out at the new locale. When the event was in Paso, the main street would be limited on Friday evening just for kustoms, which made for a stunning parade of Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Babies (borrowing from Tom Wolfe’s novel of the same name).
In Santa Maria, though, the main drag is still open to regular production cars as well, and the cruising goes on all day, rather than during the twilight “beauty light.” (We hear that might change next year, so kustoms would have Broadway all to themselves.) Even with this different approach, for many showgoers, it’s still the highlight of the event. Everyone was in a good mood, honking and waving to each other like they were all in the same club (and in fact, many are).
“I could really relate to this group of people racing their engines,” enthused one spectator, who compared it to the innocence of the Happy Days TV show. “Nobody peeled out in front of me ,and everyone was very respectful, just havin’ fun.”
Jason Paul of Bear Metal Kustoms, who also helps out in running the event and participated at Paso for many years, is upbeat about the change. “The Fairgrounds can hold as many as 1100 cars, I hear,” he relates. “And having it here weeds out the ‘rat rods’, so the quality of cars is much higher.”
Aside from being more prestigious in character, another difference in Santa Maria is the weather. Because it’s closer to the ocean than Paso, the climate is a little cooler – yet almost too much so. The local manager of the Santa Maria Inn, the event’s host hotel, rose to the occasion, and provided blankets and heat lamps at no charge during one chilly evening concert.
Such hospitality is not surprising, considering the big turnout. The three-day car show attracts an estimated 30,000 visitors, many hailing from as far away as Japan and Sweden, and every location in between. As Santa Maria Mayor Larry Lavagnino noted during the event, “It’s a big boost to the economy of Santa Maria. All you have to do is take a look. All the motel rooms are taken, and the restaurants will be packed tonight.”
Some of the more popular hangouts included throwbacks like the local bowling alley, and cruises to steak houses in surrounding towns. Besides the huge number of kool kustoms, with more whitewalls and chrome rolling down the street than you’d ever see in a 1940s gangster movie, there were also tributes to key figures in the world of kustoms. The Hall of Fame luncheon honored Paul Bragg and Andy Southard, Jr. Other notables from years past included George Barris, Gene Winfield, and Joe Bailon. Entertainment celebs also show up, such as Candy Clark from the movie American Graffiti and James Hetfield of the Metallica heavy-metal band, who brings a new kustom every year.
While the Cruisin’ event is no longer a freebie, the admission fee enables the show organizers to track the attendance and attract more vendors and cars. Even better, the show now hires some high-zoot musical groups that crank it up for the entire weekend, blasting out rockabilly, swing, and soul tunes from the Rumble Kings, Vargas Brothers and Hydramatics. Just add some tats and greased-back hair, and it all makes for a happenin’ scene. Don’t miss out on all the Santa Maria action, because next year’s Cruisin’ Nationals should be bigger than ever.
West Coast Kustoms
Rich & Penny Pichette
P.O. Box 8028
Moreno Valley, CA 92551