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Left to Ridht: Don Cram, Don Waldron, Max Hess, Billie Raglin and Tex Whitson gather to review the video of “The Round Table discussion of the car culture and early Ridgecrest in the 50s and 60s”. / Laura Austin Photo

Local Legend Hot Rodders share a blast from the past

BY Christina MacGregor News Review Correspondent– On Friday, Sept. 23rd, Maturango Museum goers were privileged to see some sneak peaks at the movie interviews of four local legends, Tex Whitson, Billie Raglin, Bob Cram, and Don Waldron.

The video, entitled “Round Table discussion of the car culture and early Ridgecrest in the 50s and 60s” was presented by Mark Pahuta, and featured the men discussing their hot rod days when Ridgecrest was just a young town.

To get things “rolling” in the video, John Daley was the moderator for the roundtable. The four esteemed members of early car culture in Ridgecrest shared a lot of fascinating history with viewers of the show.

Tex Whitson came to the valley in 1946, following family members. Like so many people who have moved to the area, they expected to be leaving soon, and ending up staying longer than expected. As a young adult, Tex and several of his friends formed the group “The Dead Owls” car club. He no longer lives in Ridgecrest, but likes to visit the area, and his old stomping grounds. He appreciated participating in an opportunity like this one.

Billie Raglin arrived in the area in 1947. When he was a young man, he raced on the streets with his best friend, even before he had a driver’s license. As a local barber, he’s interacted with- and inspired- many of the local hot rodders. He has collected, in Daley’s words, a “veritable museum of Ridgecrest area memorablia,” and has a garage full of hot rods and projects he is currently working on. 

Bob Cram came to the valley in 1947. Cram couldn’t wait to turn 16, so he could officially join the “Dust Devils Auto Club.” He worked at the machine shop on base. He started his own machine shop Cram- McCall Machine Shop in 1977, where he became reknown around the area for his skills and expertise. He, too, is still building hot rods to this day.

Don Waldron was a latecomer to the area, compared to the other panel members, moving here as a teenager in 1960. His arrival to town was not an exciting one for him.

“It was the first time I ever swore at my mother,” Waldron explained. “I was 16 years old, and I said, as we came down the dirt road, ‘Take me to the ***(GD) bus depot, I’m going home.’ That was my first thought.”

After overcoming the initial desire to flee to the greener parts of the country, Waldron joined the local car culture, befriended Bob Cram, and began hanging out at the barber shop with Raglin. Waldron warmed up to the town, and made a career out of hot rodding. His projects were featured in multiple hot rod publications, including “Hot Rod,” and “Rodder’s Journal.”

When it comes to classic cars and drag racing, there are few better experts in Ridgecrest than these individuals, who were there when it all began.

To give further context to their story, it might help to know the origins of the town. First off, the town was formally known as “Crumville,” when Robert and James Crum settled the area in the early 1910s. They ran a dairy approximately where Ridgecrest Blvd and Norma meet. 

Other people slowly moved to the area. In 1941, Ridgecrest received its official name by a community vote. Ada Thompson suggested the name “Ridgecrest,” and the name won by a single vote over “Gilmore.”

By 1943, Ridgecrest had grown to 30 homes and 96 residents. Also in 1943, the Naval Ordinance Testing Station (NOTS) was established at the Inyokern Airport, which was at the time called “Harvey Field.” At the end of World War II, Harvey Field was deactivated, and NOTS aviation operations were moved to the new Armitage Field at China Lake. Thousands of military men, construction workers, and their families settled in the area in the mid to late 40s. By the 1950s, Ridgecrest exceeded 5,000 people.

The area was officially incorporated as the city “Ridgecrest” in 1963.  The rest, as one would say, is history. 

The four men on the panel were loving life here during this time frame, specifically the 50s and 60s. They described the area as the “car mecca drag strip.” There were dirt roads around town, and street racing was very common.   

“When you’re driving a hot rod, you’re really not sure where’s it’s going to go in the next second,” Waldron further explained, “You could be over in this lane, or you could be swinging over on this side. So it’s a little bit of a challenge, and you need to keep your mind going with what you’re doing.

“The evolution of early cars- we’re talking ‘55, ‘57…they became more controlled. You didn’t have this 5,000 lb thing that the tires wobbled, or something like that, you were sideways. They were a little more controllable, and more of a comfortable drive… that’s a comfortable car- you can drive and pay attention, and it is not going to squirt over into this lane. Whereas with a street rod or a hot rod- yeah, that could happen.”

Discussing the evolution of cars, Raglin said, “The new cars were nice and fast- we were in the era where the factories were building the fast cars, and the factory was good about it. You break that thing, and that factory fixes it. My ‘64 I had, in its first year it spent more time in the Desert Motors being fixed than I drove it…”

As the other guys teased Raglin about the reason for his frequent issues being racing, Raglin quipped back, “They were building that horsepower, so how was I gonna test that horsepower if I didn’t have my foot stuck on it?”

Some of Raglin’s favorite memories of those past days. “You liked that feeling of speed,” he explained, “Just trying to get that thing to go a little bit faster- shut your buddy up, you know. Just take him up on top of Trona hill…” 

While races occurred all over Ridgecrest, and in the surrounding area, Trona Hill became a common race spot for the gang. Members of the panel explained that someone with headlights would warn the others if cops were coming, so they could scatter. 

According to Whitson, “The road is a little bit different, and it is wider out there. Where the county ended- the road between there and Trona was terrible…We’d put the lookout there so we could race.”

Waldron was quick to explain, “Even though we were going as fast as we were going, we weren’t going as fast as they are (going) today. Just down on the highway- if I am going 75, 80 miles…People are blowing by me like I am just sitting here parked. I honestly feel that if anything were to happen, like a tire goes out, those people cannot control their car. They have no idea what it is going to do.

“Being in the desert, when I was a kid a friend of mine’s dad had a jeep,” Waldron continued, “We would go out and try and pitch it sideways, and see what it would take to get it straightened up, and that sort of thing. We have the opportunity and space to learn a little bit more about controlling the vehicle.”

“(Kids) wanted the fastest horse, and they knew what tricks to do. That evolved into cars,” Whitson explained. “Horse racing is over. It became the thing that only the rich people can do. Where the (heck) are we going to keep a horse? Car racing is the big deal now.”

However, even racing cars is not the same that it was in the 50s and 60s. Whitson continued, “So where are we at now? We have NASCAR and a ton of rules.” Whitson, and the other members of the panel, preferred the days when everyone raced, and the playing field was more level. 

Another thing, besides racing, that the men have in common is their gratitude for their upbringing, as well as respect for the town and the memories that they made here.

“Now you couldn’t roll me out of Ridgecrest with dynamite,” mused Waldron. “I have too much junk to move. Plus it’s home, and I have all of these friends.”

Max Hess, long time Ridgecrest resident, also attended the event and is one of only two Dead Owls still living.