It’s Saturday night and the lot behind Bob’s Big Boy restaurant on Riverside is once again taken over by the hot rods of The Road Kings.
The parking spaces are resplendent with steel, rubber and chrome. The meet-up is part reunion and part history lesson for the hundred or so roadsters gathering at the place where the sport of drag racing grew up.
Though 60 years after the Road Kings were founded, the boys aren’t lobbing spitballs over the diner booths at each other.
They no longer look over their shoulders from behind the wheels of their Model Ts, searching for the all-too-familiar blink of the Burbank P.D. (in recent years, a former chief of police even joined the crew). The Road Kings are not the outlaws they once were. But you can’t take away their history and their impact on motorsports. Both are tied to the history of Burbank.
And consider this: The city is 100 years old, and the Road Kings’ reign has lasted for more than half the city’s lifetime. The Kings have gone from gearhead kids in drag races to Motorsports Hall of Fame inductees and philanthropists who have earned $400,000 for Burbank charities.
The hellraisers have become fundraisers.
This Sunday, the Road Kings will celebrate their 60th anniversary in Johnny Carson Park with a display of about 700 hot rods and dragsters. The event begins at 8 a.m. and lasts until 2 p.m. Though many of their original members still live in Burbank, Road Kings from all over the country are here now preparing for the weekend.
“We’re going to put on a show that nobody will ever forget,” said Jimmy Miles, the group’s historian. “It’s not like playing tennis, you know. It’s a little more aggressive.”
The Road Kings first met Nov. 17, 1952. They would continue to meet every Sunday, tinkering with dragsters and coming up with new ways to build chassis and engines, whatever would let them go a little faster than the next guy.
Several of them turned pro. One was Tommy Ivo, a successful TV and film actor who joined the group in 1955. He says he was bitten by the acting bug until a bigger bug bit — and this one could shoot flames when it growled.
His favorite car was the Barnstormer, a dragster that runs on nitro methane (safer than its chemical cousin, nitroglycerin, but nearly as potent). Ivo was the first racer to travel the quarter-mile in 7 seconds, and the first to hit 190 miles per hour in the quarter-mile.
The Barnstormer is still his favorite, and he’ll have it at the park this weekend.
“These cars were like Robocop outfits to put on — and I was 115 pounds, soaking wet,” Ivo said.
The Kings often found themselves on the other side of the law — and their parents.
Bob Muravez’s father wanted him to take over at the family business and quit racing, so he did — as Bob Muravez. Thus Floyd Lippencotte Jr. was born — an alias with which Muravez would sneakily crack Top Gas records that still stand today because the racing category was eliminated in the early 1970s.
“We were a bunch of guinea pigs. We were breaking barriers,” Muravez said.
The technology they were developing came largely from salvaged parts from World War II. In 1960, Muravez was the first driver to test out a drag chute — it was taken from a drop parachute used to deliver Jeeps from airplanes during the war. Once deployed, it almost pulled the back of the car off and left two spots on Muravez’s goggles.
“I think it jerked me so hard my eyeballs popped out,” he said.
The Kings who did go pro have mostly retired. They’re looking for new members who have street rods from 1972 or earlier, and they have to be modified.
“It can’t just be Grandma’s grocery-getter,” Miles said.
The Internet has helped the club connect with race fans all over the world who marvel at the skill needed not only to operate the machines, but to build them. This Sunday, they’ll join in the reunion of the Burbank speed demons who still love to make things go fast.
“Talk about a time machine — this is as close as you get,” Ivo said. “And we’re not looking over our shoulder to see who’s keeping their eye on us.”