Eastern North Dakota men drive custom '55 Chevy to California hot rod event to honor late father, friend
It was in Reno, Nev., when James SanGrait and his friend Brad Kuntz, a Grand Forks native, got the chance to put the car on a lift. The springs had finally given up. But this was expected.
In under two weeks, they put a couple thousand miles on a recently completed 1955 Chevy Gasser and those worn springs were original parts.
Soon, they'd have the car fixed and within days, they'd be back in North Dakota after a cross country trip that brought them attention from a couple hot rod magazines, an automotive museum and a legendary custom car builder.
The idea started about a year ago when SanGrait, a mechanic and car builder in Park River, N.D., decided to buy and customize a '55 Chevy 210 that had been sitting in a customer's backyard for about 40 years.
SanGrait bought the car so he could build a gasser, a type of hot rod popularized in the '50s and '60s. He had raced dirt late models for years, building his own engines and transmissions, and he’d always wanted to build a hot rod.
"I pretty much build everything," he said. "I'm not going to toot my own horn but I don't think there's many people in the country that can build that thing 100% themselves."
In a gasser, a closed-body vehicle is customized so that the front of the vehicle sits higher than the rear, distributing more weight on the rear wheels for traction. The name comes from the cars being in the gasoline-fueled drag racing class.
"That’s not the way to get traction but it was a primitive way, and it made for exciting cars," SanGrait said.
Excess weight is removed to make the cars even faster and removing the front bumper is a common trait. Some people even choose to decrease weight by replacing glass windows with plexiglass or removing rear seats.
While SanGrait did remove the front bumper, he also drilled numerous holes in metal parts that aren't structurally important.
SanGrait's friend Paul Anderson, who spent more time on the vehicle than anyone except for SanGrait, came over to his shop and mentioned that gassers need nicknames. After looking at all the holes, Anderson suggested the name "Holey Hell."
"If it hadn’t been named 'Holey Hell,' there’d be 200 holes in it," SanGrait said. "But this car has 2,000 holes in it."
After 10 months of work, and with the help of some friends, he had a finished '55 Chevy Gasser.
To keep things true to the gasser era, the car features a tilt front end that houses a 427 big block Chevy engine. The body is painted black with a red metal flake top. Written in a blood drip font on both sides is the name "Holey Hell."
As they made progress on the vehicle, SanGrait posted updates on Facebook, ending posts with #thisonesfortommy, a dedication to his late friend, Brad's father Tom Kuntz.
"He wasn’t one of them guys that would sit down and give you life lessons, but he would show them to you," SanGrait said. "Once I knew that he wasn’t probably going to make it was probably the biggest thing that pushed me to get this done so we could honor him."
Tom died Nov. 15, 2018, at the age of 63. He spent much of his career in transportation, including many years working in concrete — an industry he loved. And he was a huge fan of motorsports.
"He always loved to follow us because we do bachelor stuff," said Kuntz, who similar to his father before him works in the transportation industry. "We do stuff that single guys can do."
They dedicated their next step to Tom too. SanGrait and Kuntz would drive "Holey Hell" over 2,000 miles to the NHRA Motorsports Museum's California Hot Rod Reunion in Bakersfield.
The event, which celebrates American hot rod culture, would take place Oct. 25-27 at the Auto Club Famoso Raceway. Each year, it offers quarter-mile drag racing and a display of hot rods, muscle cars and customs.
This wasn't their first trip to Bakersfield either. That seed was planted in 2015 when they were watching drag races at the Lucas Oil NHRA Nationals in Brainerd, Minn. Kuntz was talking to a man who told him about an event called Cacklefest that features a bunch of old dragsters. With a little research, Kuntz found out there's a huge one in Bakersfield.
A year later, SanGrait fixed up a 1961 Rambler station wagon for about $3,500 and along with Kuntz, drove it to Bakersfield.
"We're motorheads, right, so we'll stick our faces in the exhaust and smile, you know, we love that stuff," SanGrait said.
On that first trip, friends and family followed their adventure on Facebook — an idea they carried over this time around. "These are old cars put together by amateurs and we like to take that risk and apparently, people like to watch us," SanGrait said.
With drag racing slicks for tires and a soon to be fulfilled GoFundMe gas campaign, the pair left Grand Forks for their second Bakersfield trip Sunday, Oct. 20. A day later in Lincoln, Neb., the first of several highlights from their trip happened.
Lincoln is home to Speedway Motors, a retailer of street rod and racing products that's been around since 1952. The lot also has a 150,000-square-foot museum, the Speedway Motors Museum of Speed, a required stop for two self-described motorheads.
"I've been telling people it's the single most overwhelming place I've ever been," Kuntz said. "There's several things there that you cannot see anywhere else."
After buying some parts from the shop for "Holey Hell," they went back to the car outside and found a member of the museum's multimedia team taking pictures of the vehicle. An hour later, the museum posted several photos of the car and a short write-up to its Facebook page.
"We've been saying if nothing else cool happened on the trip, that was enough and then the rest of the trip just went so far above and beyond," Kuntz said. Two days later, they reached Nevada.
Beyond dedicating the car and the trip to Tom Kuntz, they also brought some of his ashes with, hoping to find a meaningful place to scatter them. They found that spot about 30 miles southeast of Las Vegas at the Hoover Dam.
SanGrait and Kuntz referred to the night they arrived outside the dam as quiet, serene and the most pleasant night of the trip.
"My dad was in the concrete industry for most of his life and he was passionate about concrete," Kuntz said. "Being a concrete man, we left him at a place where there’s a whole bunch of concrete."
After a night in Vegas, they made it to Bakersfield in Southern California, the region of the U.S. that birthed hot rods following World War II. On the second day of the event, "Holey Hell" really started to get attention.
"People say it's the coolest thing there and we're at the Hot Rod Reunion and they’re telling us it's the coolest thing there," SanGrait said.
A photographer stopped by the car and took some shots before handing them a copy of the New Zealand hot rod magazine he works for and saying "Holey Hell" will be part of his coverage of the event, SanGrait said.
"New Zealand, Australia, Sweden, all those countries have a really big hot rod following," SanGrait said. "It's a huge deal in those countries and they like American stuff."
The next day, a similar thing happened when a contributor with Hot Rod Deluxe magazine caught up to them.
"We're telling the story about driving from North Dakota and his reaction's the same as everybody," SanGrait said. "He swears and shakes his head, he says there's no way that's possible and then he says that's the coolest thing he's ever heard." The man took photos of the car and said they'd be featured in the next issue of the magazine, which goes on sale in January.
That same day, the last day of the event, SanGrait went to get an autographed picture from Gene Winfield's booth.
Winfield is a legend in the world of building custom cars. The 92-year-old's custom vehicles have appeared in several '60s TV series ("Batman," "Star Trek," "Mission: Impossible") and films, such as 1982's "Blade Runner."
"He's the pope to car guys," SanGrait said.
One of Winfield's employees took some photos of the car and shared them with Winfield, SanGrait said. Later on that day, SanGrait returned to Winfield's booth to get an autograph for his friend Paul.
Winfield asked if he's the one who put all the holes in the car. "Then he smiles and he says, 'I would love for you to come to my house and I could show you all my memorabilia. My house is like a museum,' " SanGrait said.
"We were just on cloud nine for that," SanGrait said. "In fact, we’re still on cloud nine."
They stuck around California one more day to visit Winfield's collection in Mojave, Calif. — one final peak on a trip full of highs.
After 14 days on the road driving an untested vehicle with slicks for tires, no heat and a steering geometry issue that caused the wheel to spin whenever they hit a bump, they made it back to North Dakota.
"The best engineering can only get you frightening," SanGrait said. "And that's what we got. We got a frightening car."
"Holey Hell" will be on display over winter in the showroom at Birchwood Chevrolet Buick in Cavalier, N.D.