40th annual GS Nationals unites far-flung Buick fanatics in “a big family reunion”
In the 1880s, people began gathering at a particular bend in western Kentucky’s Barren River, in Bowling Green. It started with picnics amid the beech trees and rolling hills, and by 1898 Beech Bend Park was established. Pony rides arrived in the 1940s. Then came swimming, roller skating, and bowling. Dirt-track car and motorcycle racing were added after WWII, followed by a drag strip, while camping and carnivals became a hit in the 1960s. Today, the roller rinks are gone, in favor of roller coasters, bumpers cars, and the very same Sea Dragon pirate ship pendulum ride that once adorned Michael Jackson’s Neverland Ranch.
Amid the shifting landscape, one tradition, however, has endured over four decades. Each spring since 1981, Buicks have descended upon Beech Bend for an assembly of metal, horsepower, and friends. The first Buick GS Nationals was the brainchild of Richard Lasseter, a GS enthusiast from Georgia who wrote a letter to the editor of Popular Hot Rodding in late 1980 with an invitation for any and all fellow fans to convene in Kentucky.
Editor’s Note: The is the first of several stories we’ll be sharing from GS Nationals 2021, so stay tuned for even more Buick goodness on the horizon.
What started as around 25 GSs and their owners meeting in a hotel bar to talk Buicks and watch preparations on TV for the first-ever space shuttle launch has turned into a full-on festival of GM muscle and second-tier luxury. Between the swap meet, car shows, and Buick-powered drag racing that fans enjoy from the comfort of historic covered grandstands, it’s a major center of gravity for GS and G-body diehards. “Our event has now become much more of a big family reunion focusing on our Buicks as its major theme,” says Lasseter. “The one thing that has not changed is that Bowling Green has become our ‘home away from home.’” In what is typically Corvette country, for one weekend, 455 engines, Saturn Yellow coupes, and all-things-Buick reign supreme.
Given that we, like many of you, have spent the last year stuck in our homes, the opportunity to attend GS Nationals 2021 was too good to pass up. Last year’s event was canceled in light of the pandemic, postponing the planned 40th anniversary celebration of the beloved 1970 Buick GSX to 2021. With gorgeous weather in the forecast, there was every reason to believe this year’s GS Nationals would be one to remember.
Indeed, many longtime regulars gushed at the turnout, declaring it the most energetic atmosphere and the best-attended GS Nationals in at least 10 years, maybe 20. What brings these Buick nuts together? For one, they love the camaraderie of this somewhat niche, underdog community, which is much more intimate than the Chevy or Ford world. The cars themselves, too, stand as an enduring example of how Buick managed to inject tantalizing performance into its otherwise humdrum luxury lineup.
“I just thought it was cool lookin’,” says Steve King, standing next to the yellow 1970 GSX he bought in ’72, when he was 19 years old. “My parents were Buick people but they weren’t into performance stuff, and I was working on a Mercury Montego MX at the time. So when I found this hot-rod GSX, it meant I got their blessing.”
King blew the original motor just a month after getting the car, but not before testing its mettle quite successfully at stop lights. “I was beating everything, but the engine had oil issues. It was replaced under warranty, but that first engine was faster,” he says. “And when people started dumping muscle cars around 1973 because of the oil embargo, I didn’t care. I kept mine.”
He’s grateful he did, and also that he resisted the urge to turn the car into a T-top when that trend came along in the late 1970s. King has made other upgrades, though, since last year when he got the car out from 15 years of storage: He cleaned the gas tank and radiator; rebuilt the brakes, carb, and exhaust; and upgraded to electronic ignition. He has performance headers for the 455 engine, but they’re not on yet. King’s GSX is parked among maybe 15 others in the paved area outside Beech Bend’s circle track, but there are at least a hundred other Skylarks, GSs, GSXs, and G-bodies inside the oval—some of which are prepping for drag racing.
The paddock is littered with both fearsome-looking drag machines and extremely clean restorations, so Randy Hollister’s stock-looking, well-worn ’71 GSX stands out. It’s a stripped-down model—one that the original dealer likely wanted as basic and affordable as possible—so it was built without the luxury niceties, 455 engine, and hood tach that came on the debut 1970 GSX. Though it does have power steering, the brakes are manual drums, and between the rails sits the original-block 350.
Hollister—tall, spiky-haired, frenetic—is one of ten or so Buick folk to drive to GS Nationals from Arizona. He’s owned and raced these cars since the mid-1980s, and has been coming to Bowling Green for 25 years. “We’re all crazy nuts, so this is just a big vacation,” he says while pacing around his trailer. “It’s like Close Encounters of the Third Kind. We all call each other ahead of the event—very tight-knit.” Hollister even bought the rust-speckled ’71 from a friend with whom he used to room for years at the event. (The friend, we’re told, used it as his street car and drove from New York to Bowling Green with a Schwinn bicycle mounted to the back, which must have been a sight to see.)
Though the car looks like a survivor, everything under the hood is pristine and ready for the drag strip. Mike Modena at Modena Motorsports, in Phoenix, did the work. We meet Modena near the TA Performance display on the outside of the oval, where he shares his passion for racing and building Buicks that started on Long Island in the early 1980s. “My grandfather’s ’63 Riviera was the coolest thing I’d ever seen, and he gave me that car when I was 15,” he says. “I used to drive it around the block, and the allure of the Nailhead got to me, the underdog-ness of it. I did my first engine swap on that car. Buick guys are a small band, and we are mostly in the same situation of wanting to beat the Fords and Chevys despite limited aftermarket support. We have that in common with the Pontiac and Olds guys. A high percentage of us are real diehards.”
Modena introduces us to two of his clients, Jeff Peoples and Dave Johnson, who celebrate their Buick enthusiasm in totally different ways. Peoples, hailing from Jackson, Mississippi, regularly autocrosses his ’72 GS. The Pro Touring-style build looks tough, and there’s plenty of power to go along with the car’s aftermarket suspension setup—645 hp at crank courtesy of a built 455 bored and stroked to 482 cubic inches. The GS was pulling enough g force at autocross runs that the engine started to experience oil pressure failure, so Modena modified a TA Performance pan with trap doors to improve oil flow.
Johnson’s relationship with his ’66 Skylark goes back to his childhood. He bought the car (at first thinking the coupe was a Chevelle) in Washington State in 1978, at the age of 15, and then sold it at 19. Decades later, near the end of 2014, he got a call from an old buddy who had come across a tired Skylark laying flat on its belly in a farmer’s field. Johnson still had the VIN and it matched the dilapidated lawn ornament, of course, so his friend purchased the car for $500. “I told him, ‘You have to crush this thing, it’s a $70,000 resto,’” says Johnson. “He didn’t listen, a month later—without telling me—it was being unloaded in front of my house.” The ball was rolling at that point, and Johnson figured he might as well use the momentum to restore it in time for his 35th high school reunion. The restoration was finished, barely, in time.
Years before Modena and TA were operating as performance resources for Buick, the primary outfit for 455 fiends and the like was Kenne-Bell. Formed in 1968 by racers “Pop” Kennedy and Jim Bell, with support from California dealer Reynolds Buick, the racing team hit on major success in competition and developed into a major testbed for Buick performance parts—even for Buick Engineering in Flint. Kenne-Bell-branded parts and stickers are visible all over GS Nationals, but one blue ’67 Riviera in full racing livery that was once sponsored by the firm wears the graphics most proudly. That’s because the former NHRA competition car belonged to Kenne-Bell technical advisor, college professor, and drag racer Fred Catlin, who first raced the 4600-pound Riv in 1975 while using it as a shop car for his students at Ivy Technical. By 1984, however, it was parked in the weeds in Elizabethtown, Indiana, the community where Catlin lived.
The newly restored Riviera looks immaculate in person, wearing gorgeous blue metallic paint. It’s all the handiwork of Iowa-based Jeremy Wemark, whose father knew Catlin. Because Riviera parts aren’t made new anymore, it took Wemark 20 different cars to get together all of the parts to overhaul the Kenne-Bell Riv. “My father and grandfather worked on Buicks,” Wemark says. “For Fred’s car, I consulted with him and had all of the decals reproduced, and then I painted it with the stripes just how it was.”
Catlin, who worked with Jim Bell to design the Cool Runner, a performance head ideal for draggers using a Holley Dominator carb, couldn’t be happier. “Jeremy is a talented young man. I made some money with that car,” Catlin remembers, noting it could run 11.49 ETs at 119 mph.
We head to the drag strip at the mention of ETs, where we meet Junior Veal and his 455-powered Stage II G-body. The car at idle sounds like a heavy metal kick drum roll. It lights up the burnout box in anger and runs 8.7s at 155 mph, but its driver couldn’t be friendlier. He invites us to his trailer to meet his dad and engine builder, Lawrence Clark, as well as Veal’s two sons and several other friends and relatives. It’s a vibrant setting, with kids running around playing, food cooking on the grille, plenty to drink, and smiles everywhere you look. “Bring all the kids, hang out, cook, go to the amusement park. This is our vacation,” says Veal.
Oh, yes, GS Nationals was very much back in action for 2021. We’ll be back in the years to come to witness the Buick performance passion, transmuted into big-block blare and turbo-hiss, as it’s launched into tree-dotted Kentucky countryside.