Along the south side of Paradise Valley Road, from the mesatop by Bell Junior High School, waves of rooftops undulate down to the shore of the hazy blue bay. The area is graded, developed, and tamed, with no trace left of its outlaw past. Fifty years ago, Paradise Mesa was drag-race heaven: an abandoned airstrip surrounded by empty chaparral hills, far from traffic, far from the cops. Weekend evenings, dragsters came from around Southern California to run the asphalt quarter-mile.
“We didn’t have any electricity out there, so we used to take empty soda cans and poke holes in them and put candles in them, then line them up to mark the length of the strip.” Carlos Ramirez smiles as he thinks back on the early days on the mesa, before organizers turned the strip legal.
Carlos is one of the original members of a still-infamous San Diego car club that helped put Paradise Mesa on the national drag-racing map. The Bean Bandits began as a group of neighborhood kids who loved to tinker and who loved speed.
“We all drove at a very young age,” Carlos says. “Nine or ten years old, we were already driving cars. This guy, he was about 11 when he got into making hot rods, before World War II.” Carlos gestures toward Joaquin Arnett, the Bean Bandits’ current president and the supernatural force that propelled the club to national fame.
They’re sitting in Carlos’s cocktail lounge and dance club in Imperial Beach, stacks of old photos from Paradise, Pomona, Santa Ana, El Mirage, and other dragster meccas strewn across a pool table. Joaquin is a wiry, trim coil of energy, no taller than 5'3" or 4", a full head of white hair, bright brown eyes.
He launches into stories as if he’s popping a clutch at the start line. They’re dense with names, dates, tracks, speeds, elapsed times, tiny details of engines and body modifications. Digressions fade into more digressions.
Carlos sits back while his friend of 60 years revels in the Bandits’ moments of triumph or sighs over missed opportunities. He’s been through this a thousand times with Joaquin and only occasionally interrupts to challenge a detail or offer his own story. Carlos is the easygoing counterpart to Joaquin’s intensity, with an almost shy gaze and a warm smile. From his gentle manner, you’d never guess he was for years the Bean Bandits’ principal driver with a go-fast addiction and a reputation for avoiding the brakes.
Joaquin and Carlos grew up in the neighborhood around 31st and Market Streets and attended elementary school, Memorial Junior High, and San Diego High School together. “The first car I ever drove was a 1938 Chevrolet,” says Carlos, “my dad’s car. I was eight or nine. I'd sneak it out of the yard and drive it around the block and get it back before my father came home from work. I just couldn’t resist.
“Somehow, I got my driver’s license when I was 14. I was out on Old Federal Boulevard in my dad’s car, taking my cousins from Arizona for a little cruise. The captain of the highway patrol caught me and followed me all the way home, through the canyons and alleys and stuff. The next day, I had to go to the DMV office with one of my parents. So my mother went with me, and they asked me how I’d gotten down there. I told them I drove my dad’s car. They asked my mother if she could drive, and she said no. And they said, ‘Does he have to drive?’ and she said yes.
So the captain had me fill out a form, my mom signed it, and about a week later I had my license in the mail. I still don’t know how that happened."
Joaquin’s mother took a more direct approach. “When I was about 14 my mother forged my birth certificate to make me older so I could get a license. I used to have to take her and some neighbors to work at the cannery. I could hear the whistle from my house, so when I heard that whistle, I used to go pick them up. But she always said, ‘When you hear the whistle on Friday, wait two hours, ’cause we’ll cash our pay-checks and have a beer at Chuey’s first.’” At the beginning of the war, Mrs. Arnett again changed Joaquin’s birth certificate, this time to make him younger so he could postpone being drafted. He’s still a little hazy on his exact birth date — maybe 1923, ’24, ’25....
Carlos recalls, “There was a guy in the neighborhood, a mechanic, and I used to go over and pester him, sit in a chair and watch him work. And I took a liking to it. And of course, Arnett was always into something. Bicycles, cars, whatever. Trying to make them better, go faster than somebody else’s.
“There were older fellows that had hot rods that used to park them on the street across from my house. They’d stop there to visit the girls in the neighborhood. We’d go over and look at the cars, inspect them, and wonder how fast they would go. They just intrigued us. And Arnett said, ‘I’ll bet I can make one of them.’ So he did. He figured it out.
“I used to follow Joaquin wherever he went to see what he was doing. We’d be walking down Market Street and he’d pick up a coil or something from the road and say, ‘I wonder what’s inside this thing.’ So he’d go get a hacksaw and cut it apart to see what made it work.”
Joaquin’s house was across the alley from Edgar’s Welding Shop, where he spent many hours as a young teenager learning to work metal and chop cars (lower the roof to make them sleeker). By the time he was 15, he had a welder’s certificate and would eventually earn a reputation as one of the best auto-body customizers in the city. (Andy Granatelli would later buy one of Joaquin’s classic show cars.) As Carlos says, “He was a natural. He has a real good mind for making things and fixing things and making things work.” Joaquin knew he could improve anything if he just tinkered with it long enough. In junior high school he’d already built a chopped Model A and worked on a succession of others he and his friends would put together.
“We used to get our cars at Joe Street’s wrecking yard, down off Ninth and Market. We’d go down and say, ‘Hey, Joe, we want a car,’ and he’d say, ‘Oh, go back over there and see what you can find.’ They’d be five or ten dollars. We only wanted the body and the frame, really. Then we’d tow it back home and start working on it. We’d get parts wherever we could. At this time, before the war, we just built street rods. We’d run them for a while and then sell them to get more parts to make another car.”
One of Joaquin’s favorite stories happened while they were still in junior high school, the day they pushed a roadster to the top of a hill to get it started. It had just rained, and the road was slick. As the engine caught, the car fishtailed down the hill and took out a tree in a long row of dozens of newly planted palms in front of the junior high school. They set the palm back upright, filled in the hole, and pushed the car home. A few days later, Joaquin says, the principal called him into his office and complained that the palm tree didn’t line up perfectly with the others. Joaquin’s dad, who owned a nursery in Old Town, had to replace and replant it.
When World War II ended, Joaquin, Carlos, and their friends came back to the old neighborhood and plunged into drag racing with a vengeance. The Road Ramblers and other local clubs had held timing races on Miramar Road before the war. They had attracted hundreds of entrants from San Diego, Orange County, and L.A. and up to 1500 spectators on any given day. But the highway patrol had put a stop to it, and local speed heads knew they needed a safe, sanctioned place for their meets. In the meantime, the government provided the perfect locations. Paradise Mesa was an abandoned auxiliary Navy landing strip, a backup in case North Island was bombed. Santa Ana was an unused Orange County blimp base. Lewis Parker, a graduate student at SDSU and a historian of drag racing in San Diego, relates that according to local folklore, Navy fliers would occasionally buzz the track at Paradise Mesa, doing touch-and-gos in front of a lineup of dragsters.
“In ’47, ’48, ’49, we’d go up to El Mirage dry lake and watch them run. Or we’d take a car right off the street and run it there. We started running outlaw at Paradise Mesa in ’49, and Santa Ana about that time. Joaquin had his ’27 Model T pickup that he’d built. It had a flathead Ford V-8, but we modified it to run nitro. We even raced motorcycles on the mesa with our first nitro-fueled dragster, a little bitty thing with a real short wheel base.” Nitromethane, now a common drag-race fuel, was new to the circuit in the late ’40s. It’s typical that Joaquin would be one of the first to experiment with it. While looking for ways to go faster, he encountered a chemist who knew something about rocket fuel and who showed him how to modify a carburetor to run nitro and alcohol, and, as Carlos says, “He learned how to do it, and he learned it well.” Their innocent-looking Model T would do 100-plus miles an hour and eat up the gas-powered competition. Joaquin even figured a way to run a motorcycle on nitro. “I ran a big old Harley-Davidson at El Mirage. Man, that thing was heavy. I turned about 150, which was pretty fast in those days, and I'll admit I was a little scared on that thing.”
Joaquin was already building a reputation as an innovator, always looking for a way to give his cars a little edge in power or aerodynamics, taking whatever was available and making it work. “We never were formally sponsored by anyone,” he says. “When we didn’t have enough money for tires, we’d take Andy Ortega’s convertible and jack it up and take the tires off that and put it on the race car. The Model T, we’d drive it to a track on gasoline, then switch the carburetion to run nitro, run the car, switch it back, put in gasoline, then drive home.”
Says Carlos, “The group in those days was Joaquin, who took care of the engine; I was the driver; and Andy Ortega, who was an excellent metal man. He lived over on Oceanview and worked at the cannery but started hanging around with Joaquin, who taught him welding and metal work. Mike Nagem, who was an organizer of the Southern California Timing Association and one of the originators of the NHRA [National Hot Rod Association). Luis Najera, Marco Martinez, Billy Galvin, Harold Miller, Pat Durant. Just guys from the neighborhood. Most were Mexicans, but Harold was black, and we had Anglos, Japanese, a Filipino, and a whole mix of people, just like the neighborhood. And everybody had their job to do. If something needed doing, somebody would jump in and take care of it. Even if it was just washing cars or changing tires or whatever. Everybody worked together. They’d come over when they got off work, and we’d stay up all night working on cars before the races. It really wasn’t just 3 or 4
guys. There were 20 or 30 of us at different times."
“It was Billy Galvin, who gave us the name Bean Bandits in 1951,” says Joaquin. “Since we were the only Mexican club, we used to laugh and call ourselves the Bean-ers. I have some old pictures that show our first logo, a black bean with the face and sombrero. Then when we started winning big, Billy said, ‘Well, who is it that steals all the trophies? Bandits. And bandits like beans.’ So he added the checkered bandit mask and put the little wheels on the bean, and that’s been our logo ever since.” The logo and the Bandits’ signature color now is school-bus yellow.
Beginning in 1951 Paradise Mesa, Santa Ana, Pomona, and the other Southern California outlaw tracks were organized under the direction of the NHRA. At first, the rules and regulations allowed plenty of innovation in the still-young sport. Over the next sue years, Joaquin says, the club won 63 NHRA events and set 45 NHRA records and at one time held simultaneous speed records at all the major Southern California tracks. He knew their reputation was big when they’d arrive at a meet and hear grumbling from the other drivers. “We’d hear ’em say, ‘Here come those damn Mexicans again,’ and some of the guys wouldn’t even run their cars. They’d just leave ’em on the trailers.”
Did the Bean Bandits’ “United Nations” crew of tinkerers and experimenters feel any prejudice in a sport increasingly dominated by Anglos with enough money to buy the newest gear off the speed-shop shelf? Joaquin and Carlos brush off the question. Won’t even consider it. They were too busy racing and having fun to notice. Joaquin suggests they had more problems as a San Diego club. “We’d win a race, especially at Santa Ana, but somehow the trophy would end up going to some guy from L.A. They’d tell me, ‘We’ll give it to you next time, Joaquin. We need to give it to an L.A. guy.’”
If Californians weren’t fazed by Mexican drag racers, the South was a different matter. Joaquin laughs so hard, he can barely get the story out. “About 14 or 15 of us went back East to the drags at Louisville, Kentucky. A sponsor had paid our way to bring their track car with us. Anyway, we get to the hotel and the gal at the counter says, ‘Well, Joaquin, where are the other guys?’ And I said, ‘They’re back in the trucks.’ They were back there under the tarps. So I said, ‘Come on out, guys,’ but they wouldn’t. Finally, I got them to pile out, and they lined up by the trucks. Tony Diaz was one of the guys with us. He’s a college professor here in town now. He’d just gotten out of the paratroopers at the time.
“Well, the lady looks us over and says, ‘Joaquin, come back with me to the office.’ When we get back there she says, ‘Your sponsors sent the money for your room, and I’m going to give you the money, because I can’t have you guys stay here because you pass for blacks.’ I guess they’d never seen Mexicans before. So I said to her, ‘Heck, we live in California, and the sun shines all the time there, and we just got a little tan.’
“Then we went down to Memphis, and they call us up front of the crowd to be interviewed for something on the radio. And we get up there, and there’s this little kid down in the front row,
and he says in this loud voice, ‘Mama, is that what Mexicans look like?’ I couldn’t believe it.
“About the only thing I remember in California was running up near Adelanto. We’d sometimes give a ride to some Mexican workers who needed to get back up to Victorville. We’d stop in Riverside and stoke up on machaca and menudo, but when we got to Adelanto, the guy who owned the service station, he had a sign, 'No dogs or Mexicans.’ So he wouldn’t give those workers any water, and they still had a long way to walk to get home. But he’d sell me gas and give me water. One day I asked him, ‘Why can I get gas and water here, but you won’t give any to these guys?’ And he said, ‘Well, Joaquin, you see, you’re not Mexican, you’re Spanish.’ I guess that’s how he rationalized it. Eventually we got along okay, but we had our little incidents.” When the Bean Bandits ran at Bakersfield, they had a cheering section of Mexicans who would come in from the surrounding towns.
Perhaps the classic Bean Bandits legend, which tells what the club was all about, happened during the 1954 season. Joaquin sets up the story. “When the NHRA took over, they organized the classes according to cubic inches per horsepower. I used to race the T model at Carlsbad and beat those guys for a hatful of money. So what happened was, I asked them, ‘What’s this cubic inches per horsepower?’ and they said, ‘Well, if you change engines, you can run a car in two classes.’ So I said, ‘How about six?’ And they said, ‘What’s this six?’ So about a month later we got together and built this two-engine dragster. Two eight-cylinder Ford fiatheads, running nitro. It could run three classes. With the two engines hooked up, that’s one class; with the big engine, that’s one class; with the small engine, that’s another class. But then we figured out how to run sue classes. That car was rated as the first two-engine dragster."
Carlos continues, “This was a rail job [a tubular chassis], actually a dragster, but we made it so we could put a full Model A two-door sedan body over it, bolt it down. So we could run in that class, full-fender, then we could pull the fenders off it and run it in the modified class, or pull the complete body off it and run it in that class. We’d run all six classes in one day. When we ran it, we were always looking at the competition through the back window.”
Joaquin says, “I think it turned 131 with both engines, without the body. And it did 117 with the full body on it."
He starts laughing again, in anticipation of another anecdote. “I have a picture of [a couple of track officials with this car], while we’re disconnecting one of the motors before a race. One guy had the rubber rope-chain that we used to hook up the two motors, and it’s dangling out of his back pocket. Later I asked one of them, ‘What were you guys laughing about in that picture?’ And he told me, ‘Oh, the guy with the chain in his pocket, he’s saying, “I don’t trust those damn Mexicans.”’ He wanted to make sure we didn’t hook the other engine up before we got to the start line.
“We ran that car at Pomona, Paradise, Santa Ana. We picked up 24 trophies in a year at three different tracks. Then the NHRA changed the rules and finally told us we couldn’t do that anymore."
By the late 1950s, with the increasing cost of drag racing, more NHRA controls, and the demands of family life, the Bean Bandits went into retirement from the strip. Carlos Ramirez got his speed needs met racing midgets for a few years, but they left the sport of drag racing to the rich guys and their sponsors.
In 1990 the Bandits surfaced again, this time with a school-bus yellow, Chrysler-powered Class B fuel Streamliner built to challenge land-speed records at Bonneville Salt Flats and dry lakes like El Mirage. But the 1953 engine is the same iron block Joaquin ran in record-setting roadsters and dragsters in the early '50s. Joaquin’s quoted in Hot Rod magazine
as saying, “Why am I gonna get another engine when I haven’t finished this one?” Sonny Arnett, Joaquin’s oldest son, was the driver. He and his dad held a land-speed record and had hit 317 miles per hour at Bonneville before Sonny was killed in a crash at El Mirage in 1995. Sonny’s brother, Jeff, now drives the Bean Bandits’ new streamliner. And Joaquin is still tweaking fuels and aerodynamics, trying to squeeze out just a little more speed.
If the Bean Bandits were a curiosity during their racing days and are absent from many official histories of drag and lakes racing, they’ve taken their place in a few U.S. shrines. The new NHRA Motorsports Museum at Pomona Raceway includes a rebuilt version of the Bandit fuel dragster that won the first NHRA-sanctioned race at Pomona. Don Garlits’s Drag Racing Museum in Ocala, Florida, houses a Bean Bandit roadster. And Joaquin was inducted into Garlits’s Drag Racing Hall of Fame in 1994 for his innovations and contributions to the sport.
Carlos sums up his experience. “Every car we ran we built from the ground up. You always hear the name Don Garlits or Mickey Thompson or the others. But we ran against those guys and we could beat them. We could beat anybody on the West Coast. And Arizona, Indiana, every place we went. I’m not saying we won every race, but we sure got our share. And most of all, we had a real good time.”