Lightning Rods

Radio DJ And Host About Town Hot Rod Ron Likes The Cars That Go Boom.

WHEN 104.1 FM-THE Point dropped Hot Rod Ron's popular Checkered Strip from its Sunday night lineup in mid-October, it's difficult to say who felt the loss most deeply. The show impacted the greasers and gear-heads who make up the diverse hot rod scene, the local musicians whose music received such enthusiastic rotation, and all of the show's devoted listeners. Evidently, The Point missed the point.

But Hot Rod Ron's keeping busy. While on hiatus from commercial radio, the blond and impressively pompadoured Ron is spinning at KXCI and preparing for two events, the Deadbolt show at Club Congress this Friday, December 3, and the Club Congress Holiday Bazaar, a five-bands-for-five-bucks swag fest next Friday, December 10. Highlighting the event will be the Rockers' Rods 'n' Bikes Show. And amidst the planning frenzy, the UA communications senior still to do his homework, and hold down a job.

But working for Terry McGavern of Terry's Rods and Restoration is hardly drudgery for a guy like Ron; it's his dream job. At first glance, Terry's resembles an auto war zone, but a closer inspection reveals some of Tucson's most beloved vehicles. "A hot rod by definition is a car made in 1949 or earlier," informs Ron. "Anything newer than that, but still old, is a classic or custom car. That's starting to change, though, because so many people are getting into it. They're starting to redefine hot rods as anything '55 or earlier, but the status quo right now is that anything '49 or earlier is a hot rod."

Ron is currently hot rodding a 1930 Model A five-window coupe he found in a pecan farm on the end of Speedway, which he bought from the daughter of the original owner. "Hot rodding is not restoration," Ron explains. "That's the beauty of this genre or lifestyle. You can do anything you want to the car to make it reflect your personal taste. No two cars are ever the same. I can find parts very easily because when you hot rod, you use parts from different cars and then fabricate those parts or modify them to make them work. In hot rodding, you may take the engine from a Corvette and the rear end from a Mustang. You cut and weld and shave, do whatever you need to to make it work."

Born Ron W. Carlsten Jr., Ron's name pays tribute to the man who mentors him in his two passions, hot rods and hot rod music. A 29-year-old "almost native" Tucsonan, Ron's schooling in car mechanics began as soon as he could toddle into the garage to hang out with his dad, an electrical engineer by day and a hot rod mechanic and enthusiast in every spare moment. "My dad and my uncle had their own car club in the late '50s and early '60s," Ron says. "I have an original jacket. My uncle gave me his."

Those hours spent at his dad's elbow learning how to hot rod a car also instilled a love of '50s music, the core music of hot rodders. The songs father and son listened to would later find their way onto the soundtrack of American Graffiti.

TUCSON'S HOT RODDERS run the gamut from the Tucson Street Rodders Club -- comprised largely of middle-aged enthusiasts and retirees -- to young greasers still waiting to get their learner's permits.

"The hot rodding subculture is huge," Ron avows. "There is a huge resurgence among younger people. There are tons of car clubs in L.A., like the Lucky Devils, The Choppers, The Shifters, and the Road Zombies, which are big, well-organized clubs. The whole lifestyle is integrated for both the rodders here and there; the way they dress, the way they treat their women on dates, what they do, the way they view life. Pinstripe art is really big right now. So it's not just the cars, it's the artwork too. Even some of the tattoos are very reflective of the way some of these guys design their cars." One local event is the annual Hot Rod-O-Rama, held each spring at the Rialto Theater. Ron checks in as master of ceremonies and coordinates the Custom Rod and Bike Show.

Hot Rod Ron has become friends with some of the musicians who epitomize hot rod music and are enthusiasts themselves, such as Social Distortion's Mike Ness, and Brian Setzer, the former Stray Cat and current band leader. Setzer calls on Ron whenever he's building a car, so thrilled is he to have a friend able to score rust-free parts. Ron's friends also give his DJ career a boost by providing CDs, posters, tickets and other goodies to use as give-aways on his radio show -- that is, when he has one.

So what exactly went on at The Point?

Hot Rod Ron's Checkered Strip was born on the UA's KAMP Student Radio, and eventually moved to KXCI. The show featured hot rodders' standards: rockabilly, surf, punk, ska, roots, Sun Studio gems and country, as well as similar music by many local artists.

Generously endorsing local club dates, Ron gave the downtown music scene and new bands a shot in the arm. Suzie Dunn, then the program director at KFMA, took notice and brought his show to the station. A year later, Ron accepted when The Point made him a better offer, but was recently dropped from the lineup. Apparently, the show no longer fit the station's format. "My whole thing was that it never did," quips Ron, "but that's why they wanted it. That was the point."

Now a passel of hot rodders, hipsters and dial surfers feel something's missing in Tucson radio. While Ron can be heard on KXCI, he's currently talking to KOOL-FM about finding a commercial home for Hot Rod Ron's Checkered Strip.

Here's to his success. After all, the Checkered Strip is the closest many listeners may come to blasting down an illegal desert drag in a fabulously chopped rod.

Hot Rod Ron hosts the Deadbolt, James Dead, and Keith Gattis show at 9 p.m. Friday, December 3, at Club Congress, 311 E. Congress St. Tickets are $5 at the door. Call 622-8848 for details.

Ron returns to the Club Congress stage for the Holiday Bazaar, featuring Al Perry, Fish Karma, Clovenhoof, The Killing Machine and Zero to Sixty, on Friday, December 10. Check out the rods in the Rockers' Rods 'n' Bikes show, which will overtake the hotel's north parking lot. Admission is $5. Call 622-8848 for details.