I never knew Joaquin Arnett or the Bean Bandits but what has been so cool about researching them is that in almost every contemporary photograph they’re smiling and look like they’re just having a good time.
Arnett grew up in San Diego, and like most kids back then, he was enamored with automobiles. His life-long friend, Carlos Ramirez, who shared driving chores along with Andrew Ortega, remembers, “We learned how to drive when we were quite young, probably 8 or 9 years old. We used to sneak the cars out when our dads were at work.” Ramirez continued, “We’d walk up Market Street and Joaquin would pick up an old coil or something that was lying in the road. He’d take it home and take it apart and see what made it work. He studied a lot.”
Arnett began his career soon after World War II, around 1948, and raced with the Road Runners and the Southern California Roadster Club at Muroc and El Mirage. In 1951, he and his friends started their own club comprised of neighborhood kids. Their ranks reflected the composition of their multicultural environment and African-American, Caucasian, Japanese, Lebanese, and of course, Latino kids were all part of the group. They flaunted it proudly, calling themselves “the Beaners.” Apparently, during a reflective moment, club member Billy Galvin blurted out that outlaws liked beans, and the Bean Bandits were born.
Ecumenical as drag racing was and is, it wasn’t always easy being bean. The Bandits went to Bonneville in 1952. It was their first time outside of California and they were confronted with very different attitudes. A stop in Las Vegas brought the young guys face to face with Jim Crow laws that kept them from visiting a casino.
Let’s back up, though, because the real story is on the other strip—the drag strip—where the Bandits were grabbing trophies left and right. Early track records are often disputed. Outlaw tracks didn’t even bother to keep records, and stopwatches and early timing clocks were often unreliable. Arnett acknowledges a degree of underreporting where the accomplishments of a group of Mexican-Americans from San Diego was concerned. But that’s okay, they accumulated a truck full of trophies.
Paradise Mesa Airfield, southeast of San Diego in National City was different if only because of local watchmaker Otto Crocker. Although once the home of much illegal racing, in 1951 Paradise Mesa was tamed when Bandits’ President Mike Nagem helped form the San Diego Timing Association (SDTA) and convinced property owner Henry Adams to create a strip for local racers. Adams agreed and the SDTA, with the help of local law enforcement officers, organized one of the country’s first legal drag strips. SDTA brought needed order to a world of chaos. They instituted track rules, charged entrance fees and used Crocker’s reliable clocks. The track operated for eight years and the Bandits ruled the roost.
Joaquin’s early dragsters had a distinctly home-built look, but then, everybody’s did. Nevertheless, they had the juice and Joaquin constantly improved them, moving from a Flathead motor to an Ardun/Merc and eventually a Chrysler. According to Harold Miller, Arnett used whatever chassis was available and, “[He’d] get a piece of pipe and bend it around and weld the rearend to it. We used to take the tires off of Andrew’s convertible and put them on the thing and go racing.”
Arnett’s search for ever more power led him to ol’ man Olson, a model plane dealer with a shop where Arnett purchased the secret ingredient, nitromethane. While he was not the first racer to use it, he learned quickly and experimented with nitro in a motorcycle at El Mirage saying, “I went 150 on a big old Harley-Davidson that weighed five times more than I did. That was around 1951. It was pretty fast for then. It scared me.” Respectful of the new fuel, the Bandits arrived at the track with their nitro carefully packed in rags. Nitromethane’s not that volatile, but they didn’t know it at the time. Paradise Mesa was their dyno as Miller recalls, “These guys from L.A. came down to make us look bad. Joaq would say, ‘Okay, let’s put the nitro in.'” The crew chief finally settled for a 50/50 mixture because, as he told Hot Rod in 1953, “It’s easy to mix this way. A gallon of this and a gallon of that.
In 1951, the team fielded what, according to Robert Post in his book High Performance was, “Probably the earliest dragster configured with the cockpit behind the axle, and perhaps the earliest with twin engines, as well.” The car featured a steel, full-fendered ’29 A sedan body that could be easily lifted off and the car converted to a dragster in a matter of minutes. Instead of recognition, the NHRA apparently revised their rules, keeping the car from running—and winning—in six classes. “At Pomona, I ran the dragster and it did 127. That was fast for a two-engine Flathead dragster,” recalled Arnett. “This thing won 45 trophies so quick, we couldn’t believe it.” The sanctioning body couldn’t believe it either; they restricted the Bandits to four classes. Arnett resisted, saying, “Wait a minute, I went through all this work.”
On January 1953, the Bandits’ Class C roadster won at Santa Ana with a speed of 135.13 mph. In April of that year, the Bean Bandit Mark II, a more streamlined, modified roadster/dragster, won the first Southern California Championships at Pomona Raceway with a top speed of 132.35, beating Lloyd Krant’s Harley who set low E.T. at 10.93. Also in April, the Bandits’ D/Competition rear-engine Flathead roadster ran a record 142.98. Peggy Hart, promoter C.J. “Pappy” Hart’s wife, won the top time of the day, 112.95, in the Bean Bandits’ Cadillac-powered roadster in May 1953. Arnett set a speed of 142.98 in October 1953 at Santa Ana, breaking the prior record of 140.08. Records toppled and the trophies piled up.
The Bandits’ superior abilities allowed them to race the growing national circuit. At the First Annual World Series of Drag Racing, held in October of 1954, the club received an award for engineering achievement. Five of the Automobile Timing Association of America’s judges felt Arnett’s hot rod, built in one month for a mere $1,000, merited recognition based on its elements of engineering, speed, craftsmanship and safety. Only nine of the Bandits’ 30 members trekked the 2,500 miles to Lawrenceville, Illinois, where they blew three transmissions, wrecked a chassis and an axle. Despite their problems, the snub-nosed “Bean Bandit” powered by a 296-ci Mercury turned a speed of 127.66, the third highest for the meet.
Between 1951 and 1956 the Bandits managed to hold records at each of the Southland’s tracks. In 1955 they hauled out to Great Bend, Kansas, for the first ever NHRA National Championships. Rain pushed the finals back to November and a track outside Phoenix. The bandits unfortunately lost out to Calvin Rice. In August of 1957 at the Colton Anniversary race, the yellow slingshot took the Top Eliminator title doing 154.63 mph with a time of 9.78.
Emory Cook, another up and coming San Diego racer, who happened to be married to Arnett’s sister, raced with and against Arnett for many years. According to Joaquin’s youngest son Jeff, Emery used to pull his hair out trying to figure ways to beat the Bandits, “My dad would piss him off. ‘He comes over to where I’m working and he takes my old spark plugs that I think are no good and then he puts them in his car and blows my doors off.’ It used to just twist his nerves.”
Towards the end of the ‘50s the team members went their separate ways, taking care of their families, and in a way, growing up. Besides, racing was getting professional and expensive. Fast-forward almost four decades and the Bean Bandits’ return to racing with the discovery of the old rear-engine, full-bodied dragster parked in a yard where Arnett and son Jeff happened to spot it. They restored the car and ran at the antique drags in 1988 at Carlsbad.
Joaquin’s love of racing never diminished, and in the early ‘90s he returned to land speed racing with his son Sonny driving. In July 1991, they went 202 mph and later that year set a record at Bonneville at 231.946 mph. The following year Joaquin was inducted into the Drag Racing Hall of Fame, and in July Sonny bumped the El Mirage speed to 227 mph. Sonny tragically died three years later while racing at El Mirage, and Joaquin senior died September 24, 2010 at 83 after one heck of a ride.
By Tony Thacker