Seth Beaty stumbled upon the Kokomo Road Kings when he was just 20 years old.
Working on a 1948 Chrysler he’d inherited from his grandfather, Beaty popped into a Greentown garage asking for help with a twisted brake line.
“I didn’t know how to flare a brake line, didn’t know what I was doing at all,” Beaty said. “I was literally a kid that came in here, walked in and asked for help. They asked what I was working on and when I told them they said, … ‘Oh was that Fred DeBusk’s?’ And then they said I could come back any time I want.”
He went back the following Saturday. And the Saturday after that. Thirteen years later, he’s still going back.
“Everybody has a story of how they showed up to the shop,” Beaty said. “And everybody’s is a little bit different.”
Beaty is just one piece of the Kokomo Road Kings, a club of hot rod and custom car aficionados who are more like a family. While the common goal is getting together to build custom hot rods, often from the ground or at least the chassis up, the family aspect runs deep with the club.
If Beaty shows up to the shop with his 4-year old son Hudson (they’re a car family, after all) on a day that 96-year-old World War II veteran John Eads pops in, the age gamut is at its most obvious in this group that consists of about 30 core members according to co-founder Mike Lanning.
“It’s a rush,” Lanning said. “I’m happy that all these guys come down here and knock around. I mean, we probably wouldn’t have done much more with the shop anyway except for just hobbying, so this is really the best scenario right here, just having guys come down and the camaraderie and stuff like that, it’s pretty cool.”
In a group with no dues, rules or hierarchy of leaders, Lanning is referred to as the manager and the “boss man” by other club members. The garage where the club meets to build cars, eat and chat has been in Mike’s family for decades. His father, Jim, has had the garage since the early '70s.
“He was an auto mechanic so I grew up down here working on stuff,” Lanning said. “He kind of switched trades, and we started doing hobby down here. As years went on we decided to build a couple hot rods and then after that we started having guys come down.
“Before long, we were helping them build stuff. They would come down and help us build stuff and we’d help them. That’s kind of how this got started.”
The hope, according to Lanning, is for the club to one day buy the shop. For now, the Road Kings host the annual Battle of the Hill at Bunker Hill Dragstrip each summer, with the money raised at the event going to pay for the upkeep on the shop and allow the club members to keep following their love.
This year’s Battle of the Hill at the drag strip, which has been operating since 1956, will be the 10th annual event. It’s slated for Sunday, July 28. Gates open at 9 a.m. for the event, which features a $20 fee for race and show-car entry, a $20 swap fee and a $10 spectator fee. More information on the event is available at the groups Battle of the Hill Facebook page.
The group also has a strong presence on its Road Kings Facebook page, which features videos of its Hot Rod Saturdays, showcasing club members working on their projects.
Some of the Road Kings recent projects have included a 1956 Ford F-100 truck and a Woody Chuckster, a club-inspired, club-built and club-driven project with three rows of theater-style bench seating to move larger groups around. The group started building it in 2017, breaking it in last year at shows including Gas City’s Ducktail Run over James Dean weekend.
In the case of the F-100 truck, it “was stripped down to the chassis, the body off of it, the parts everywhere,” Lanning said. “We just paint stuff, fix it, whatever it takes. So we kind of design while we build. And there’s a lot of things you have to decide when you’re building a car, not just paint but what kind of tires, motor, a lot of stuff like that.”
Many of the Road Kings come from a skilled trade. There are pipe fitters, machinists, millwrights, mold makers, and tool and die makers among others.
“It’s hobby, none of us do any of this for money,” Mike said. “Our intention is to bring something in and build it up and be able to drive it. And then that guy helps another guy and it just kind of keeps going on. We all kind of take care of each other. So it really spreads out into our individual lives more than just Saturdays.”
It’s that family aspect that runs deep in the club.
Jim’s brother, Dave Lanning, is known as Uncle Dave to everyone. The stories of Eads pushing his Cushman scooter to 90 miles per hour on the Bunker Hill Dragstrip are common knowledge around the garage. Many members, including Beaty, are proudly inked with Road Kings tattoos.
The group’s crown logo, featured on the white ’55 Chevy that the Road Kings built as a promotional item for Bunker Hill and to travel different circuits, was designed by co-founder Rich Mickelson, who started the club with Mike Lanning in 1999.
“Mike had a ’32 Ford Coupe and he wanted nose art like a World War II bomber, so I airbrushed that on his car," Mickelson said. “While I was doing that he saw an old plaque from a club his dad had belonged to in the '50s. I got it at a yard sale. So that's how I met Mike.
"Then he got with me and said, … ‘Let’s start a club.’ So we got together, talked about it, drew up designs and started the club. It’s turned out good. You don’t get tired of it. We all just pitch in and make it work.”
Over time, it’s become a way of life, for each and every member over time who has become part of the family.
“At the end of the day that’s what it is,” Beaty said. “It’s a family. It’s a lifestyle. Our families understand.”
Beaty’s red 1934 Coupe on 1932 rails illustrates another story.
“It was literally a rusty body held together by duct tape,” Beaty said. “There were no floors, no firewall, didn’t even have a frame. Just the body. So we literally built it from nothing.
“But the whole club goes past that. They’re a family. They helped me grow up. Instead of hanging out in the bars and doing bad things, I was in here on Saturday mornings, hanging out with my grandpa’s friends. It taught me what kind of person to be and how to grow up in life.”
And how to enjoy life in that 1934 Coupe.
“It’s just all the things I wanted in a car,” Beatty said. “This is a car I’ll never get rid of. In fact, I pulled it out of the garage today and my son said, … ‘Daddy, you can’t drive my coupe.’”