Rock star Sammy Hagar poses with his personal ’79 Trans Am in 1979. It was his inspiration
At he height of the Second Generation Trans Am’s popularity, San Francisco rock radio station KMEL, known as KAMEL 106, created the ultimate ratings promotion—it would give away rock star Sammy Hagar’s “Street Machine” T/A to one lucky listener at a Bay Area Pontiac dealership. High Performance Pontiac has uncovered the sensational story of this history-making promotion, which was never publicized outside of the San Francisco radio market, including never-before-published photos and details about the KMEL/Sammy Hagar Street Machine Trans Am.
Sammy was not shy about pointing out his dislike for the Camaro Z28 and proselytizing Pontiac’s sole dominance in the quickly fading American musclecar era. He made sure that anybody who saw him driving his ’79 Trans Am knew what side he took in the F-body war. His license plates read IEATZ28.
Sammy sits on the Trans Am, surrounded by the KMEL staff. Like all 6.6L T/As sold new in C
In September 1979, half a decade before becoming a popular-culture icon with his anti-speed-limit, car-driving rock-n-roll anthem, “I Can’t Drive 55,” Sammy’s fourth studio solo album, Street Machine, was released to hard-rockin’ American fans. It included a track inspired by his Trans Am, which will forever be embraced by Trans Am lovers old and new: “Trans Am (Highway Wonderland).”
Capitol Records promo-man John Carter, known in the record industry simply as Carter, was given the mission to convince rock stations to play songs from Sammy’s new album in top rotation, and KMEL was one of his big important stations.
KMEL was quick to produce and distribute this promotional flyer, showing Sammy with the co
KMEL Promotions Director Kenny Wardell recalls Carter contacting him about Sammy’s new vinyl. “It was the very first time I heard about ‘Trans Am (Highway Wonderland),’” he says. “As a follow-up, Carter brought an early pressing of the album to the radio station and we listened to it in the production studio.”
Kenny wasn’t Sammy’s only ally at KMEL. Station General Manager Rick Lee already counted Sammy among his close friends.
In September 1979, the KMEL crew invited Sammy to the station’s broadcast studio, located directly across the street from San Francisco’s Pier 39 entertainmentplex.
Prior to the giveaway, KMEL General Manager Rick Lee enjoyed drive time in the T/A …
“My recollection was that Sammy drove his red ’79 Trans Am to the radio station and we admired it,” Kenny says. “I don’t remember who came up with the thought, ‘Hey, can we give this car away?’ so I can’t take credit for it. It could have come from Rick, Sammy, Carter—any one of us.”
Rick says the final plan, which Sammy agreed to, was for KMEL to procure a brand-new Trans Am from station-advertiser Troncatty Pontiac in Corte Madera, California, turn it into the KMEL/Sammy Hagar Street Machine, and make it the grand prize in an over-the-top ratings and artist promotion. It was one of the biggest that KMEL had during his tenure as its general manager.
“We heard ‘Trans Am (Highway Wonderland)’ and it was absolutely a natural for a ’79 Trans Am giveaway,” he says. “Our idea was well-received by Capitol Records and Sammy Hagar, and we got behind it in full force.”
KMEL’s contest began on September 10, 1979, and gave its listeners until September 27 to put their names into one or more of many contest boxes located throughout the San Francisco area.
Meanwhile KMEL’s staff worked diligently to make the high-profile Street Machine Trans Am the most seen and talked about car in the San Francisco area. “That hot-looking Trans Am got a lot of attention when we drove it around,” Kenny says. “I took it to the various concerts around town. We shared it. I wasn’t the only one driving it, but I did have it the lion’s share of the time.”
On October 1, 1979, a KMEL disc jockey announced the first semi-finalist’s name, and he or she had six minutes to call the station and be rewarded with a brand-new promotional copy of Sammy’s Street Machine album. The process, most likely calling out one potential semi-finalist per hour during the prime hours of 6 a.m. until 10 p.m., continued until 106 copies of the album had been awarded.
Five days later, the grand-prize drawing for the Street Machine Trans Am was held in front of Troncatty Pontiac’s new-car showroom.
“We had a genuine frenzy on our hands,” Casey says. “We were face to face with a roaring throng of whooping, excited young rock listeners. I have never been in the midst of a celebration filled with such anticipation.”
If the capacity crowd expected rock-star Sammy to arrive in a limousine, they were in for an even bigger surprise. Rick explains: “That would have been pretty standard bill of fare, but KMEL loved to have fun with things and go over the top. We flew Sammy into Troncatty Pontiac in a helicopter.”
“Sammy’s grin was as broad and dazzling as the grille of the Trans Am,” Casey says.
“So the time had finally come,” he continues. “Sammy would be the flashpoint for KMEL’s dramatic promotion that could only build and build in excitement and anticipation. Sammy was beaming, music blared, and it was going to be some on-air event.
“KMEL’s disc jockeys were joined on stage by a score of other stragglers and car salesmen. Handlers gathered the 106 winners together to come to the microphone one by one. Next to the mic stand sat a giant fishbowl filled with 106 keys. Each winner would reach in, grab a key, then slide into the Trans Am’s sleek black-vinyl driver seat, insert the key, and pray that it would turn over the car’s engine.”
The first five semi-finalists tried their keys, but the Trans Am didn’t start. When the sixth semi-finalist was called to the stage, he reached into the fishbowl, pulled out the next key, got behind the wheel of the Trans Am, inserted the key in the ignition, made one swift clockwise movement of the key in the switch, and the Sammy Hagar Street Machine Trans Am roared to life.
“I remember a male’s scream that could be heard well above the throaty sound of the Trans Am’s tailpipes,” Rick recalls. “It was very, very exciting.”
To this day, Sammy, Rick, and Kenny fondly remember the event. “Sammy and I have had the opportunity to look back on it, and he will never forget it,” Rick says.
Kenny agrees. “The summer before last, I met up with Sammy for a [non-music-related] video shoot. When we were off-camera, I reminded him about the Street Machine Trans Am promotion and he enjoyed remembering it.”
HPP would like to thank KMEL Forever (www.kmelforever.com), which helped make this story possible.
None of the KMEL personnel interviewed for this story remember the name of the winner, and an Internet search for any reference of the KMEL/Sammy Hagar Street Machine came up dry. So HPP readers, we’re asking you—do you know who won the KMEL/Sammy Hagar Street Machine Trans Am or the current whereabouts of the car? Send your story to christopher.phillip@ sorc.com.
… and so did KMEL Promotions Director Kenny Wardell.
The Street Machine Trans Am was given away to one lucky listener on October 6, 1979, at Tr
Sammy holds the box that contains the names of the 106 semi-finalists—and only one of them