A big thanks to Comp Cams, the presenting sponsor of our same day coverage that makes it all possible.
The world’s top drag racers have been coming here since 1959, to the dragstrip situated among the peach trees in the San Joaquin Valley just north of Bakersfield, California and it all started when the NHRA outlawed a fuel. That was nitromethane, which the organization considered too volatile, too dangerous to run in a car, and therefore banned it from competition and forced its member tracks to ban it as well. But racers had been using it to great success for years at that point, and many revolted against the NHRA’s mandate. The legendary Smokers of Bakersfield created the first annual U.S. Gas and Fuel Championship at Famoso Raceway, and even paid Don Garlits to haul his car all the way from Florida to take on the West Coast’s heavy hitters, most notably Art Chrisman and Frank Cannon. Chrisman won that race and also set low e.t. at 8.70 during the weekend, but the die was set nationwide.
The race was extremely popular with racers and spectators, and to this day remains one of the “must-do” events of the year on any racing fan’s calendar. Unlike going to a race at Indianapolis Raceway Park or the Texas Motorplex, pulling into Famoso is like stepping into Mr. Peabody’s Wayback Machine and stepping out into they world of our forefathers. The dirt parking lot isn’t nearly big enough to handle all the people that come to watch, forcing late-comers to park along the edges of Hwy. 46 and hiking into the track. Once there, you won’t find John Force-style rigs and hospitality areas. While NHRA national events allow great access to the cars and drivers, the March Meet is more like walking into your buddy’s garage to shoot the breeze about his race car. There’s no prize money, and sponsors don’t throw big budgets at anyone competing in the March Meet—the hunger is to take home the Wally and be able to forever say, “I won the March Meet.”
In 2014, the crowds were as big as ever. The pits were filled with race cars ranging from nitro-gulping Top Fuel dragsters and Funny Cars to the Hot Rod class cars, many of which are real street cars. The March Meet is first and foremost a social gathering of old friends with a common interest in cars and drag racing, and therefore it is a fantastic family event. There is the racing that takes center stage, of course, but there’s also a big manufacturers midway that has everything from hardcore speed parts to women’s and children’s clothes, trinkets, bicycles…you name it. The swap meet is also huge, and the car show held in The Grove behind the main grandstands features hot rods ranging from musclecars to customs to full-on rat rods. It’s a full day, and if you can only carve out one day to be there, make it Saturday since that’s when most of the action occurs.
Below you’ll see a huge gallery of all of our shots from this year’s March Meet, but what ultimately makes this event is what happens on the dragstrip. The top two classes are Top Fuel and Funny Car, with the Funnies arguably the most popular. There were 27 of the machines vying for the 16-car eliminations ladder, making qualifying a live or die experience. By the last qualifying pass on Saturday, Dan Horan’s red, white, and blue Mustang fastback sat in the number one spot with a 5.66 at 257 mph pass. NHRA regulars sometimes come out to play in the nostalgia cars, and this year Del Worsham was back in his ’77 Plymouth Arrow flopper with its Brad Anderson 500ci blown nitro Hemi.
Worsham got sent home in Saturday afternoon’s first round, however, when number 10 qualifier James Day won on a holeshot. Worsham ran a quicker 5.831 to Day’s 5.841, but Day left on him with a .093 light to the pro’s .108. If you don’t feel like doing the math, that’s a difference at the stripe of only .005 seconds! Day then got two lucky breaks when Steven Densham’s car broke and Peter Gallen’s Monza redlit (by a heartbreaking -.002). In the final round, he faced top qualifier Horan in the Ron Swearingen-tuned machine and once again used his Jedi skills on the ‘tree to leave on Horan (who admittedly had a sleepy .200 reaction time) and won with a slower 5.883 at only 228 mph to Horan’s quicker 5.726 at 255. Day’s .043 reaction time was the quickest of any Funny Car driver in eliminations, and earned him the March Meet Wally.
Top Fuel, which uses nostalgia front-engine dragsters with much stricter engine rules than NHRA’s “Big Show,” was pretty much dominated by NHRA Top Alcohol Funny Car veteran Tony Bartone from Long Island, NY. ‘T-Bone’ put a hit on everyone in qualifying with a 5.630 at 241 MPH, while regulars Jim Murphy, Denver Schultz, Top Alcohol Dragster pilot David Hirata, Jim Young, Adam Sorokin, and more filled out the 16-car field. Bartone got lucky in the first round when Jim Boyd couldn’t make the call, then defeated Ron August in the second round. He used a big holeshot to beat Rick McGee in the semi-final, and he needed it when McGee ran a quicker 5.706 to Bartone’s 5.821. The New Yorker saved his best pass for when it counted, beating Rick White by running the best ET and MPH of the entire event, a thundering 5.623 at 262.13 MPH.
It’s not just the Funny Cars and dragsters that get to play with nitro, though. Maybe even more fun to watch, and certainly to drive, are the short-wheelbase, totally out of control Fuel Altereds. Think Top Fuel levels of power with a Pinto-sized wheelbase and you can see why these are hairy rides. The nicest of the bunch this weekend turned out to be the winner and its team was one of the happiest we have ever seen win the March Meet—the ’34 Chevy of Dan Hix from Oregon. Keith Wilson was the quickest in qualifying with a 6.261 at 205 MPH, but Hix took him out in the second round with a 6.08 at 218. The final round saw Hix facing Jeremy Sullivan’s white and blue ’48 Fiat altered. Sullivan got a slight holeshot but it wasn’t enough to hold off Hix’s 6.115 at a mere 206 MPH; Sullivan destroyed the top end clocks with a 220 MPH speed, but it wasn’t enough to catch the winner.
The racers of the March Meet are mostly not professional drag racers; they have day jobs and do this as a passion. Hence, they run on very limited budgets and blown up parts are much more expensive to them than, say, Don Schumacher. We were delighted to see this year have far fewer expensive and time-sucking oildowns from the Fuel cars. In years past, it seemed like every pair of nitro cars that made a pass blew up and forced a cleanup that shutdown the action for at least a half-hour. Some credit the incredible, national event-level track prep at Famoso for eliminating this year’s breakage—a slippery track means the tires will break loose at the top end, freewheeling the engine and discarding its parts and fluids all over the racing surface. Thankfully for the fans and racers, there was very little of that this year, but when I said that to veteran drag racing journalist Dave Wallace Jr., his response was, “Ya know what? Here, an oildown isn’t that big of a deal. At a national event, everyone leaves the stands, but here we’re just sitting BS’ing with our buddies anyway so it doesn’t really matter.”
And that right there is the essence of the March Meet. It is much more social gathering and far less mad-dog competition among racers who dislike each other. Yet another reason that this is a family event, and one that you really should check out next year. Or, perhaps check out one of the NHRA Hot Rod Reunions, which are the same type of event with many of the same drivers. Famoso has one in October, and Beech Bend Raceway in Bowling Green, KY (you know, where all the Corvettes fell into the earth this year!) has one in June. You won’t regret it.