Eye Candy: March Meet vintage drag racing

A present-day rear-engine Top Fuel Dragster’s 500-cubic-inch Hemi engine makes more horsepower than the first four rows at the Daytona 500.

A present-day rear-engine Top Fuel Dragster’s 500-cubic-inch Hemi engine makes more horsepower than the first four rows at the Daytona 500. While on its ear-splitting burnout, done just to heat the huge, slick rear tires, nearly 23 gallons of nitro-methane fuel is consumed. It burns yellow; the white flames seen above the engine stacks at night is raw burning hydrogen, separated from atmospheric water vapor by the intense heat of the exhaust gases. Each run costs an estimated $1,000 or more per second with the driver enduring at the launch about 8g’s (gravity) before reaching 330 mph at the top end.

What the annual March Meet accomplishes is to go back to the roots of quarter-mile drag racing with a spectacular display of nostalgic front-engine Top Fuel dragsters and nostalgic Funny Cars (though both equipped with modern technology for safety), and with the wild beastly behemoth Fuel Altered (6.0 index to keep things kosher), Hot Rod, Nostalgia 1,2,3 7.0 Pro, A Fuel, B/Gas, C/Gas, D/Gas and AA/Supercharged classes.

The four-day festival of speed is a step back in time and for 56 years has honored the likes of “Big Daddy” Don Garlits, Roland Leong “the Hawaiian,” Don “The Snake” Prudhomme, Tom “The Mongoose” McEwen, “TV Tommy” Ivo, who was having a great time this year perched on top of the tribute glass-sided trailer that housed the tribute Barnstormer Top Fuel Dragster (built by Ron Johnson) that Ivo raced for the last time at the 1965 March Meet.

Now known as the “super bowl of vintage drag racing” the event was born by The Smokers Car Club of Bakersfield in the mid-‘50s and became Famoso Dragstrip. In 1959, the inaugural U.S. Gas & Fuel Championship (March Meet) was organized and won by Art Chrisman driving his noted Hustler I dragster.

The March Meet has become to the vintage drag racing scene what the Winternationals are to NHRA competitors and is the first race of the Hot Rod Heritage Series, which is sanctioned by the NHRA.

The event includes a colorful car show with hot rods, rat rods, muscle cars and customs lined along the tree-lined “Famoso Grove” behind the grandstands, a full-fledged swap meet offering anything from hub caps to crankshafts, a vendors row and more than 400 entrants competing in 15 classes.

Four brilliant sunny days featured chamber of commerce weather this year.

Perhaps the greatest thing about the March Meet is that the drivers and crew are readily accessible to interact with fans all weekend long, which makes the event a family friendly racing gathering at a “historic” and legendary racetrack.

Nitro-fumes filled the air as 74-year-old Bill Dunlap in his Top Fuel digger (the No. 2 qualifier) clicked off a 5.705-second run at 238.13 mph but it was not good enough for the final round that brought out Tony Bartone and Adam Sorokin.

Bartone beat Sorokin to earn his second straight March Meet victory. Bartone ran a record 5.531 seconds at 270.81 mph while Sorokin blew a supercharger in a ball of smoke and fire before the finish line.

In Funny Car competition, Steven Densham in the Teachers Pet ‘69 Camaro flopper nailed his first March Meet victory, running a 5.694 seconds at 249.16 mph, putting away James Day in his attractive Pedaler Funny Car that ran a 5.874 at 242.41 mph.

The modern-day monsters called Fuel Altered class was nabbed for the second straight year by Dan Hix driving his striking ’34 Chevy “Heatseeker,” which beat Jeremy Sullivan piloting his father’s blue and white ’48 Fiat that lost a motor at about 1,000 feet down the strip.

Photos by Howard Koby

Howard Koby
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