“The greatest moment of my experience would be October 20, 1987, when my record-breaking Swamp Rat XXX was enshrined in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington D.C. near Charles Lindbergh’s “The Spirit of St. Louis”
— “Big Daddy” Don Garlits
Drag racing, we’ve been told, is “a hybrid resulting from a cross between dry lakes racing and illegal street racing.”
In 1950, the late drag racing legend C.J. “Pappy” Hart — father of drag racing and inducted into the International Hall of Fame in 1991 — helped set up the first legal drag racing strip in America, on an Orange County airport runway in Santa Ana, California. It was on that pavement that the late and legendary hot rod pioneer Art Chrisman raced a Model T Sprint and broke the 140 mph in 1953.
“C.J. Hart was a car guy’s car guy,” proclaimed the late Wally Parks, who in 1951 founded the National Hot Rod Association with a goal to provide competitors with a safe place to race. That passion was shared by Hart, who always said he wanted to get racing off the streets, that despite The New York Times reporting that at age 87 Hart was arrested for driving 85 mph in a 55 zone.
The move from the dry lakes to paved drag strips was among the reasons the Bakersfield Coupe and Roadster Club changed its name to “The Smokers Car Club.” The Smokers hosted the first U.S. Gas and Fuel Championship — nicknamed the “March Meet” — at Famoso Raceway on March 1, 1959.
The lure of a big payday attracted the famed Don Garlits to bring his Swamp Rat I Fuel Dragster from Florida to the West Coast, only to lose to Chrisman’s more powerful Hustler 1, which won that inaugural event with a final round at 8.54 seconds at 140.50 mph.
A month earlier, Chrisman had posted an 8.54 run at 180.80 mph at Riverside, setting a record for the quarter-mile sprint.
Garlits would go on to win the March Meet five times in ensuing years and to become No. 1-rated when the NHRA published its list of 50 Greatest Drivers.
The Good Vibrations Motor Sports March Meet, presented by Lucas Oil at Auto Club Famoso near Bakersfield, celebrated 62 years of nostalgic quarter-mile drag racing with a recent 4-day festival of speed featuring supercharged street rods, muscle cars, classics, front-engine Top Fuel slingshot dragsters, Nostalgic Funny Cars (outfitted with present day technology for safety), and the wild and squirrelly Fuel Altered (6.0 index).
Stepping further back in time, a classic car show lined Famoso’s tree-lined “Grove,” and the event included a vendors midway stocked with new car parts, a food lane feeding a hungry crowd, and a huge automotive swap meet for that hard to find vintage car part.
The NHRA created a Hot Rod Heritage Racing Series in 2008 and the March Meet annually kicks off a 10-race series that ends in October with the California Hot Rod Reunion at Famoso.
“People come out to forget their troubles and enjoy themselves with affordable family fun,” said, Blake Bowser, vice president and general manager of the Kern County Racing Association which operates the Auto Club Famoso Raceway.
Over 500 race cars and racers from around the county stormed Famoso ready to “rock and roll” at the recent March Meet, which included 14 classes and kicked off on a Wednesday with a test-and-tune, with practice and qualifying rounds the following two days bringing the “sweet smell of nitromethane” to the air from the Top Fuel and Funny Cars.
The big news was produced Saturday when Dan Horan in his 1969 Chevrolet Camaro Funny Car ripped off a 5.547-second run at a record 264.49 mph, top speed of the meet.
On a crisp sunny Sunday morning with puffy clouds as a backdrop, final eliminations continued from Gassers to the Hot Rods.
After an 11 a.m. opening ceremony, the big guns staged with a 16-car open Funny Car field, an 8-car Top Fuel corral, and the new Nitro Pro Comp Class (dragsters, altered and Funny Cars) were ready to battle it out.
The Nostalgic Funny Car victory was nabbed by Matt Bynum from Orange, California, piloting his sleek ’70 Camaro to a 5.617-second run at 250.13 mph, defeating Matt Melendez’s 5.749-second at 224.73 in his ’70 Challenger.
In the final round of Nostalgia Top Fuel, Pete Wittenberg from Anaheim won for the second time at Famoso, clocking a 5.678-second at 251.49 mph to beat Tyler Hilton’s 5.927-second at 229.20 mph.
The Fuel Altered “Wally” trophy went to Nitro Funny Car racer Ron Capps from Carlsbad, California, driving the “Good News” 1938 Fiat Topolino AA Fuel Altered in a 6.637-second run at 158.93 mph. He beat Robert Winefsky, who fouled in his ’32 Bantam.
Billy McDevitt from Concord, California, cornered the Nitro Pro Comp title driving a rear-engine Top Fuel Dragster with a 6.089-second at 206.35 mph victdory against Chris Davis’ ’77 Arrow Funny Car’s 6.097 ET.
For the time of your life, be sure to “drag” yourself to the March Meet in 2021.