Quarter-mile drag racing madness still takes place at Famoso Dragstrip outside of Bakersfield, California, and harkens to the 1950s and ‘60s, an age when there were no guardrails at the track.
It was back in the early ‘50s when “The Smokers” Car Club organized its first race on the abandoned airstrip, and by 1959 the event was known as the U.S. Fuel & Gas Championships.
Because of the pure brute volatile power of Nitromethane, safety equipment and eventually guardrails were installed.
Front-engine dragsters known as “Slingshots” were considered by some as death traps as the driver sat inches away and just behind the rotating, V8-driven flywheel delivering its power to the transmission located between the pilots legs. A dangerous affair as “Big Daddy” Don Garlits learned, losing part of his right foot in a transmission explosion in 1971 at Lions Dragstrip. He vowed to move the engine to the rear in his Swamp Rat XIV that same year, and drag racing history was made.
I’ve been covering the March Meet since the mid-’70s when it was pure “flames and fury.” Now, the 64th annual Good Vibrations Motorsports March Meet at Auto Club Famoso Raceway is a 4-day festival of nostalgic drag racing feathring vintage Funny Cars, Dragsters, Fuel Altered, Superstocks, Gassers and the kings of the strip, Top Fuel Dragsters.
The March Meet hadn’t been held since 2020 because of the pandemic, but things seemed almost normal this year with the grandstands packed to the gills and with the “no cards, no testing, no masks, no limit on spectators,” said Famoso general manager Blake Bowser.
More than 450 cars, including more than 50 equipped with nitro, flooded the Famoso field. They included street rods, muscle cars and classics taking part in Famoso’s Grove car show behind the stands, where also was a huge swap meet and vendors’ and food midway.
We find many families bring sons and daughters to expose them to the history of drag racing. The March Meet is run in conjunction with the National Hot Rod Association’s Hot Rod Heritage Racing Series created in 2008. The series returns to Famoso in October for the California Hot Rod Reunion.
We watched the weather reports all weekend because of the threat of rain, but only Thursday got whipped out by the end of the day while Friday, Saturday and Sunday were chilly (in the 60s, bad for tires) but did not rain and had gorgeous clouds as a backdrop.
Qualifying ran Thursday, Friday and Saturday and by the time Sunday rolled around the field was set for final eliminations. In an exciting field of 16 Nostalgic Funny Cars that included the likes of Dan Horan, Kris Krabill, Gary Densham and many more, it came down to Bobby Cottrell in his ’69 Camaro FC against Geoff Moines in his ’70 Firebird FC. Cottrell was victorious in Nostalgic Funny Car for his third March Meet victory in the past four years.
In the semi-finals Cottrell clicked off a 5.648 at 238.43 mph beating Krabill’s 6.109 at 184.55 mph. In the finals it was not the way Cottrell wanted to win the race as Moines ran out of parts and could not make the final. All Cottrell had to do was to roll into the staging beams for the win.
In Top Fuel, four-time winner Jim Murphy did not bring home his fifth trophy. The battle was between Murphy and Bret Williamson. They had almost identical reaction times at the lights and were neck-to-neck the entire quarter-mile, but Williamson edged the finish first running a 5.731 at 256.06 mph against Murphy’s 5.771 at 256.75. Murphy’s chute did not open as he rolled his car in the sand trap for the stop.
And now came the wild and woolly fire-breathing Fuel Altered that is my favorite, the tire-burning Winged Express known for doing long, smokey burnouts half-way down the track. Now it’s the unruly Nitro-burning Pure Hell Fuel Altered originally built in 1963 by Rich Guasco. It was known as the fastest AA Fuel Altered of its time, originally running a blown small-block Chevrolet but switched to a blown 392 Chrysler V8 Hemi in 1968.
For Sunday’s semifinal Fuel Altered elimination, Brian Hope pilots the all-new Pure Hell AA FA replica, a ’32 Bantam, but fouled on the start, losing to Dan Hix in a ’34 Chevy Fuel Altered. In the final battle, Hix runs a 7.010 at 208.78 mph sending Mark Whynaught home in a ’23 Ford Fuel Altered.
World Champion Funny Car driver Ron Capps, who was a crowd favorite won the March Meet in 2020, was back in the seat of the Burkholder Brothers Fuel Altered but had trouble keeping the car straight so did not qualify in the 8-car field.
The final for all other classes ran late with a beautiful sunset closing the track.