Photos by Howard Koby
In the mid-1950s, the “Smokers Car Club of Bakersfield” did a deal with officials of California’s Kern County to lease a World War II auxiliary airfield located between Highways 99 and 65. In 1959, they staged the first U.S. Gas & Fuel Championships, aka the March Meet, and it turned into an East vs. West battle that attracted more than 20,000 spectators, many of whom came to see a young drag racer from Florida. His name was Don Garlits, and at the time he was yet to earn his “Big Daddy” nickname.
For the past 57 years, the March Meet at the Famoso Drag Strip has continued to draw the greatest names — and nicknames — in drag racing, including Shirley “Cha Cha” Muldowney, Don “The Snake” Prudhomme, Tom “The Mongoose” McEwen and John Force.
“People are always telling me about their first time at the March Meet racing a car that they built with their dad,” said Blake Bower, vice president and general manager of the Kern County Racing Association, which operates the track.
In 2008, the March Meet became the inaugural event for the seven-race NHRA Hot Rod Heritage Series. The show has street rods, muscle cars, classics and lead sleds built before 1975 lining “Famoso Grove” for a car show and includes a swap meet, but the big attraction is the racing itself, a show full of nitro fumes and flames from the days when front-engine Top Fuel, Funny Car and Fuel-Altered Class cars lit the fuse on 1500-horsepower Hemi engines.
Sports car racers have their vintage racing series with events such as the Monterey Historics. Old-time drag racers have the Heritage Series with showcase events such as the annual March Meet.
This year, in the final rounds of the March Meet, the underdog James Day, on a hole shot in his 1978 Challenger Funny Car, put away Dan Horan in his ’66 Mustang, clicking off a 5.883-second run at 228.31 mph.
In Top Fuel, Tony Barone clocked a 5.623-second run at 262.13 mph defeating Rick White’s 5.715-second performance.
Dan Hix in his ’34 Chevy Fuel Altered won by a tick, clocking a 6.115 to Jeremy Sullivan’s 6.210 in his ’48 Fiat at 6.210. Making the race even more special was the fact it was the first Fuel Altered event since 1970.
For more on the “fumes and fury” competition, see the track’s website at www.famosoraceway.com