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The March Meet – Greatest Drag Race Ever?
When I was a kid, around 1963, delivering Hot Rod magazine on my paper round, I read a report of the U.S. Fuel and Gas Championships at Bakersfield. I forget now who wrote the story, but it hooked me there and then on front-motored dragsters leaving the line in clouds of smoke with their front wheels high in the air, cranked over at impossible angles. I would have given anything to be there.
Although he never won the March Meet, the late Jack Williams was a Smokers member and a huge part of Auto Club Famoso Raceway serving as track operator until his death in 2005. Seen here in 1963, he pulled a giant wheelstand off the Famoso starting line in the Crossley, Williams and Swan “Kamakazi I” as John Edmunds, left, and Bill Crossley looked on.
It's hard to believe that the upcoming March Meet celebrates the 50th anniversary of the first U.S. Fuel and Gas Championships, at Famoso Drag Strip in Bakersfield, in 1959. Back then, there were no guardrails and no grandstands. The square mile of pavement at the former World War II airstrip known as Famoso was just big enough to handle the crowd – estimates for Sunday’s eliminations ranged from 25,000 to 30,000.
A pensive Garlits looked over the competition as he waited to make a run. Notice that legendary cam grinder Ed Iskenderian was on the spot with “Armenian underwear” to commemorate the occasion.
Several factors combined to memorialize the event. Firstly, the NHRA fuel ban was in its third year, and except for occasional meets at Riverside, Southern Californians were starved of the smell of nitro. Secondly, there was 'The Don' – Garlits, that is. In December 1958, the cover of Drag News announced in bold red letters: “180 MPH IN1/4 MILE!”. Garlits had run a reported 8.90/180.00 mph run in Brooksville. Most racers on the west coast poo-pooed the claim, and to capitalise on this East-vs-West controversy, the Smokers Inc car club decided to organise a race and to pay Garlits $1,000 to attend and prove that he was for real. Scheduled for February 28-March 1, 1959, it marked the first time a drag racer had been paid appearance money.
The Chrisman and Cannon Hustler won the inaugural March Meet in bare aluminum after body modifications were made to accommodate the top mounted blower. In 1960 defending champ Art Chrisman returned in the freshly painted Hustler setting low e.t. of the meet at 8.60 seconds.
California had its own hero, though. Just two weeks earlier, Art Chrisman clocked an 8.54 at 181.81mph at Riverside with the Chrisman & Cannon Hustler, and to heighten the tension, when Garlits pulled into Bakersfield with his no-nonsense rig, the California crowd was not impressed. His machine, based on ancient Chevy frame rails, looked decidedly crude compared with the chromed and polished West Coast cars. One Smoker reportedly remarked, “Hell, there’s not a thousand dollars there if you threw in the trailer, the suitcases, and the gas money Garlits is saving to get home.”
Garlits later recalled his reception at Bakersfield as less than gracious: “The crowd was yelling at us, calling me ‘Don Garbage’ and ‘Tampa Dan’. There were so many empty beer cans in the pits that we had to have somebody go in front of the car to kick them out of the way.”
On Saturday, Garlits ran 9.00/172.41 – impressive for a 392-cid Chrysler with eight Stromberg 97s – but Garlits wasn’t satisfied. That night, he replaced the short-block at Ernie Hashim’s shop. Unfortunately for The Don, though, hopes of victory went out through the side of the block in the form of a pitched rod in his first-round race against Gary Cagle. Cagle went on to set top speed of the meet, at 180.36 mph, backed up by a 180-flat clocking – the first time anybody had run 180 mph twice at the same meet. Meanwhile, rumour spread quickly that the failed rod in Garlits’ engine had been sawn halfway through, so he wouldn’t have to face eliminations. Of course, that wasn't true.
At the 1964 March Meet, photographer Phil Bellomy got a unique vantage point from this hydraulic telescoping platform mounted in the bed of a pickup.
After nearly 10 hours of continuous racing, the big go for Top Eliminator was run in near darkness. Art Chrisman, in the Hustler, took the title when Tony Waters broke loose in his modified roadster and spun out. Chrisman had overcome a 353-car field that included 50 dragsters, saying, “I never raced so much in my life. I don’t know how many rounds we went, but it seemed like we made 50 runs. We almost loaded up a couple of times because the crowd kept getting closer and closer to the strip. It was like driving into a funnel.”
Here's one of the great images Bellomy captured
Two conclusions were reached that weekend: a blower was mandatory for winning (no major Top Fuel meet has been won without one since), as were M&H slicks – at least, for the next few years. Garlits made quick and effective use of his hard-learned lessons from Bakersfield, though, winning two weeks later, at Kingdon, California, with a new 6-71 blower fitted. He also won the next week, in Chandler, Arizona, and returned to Florida clearly having proved his prowess.
Now, 50 years on, the March Meet remains one of the premier vintage drag races on the calendar – a spectacle not to be missed. Scheduled for the weekend of March 7-9, at AutoClub Famoso Raceway, just north of Bakersfield, on the same piece of hallowed ground they raced on in 1959, the event kicks off the new Hot Rod Heritage Racing Series. Legendary Top Fuel and Funny Car driver, Tom "The Mongoose" McEwen, will be the Grand Marshall and you can expect to see literally hundreds of vintage-style race cars going head-to-head to win a place in the history books.
For more information about the March Meet, go to www.famosoraceway.com. For a look at the history of the March Meet, you can go to the Wally Parks NHRA Motorsports Museum where, through August, there is an exhibit celebrating the event's 50-year history, with photographs, memorabilia and some of the cars that raced at Bakersfield, including Art Chrisman's original U.S. Fuel and Gas Championship-winning Hustler. For more information, visit http://museum.nhra.com or call (909) 622 2133.
Story: Tony Thacker
Photos: Wally Parks NHRA Motorsports Museum