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2013 March Meet

Nitro Marauders Motor on and Famoso Fuelers Fight back

By Cole Coonce, Photography by Ted Soqui, Cole Coonce

The Bakersfield March Meet was founded on long-distance drives and on settling grudges. In 1958, Don Garlits, a wiry, angular kid wearing nothing but a white T-shirt, black jeans, and a bad attitude thrust his Swamp Rat railjob to 180 mph at an airport in his home state of Florida, setting the fuel-dragster quarter-mile speed record. The following March, Garlits was summoned west, all the way out to California, by the Bakersfield-based Smokers Car Club and other factions of the then-burgeoning sport of drag racing's cognoscenti, who paid the tousled-haired hothead's towing costs. Their motive wasn't one of benevolence. Southern California dragstrip scenesters and arbiters were dubious of Garlits' feat. In Drag News, Garlits was disparaged as "[a] phony" that was "running against bad clocks in some kind of second-rate car." "Tampa Don" set out to show the California crowd those performances weren't popcorn.

He failed. The California fuel racers were blower-breathing monsters, and Garlits was in their wake, sucking wind on a Stromberg carbureted-Chrysler, a combination that was quaint, if not obsolete. Garlits pitched a rod in qualifying and showed up with a wounded mill in the first round of eliminations, but his inevitable loss was just academic. That weekend, he was out of his element and out of his league. SoCal legend-in-the-making Art Chrisman triumphed at the inaugural March Meet, then dubbed the U.S. Fuel & Gas Championships, winning the title of Fuel Top Eliminator in his unpainted, cucumber-shaped dragster, while turning a speed of 180 mph that, unlike Garlits' clocking, nobody dared call phony-baloney.

It is worth noting that subsequent to his humbling debut—and after swapping those ancient Strombergs for a supercharger and fuel injection—Garlits came to dominate the March Meet in a way that has never been matched, winning Top Fuel Eliminator at the event five times before he eventually retired from competition. Even so, race fans and pundits can only wonder if Garlits would trade those five titles for bragging rights to that first Bakersfield race in 1959, when he traveled the breadth of the U.S., only to lay an egg in front of his peers, the press, and a capacity crowd seething with hostility and schadenfreude.

Moreover, history remembers who is First, whether it is Ray Harroun, Neil Armstrong, or the Green Bay Packers. That's why, in 2013, at the 55th running of the Bakersfield March Meet, once again the ever-dashing Art Chrisman graced the fabled Famoso grounds with his presence, standing tall as a timber-line and acting as a symbol of California pride, this time as honorary starter at what has become the season-opening race for NHRA's Heritage Series.

It was fitting. Just like when Chrisman won, the crème de la crème of California race-car culture met in Bakersfield to stand their ground against an invasion of nitro-huffing marauders from all parts of North America, in both Top Fuel and its contemporary, AA/Funny Car.

But why would these transient racers put in the miles if nobody is paying guaranteed appearance money? "The March Meet is really everything about the history of drag racing," is how wavy-haired, Texas-based Funny Car driver John Hale, the 2012 Drag Racing Online AA/FC Challenge Champion, answered that question. "This place is hallowed ground to a new racer like myself. You get a different feeling entering the gate than you do at any other racetrack. The level of competition—you're not going to see 35 Funny Cars at any other race in the country. You have to be on your game."

And so they came, en masse. Among the nomadic nitro-maniacs was Ohio's Chad Head, a lumbering, soft-spoken man and defending AA/Funny Car March Meet Winner. When not driving a nitro-powered 2010 Toyota Solara for his old man, Jim Head, in NHRA's professional circuit, Chad shoes the family's thumping, vintage 1977 Firebird in the Heritage Series. He summed up his team's determination to repeat at the March Meet this way: "We drove all the way from Columbus, Ohio, to Bakersfield," he nodded. "We are going to turn back around and drive from Bakersfield to Gainesville, Florida, for our first NHRA race at the Gatornationals. If that's not commitment and dedication, I don't know what is."

By Cole Coonce
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10 comments
Patrick Gyotoku
Patrick Gyotoku

I miss that Keith track racing you to be right next to farm test out the engine on the rail but its more awesome at the track

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