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2013 March Meet

Nitro Marauders Motor on and Famoso Fuelers Fight back

By Cole Coonce, Photography by Cole Coonce, Ted Soqui

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."

Yes, commitment. Of the three dozen nitro Funny Cars attempting to qualify for a 16-car eliminator, nearly one third had hauled their trailers and entourages to Famoso from the Midwest or the Pacific Northwest. The most noteworthy Canadian entry was the TLD Firebird of Tim Boychuk, who returned from Edmonton, Alberta, after an ego-crushing circumstance the year before. Boychuk won the 2012 March Meet, only to be disqualified two weeks later, due to a fuel-pump violation. The event win was subsequently awarded to the original runner-up, Chad Head. This year, Boychuk came back, aiming for both Head and vindication.

Similarly, out-of-state invaders battered the California Top Fuel contingent. In fact, the bombardment began as soon as the back gate opened. During a time trial held the day before qualifying commenced, New York–based racer Tony "T-Bone" Bartone guided his front-engine Top Fueler to an unprecedented performance, traversing the fresh-faced Famoso quarter-mile in 5.561 seconds. This shot across the bow was even more intimidating because of T-Bone's top-end speed, or rather the lack of. With some of these modern slingshots routinely reaching terminal speeds around 260 mph, what was startling about Bartone's 5.56 was the diminutive top end of only 220 mph, which tells anyone paying attention that he was off the throttle at or near the 1,000-foot timing cones and coasted for the last couple of hundred feet. More data supporting this supposition was found in his half-track numbers, as he crossed the eighth-mile cones at a blistering 217 mph. In other words, in the last half of his run, he only accelerated 3 mph more and still set an unofficial benchmark for the AA/Fuelers.

Unfortunately for Bartone, he peaked before the event even began. After struggling to find traction during qualifying, Bartone was slotted near the bottom of the elimination ladder and was eliminated in the first round.

In Bartone's stead, 34-year-old Salem, Wisconsin, dragster-driver Jim Young filled the void in jaw-dropping performances. The defending event champ, Young qualified quickest with an elapsed time of 5.68 seconds in his Crop Duster, then dispatching California racers Adam Sorokin and Jim Murphy in eliminations with a string of mid-5.60 clockings, punctuated by a Top Speed record of 266 mph.

"Two in a row is the goal," is what the laconic Young told this scribe, moments before the sun went down on Sunday and the final rounds were run.

Young's opponent for the March Meet Top Fuel title would be the No. 2 qualifier, Denver Schutz, a 67-year-old silver fox from up the road in Fresno. Earlier, Denver had dropped Bartone like a bad habit, before powering his Raisin Express 3 around Rick Williamson and Rick White.

Some of those round wins could be attributed to experience, and there isn't much that Denver hasn't driven in a long career.

"I have been coming here since 1961," he told us, explaining what a victory in Bakersfield would mean to him. "I've been driving here for I don't know how many years. My goal is to win the March Meet. Anybody who is going to go to a drag race where I live, they don't say ‘I am going to a drag race.' They say, ‘I'm going to the March Meet.' That's the key. I want to take that back home with me."

Schutz comes off as tough as Tom Selleck's tooth enamel, but with real possibility of finally winning this race, he became pensive.

"My résumé is full," he concluded. "I've done about everything I want to do. Other than win the March Meet."

Meanwhile, among the Funny Cars, Boychuk spent his afternoon disposing of SoCal hitters like the California Hustler and Jason Rupert, before he squared off in the semi-finals against Head. In that heat, Head rolled the beams and red-lighted when his clutch pedal broke. Boychuk took the gimme in stride.

"We've still got to redeem ourselves from last year and the bungle-up," he mused after Head's misstep. To that end, Boychuk would have to defeat another racer from the Northwest, Mark Sanders and his brand-new Mr. Explosive Mustang out of Seattle, tuned by his son, 23-year-old Jake Sanders. After his dad motored by NHRA Funny Car megastar Ron Capps in the second round, the younger Sanders was happier than a King County coyote with a mink in its mouth.

"We put up a career-best 251 mph, and we got around some big names in the sport," is how Jake summed up his family's race before entering the finals.

By the time the finals ran, night fell. Earlier, the Team Craig AA/Fueler had soiled its diapers early in the first round of Top Fuel, its engine's pan pressure building up like soap bubbles in a Peter Seller's movie, before the puke tank burst and an effluvium of synthetic oil coated the shutdown area.

An exhaustive 80-minute cleanup meant the race would run late. The later it got, the more track temperatures fell and the more Canuck Tim Boychuk was in his element, cooler than a sasquatch's six-pack. Indeed, it was dark and nippy when the green light flashed for the final pair of floppers. At the hit, Sanders' mount fell mute, and Boychuk blasted around Mr. Explosive, seizing a victory nobody was going to nullify, while posting a 5.81 time at 249 mph. Boychuk had made good and showed who was the baddest.

Atonement might've been Boychuk's team's theme, but the Top Fuel class needed it collectively after a less-than-full field and a couple of ass-numbing track cleanups that tested race fans' patience, if not the announcers' abilities to filibuster and fill dead air with stories about drag racing in the 1970s. In 2013, boredom is not an option. If Top Fuel was going to save face, it needed to finish with a flourish.

It did. The final round was a hellzapoppin' shootout, with sparks flying and header flames blazing toward the heavens. On its association's website, the AA/Fuel Dragsters described the spectacular showdown between young, quiet Jim Young and veteran gunslinger Denver Schutz this way: "The question on race fans' mind was that old proverb that asks: Would age and treachery overcome youth and skill? In five seconds, they got their answer. At the hit, Young moved first but by 330 feet into the run, Denver had put a wheel out front. It stayed that way until 800 feet, when Young's machine really started gathering steam. Denver put the pipes out at 1,100 feet, as Young went marching by with all eight candles lit, and in the cover of darkness neither driver knew who had triumphed. The scoreboards showed times of 5.65 seconds and 269 mph for Young to a losing 5.70 at 242 mph for Schutz. As the Raisin Express 3 team went in search of their driver, Young asked them if they had won. They said: ‘No, dude, it was you.'"

Yes, the out-of-towners showed the California nitro racers the way home…and in a bigger sense, Elapsed Times would be remiss in not mentioning that Tony Waters, Art Chrisman's final-round competition back in 1959, was also proverbially called home a couple months before the 55th March Meet, dying after an extended illness.

Poignantly, Tony Waters' son, Darrell, carried on the family tradition and entered the A/Fuel Dragster class for the first time without his dad there to turn the wrenches. And in another bittersweet final round, Darrell Waters won.

Meaning? The March Meet will outlive us all. (OK, maybe not Art Chrisman.)

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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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