Friday morning, 5.30am, bugger, go back to sleep. NO! wait, GET UP!
YeeeHarrrr, it's California, the sun is already starting to dry the overnight watering frenzy that seems to happen like magic around the palms and strawberries in the hotel parking lot and the March Meet is calling.
The previous morning we had got up to a grey and blustery sort of day and fought the madness that is Heathrow. A bit of a wait while the man with the x-ray eyes tried to make sense of a bag crammed with electronic ignition, delay timers, and limit chips, a quick stop in duty free and away. The flight was memorable for having a new on-demand movie service. A choice of 25 films netted Driving Miss Daisy, Apollo 13, and No country for old men -ain't modern technology wonderful. Oh, and chocolate cake. Happy Birthday to me! LAX, (Los Angeles airport). Wonderful place, get the Ellis Island experience here -photographed, iris scanned and finger printed, we were let out to play. Out of the building and first cigarette for 13 hours, the day is 22 hours old and thanks to International time lines, still has ten to go. Freshly nicotined, we jump on the courtesy bus and head for the car rental shop. The wrong car rental shop. Yes it has the same name, but it's not the same. Shame really -I was hoping Mr Cockup had missed the plane. A decent tip had the bus driver drop us where we should be, where a very nice man behind the counter said actually they were the same and sorry we had been inconvenienced, what had we reserved? Were we sure? Just the two of us? Hang on a minute while he checked something, yes that will be fine, I've taken the liberty of upgrading you, anything in lot 6. Ooooh, yellow Mustang, black Mustang, beige Mustang, (?), blue Mustang or silver Mustang? Silver it is then. Ten minutes later and we’re headed North out of the city, rush hour proper doesn't start for another hour or so, so the six lanes either way are at least moving. A steady drive up over the mountains and the long straight run out to Bakersfield. The holiday starts here.
Why Bakersfield ? Why the March Meet? It's all about history really. Bakersfield, or more accurately Famoso Raceway, was where in 1959 the Smokers, a local car and race club, hosted the first Fuel and Gas championships and the place where Don Garlits became the first racer to be paid to turn up and race. Actually there had been race meets there since 1951 but '59 was the start of the big time. The West coast boys were becoming sceptical about the claims of Florida racer Garlits. East coast clocks they said, so in 1959 they paid him to tow across the country and face the best in the World for the title. That meet has been called the Woodstock of drag racing. Maybe a bit much, but it certainly had all of the best racers in the country and the biggest fields seen up to that time as everyone wanted to be the one that took out the Floridian. Actually he spoiled the script a little by getting beat in the first round, and it was Art Chrisman who went on to take the win. Garlits hung around though and the following weekend turned out with a blower fitted and started a run of wins that even today see him as the No1 in the NHRA's top 50. The current track manager, John Bowser, who was working there in the 50's says "something changed after that, the whole sport sort of moved up a gear, there were so many people there, there was an excitement and after that everyone knew about the March Meet". Most of the great names of the sport have towed their rigs through the gates at some time and there have been some record breaking meetings hosted there, '64 and '65 being the most commonly touted. It remains the premier nostalgia racing facility and a Mecca for fans of that. Bakersfield, Buck Owens, Merle Haggard and the March Meet, and we were there for the fiftieth and it was bloody great.
We arrived at the track before 8.00 and paid $150 to get in, but that was for two three day passes and parking was free, a cracking deal. Famoso is a lovely little track with grandstands for the full length of the strip and just behind that is the Grove. This wide roadway runs parallel with the track and is full of show cars, restored race cars, hot rods, customs and anyone who could blag their way in to power park. There is an avenue of trees planted in memory of the sports greats now departed, which ought to give a chance of shade but seldom do, so busy is it there. A walk down through here and on through the gate at the end, level with the finish line, and on into the swap meet area. Always some interesting and sometimes unidentifiable stuff that you really should buy, but don't. Beyond this is the return road and a sweep back through the pits. The meet had been closed at 500 entries and that makes for a big, big pit, but well worth a browse through on the way round to the pairing lanes. Parallel to the Grove and between it and the pits is the area referred to as midway, another broad roadway quarter mile long and lined both sides with the stalls and trailers of all the big names in the performance retail industry, (apart from MoonEyes, but only because I was there on a mission to see them). A walk up and back down pawing the shiny stuff and it's coffee and donuts time, (again), before perching up in the stands to watch the opening stanza of qualifying.
Friday is a relatively quiet day, apparently some people have to go to work -who knew? but the pace of the track action was quite frantic at times. With record fields, some were going home without a look at the eliminations, so they all wanted to get as good a time as possible on the board. There were huge fields of Hot Rods, and a fair turnout of D, C, B and A gas cars as well as several nostalgia fields, Top Fuel and Fuel Funnycar and we passed the day between wandering the grounds and lounging in the stands trying to get a feel for who would be in and who would be on the trailer. An incident in the back half of day saw Randy Beck, on his last licence pass, lose an engine in his fuel car, pretty much covered in thrown out oil he lost sight of the track and found the wall hard enough to warrant cutting him out of the cage. The car was written off but he returned later so I guess was relatively OK. The temperature falls off very fast after the sun sets, so after the last shots of the day we headed back to Bakersfield where we spent the evening at the All You Can Eat Pizza And Pasta Palace, about $6 a head. I think that this might be meant for kids but that's fine by me, I had a reach advantage and played it to the full.
Saturday, another early start. At the track by eight, had to queue to get in. Straight away it was clear that this was going to be a much busier day. We breezed through the gates, advance three day pass don't you know, and had to queue for coffee. This is starting to get serious. The serious thing was going on in the pits as well with most of the teams now decked out in their uniforms and giving their various machines some quite stern looks. On track the action was pretty much as furious as should be expected and a great show. Just after lunch the day's first round of Top Fuel set to. Twenty four cars vying for a place in the 16 car field, the big surprise at this time was Jack "The Sheriff" Harris, twice a past winner was not in the field, but he had it in hand. A great run later in the day putting him into the running at No 3. About this time the weekend was marred in the worst way when veteran fuel pilot John Shoemaker powered past the line with a 6.11 at 249.93mph, (a career best speed), and simply didn't stop, throttle wide open, no chutes, no brakes, 3000 foot of runoff, 300 foot of sand trap and into an orchard. The paramedics had him airborne and away in pretty short order but it was later announced he was DOA. Not perhaps a household name, but a solid driver from the 60's and 70's who, at 65 years old, was making a very respectable showing in the new century.
We spent the rest of the day gently roasting in the stands, the place now so full that to have moved would have meant spending the rest of the time standing against the fence some three or four deep. Later in the second session Mike McClennan was about 1000 foot into a run when the motor went away and banged in the most spectacular fashion. I’m sure that there must be photos of this on the net. Quite simply the most scary fuel fire I’ve seen, burning right through the lights and someway down the runoff. By all accounts hot enough to burn through his belts although he was pretty much unscathed. Just to finish a miserable session for the T/F guys, Dan Rusk went out and drove through the top end quite unaware that his ride's vital fluids were having an unauthorised outing all of their own. Still, you could see where he’d been for the previous 1500 feet. The quite considerable down time was spent in conversation with a guy sat behind us and another alongside us, driving themselves into a frenzy of exaggeration over their respective past exploits. Great stuff. Sometime in the afternoon as we were just people watching whilst waiting for the track to be re-prepped, I glanced down just in time to see one of our fellow club members walking by. If you read this Mark, the blue mirrored shades are very pretty, but seem to make you deaf. Highlight of the day? 32 fuel funny cars trying to qualify under lights after sun down, front wheels hanging and header flames up past the windows. Just glorious.
Sunday started with yet another early rise and an even longer queue to get in. What time do these people start out? Unofficial counts had the crowd at 40,000 +, certainly a record for the track and a vindication of the current management's investment in the track and nostalgia racing. Whilst waiting to drive in, a V10 Viper pulled out from behind us and powered past in the "wrong" lane. Maybe that was the way to do it. Apparently not -a hundred yards later there he was, the car sat in the dust off the side of the road whilst one of the CHP boys wrote him up. Just to add insult, the surface was too loose for him to get back over the small rise separating him from the tarmac. I'm sure that I wasn't alone in having a small smile as we drove past. Sunday is always a slow start and this was no exception with several awards and presentations taking place on the start line. Among them, the dedication of the Grand Marshals of the meet, Don Prudomme and Tom McEwen, the famous Snake and Mongoose pairing that pulled in the first non related sponsorship when they signed to Mattel toys and ran the Hot Wheels funnies in exhibition all over the States. Also there for an award was Art Chrisman. Remember him; he won the first meet 50 years earlier. While the Snake and 'goose were chatting to the announcer Chrisman was taken to the far end of the strip where he climbed into the restored "Chrisman and Cannon" "Hustler 1", the same car he’d won the first meet in and that had been in his care ever since, and push started back down the crew road, turned onto the start line and made a sedate pass down the track. Quite a moment. A neat bit of timing by the crew had the National Anthem finished and the starters hand up to fire the first pair of fuelers right on the dot of noon. I spent most of the afternoon leant on the fence at the start line watching both the cars and the constant stream of "faces" passing through. It proved to be a day worthy of it's historic status -good close racing all the way through. Jack Harris finally stamped his authority on the Top Fuel class with a blistering and record setting pass of 5.56 at 263mph, the quickest ever front engined ride and went on to defeat Brad Thompson in the final. He seemed quite happy with that. The Funnies ran as two fields of eight, with the "A" field being led by Bucky Austin, who’d been looking good all weekend and defeated the previous year's winner in the final with a 5.83 at 243mph. Not a record, but a fine run. The day was rounded out by a fairly spectacular fireworks display and having watched that we wandered down to see a bit of the trophy presentation before being beaten by the chill and heading for "home".
A superb meeting and barring the obvious and tragic exception, everything we could have hoped for.