50 YEARS OF FUEL DRAGSTERS AT
THE MARCH MEET

The peach trees in full bloom in the San Joaquin Valley; Mother
Nature's call to the drag racers to congregate at
Famoso Raceway in Mcfarland.

by Stephen Justice

The late 1950s was a jittery time for the United States: the Cold War with Russia had intensified and the country had just suffered through a moderate economic recession. For drag racers, this was also the time of the nitromethane fuel ban. The NHRA, fearful for driver safety, banned the use of this racing fuel at their sanctioned events. Prominent tracks, like Lions Drag Strip in Wilmington, California, although not under the NHRA umbrella, also imposed the proscription at their weekly race. That was not to say, however, that the nitro cars disappeared from the drag racing scene. Tracks like Fontana and Riverside Raceway continued to embrace the class, but there was no one big event on the West Coast for these "fuel" junkies.

This would all change in 1959 when the Smokers of Bakersfield decided to host the first annual U.S. Gas and Fuel Championship. There was a young man down in Florida named Don Garlits who had been making a lot of noise with his Swamp Rat fuel dragster. To promote the event, The Smokers paid Garlits a hefty sum of money to come west and challenge the top dogs from the Pacific Coast. Interest in the race really started to swell when in February of that year Art Chrisman in his Hustler 1 recorded a run of 8.54-181.80 at Riverside, a new Standard 1320 record.

The first annual U.S. Gas and Fuel Championship was contested on March 1, 1959. Garlits wowed the crowd when he ran 178 mph right off the trailer. But, sans a supercharger, his Don's Speed Shop Spl. was no match against more powerful dragsters like the Chrisman Bros. and Frank Cannon. Garlits lost in the first round and Art Chrisman would go on to win the inaugural event with a final round of 9.36-140.50 over Tony Waters and the Waters-Sughrue-Guinn A/FMR. Chrisman also set low e.t. at 8.70 and Gary Cagle ran top speed of the meet at 180.36.

 

The final between Art Chrisman and Tony Waters at the very first March Meet; Tony had a length or two on Art, but got wiggley-squiggley down track and had to click it.
Don Prieto photo

Don Garlits taking in the action during the '59 March Meet.

 

Garlits' Don's Speed Shop Special was not equipped with a supercharger at the first March Meet; two weeks later he showed up at Kingdon with a 6:71 blower under the Strombergs and won the meet.
Steve Gibbs photo

The first "March Meet" turned out to be a dazzling success. Cars from the spectators lined Famoso Rd. for miles east and west of the track, and before the day was done, over 25,000 eager, and mostly youthful, fans had managed to see history in the making. Though there was a strong contingent of pump gasoline powered dragsters in the Famoso pits that day (Tommy Ivo was the winner), it was obvious to all present that the fans had come out to see the fuel cars. The Chrisman Bros.-Cannon team returned in 1960 to set low e.t. at 8.60, but driver error in the final gave the win to Ted Cyr and Bill Hopper. By 1962, it was clear that the "March Meet" had become one of the main events on the drag racing calendar. What Don Garlits started with his transcontinental tow in 1959, became an annual ritual for many midwest and eastern racers anxious to alleviate their cabin fever and get back onto the drag strip. In fact, so popular had the east-west rivalry become that several other large races were being held during the winter months in addition to the U.S. Gas and Fuel Championship.

 

A rainy Saturday at the '61 March Meet; since it was only a two day race back then, the entire event had to be crammed into Sunday. This was the only time a gas dragster won the overall title-Lefty Mudersbach's AA/GD defeated Jack Ewell's fuel dragster.
Doug Peterson photo

 

The 4th Annual U.S. Gas and Fuel Championship in 1962 was a turning point in the growth of the "March Meet". The trickle of out-of-staters had now become a steady stream of racers from all over the country: not only Garlits, but Chris Karamesines and Don Maynard, Bob Sullivan, Lou Cangelose, Art Malone, Rod Stuckey, Connie Kalitta, Gordon Collett, John Kranenburg, and a host of others. On March 4 at Famoso Raceway, a new star was born. Don Prudhomme drove the Fuller (Kent)-Zeuschel-Prudhomme entry to victory over Ted Gotelli and his driver Glen Leasher. Don Garlits, still searching for a March Meet win, came up empty handed again when Tom McEwen driving Gene Adams' Olds powered Shark Car beat him in the 3rd round.

 

A classic Chrysler/ Chevy duel at the '62 March Meet: Sammy Hale and Champion Speed Shop (near side) on the losing end against Kondaroff-Powers from Detroit, MI.
Brad Kittredge photo


J. L. Payne at the wheel of Vance Hunt's fuel dragster; the week before the '62 March Meet, they had raced Garlits-Swingle for the No. 1 spot on the Drag News Mr. Eliminator list (and lost); Swingle got the better of J. L. at Bakersfield, too.
Brad Kittredge photo


Art Chrisman in the Hustler 1 winning one for the West Coast against Bob Sullivan's Pandemonium III.
Brad Kittredge photo

 


Fuller-Zeuschel-Prudhomme at the '62 March Meet; left to right: The guys standing behind the car are Kent Fuller, Ed Donovan, Tom McEwen, Don Prudhomme, and Tom McCourry.
Doug Peterson photo

 

Finally, in 1963 the iron clad hold the Californians held over the event was broken. Art 'The Colonel' Malone won one for the East with a win over Adams-McEwen in the final round. It was also the race that saw Famoso Raceway's first 190 mph clocking (Dick Goss-Jeep Hampshire-191.08), and its first 7 second run (Chris Karamesines-7.99). But, one fact still remained: 'Big Daddy' Don Garlits, the guy who had a lot to do with this race from the start, remained winless. He did not fare any better the following year when he made it to the final round, but could not get around Connie Kalitta.

 

'The Greek' did not win the '63 March Meet, but after losing, came back Sunday afternoon to set low e.t. at 7.99.
Bill Turney photo

 

Dick Goss and Jeep Hampshire recorded the first 190 mph run at Famoso-191.08 at the '63 March Meet.
Doyle Hatfield photo

 

Don Garlits ( far side) beat Lefty Mudersbach in this 1st round match up (8.37-8.39) at the '63 March Meet, but lost to Tom McEwen for the second year in a row.
Jerry Guill photo

 

This was the much anticipated showdown between 'The Greek' and reer-Black-Prudhomme in round one at the '64 March Meet; Karamesines crushed G-B-P with a 7.92-189.86; although Connie Kalitta won the race, Karamesines set low e.t. at 7.84.

 

When Don Prudhomme won in 1962, there were 87 fuel dragsters entered for the event, and 35 qualified for Top Fuel Eliminator with a run of less than nine seconds. By 1964, when Kalitta won, the field was limited to the top 32 fuel dragsters with an additional rule that a car had to run at least 8.30 (9.00 for top gas dragsters). In 1965, the United States Fuel and Gas Championship was expanded to 64 cars. When qualifying ended Friday night, Bobby Vodnick and Dick Belfatti sat low with a 7.32; Babler-Clark brought up the rear at 8.16. It should be mentioned that Vodnick's time raised a lot of eyebrows and whispers of phoney time as it was .28 quicker than number two Danny Ongasis and The Mangler. The winner of Saturday's marathon sat out the next day and then raced Sunday's winner for the overall title. It was finally Don Garlits' turn. He defeated Ed Pink and Mike Snively on Saturday, then returned to beat stable mate Marvin Schwartz in Sunday's final.

 

Nando Haase started out in the right lane and ended as so in the left lane; as they say in drag racing, "shit happens"; '65 March Meet.

 

 

Marshall-Vermilya (far lane) vs. Swingle-Pink-round one on Saturday at the '66 March Meet; Mike Sorokin had just run 7.41 against Baber-Cassidy. Nick answered moments later with a 7.41 of his own. We will never know the impact M-V could have had on the outcome of the race as they blew the engine on that pass.

This is Mike Sorokin's run on Saturday against Zane Schubert in round two that set the record-7.34/ 210.76.
Ron Lahr photo

 

The March Meet probably reached its apogee in 1966, arguably one of the greatest drag races of all time. This would be the last time the March Meet would feature the 64 car show, but what a show it turned out to be. Mike Sorokin and The Surfers (Skinner-Jobe) worked their way past Gary Cassidy, Zane Schubert, Dave Beebe, James Warren, Greg Maher, and finally Jim Dunn, to earn the right to sit out on Sunday. James Warren, the low qualifier when eliminations began on Saturday, slogged his way through Sunday's tough field (Leichen, Prudhomme, Sniveley, The Greek, and Safford) for the chance to race The Surfers. Warren-Coburn had run ten rounds of eliminations over the past two days blowing up an engine in the process. Now, they faced their old antagonist for a considerable sum of money. It was a daunting challenge as The Surfers had run a 7.34 and a pair of 7.40s on Saturday and also had the fastest time of the meet at 210.76. Taking a chance on the tree, James got a red light and The Surfers collected $6650.00 in prize money.

 

 

The 12th edition of the March Meet (1970) was significant for a couple reasons. Most importantly, the glamour and prestige of the race was damaged somewhat when many of the top stars of the sport like Don Garlits, Steve Carbone, John Weibe, Richard Tharp, Jim Nicoll, Don Cook, and some other touring pros opted instead for the AHRA Grand American pro series at Lions Drag Strip. What occurred in Long Beach that weekend would have a profound affect, not only on the March Meet, but for all of drag racing. Racing Richard Tharp in the Creitz-Donovan car, Don Garlits' dragster literally blew in half from a rare transmission explosion, hospitalizing him for six weeks. It was during that period of time that Garlits began working on a new design for fuel dragsters; one with the engine behind the driver. At Bakersfield that March 8th, Tony Nancy would win top fuel eliminator over Harry Hibler, and in doing so, drove the last front engine dragster to a U.S. Gas and Fuel Championship. The era of the slingshot dragster was coming to an end.

 

Dave Babler drove his Vaporizer to a runner up finish in the'69 March Meet; he lost a close one to Dunn-Reath (6.94-215.82/ 7.03-214.28).

 

When Garlits returned to Bakersfield in 1971, he also brought his revolutionary rear engine dragster. Coming off a successful win at the NHRA Winternationals, Garlits humbled the field with a series of 6.60s and 6.70s. And, as a harbinger of things to come, dispatched Rick Ramsey in Keeling-Clayton's immaculate California Charger with a 6.71-223.88. By 1972, the California Charger would be a RED, too.

 

Don Garlits returned to the March Meet in 1971 with his revolutionary engine behind the driver design; all he did was march past Gary Cochran, Dennis Baca, Don Prudhomme, Vance Hunt, and Rick Ramsey to become the first repeat winner.
Gary Edwards photo

 

Tom McEwen "owned" the '72 March Meet with his Mattel sponsored Hot Wheels RED; the car performed flawlessly all weekend. In addition to winning the race, McEwen also set a new track record of 6.35.
Gary Edwards photo

 

Rain caused the 1974 edition of the March Meet to be postponed-the first time in the event's 16 year history. When it was contested a week later, Carl Olson, runner up to Tom McEwen in 1972, got the victory over another past winner, Tony Nancy. The race also featured the first ever 5 second run at Famoso-Dwight Hughes' 5.94. If 1966 was the greatest MM ever, then 1975 would have to rate as runner up. Until then, Don Garlits had been the event's only repeat winner. That would all change with the 17th Annual March Meet. In winning the first of three consecutive March Meets, James Warren and Roger Coburn atomized the field by clocking six five second runs. Warren qualified the digger number one at 5.92, and then proceeded to roll off a 5.90-5.93-5.91-5.87 (against Gary Ritter) set before anesthetizing Jeb Allen in the final with a 5.91-243.24. Warren and Coburn would complete their trifecta with victories over Tony Nancy and Don Garlits in 1976 and 1977, respectively.

 

Dwight Salisbury beat Randy Allison in T. B. Smallwood's entry to win the '73 March Meet; the highlight of the meet was Dwight's 3rd round 6.68/ 6.68 win over Don Garlits.
Gary Edwards photo

 

Kuhl-Olson avenged their final round loss to Tom McEwen in 1972 by winning the '74 March Meet.
Gary Edwards photo



Classic confrontation at the '76 March Meet: Don Garlits vs. James Warren; the Rain for Rent special got there first with a 5.95-235.60 over Garlits' 6.18-221.79.

 

Warren-Coburn was the only top fuel dragster to win three consecutive March Meets, which included a new track record of 5.79 at the '77 March Meet.

 

 

Dennis Baca finally ended Warren-Coburn's streak in 1978, but the gloss of the March Meet was beginning to fade. Only six out-of-state cars qualified for this race as independent events began to lose competitors to the NHRA and IHRA national events. The timing of the Gatornationals was particularly troublesome coming just two weeks after the March Meet. Ironically, the March Meet, impacted by declining fields, came to be dominated by the out-of-staters in the last decade of its initial run. With the exception of Danny Dannell in 1983 and Butch Blair in 1988, all the other winners starting with Connie Kalitta in 1979 were from out of state. The end for the original March Meet came abruptly in 1989 when the Miller family decided it could no longer underwrite the race. When it was all over and done, only Don Garlits (5), James Warren (3), Connie Kalitta (2), and Gary Beck (2) would go down as multiple events winners. Although the March Meet succumbed to natural causes, one thing was certain-the east vs. west rivalry had, indeed, been a success.

 


Don Garlits-Marvin Miller-Shirley Muldowney at the '77 March Meet.

 

 

 

 

Garlits always drew a crowd-here at the '88 March Meet he's checking the controls and tweaking the barrel value on Fred Farndon's top fuel dragster.

 


Thirty March Meets were contested from 1959 thru 1988; Butch Blair won the last one in that time span. Above: Bobby Neal heats up the tires on Arnold Birky's RED while Bobby Baldwin awaits his turn.

 

After a five year hiatus, the March Meet was resurrected by the Goodguys Rod and Custom Association as part of their Vintage Racing Series-front engine dragsters on nitro were back. The nostalgia drag racing movement had started off as informal reunions and get-togethers back in the late 1980s in an effort to preserve the heritage and history of the "golden age of drag racing". But, interest in it was such that it evolved into a structured series of races. When Mike Fuller called up his old buddy Bill Dunlap in 1991 with a proposal to go nostalgia top fuel racing, Bill got his '72 Woody Gilmore chassis down from the rafters. Mike had Harry Hoffman update the car to the required VRA specs., dropped one of his potent hemis in it, and went out and won the first ever California Hot Rod Reunion. They also won the first Goodguys March Meet in 1994 and a second one in 1997.

 


Bill Dunlap and Mike Fuller won their first March Meet together in 1994 with a 6.64-208.20 and another one in 1997 with a best of 6.08; they have also won two California Hot Rod Reunions.

 

In recent years, however, the star of the nostalgia movement has been a team from Santa Rosa, California. WW2 Racing, formed by Steve Wiles, Ron Welty, and the late Jim Herbert, has continued under the ownership of Jim Murphy. Murphy, a veteran of both drag boats and the drag strip, has been one of the dominant nostalgia top fuel dragsters at the March Meet winning four events between 1998 and 2004 ( 1998-99; 2003-04). With these four victories, Jim is only one shy of tying Don Garlits for the most March Meet wins. In addition to WW2 Racing, Nitro Thunder Racing has made a few thunderclaps of its own at the March Meet. With Jack "The Sheriff" Harris behind the wheel, the team from Keysville, Utah won both the 2001 and 2002 March Meets; they also won the 2007 event with son Brett driving. The car has recorded the fastest speed ever for a nostalgia top fuel dragster-265.09mph. Then, there is Larry Bless-Brad Thompson Racing out of Visalia. They have been running so strong lately that it might better be called 'Orange Crush'. Winner of the 2005 and 2007 Californnia Hot Rod Reunions, Brad Thompson recently unloaded a monster exhibition run of 5.63-259.21 at the NHRA Winternationals. They are also the current class record holder for elapsed time at 5.706. There are 24 top fuel dragsters expected at the 50th March Meet, and any one of them is capable of making it to the winner's circle. The stage is set for a drag race that appears to have all the ingredients for one of those March Meets for the ages. The nostalgia top fuel dragsters are run under the All American Fuel Dragsters Inc. For more information on their members, visit their web site at: www.aafd-inc.com.

 

1999 was the only year WW2 Racing used the black/brown/red/white paint scheme; ten days after the unexpected death of Jim Herbert, the team regrouped and went out and won a second straight March Meet.

 


Jim Murphy came ever so close to tying Don Garlits for the most March Meet titles, but smoked the tires in the final round of the '07 event and lost to Brett Harris.

 


Jack Harris will be back at the helm of Nitro Thunder beginning with the March Meet; the team will be seeking its 4th MM title.

Editors Note: Harris not only drove his Nitro Thunder fueler at the 2008 March Meet but won the race and ran the two quickest passes ever (5.56 and 5.57) by a front engine dragster. More at: Nitro Sheriff.com

 

Brad Thompson may have let one slip away in 2007-he qualified #1 with a 5.746 ; ran 5.767 and 5.748, but left second to Murphy in the semis and lost with a 5.82 (to Murphy's 5.86).

 

 

 

Early March Meet Bonus Photos
by Doug Peterson

 

Adriance Appliance A/FD, George Adriance and driver Dick Lechien A/GD, '61 MM.

 

Art Malone's Golden Rod at the '61 March Meet.

 

 

Bob Sullivan's Pandemonium III A/FD, at the '62 March Meet.

 

Chris "The Greek" Karamesines 1961

 

Groves, Cirino, Durfee Automotive A/R. '61 March Meet. Blown Olds on gasoline. This car won Top Eliminator at San Gabe a few times.

 

Gotelli & McLennan Champion Speed Shop Spl. '61 March Meet. The car, including engine was owned by Ted Gotelli. Jim drove and sponsored it with his Champion Speed Shop. Soon after this they went their separate ways.

 

Haines & Cross A/FD at the '61 MM.

 

Leffler & Loukas A/FCC. '61 March Meet... the famous "Trap Door" car, it was very fast.

 

 

Mooneyham & Sharp's A/FC. '61 March Meet. A legendary car, that brought everybody to the fence. This was the first time out with the rear axle bolted solidly to the frame.

 

Pink's Automotive A/FD at the '61 MM.

 

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