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"
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
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
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,
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
Brad Kittredge photo
the '62 March Meet; left to right: The guys standing behind the
car are Kent Fuller, Ed Donovan, Tom McEwen, Don Prudhomme, and
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
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
Jerry Guill photo
This was the much anticipated
showdown between 'The Greek' and Greer 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"; '66 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/
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
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.
Kuhl-Olson avenged their final
round loss to Tom McEwen in 1972 by winning the '74 March Meet.
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
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
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
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"
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
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.