This weekend, the eyes of the drag racing world once again fall on Bakersfield, Calif., for the continuation of the rebirth of the fabled March Meet. This year, the event celebrates its 52nd birthday, and while we all realize it will never be the March Meet of old – almost no event could be – still the legend lives on. And what a legend.
Conceived in 1959 by the Smokers Car Club of Bakersfield as sort of an East vs. West challenge, the March Meet became much more than that, and, to many, having a March Meet win (aka U.S. Fuel and Gas Championships) on the ol' driving résumé meant as much as winning any race shy of perhaps the U.S. Nationals. The race was that tough to win its heyday.
Here's a quick year-by-year recap of the event in its original incarnation, from 1959 until 1988. In 1994, it became a nostalgia racing event and continues to enjoy success to this day, but in the beginning, it was one of the ultimate tests of its day.
1959: Art Chrisman won the inaugural March Meet.
1959: Everyone remembers that inaugural event, if for no other reason than it prompted Don Garlits (who was not yet "Big Daddy") to make his first trip west, thanks to a generous payment by the Smokers. Garlits wouldn’t win that first time – heck, he wouldn’t win in his first six trips west – and the West Coast fans got to see two of their own battle it out. Art Chrisman drove around a holeshot by Bakersfield’s Tony Waters to claim the win in Top Eliminator. "T.V. Tommy" Ivo scored the gas dragster honors.
1960: Ted Cyr, just a year and a half removed from winning the Nationals, scored another big win when he defeated Neil Leffler. A couple of Florida heroes, Art Malone and Garlits, set the performance marks, with Malone grabbing low e.t. at 8.60 and Garlits top speed at 185.56. Ivo and his young protégé, Don Prudhomme, swept the gas dragster honors, winning the Open and B Open titles, respectively.
1961: Lefty Mudersbach drove Chet Herbert 's dragsterto a pretty big surprise win by driving his unblown twin Chevy dragster to Top Eliminator honors against the equally surprising B/Fuel Dragster of Jack Ewell.
1962: Prudhomme dominated the event, setting low e.t. and top speed (8.21, 185.36) en route to victory and claiming the win on Glen Leasher's final-round red-light.
Gordon Collett won Top Gas back to back ('63-64).
1963: Malone made good on the promise he'd shown at earlier March Meets by nabbing his first win there. Like Prudhomme the year before, this one was decided on the starting line, but this time on a holeshot as Malone capped Tom McEwen, 8.33 to 8.31. Gordon "Collecting" Collett won the Top Gas title.
1964: Garlits came close to grabbing his first Bakersfield win but was turned away by wily Connie Kalitta in the final, 7.95 to 8.23. Top Gas again was "collected" by Collett.
1965: "Big Daddy" finally struck California gold, beating good friend "Starvin' Marvin" Schwartz in the final with a blast of 8.10 at 205 mph.
1966: The surf was up as Mike Sorokin scored the biggest win of his career, beating hometown favorite James Warren in the final. Sorokin and the Surfers team set low e.t. at 7.34 en route to waxing an all-star field. Phil Hobbs won Top Gas, and the newly initiated Funny Car class was won by Gas Ronda.
1967: Mike Snively, hot off of 1966 wins at the Winternationals and U.S. Nationals, kept Roland Leong's Hawaiian in the spotlight by beating Dave Beebe for the March Meet crown. Jack Chrisman won Funny Car, and the popular Freight Train, with Goob Tuller driving, won Top Gas.
1968: The Frantic Four became the celebrated ones as Ron Rivero, hot off a semifinal win against Winternationals champ Warren, made a solo in the final after the late Leroy Goldstein couldn't get his mount to fire. Fred Goeske won Funny Car .
1969: A whopping 125 Top Fuelers were at the decade's final event, an upset-filled race that Jim Dunn won by defeating Dave Babler. Danny Ongais wheeled Mickey Thompson’s Funny Car to victory against “Big John” Mazmanian.
1970: "The Loner," Tony Nancy, went his Winternationals runner-up one better with his first major win, but the bigger news may have been former event Top Fuel winner Snively, who reached the Funny Car final and nearly became the first driver to win the event in both classes but smoked the tires against Hank Clark's AMC Rebel. Pro Stock was added to the event, and the inaugural title went to cigar-chomping "Dandy Dick" Landy, who beat the "Red-Light Bandit," Bill Bagshaw, in the final.
1971: Don Garlits, driving his new rear-engine car, won his second March Meet.
1971: As he did at the Winternationals, Garlits reached the winner's circle with his new rear-engine dragster, defeating the conventional California Charger slingshot of Rick Ramsey. Garlits got it done on a holeshot, 6.71 to 6.64. Dunn accomplished what Snively could not the year before, becoming the first to win in both fuel classes when he beat Dave Condit to win the Funny Car title.
1972: McEwen scored his first major victory when he beat Winternationals champ Carl Olson in the final with a track record 6.35. In what was a remarkable run, Dunn again reached a March Meet final (his third in four years) but conceded the Funny Car title to Ed McCulloch after his mount lost fire. "The California Flash," Butch Leal, beat Bob Lambeck for the Pro Stock title.
1973: Dwight Salisbury joined the list of long-deserving Top Fuel winners to finally strike paydirt. After beating Garlits on a holeshot earlier in eliminations, "Sals" beat Randy Allison for the win. Tom Hoover ended McCulloch's bid for a double in the Funny Car final, and Lambeck was relegated to runner-up in Pro Stock for the second straight year, this time at the hands of Larry Huff.
1974: Olson made good on his second trip to the final. After qualifying No. 1 with a 6.04, the driver of the Kuhl & Olson digger made the track's first five-second pass, a 5.94 in round two, then denied Nancy a second Bakersfield win in the final. McCulloch reached his third Funny Car final and again collected the win, this time on a solo when Twig Zeigler could not back up his Pizza Haven machine after his burnout.
1975: As hard as it is to believe, it took until 1975 for Warren and Roger Coburn to win their hometown's biggest event, but the Ridge Route Terrors did it in terrorizing fashion with a blitz of five-second passes, including a 5.92 to qualify No. 1 and low e.t. of 5.87 in the semi's. Warren capped the win with a 5.91 defeat of Jeb Allen. Dale Pulde defeated Prudhomme in the Funny Car final.
1976: More Top Fuel terror as Warren-Coburn and the Rain for Rent team again rained on the parade of the other Top Fuelers, and Warren became the first Top Fuel driver to win back-to-back Bakersfield titles. Hard-luck Nancy again was the runner-up, this time shut off on the line with a fuel leak. Funny Car also was decided on a bye run after Gordie Bonin lost fire, allowing popular “Jungle Jim” Liberman an easy pass to victory.
1977: After qualifying No. 1 with a track record 5.79 and bettering it with a 5.75 in round two, Warren won for the third straight year, beating Garlits in the final. Eddie Pauling won Funny Car.
1978: Dennis Baca, near lane, defeated Graham Light.
1978: Future NHRA Senior Vice President Graham Light reached the Top Fuel final (run in April after rain postponed the event) but lost to Dennis Baca. Baca lost the blower belt on his pass, but Light had already smoked the tires. Denny Savage won Funny Car.
1979: In what to many marked the beginning of the traditional great race's demise, the Top Fuel field was reduced to just 16 cars. Furthering the anxiety of the Bakersfield faithful, Warren couldn’t even qualify for that field. Garlits, coming off his own shocking DNQ at the Winternationals, qualified No. 1 and won only his second Bakersfield Top Fuel title and, ironically, did it by beating the same guy, Ramsey, as he did eight years earlier. Simon Menzies won Funny Car.
1980: Kalitta finally added his name to the list of double March Meet winners and did it by beating archrival Shirley Muldowney in the semifinals and tire-smoking (again) Light in the final. Dunn scored again in Funny Car when Prudhomme smoked the tires in the final.
1981: Muldowney added her name to the Who's Who to win the race when she defeated hometown favorite Doug Kerhulas in the final. Pulde scored his second Funny Car win, beating Dale Armstrong's Speed Racer in the final.
1982: Muldowney reached the final the following year as well only to be upset by upstart Lucille Lee in what was the first all-female Top Fuel final. Lee also won the Southern Nationals that month, but Muldowney got her revenge by defeating Lee in the final of the Springnationals. Tom Ridings beat the late Tripp Shumake in the Funny Car final.
1983: Another shocking winner was crowned in former sand drag racer Danny Dannell, who denied Muldowney in her third straight final-round appearance at the event. Mike Dunn joined father Jim as a March Meet Funny Car champ after taking out Henry Harrison in the final.
1984: Gary Beck and crew chief Bernie Fedderly won their first of two straight.
1984: Reigning world champ Gary Beck won Top Fuel, capping a dominating performance by beating team boss Larry Minor and his matching Miller Lite car in the final, 5.49 to 5.67. Three years before he'd win his first NHRA national event title, John Force upset McEwen in the Funny Car final.
1985: Beck returned to the winner's circle the following year, this time by besting long shot Shannon Stuart in the Stuart & Harmon dragster. Rick Johnson, who had powered Leong's Hawaiian Punch Dodge to a stunning 5.58 at the Winternationals, kept the magic alive by winning Funny Car against Gary Densham. Pro Stock returned to the event, and Ken Dondero beat Jerry Eckman in the final.
1986: With the Top fuel field pared to just eight cars, Garlits won again but did it in dramatic fashion with a 5.37 – then the quickest run in history – with his famous Swamp Rat XXX streamliner. Although his final-round opponent, former NFL quarterback Dan Pastorini, was a surprise, Pastrorini, like Lee, also would win the Southern Nationals that year. Force scored his second March meet win, defeating "Jam-Air John" Martin.
1987: With the world rapidly losing interest in the event, Garlits scored his fifth March Meet win on former starter Larry Sutton's red-light, and Force defeated McCulloch in the Funny Car final.
1988: The final March Meet of the original era went into the books with yet another former sand drag racer, Butch Blair, winning in his Blair's Fugowie dragster against journeyman Robert Reehl. Martin made good in his second straight Funny Car final and took a bye run to the winner's circle after Pulde was unable to return after hurting his car in the semifinals.
That's it, a capsule look back at what was, for decades, a great race. The race continues to this day under its nostalgia format, which for many is wonderful and a bit of a throwback to the old days, and with the NHRA Hot Rod Heritage Racing Series as its main booster, the event should continue to thrive.