Last weekend, racers descended on Bakersfield for the 58th running of the March Meet, which now is part of NHRA’s Hot Rod Heritage Racing Series but for decades was known as one of the great fuel-racing events on the calendar.
In 1959, the Smokers Car Club of Bakersfield created what it called an East vs. West challenge and paid Don Garlits to make his first trek west to prove that the incredible numbers he had been laying down back East were legitimate and that he was the real deal. Garlits had a less than memorable outing, and a Bakersfield win eluded him until 1965, when he had a monster weekend.
Fifty years later, into my email Inbox comes a wonderful collection of rare color photos from that event, sent by column reader Charles Milikin Jr., of Oakdale, Conn., who as a 21-year-old made the Garlits-like cross-country trek to the Valhalla of nitro racing.
“I was a drag racing fan and amateur photographer from Connecticut and loved reading about all the great cars on the West Coast In the pages of Drag News and National Dragster,” he explained. “My cousin and I planned to go to Bakersfield and also visit one of his friends that lived in El Cajon when his family moved there (his dad was in the Navy at that time). So we drove cross-country in my '63 Chevy Impala and had a wonderful experience. We took turns driving and went nonstop, traveling the old Route 66. It was fueler heaven for a reason, and I have great memories from a wonderful period of drag racing. I somehow managed not to throw out some of the negatives from way back then. These were all from behind the fence. I was fortunate to have a telephoto lens with me."
Don Garlits has often called it his "greatest win," which is really saying something considering the many huge victories he scored in his career. Here “Big Daddy” shared the winning moment with his daughters, Gay Lynn (wearing his face mask) and Donna.
Garlits, runner-up the previous year to Connie Kalitta, brought three cars out West: his own Swamp Rat VI-B, with which he had won the Nationals the year before; Swamp Rat 8, driven by Connie Swingle, which featured a rear wild torsion bar and was fitted with the new 426 Hemi; and the Garlits Chassis Special (a near clone of SR VI), driven by “Starvin’ Marvin” Schwartz.
Garlits won all six rounds of Saturday’s 64-car show; Swingle and Schwartz were beaten early. The winner of the Saturday show was scheduled to face the winner of Sunday’s 32-car field. Swingle didn’t make the quick 32 cut, but Schwartz did despite having problems with the engine. Garlits was on hand to watch, but Schwartz asked Garlits to drive his car in the first round so he could hear it run “for tuning purposes.” Garlits won his first-round race, so Schwartz let him drive again, and he won again. Three rounds later, Garlits had also vanquished the 32-car field.
Seeing as how he couldn’t race himself in the Saturday vs, Sunday overall winner final, Schwartz hopped back into the car. They flipped for lane choice; Garlits won and picked the right lane because the left had recently been oiled. Schwartz had other ideas, though, and after the push-start zoomed right into the right lane ahead of Garlits, who surrendered the lane to his good friend, then beat him anyway with an 8.10 at 205 mph yet was none-too-pleased with his good friend. The victory competed Garlits’ quest to win all of the big three events of that era (the Nationals, Winternationals, and March Meet).
I’m not sure if this is Garlits or Marvin Schwartz in the Garlits Chassis Special “shop car.” What I do know is that this car was later shortened and became the chassis for Swamp Rat IX, the Roadster Dart, one of the few Swamp Rats that wasn’t a Top Fuel dragster.
Swingle went on to take runner-up honors behind James Warren in Sunday’s 16-car consolation event (some say that Swingle won the controversial, smoke-filled final), making for an impressive weekend for the Garlits team.
The rest of Milikin’s photos help set the mood for the time. I don’t have a lot of information on most of them beyond what Milikin provided, but I’m sure you’ll enjoy them just the same.
Fresh off of winning the Winternationals, here’s Don Prudhomme in Roland Leong’s Hawaiian. Not long after the March Meet, they headed back East on tour and became household names before the year was out after also winning the Nationals.
Most fans know Bill Leavitt for his long line of Quickie Two Funny Cars, but before he raced floppers, he was into Top Fuel with this Tommy Ivo-built dragster.
Oregon’s Cordy Jensen hiked the front end in the Bev's Steak House Top Fueler, which was sponsored by the family business. Jensen became a very successful restaurateur with a stake in more than 90 restaurants.
Chuck Hepler’s Fugitive, which made the long tow out West from Champaign, Ill.
The original Winkle-Trapp-Fuller Magi-car. I’m not sure who was driving it at this event, but my money is on Jeep Hampshire.
The A&B Speed Shop injected Chevy of Bernie Regals and Ade Kynff in the near-deserted Famoso pits. The duo made the trip to California from Somerville, Mass., in early 1965 and raced at Lions and other tracks.
Unknown Jr. Fueler warming up in the pits
Dave Beebe lit the hides in the Beebe Bros./JA Speed Center Chevy-powered ‘32 Bantam fuel altered.
West Coast Gasser legend Jack “the Bear” Coonrod was partners on this bright yellow Willys – dubbed the Kamakazi Koup – with Wayne Harry.
Thanks again to Charles for sharing these great pics. I see a lot of great old photos, but a lot of them are black and white, so to have color photos, and from such a memorable event, is a real treat. I hope you enjoyed them.