SCENE AT THE 2018 MARCH MEET

Hot Rod Deluxe - - Rod­din’ Scene - • PICS: MARC GEW­ERTZ, PAUL SADLER & DAVE WAL­LACE

Out­door en­ter­tain­ment is al­ways risky in March, even some­where en­vied for year­round mo­tor­sports. With big risks come big re­wards—or ex­pen­sive, even dis­as­trous, dis­ap­point­ments. Famoso Race­way’s fa­ther-son op­er­a­tors, John and Blake Bowser, keep plac­ing this par­tic­u­lar bet be­cause their sea­son opener keeps the track­side lights on all year. A good March Meet Satur­day pays for ex­pen­sive im­prove­ments like their new metal grand­stands.

Since Don Gar­l­its first ap­peared in March 1959, when the sun shines on Bak­ers­field, this farm­land 20 miles north trans­forms into a Cen­tral Val­ley ver­sion of spring break in Day­tona Beach or Palm Springs. Grand­stands over­flow into the aisles with young, sweaty bod­ies wear­ing as lit­tle as the law al­lows while cel­e­brat­ing the end of win­ter. Be­hind the bleach­ers, car-show en­tries sit fen­der to fen­der in mul­ti­ple rows the full length of the still-quar­ter-mile race­track. Mid­way ven­dors pros­per. From the ticket booth to the swap meet past the fin­ish line, cash flows like beer in years like that.

This March Meet was noth­ing like that. Long-range fore­casts can be deadly out here, es­pe­cially south of the Grapevine, where the small­est per­cent­age of pre­dicted pre­cip­i­ta­tion is suf­fi­cient to can­cel ca­sual fans’ out­door plans. After a full Thurs­day of open test­ing, Fri­day show­ers re­duced the sched­uled qual­i­fy­ing ses­sions, and then Satur­day washed out.

(To the strip’s credit, fans seek­ing to buy Satur­day tick­ets were told not to ex­pect any ac­tion un­til Sun­day, when Satur­day tick­ets would gain ad­mit­tance to elim­i­na­tions.) Thus, elim­i­na­tion pair­ings were nec­es­sar­ily based on Fri­day’s qual­i­fy­ing or­der.

Al­though Nostal­gia Top Fuel draws barely a tenth of the triple-digit en­tries filed by mid1960s’ fuel teams, and de­spite the re­al­ity that flop­pers now out­num­ber fu­el­ers by dou­ble, this re­mains a drag­ster meet in the minds of old-timers. One year to the week­end after earn­ing his li­cense here, Pete Wit­ten­berg drove the an­cient Cir­cuit Breaker sling­shot to one of the big­gest March upsets ever; also among the slow­est: an up-in-smoke 14.22 at 60.84 mph un­der the lights against de­fend­ing-champ Mendy Fry, who’d qual­i­fied Num­ber One (5.73) in Top Fuel’s sole ses­sion Fri­day, then set low e.t. (5.60) and over­all top speed of the meet (261.42) ear­lier Sun­day. Mo­men­tar­ily blinded by se­vere tire shake on the cold con­crete, the fa­vored vet­eran drifted across the stripe at half-track, snatch­ing de­feat from cer­tain vic­tory. A/fuel’s fi­nale saw Kin Bates un­leash a 5.84 at 233.88 to stop Rick Ewens (6.07/220.84). Ear­lier, Bates and archri­val Drew Austin re­spec­tively split low e.t. (5.81) and top speed hon­ors (235.68) with un­blown cars that each ran quicker than all but two Top Fu­el­ers (al­beit with wider tires and other al­lowances). The new­est drag­ster cat­e­gory, Rear-en­gine Nostal­gia Top Fuel, at­tracted a record turnout of four 1970s-style cars. Mike Hal­stead un­corked a stout 5.54 at 257.14 in the first round, then knocked off run­ner-up Billy Mcde­vitt with a loose 8.29/223.95 in the cold. In al­co­hol-fed Jr. Fuel, lowqual­i­fied John Marot­tek (6.85) dropped Matt Bal­don­ado.

Swoopy, droopy, over­hung ’69 Ca­maros con­tinue evolv­ing at such a rapid—some say stupid— rate that a sep­a­rate, 5.90-break­out cat­e­gory was tested here for bod­ies truer to the orig­i­nal con­cept of iden­ti­fi­able, 1970s-style flop­pers. Only four teams warmed to Famoso’s ex­per­i­men­tal “Clas­sic” class; none quite warmed to the tricky track. Dean Oberg sin­gled home the win in the Holy Toledo Jeep. An­other two dozen flop­pers bat­tled through two qual­i­fy­ing ses­sions for 16 slots in the main event. Both AA/FC fi­nal­ists were up to the dual chal­lenge of the horse­power-en­hanc­ing cool air and cold con­crete that spoiled other Sun­day-night show­downs. Bucky Austin’s Ca­maro stuck like glue for driver Bobby Cot­trell, whose 5.72/241.41 dom­i­nated Ryan Hodg­son’s re­spectable 5.95/240.17. Cot­trell set low e.t. of 5.58 ear­lier, while Michi­gan­der Matt Bynum turned top speed of 259.61. A fifth blown-ni­tro cat­e­gory, 6.00-indexed Aa/fuel Al­tered Elim­i­na­tor, went to Dan Hix’s trans­former sand­bag­ger for a record third time. Ron­nie Len­non won 7.0 Pro; Dan Schrokosch, Nostal­gia I; Sam Tucker, Nostal­gia II; Ed Des­taute, Nostal­gia III; Frank Merenda, A/gas; Neal West­brook, B/G; P.J. Gi­acalone, C/G; Don Fournier, D/G; and Dale Hicks pre­vailed in the di­a­ly­our-own Hot Rod class.

For hard-core fuel fans and back-marker fuel teams alike, a sil­ver lin­ing to the dark clouds that re­duced ex­pen­sive qual­i­fy­ing at­tempts was a lev­el­ing of the field be­tween haves and have-nots. The prime ex­am­ple is Gary Wit­ten­berg, who’d won just one round en­ter­ing the March Meet—yet left lead­ing the NHRA Hot Her­itage Se­ries.

The rest of the points races will be more in­ter­est­ing and po­ten­tially more com­pet­i­tive as a re­sult of the shakeup. As for Famoso’s fam­ily part­ners, there’s al­ways next year. Rather than re­treat to the of­fice or blow their brains out, the Bowsers were ev­ery­where Sun­day, smil­ing as if their bet had paid off in spades. Son Blake, a glass-half-full-kind’a guy, scanned the lengths of shiny, new, un­crowded seat­ing, glanced up at the bluest sky in three days, then cheer­ily said, “We might have half [the usual at­ten­dance] be­fore it’s over.” Bet­ter luck next time, boys (March 7-10, 2019).

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