“We’re celebrating 50 years of racing here,” said Blake Bowser, vice president and general manager of the Kern County Racing Association, operators of Auto Club Famoso and producers of the fabled March Meet. “It’s a historic occasion that all of Bakersfield, Kern County and drag racing can be proud of.”
Half a century ago, Bakersfield was a sleepy oil town best known as the last stop before climbing the “Grapevine” road to Los Angeles. Things changed rapidly when local country singer Buck Owens rose to fame in the late 1950s. At the same time, drag racers from around the country began pouring into Famoso for quarter-mile runs.
The March Meet, originally called the U.S. Fuel and Gas Championships, was spearheaded by the Smokers, a local race club. The Smokers, who began racing at Famoso in 1951, became skeptical of reported times and speeds set in the east by “Big Daddy” Don Garlits. So they invited him to Bakersfield to compete. In March 1959 he did just that. The result was the March Meet, often called the “Woodstock of drag racing.” Although Garlits lost in the first round and Art Chrisman became Top Eliminator, Garlits went on to become the most celebrated drag racer in history and #1 on the NHRA’s Top 50 list. Garlits’ appearance at Famoso spread the fame of the track, March Meet and Bakersfield far and wide.
The March Meet and Famoso have changed hands over the years. Currently, both are run by locals Blake and his dad, John Boswer, who worked at the track in late ‘50s. “Everything changed in 1959 after the first March Meet,” said John Bowser. “The whole image of drag racing changed. There were so many people at Famoso for it. There were people and cars for days. The whole town was excited. People were hanging out at hamburger stands – it was like American Graffiti – one giant car show. Everyone drove up and down Chester Ave.”
Added Blake Bowser, who grew up with the March Meet: “Every year, everyone knew the March Meet was coming to town,” he said. We’d cut school to go to it. It was a Senior Ditch Day.”
The March Meet and Famoso Raceway created an entire generation of both racers and racing fans and marked Bakersfield as a Mecca for the sport. The Mears family began to race at Famoso, as did the Pedregons and Tom “The Mongoose” McEwen (who, along with Don “The Snake” Prudhomme is a Grand Marshal of this year’s event) and many, many others. NASCAR’s Kevin Harvick launched his racing career in Bakersfield.
In its hay day, the March Meet was the race on the NHRA schedule, where legendary racers such as Prudhomme, “TV Tommy” Ivo, Shirley Muldowney and Connie Kalitta clashed. Many of today’s stars like John Force and Ron Capps competed in the March Meet.
Today the March Meet is racing’s top nostalgia event, and is the first stop on the NHRA’s new 7-race Hot Rod Heritage Series. It’s still, in Blake Bowser’s words, “…the largest single event in Bakersfield. It helped put Bakersfield on the map. Bakersfield is Buck Owens, Merle Haggard and the March Meet.”
Happy 50th, March Meet, and here’s to many, many more.
Now celebrating 50 years of racing, the March Meet is a three-day speedfest that enthusiasts call ‘the jewel of Nostalgia Racing.’ It attracts drag racers and spectators from around the world and also includes a hot rod car show, swap meet and vendors’ midway. Tickets: Super 3-Day Passes are now on sale at www.famosoraceway.com for $75. Individual day tickets for the event will go on sale Mar.3, but will only be available at the track. Ticket prices are $25 for Fri., Mar. 7; $30 for Sat., Mar. 8; and $30 for Sun., Mar. 9.
Auto Club members also receive a $ 2 discount off daily admission tickets by showing their cards when they purchase tickets at the track. Daily tickets for children ages 7 to 12 are $10 and kids 6 and under are free when accompanied by an adult with paid admission.
The Grand Marshals this year are drag racing legends Don “the Snake” Prudhomme and Tom “the Mongoose” McEwen.
The 2008 March Meet is also the inaugural race of the Hot Rod Heritage Series, the NHRA’s new 7-race nostalgia racing series.
The Kern County Racing Association (KCRA) operates historic Auto Club Famoso Raceway (just north of Bakersfield, Calif.) and promotes a full schedule of races year round, including the world famous March Meet, Mar. 7-9, 2008. For more details, visit www.famosoraceway.com.