2018 saw the 60thanniversary of the NHRA Heritage Series’ March Meet, held at Famoso Raceway in Bakersfield, California. Many famous drivers and vehicles have raced down this iconic track.
Julie and I nearly didn’t get to the track. We were at Mammoth Lakes and on the day to travel, a foot of snow had fallen and the forecast was up to three feet snow to fall for that day! But we managed to get out of town and 6 hours later, we were greeted by Geno and his well-known dog Harley on their golf buggy. Geno and Harley kindly gave us a lift to the media centre, with Harley barking at people to get out of the way of the buggy (no horn required).
We arrived and the nitro cars were doing their test runs at the end of the day. The weather in various parts of the US was bad, with snow and rain, and the numbers were slightly down in some of the classes.
Saturday saw only a few cars get to run as rain moved in and ended the day. Nitro classes completed their eliminations on Sunday and the rest of the classes finished on Monday.
On Sunday a group of photographers in the shutdown area witnessed the ashes of the late Tim Marshall being scattered at his favourite spot.
Twelve Top Fuel cars entered the event and due to the weather got only one qualifying session, which saw Mendy Fry top the field with a 5.736 at 219.51 miles per hour. Bret Williamson was Fry’s nearest challenger with a 5.933 and a top speed of 247.47.
Newcomer Pete Wittenberg surprised everyone with a superb 6.305, followed by reigning Top Fuel Champion Jim Murphy’s 6.402.
Rounding off the field were Rick White 6.690, Brendan Murry 6.706, Dan Horan 7.038 and Adam Sorokin 7.515. Dusty Green just missed out with 7.616. Tim Cullinian, Rick McGee and Phil Ruskowski all had troubled runs.
Round one of eliminations and Fry led from start to finish against Sorokin—5.696 with a 261.42 top speed of the meet to Sorokin’s best run of the weekend, 6.115-229.04. Fry had some of Marshall’s ashes in her parachute.
Murphy beat White 5.840-231.08 to 6.228-242.71. Williamson had a fire at the finish line when he knocked out Horan 5.794 to 6.445. Wittenberg eased past a slowing Murry 5.840-221.92 to 9.273.
Fry then beat Murphy with low ET of the meet (5.600) in the semifinals to meet Wittenberg, who won a close race against Williamson 5.833 to 5.943.
Fry was the favourite in the final but at mid-track she crossed the centre line and Wittenberg took the win.
Twenty six Funny Cars attempted to qualify for the sixteen car eliminator. There were rumours of over thirty cars pre-entered.
Bobby Cottrell was the number one qualifier with 5.650 at 259.31, one of six cars to run over 250 mph. Jeff Arend—now driving the California Hustler—was next with a 5.664 at 257.73, followed by Mark Sanders’ 5.678, just ahead of Steven Densham’s 5.679.
Jason Rupert’s 5.688 and reigning Funny Car champion Ryan Hodgson’s 5.708 came next, and Brad Thompson was on the bump spot. Steve Easton had the car body come off during his qualifying run.
In round one of eliminations, Brad Thompson had a burst panel blow when he lost to Cottrell. Matt Bynum ran top speed of the meet at 259.61 when he lost Shawn Bowen.
There were a couple of shocks. Arend lost on a holeshot to Rian Konno—5.848 to Arend’s quicker 5.752. Sanders got knocked out by Paul Romine.
In round two, Cottrell ran low ET of 5.588 against Bowen. Densham beat Rupert and Konno had a bye to the semis. Hodgson ended Konno’s weekend and faced Cottrell in the final. It was Cottrell who took the winlight and the trophy.
A pre-entry of twenty-two AA/Fuel Alteredcars were expected, but only fourteen managed to do one qualifying run for the eight-car eliminator.
There is an index of 6.00 seconds for the Fuel Altereds, and Dan Hix ran 6.005 at 204.94 for number one spot. Todd Miller was next with a 6.194-209.88.
Brian Hope and the “Pure Hell” team had a new clutch set-up and left the start line with sparks shooting out from under the car to record a 6.331 at 209.92. Keith Wilson had a wild ride in the dark and ran 6.617-137. Mark Whynaught was on the bump spot.
There were a few big names that didn’t qualify. Jeremy Sullivan, Jim Holtz, Rodney Flournoy, and Chris Bennett with “Pure Heaven” (with a new engine set-up) all failed to make the cut.
Hix had to come from behind to beat Whynaught in round 1 of eliminations, 6.112 to 6.207. Hope broke out with a 5.989 at a personal best of 235.43, leaving Eric Gates to go onto the final.
Keith Wilson had a round 1 bye but was a no-show for the semi-final. Robert Winefsky beat Miller, but he too was a no show for the semis.
Hix won his third March Meet event with a 6.301 to Gates’ 8.914.
Rear Engine Top Fuel
Only four cars entered Rear Engine Top Fuel and only Jon Evans (6.930-133 number one qualifier) and Brad Thompson in the Rain for Rent dragster did a qualifying run.
Mike Halstead ran best figures of 5.546 at 257.14 to reach the final, beating Thompson’s 6.417. Billy McDevitt won the other semi when Evans broke.
The final was all Halstead from start to finish over a troubled run by McDevitt.
5.90 Funny Car
5.90 Funny Car is a new idea, which at the moment is planned for this event only. With a 5.90 index, it gives the slower cars of the big Funny Car field a chance to race on Sunday.
Four cars qualified and Claude La Voie ran 6.521 to edge Shawn Van Horn’s 6.562 for number one. Dean Oberg in the Jeep ran 6.601-205.63 and Jeff Utterback was on the bump spot with a 6.882.
Utterback found a set-up and ran low ET 6.137to beat LaVoie’s 6.283 with a top speed of 224.14. Oberg eased pass Horn 6.610-207.78.
The final was a solo pass for Oberg, who lit the night with header flames off the start line.
Drew Austin ran a jaw dropping 5.813-233.60 to top the A Fuel field, but multi-time champion Kin Bates won the event and ran top speed of the meet at 235.68 mph.
Junior Fuel was won by John Marottek and he was the No 1 qualifier.
Chris Bates ran 7.002 to edge Jon Kostelechi 7.008 in 7.0 PRO
qualifying. But it was Ronnie Lennon who took home the trophy, beating Tony Trimp in the final.
There were some famous names at the event. Steve Gibbs was there to promote the Nitro Revival event, along with Ed “The Ace” McCulloch. Wandering around the pits we also spotted Roland Leong, Jeff Diehl and Robert Hight .
On a personal note, I had taken my signature race hat (the red and white Mongoose ‘57 Chevy)—worn for nearly 30 years—to Bakersfield to get it signed by Tom McEwen. Once signed it was retired, not to be worn again. Bakersfield is an iconic track and what better place to wear it for the last time (and the first time outside the UK).