The 53rd Annual Bakersfield March Meet serves as the kickoff event for the National Hot Rod Association Heritage Racing season, but bounced back a week after qualifying when heavy rains didn’t allow for safe conditions of the main event.
Class qualifying was accomplished on March 18 and 19. The first rounds of eliminations got only as far as the Nitro Categories before the rain put a halt to the event. But the fans were still treated to some great performances and “highlight reel” action.
Leading the highlight reel had to be the first round fuel funny car race between NHRA Full Throttle Series standout, Ron Capps and Dennis Swearingen. Capps was driving the tribute car of the Famous 1975 Blue Max Mustang. Josh Crawford of Oakdale (who was unable to attend the event this year), owns and drives the 1969-70 tribute version of the Blue Max.
Capps was on his way to an easy first round win at near 250 mph when, suddenly, the engine over-revved. This caused the supercharger to back fire, causing a high-pressure condition under the body. The safety burst panel on the body flew off, as designed to prevent catastrophic body damage, but not without causing the body to lift up slightly. Once the body lifted, it caught air and flew upwards of 100 to 150 feet into the air. The “one off” custom body suffered severe damage when it returned to earth, all but eliminating any chance for the car to return for the next round. Jason Rupert, who qualified number one with 5.693 at 256.16 mph, advanced to the second round when his opponent, John Hale of Texas in the “Big Mike Burkhart” 1969 Camaro tribute funny car broke a the starting line.
Tim Boychuk, with the tuning expertise of legendary Roland “The Hawaiian” Leong, made the best run in the first round eliminations with a 5.863 (244.43 mph) run to defeat Dwayne Patton of Visalia. In a major surprise, the Plueger and Gyger 1971 Mustang, the series champion for the last two years, failed to qualify. In the AA/FD (AA-Fuel Dragster) category Brett Harris from Utah excited the crowd with a 262.08 mph winning lap in his front motor dragster. This was one of the fastest speeds ever run in a front motor dragster. The top fuel dragsters of today are all rear engine cars and reach speeds of over 300 mph. The major upset came when last season’s Nostalgia top fuel champion (AA/FD), Adam Sorokin, who qualified 12th, lost in the first round to the number 4 qualified Denver Schutz of Fresno. Sorokin had one of the quickest and most consistent top fuel dragsters last season and last year’s March Meet defending champion, but had a difficult go at it at the 2011 March Meet. The first round of both the nitro categories barely finished when the rain started, ending the activities for the day.
When Sunday arrived, the weather was worse, putting the entire event on hold until the following Saturday, March 26.
When Saturday arrived the weather was rainy all the way to a point 10 minutes north of the racetrack. At the track, the weather cycled from overcast to partly cloudy throughout the day, providing for some excellent track conditions that would allow for some stellar performances. As many of the racers come from across the country, some from as far as the east coast, the fields in each class saw reductions in the numbers of competitors able to return for the completion of the event. Most of the remaining eight cars left in competition in the nitro funny car category for the second round of eliminations had contractual commitments for a race at the track in Tucson, Arizona and could not return. This set up a remaining field of three cars to compete for the March Meet fuel funny car title. In the end, it would be Jason Rupert and his Mert Littlefield 1969 Camaro, the quickest funny car on the grounds against one of the most consistent performing funny cars in the class, “Hollywood” Kris Krabill and the “Pedaler” 1978 Plymouth Arrow. Krabill showed why the races are not just run on paper, as he reacted first to the ‘green light’ and held off the hard charging Rupert for a 5.908 to (quicker, but losing) 5.824 elapse time run for the win. In the top fuel category, 6 of the 8 remaining cars were able to return for the final elimination rounds. In the final round it was Bret Harris in the “Nitro Thunder” top fuel (front motored) dragster against Rick White in the “Neal and White” top fuel dragster. Harris had won two March Meet top fuel titles, had the experience edge and a great running car on his side. White was the number one qualifier and ran the best elapse time in every round of eliminations, definitely had the car to beat. At the flash of the green light, White had the better reaction time and simply drove away from Harris to capture his first March Meet top fuel title with a 5.707 to 5.783 performance.
The top Nostalgia Eliminator category, NE1 featured the greatest variety of racecars that look very similar to those run ‘back in the day.’ The category runs on a performance index of 7.60 seconds to help offset costs. These categories also featured one of the larger car counts, with 52 competing for one of 32 elimination positions for eliminations. After five rounds of racing, Kevin Sarginson in his alcohol fueled 1965 Mustang funny car from Ahwahnee took the NE1 event title. In the Hot Rod category which had the most competing cars (47 qualified for eliminations) and most rounds of elimination (six rounds), Chris Conway of Sonora qualified at the top of the field and went three rounds before his day ended.
Even with the rain delays, the fans were treated to some great on track racing, full access to the racers and a chance to get an autograph and a photograph with a drag racing legend, Shirley Muldowney, who was this year’s Grand Marshal. She was the first woman to compete in a nitro methane fueled racecar (driving both a funny car and a top fuel dragster during her legendary career) and the only woman to win a season championship in NHRA, with three top fuel titles, 1977, 1980 and 1982.