FROM ECSTASY TO INEVITABILITY
The Bakersfield Clambake From 1965 to the 1988 Finish
In my 45 years of drag racing spectatorhood, no one race matched the Bakersfield event when it comes to highs and lows. For younger fans, it almost sounds like bull when the older fans like me and Dave Wallace and other SoCal veteranos bench race about the Famoso fling. The race when it was good was indeed THAT good, but not every one of them.
No greater time period reinforces that point better than the 1964 race (see previous Bakersfield column) and the 1965 and 1966 events, and how they contrasted with the 1967 event. Volumes have been written about the ’65 and ’66 races and I was extremely fortunate to have attended both and seen both races in their entirety. When I consider time, place, and condition, the ’65 and ’66 races, along with the ’64 event, were…well, I’ve never been to better races. Every major Top Fuel car in the country was at Bakersfield in those years and if you were Connie Kalitta, Don Garlits, and Mike Sorokin, you could say without fear of contradiction, “I won the biggest fuel race in the world.”
Since volumes have been written on this trio, I won’t go into too much detail. Picking up where I left off from the last installment, the ’65 event marked the Revenge of Don Garlits. What a performance. The year prior the fabled Floridian just missed when Kalitta knocked him out in the final round. A year before that Tom “Not Yet the Mongoose” McEwen cashed him out. The biggest star in the class (and one of the major reasons the races was created) and the biggest fuel trophy in the sport was not in his den…yet.
As most know, Garlits utterly dominated the show. He won the Saturday 64-car show icing out one of the genuine killer cars on the West Coast, Ed Pink’s “Old Master” with Mike Snively wheeling. By winning the Saturday show, he got to sit out Sunday’s 32-car show, which would feature Snively again, and this time, against Garlits teammate and an excellent shoe in his own right, Marvin Schwartz in the Garlits Chassis Spl.
Wanting an all-team final, Garlits replaced Schwartz behind the wheel and raced Snively and beat him convincingly. In the all-Team Garlits final, “King Rat” did away with his pal and completed the sweep. Interestingly enough, the Bakersfield promoters repeated what they had done a year prior and created a 16-car (actually just 14 filled the staging lanes) consolation Top Fuel show for the non-qualifiers for Sunday and Team Garlits damn near won that.
Wouldn’t you know Bakersfield’s James Warren prevented that when he whipped Connie Swingle in Garlits’ third dragster.
The ’66 event was one almost all race fans recall -- the “Year of the Surfers.” The ultimate low buckers made more power and drove better than the biggest names in the sport and won in record-breaking fashion. Sorokin beat ’66 NHRA Winternationals Top Fuel runner-up Jim Dunn aboard his and Al Yates’ “Green Mountain Boys” to win Saturday’s 64 car show and this allowed him to sit out and eventually race Sunday 32-car winner Warren, whom he beat.
For this viewer, the ’66 Bakersfield show was likely the zenith of the entire event series. What could the promoters possibly come up with that would top that? The answer ultimately was a bit blurry and historically unsteady, but it’s safe to say the race did not maintain that pace. In general the Bakersfield event, as great as it had been, couldn’t keep up with the act of those years, and, like most things, fell off significantly and went out of existence.
In 1967, for the first time, the March Meet honchos were going to give the emerging and extremely popular new Funny Car class three days of weight eliminations. There would be an Unlimited bracket for the blown fuel coupes and 2,000 and 2,400 and heavier brackets for the fuel injected cars. Not only that but the radio ads trumpeted these “outsiders” at the same level as the class that made the show famous, Top Fuel. Just off of that, I can recall a number of my drag race chums saying that they might pass on the trek north from L.A. if the “floppers” would get even billing with the “Kings of the Spot.”