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fter coming home from Bakersfield, the computer is open and an mp3 of Steve Parker’s radio program “World Racing Roundup” is squeaking through the laptop’s speakers. As the show opens, “Drag City” by Jan & Dean sets the tone for the balance of the podcast.
“Burn up that quarter mile,” the surf rockers sing in crushed castratos, and after a long weekend of chasing race cars with a camera and a word processor, to this reporter that winsome sentiment serves as a proper punctuation mark to a spectacular weekend of drag racing in Bakersfield, California.
Indeed, the 51st running of the venerable March Meet had wrapped hours before Parker’s broadcast. Readers of this electronic rag know most if not all of the details, be it the gruesome and the glorious (Dan Horan t-boning Mike Chrisman in Top Fuel and making a metallic crab salad out of both their race cars as the former; Bucky Austin posting a relentless and crushing string of 5.7 second quarter-mile elapsed times in his “Northwest Hitter” Nitro Funny Car — numbers that would decimate the rest of the fiberglass floppers, as the latter), the surreal and the sensational (fat drunk chicks stumbling around in “Douchebag Motorsports” wife-beaters as the former; three days of standing-room only attendance, a phenomenon defying New-Depression box office trends in every form of motorsports, be it NASCAR or NHRA, as the latter), and the badass and the beatific (while clocking a speed of 235 mph in Funny Car Eliminator qualifying, “Nasty” Dave Benjamin’s ’73 Satellite acted eponymously, with a top-end explosion launching the body to an altitude that would make Laika drool — this one pass serving as examples of both the former and the latter.)
But through all of that, the biggest story was the turnout: Yes, in a scene reminiscent of a Steinbeck novel or a dusty Henry Fonda movie, hordes of racers and race fans fired up their rust-buckets, rail-jobs and stripped-down coupes, took to the highway and made the migration to Bakersfield and its drag strip out by the oil fields, Famoso Raceway. More than 500 race cars entered. Twenty-nine Funny Cars slugged it for eight slots on the Elimination ladder. On Saturday morning, it took an hour to crawl five miles from the exit off of Highway 99 to the track’s parking lots and entrances. Bill Groak, the event’s publicist, marveled, “What recession?” in reference to the legions of go-cat-wild gearheads that overran the facility.
Oops, talk about burying the lead. Pardon that last four-paragraph digression about Bakersfield. The point of this column isn’t about the outrageous, balmy success of a proper nitro-burning quarter-mile drag race in an economic climate that is otherwise as frosty as Eskimo snot.
It is about Jan & Dean. It is about “Drag City.” It is about their urge to “Burn up that quarter mile…”
At Bakersfield, I was in a conversation with Mendy Fry, a Top Fuel-cum-Nitro Funny Car driver, about her most extreme and pushed pass down the fabled Famoso flytrap.
She told me about a twilight first-round Top Fuel encounter a few years back, when she drove Lee Jennings Motorsports’ front-engine dragster.
After swapping pedals and launching down the left lane, her dragster began blowing the tires off less than one hundred feet into the run. Doing what any nitro driver would do, she grabbed the brake, calmed down her steed, let it breathe and then rolled back into the throttle. No matter. Once again – and instantaneously – her dragster overpowered the pavement. Meanwhile her adversary purposefully motored down the right lane, an easy victory apparently imminent.