That’s why one cannot compare Schumacher’s World Series “victory,” which saw him smoke the tires and shut off early in his only two runs. And he did it on an 85-percent mixture that smelled more like methanol than nitromethane. If that sounds and smells to you like drag racing in the proud tradition of independent events, you probably haven’t been around too long. You obviously haven’t been to Bakersfield in the month of March.
Ironically, March Meets haven’t always been held in March. Despite the fact that no March date since 1959 had ever been rained out, different promoters in search of warmer weather (and more buns in the bleachers) made the fatal mistake of moving it up to April or May. It either rained or seriously threatened to, of course. Some things are sacred.
Conceived in the third year of NHRA’s infamous Fuel Ban for the purpose of luring Don Garlits out west, the U.S. Fuel & Gas Championships grew into the most-prestigious event in drag racing without any sanction or media recognition. The show was intentionally ignored by three of the biggest media outlets of the day: National Dragster, Hot Rod and Car Craft. Not coincidentally, all three were controlled by Wally Parks until 1963, when he finally resigned as editorial director of Petersen Publishing. Ultimately, NHRA came to its senses and awarded divisional-points-meet status to the oft-overlooked sportsman side of the show.
This event has outlived several promoters. It even survived a sacrilegious sale by the founding Smokers car club to a hated Eastern promoter, Ed Eaton, at its mid-Sixties peak, when more than 100 Top Fuel cars participated.
What it couldn’t survive, in its original form, was the gradual shift of pro racers and casual fans to AHRA, IHRA and NHRA national events that occurred in the 1970s and ’80s. Bakersfield’s first real threat came from 3,000 miles away: the Gatornationals. When the touring pros got serious about chasing points and Winston money in 1975, independent shows such as the March Meet and Popular Hot Rodding Championships and Manufacturers Meet lost their superstars and, thus, spectators. Longtime-lease-holder Marvin Miller (of Warren, Coburn & Miller fame) and his sons, Mike and Jeff, stuck it out far longer than financial sense dictated, then reluctantly pulled the plug after the 30th edition. The last running of a proud race that critics were calling the “March/April/May Meet” occurred in April 1988.
Ironically, there were two March Meets that year. The Millers’ worst-ever spectator turnout had undoubtedly been affected by confusion created by a new event the previous month, held on the traditional weekend and promoted by the Nostalgia Drag Racing Association as “the” March Meet. In subsequent Marches, NDRA attracted plenty of race cars, but not nearly enough spectators to pay the bills.
When it appeared that no show would be staged in 1994, Gary Meadors and his Goodguys organization (www.good-guys.com) rolled the dice. Not even this master promoter could’ve predicted how quickly the March Meet would be restored to glory, becoming the largest annual sporting event in a town of nearly half a million residents. No one in the know will talk exact numbers, but knowledgeable crowd counters have pegged a typical three-day turnout at 25,000-plus, excluding the crews of nearly 500 race cars. Motel rooms are virtually sold out, for the only time all year.
With good weather and the return of Don Garlits — whose first national tour was inspired by the Smokers — this year’s crowd could be the biggest in a quarter of a century; not bad for an event that’s made almost as many comebacks since 1959 as the Swamp Rat.