Time Capsule – Six Decades of Top Fuel in Bakersfield
California was the epicenter for fuel racing in the late ’50s, but several West Coast teams were skeptical of the big speeds being reported on the East Coast by a racer named Don Garlits. The Smokers Car Club of Bakersfield sensed an opportunity in that skepticism. In the spring of 1959, they offered to pay Garlits a large sum of money to come out to California and race against the most notorious teams on the West Coast in an event they called the U.S. Fuel and Gas Championships. Garlits accepted, and the rest is history.
That event, which eventually became known as the March Meet, was held on March 1, 1959. Memories of what transpired that weekend may blur the lines between fact and folklore, but what we do know is this: the U.S. Fuel and Gas Championships put the tiny oil town of Bakersfield on the map and successfully created an East vs. West rivalry that still runs deep.
Some of drag racing’s biggest names have competed in this fabled event, but only a few have come away victorious: Don Prudhomme, Connie Kalitta, Mike Sorokin, Tom McEwen, Tony Nancy, James Warren and the aforementioned “Big Daddy” Don Garlits, who remains the all-time leader with five March Meet victories to his name.
While today’s cars look nothing like the front-engine fuelers from the ’60s, they still remind us of the golden era of drag racing. Today, 59 years after Art Chrisman won the inaugural U.S. Fuel and Gas Championships with a run of 8.70 seconds at 180mph, front-engine nitro-burning dragsters are running 3-seconds quicker and nearly 100mph faster than Chrisman’s Hustler 1.
The Good Vibrations March Meet may be the largest nostalgia drag race in the world, but what makes it so special is how it blends 21st-century technology with the romance, drama and sheer guts of drag racing’s early days. There’s a small group of modern-day gladiators keeping the front-engine class alive and carrying on the legacy of all those who came before them.
When nostalgia drag racing came on the scene in the late 70s and early 80s, the front-engined Top Fuel dragsters were running 392 Chrysler hemis and big-block Chevys (and one notorious small block Chevy) with cast-iron blocks with iron heads that had been pulled out of junkyards. As the class gained popularity, the majority of teams eventually moved on to 417 aluminum blocks. Today, most nostalgia Top Fuel teams are running state-of-the-art equipment such as billet blocks and Alan Johnson heads.
Despite all of the modern-day equipment on these cars, they are still a handful to drive. Today’s nostalgia Top Fuel cars produce upwards of 3,500hp and are capable of speeds in excess of 260mph. Tony Bartone holds the quarter-mile record at 5.53 seconds. Don’t forget, that’s on a 12-inch tire.
In this time capsule, the idea was to blend a brief glimpse of March Meet lore with the cast of today’s top fuel torch bearers. Pictured below in black & white is the field of the 60th March Meet Top Fuel drivers – Pete Wittenberg, Mendy Fry, Rick McGee, Dusty Green, Tim Cullinan, Dan Horan Jr, Brett Williamson, Brendan Murry, Phil Ruskowski, Jim Murphy, Adam Sorokin, and Rick White. They are dedicated to the event’s rich nitro-burning dragster heritage.
Mendy Fry and the High Speed Motorsports team qualified number one with a 5.736-second blast and dominated eliminations, running low E.T. and top speed every round, defeating Adam Sorokin and then four-time March Meet winner Jim Murphy in the semis.
Fry’s final-round opponent would be Pete Wittenberg, who got his nostalgia Top Fuel license at this event just one year ago. This time, he was lucky just to be there. Wittenberg blew up his only engine on Friday’s qualifying session, and then drove back home to Anaheim (about four hours south), built a new motor, and drove back to Bakersfield, where his Circuit Breaker team was able to get the car back together in time for eliminations.
Wittenberg knocked off Brendan Murry and Bret Williamson on the way to his first final-round appearance…ever. In the final, Wittenberg blew the tires off at the tree and watched Fry pull away into the darkness. But then Fry clipped a cone at half-track, handing the win to Wittenberg.
“I pedaled it once and saw her pulling away. It was over. Then I saw her cross the centerline. I went from bummed out to ‘holy shit, we just won this thing.’ It’s a dream come true,” said Wittenberg.
Pete Wittenberg’s win on nostalgia drag racing’s biggest stage will forever etch his name in March Meet history. We can’t wait to see what the next 60 years will bring.