My First March Meet, 1966 |
By Mark Hendon
My first March Meet in 1966 was race that made headlines and educated me on drag racing outside of Southern California. Dad and I were regulars at Lions Drag Strip and other strips. Dad had gone to the very first race at Famoso in 1959. He thought I was not old enough to go to Bakersfield for this kind of race. Then came 1966 and "we" were going!
Dad rarely took time off from work but this weekend he took Friday off for our first road trip upstate. That Friday morning we took off early and headed north up I-5. I had never been over the I-5 "Grapevine" before so it made the trip more exciting to me driving through the mountains. Heading down the large hill on the Bakersfield side all I could see was farmland forever. This was something different for a city boy. Just outside of Bakersfield was a sign the said, “Bakersfield, Sun, Fun, Stay, and Play.” It had a marquee that said, “7th annual March Meet.” I was so excited.
We got off the freeway to stay at the Best Western, checked in, and then headed to the track. The 20 mile drive to the track was so much fun as dad was trying to explain what to expect of the weekend’s activities. One thing he said was, “This is not Lions son, nor is it Pomona.”
We arrived at the track near mid-morning and I was somewhat in awe of what I was seeing. The track was very primitive in seating, parking, and concessions. We picked the first grandstand, top row in the corner and slapped our Lions blankets down to hold the seats. Then it was time for a pit walk to check out the scene. This was a hardcore group of dragster fans from all over. The pits were huge and just filled with cars. People walked around with beer everywhere, some had cases in wagons. More on that later. There were cars that I had never seen before; it was awesome.
The Top Fuel field had over 100 cars entered! The field was super stellar with every hitter in the country in attendance. There was a buzz building for one car that day. Qualifying in Top Fuel was something. Two cars at the line, 2 more running behind them, 2 cars fired on the return road towards the line and 2 more getting the push off from the far end. Just amazing, I was getting a "March Meet" education.
At the end of the day we headed for the hotel pumped up but tired. After dinner I opened the drapes on our ground level room and I said to dad look at this! Back in the day the teams did not stay at the track, they loaded up and took the racecars to the hotels. I said to dad look at this, the whole parking lot is full of dragsters! Crews were working on cars everywhere. I walked around for what seemed like hours, I was in "Dragster Heaven."
On Saturday morning we got up real early to make sure we got our same seats as Friday. Before heading to the track, we ate at place called J's Coffee Shop. It was so throwback to me as a lady in a beehive hairdo named "Flo" served us. No kidding on the name. It was packed with racers. First time I ever had "biscuits & gravy." We arrive at the track at around seven and it was busy already. We got our seats again and the action was off and running. On Saturday they had a 64 car field in AA/FD. This day is one for the ages as the buzz from Friday is that one team made history. The car was the famous "Surfers" of Skinner & Jobe with the late Mike Sorokin in the seat. They qualified I think either 14th or 15th. Each time these low buckers pushed down the road you could see the crowd rise and cheer this underdog team. It was an incredibly electric scene and I became a fan of this car. They made history this day by running a great 7.34 in round three.
The final against Jim Dunn in the "Yates & Dunn" car was something. With all the beer consumed by the fans, the finals had everybody "juiced up". This is one scene I will never forget. The place is packed to epic proportions, fans are feeling no pain, and it is the AA/FD final. You could hear the roar of the fans starting on the top end screaming for the underdog "Surfers". Sorokin took the win with a 7.54 in one of the most popular wins I have seen ever! On the way out you had to kick the beer cans out of the way everywhere. After a quick dinner we hit the sack for the night.
On Sunday we were up even earlier to get "our" seats again. We drove in at 6:30 and got in shortly thereafter and laid down the ole blanket again. With seating for maybe 10 thousand and 20 thousand or more in the house, people were standing everywhere. The bathroom porta-potties were totally overworked and abused. I went out to the adjacent field to do my business as there was no hope of waiting. The food was very cheap and lousy. The atmosphere and intensity of this race was unmatched anywhere. Just amazing how intense it was at Famoso. This was another day of such amazing action. James Warren, the hometown boy, won Sunday’s race. Warren got to face Mike Sorokin for overall honors as the "Surfers" had the day off until the finals. When they pushed down for the finals the "Surfers" received a larger ovation than the hometown boys. Dad said let's go over to the line to watch as he knew the sea of people getting out of the track would make a nice traffic jam.
Side by side with my dad, we walked over to the head of the staging lanes. Then he said, “Come with me.” We walked to the area behind the starting line! There I was at Famoso for my first March Meet with my dad just behind the line. When the 2 finalists pushed down, the crowd was going bonkers! They turned around right in front of us, maybe ten feet away! I was holding on to my dad’s arm, so excited. Mike Sorokin smoked James Warren's red lighting car with a 7.74 and the crowd erupted. We made a quick exit as dad was a master of parking in spots with a quick exit. The drive seemed so short as we talked all the way home about this magical race, the "racers race," the one and only "Smoker’s March Meet." No doubt the greatest independent drag race of all time.
From that day on, I made every March Meet. To this day, the memories are fresh of that Saturday in 1966 when an underdog whipped the United States’ best Top Fuelers. Dad went to his last March Meet in 1978; he missed the 79 race due to his advancing cancer. He was so sad that he could not go with his son in 1979. He died in June of 1979. I will never forget that first March Meet road trip with my dad. Staying in a hotel out of town, breakfast with Flo, and a track full of dragsters. Every time I am at Bakersfield I think of him. During the Hot Rod reunion, when they have "Cacklefest" and all the Top Fuelers are pushed down I go to the same spot as I did in 1966 to watch the turn around and I think of all the great races and times I had with my dad. A priceless weekend with my father. What a great time!