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Apr 24, 2006

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Rainouts are an horrendous burden.

I've written many times over the years about those very burdens, so I won't do that again in depth here. In short terms - from the most novice of spectator who got soaked in a downpour to the promoters and track owners who failed to take in the projected lucre - everybody loses.

This time around, it was the Goodguys and the historic March Meet that took the brunt of a serious set of storms that had originated in Alaska. The late-Winter fury caused problems from northern British Columbia to Baja California, bringing flooding and destruction to some communities and the first moisture to Phoenix in more than 140 days. On the plus side, the storms brought many feet of new snow and the accompanying smiles to ski resort owners and workers in the Cascades and Sierras.

Certainly, an annual happening on a small piece of pavement north of Bakersfield, California was not the only event adversely affected by "the big one" of 2006. But it was.

Others will point to supposedly poor decisions by Goodguys management on scheduling and postponements, that this or that could have been made differently or sooner. One major theory is that the race could have been run in its entirety, albeit with a couple rain delays, on its original weekend. Folk that camped at the track report that after the plug was pulled early Thursday, it never actually rained until after 3pm Saturday, and that was just a short cloudburst. Sunday was just fine. However, it was cold, never reaching 50 degrees on any of the three race days.

I will say that with as much rain as was falling elsewhere, spectator turnout would have been far below necessary numbers to put the event in the black. I feel sorry for those that towed great distances or flew from foreign origins. Having been on virtually all sides of the equation at one time or another, especially in the northwest, I understand just how far reaching the ramifications of rainouts can go. Several times, I towed or drove many hours in bright sunshine to arrive at a track gate where a sign stood that read "Rained Out."

Frustrating? To a lot of folk.

Hard to believe? Absolutely impossible.

But this was 2006, the 47th annual March Meet.

Although it was snowing in Carson City, with more expected, I was packed, ready and excited to go when word came down that the original weekend was cancelled. My plans needed to change.

For those that don't know, my little 90-year-old mother had been experiencing some heart problems while visiting my sister north of Seattle. I like to visit her - she lives on the west side of LA, near Santa Monica - about once every six weeks or so. When I didn't receive proper credentials to attend the NHRA Winternationals, I put off visiting her until the March Meet. She was to arrive home from Seattle Sunday night and with the hospital time she'd spent I was more than concerned.

Once mom returned home, I gave her the option of when I would come down, before or after the following weekend - the rescheduled march Meet. She chose both.

So, the following Wednesday, I made the eight-hour drive to SoCal. I spent Thursday with mom, made her laugh a lot, went to lunch with my nephew Dean (her grandson), hauled her to her cardiologist ("He's the most handsome doctor in Santa Monica," she whispered.) who gave her permission to live long and prosper. Suddenly, she was much better and I felt better too.

Late Friday morning, I headed over the Grapevine in pouring rain, and pulled into Famoso just in time to receive word that all activities for the day had been cancelled.

Right in downtown Bakersfield, I passed Randy Walls and his latest fuel Nova. It was heading north to be certified. You can see that Friday’s weather was not the best.

So, I wandered around and found some folk to chat with, like Frank and Scott Parks. They'd worked round the clock to finish three new Junior Fuelers, one each for Scott, John Rowley and Brian Darcy. They'd made the tow from Kansas for weekend one, but had stayed at Rowley's ranch near Amado, Arizona. For over a year, Frank and I have been discussing co-oping on a book aimed at the care and feeding of a used dragster/altered. It seems to us a really needed project and we'll get it under way soon.

I found Mendy Fry and met her new Lee Jennings team, and spent a few minutes taking a brief tour of her new ride.

Soon, I headed back for Bakersfield to check into the "lovely" EZ-8 at the north end of town. My friend Buzz Baylis was fairly close behind. I paid for a single, but had brought my foam pad and sleeping bag – I had promised Buzz he could have the bed on the first night.

With the reschedule, March Meet had to compete with a major Sprintcar event nearby. The oval, called Oildale, was reportedly level full of water and took a concerted effort to be pumped out and prep’d before the Saturday night feature.

I was quite surprised at what I found in the street at the motel - Steve Kinser's trucks. Unbeknownst to me (or Buzz), the new National Sprint series was in town for a Saturday night event at Oildale - about two miles from the motel. I chatted with a couple crew guys and found out that a full complement of renowned sprintcar "names" were nearby. I made plans right then for Saturday night!

Since it was St. Patrick's Day, Buzz and I picked up Mendy and her significant other (Todd) and headed for a Mexican restaurant. That should need some explaining but I'll let it go. I will say I was hoping that guacamole would be the only green food I saw. It was a real good time for all of us.

Left to right – Buzz, Phil, Mendy and Todd. Our waitress, in an overstuffed pink blouse with “10” in glitter on the front, pushed the shutter release on my little Olympus digicam.

Though it rained hard most of night, it was a calm morning when Buzz and I walked to breakfast Saturday, and our hopes were high for a full day of activities.

When we arrived at the track, right at the newly scheduled time for qualifying to get underway, track drying was still under way. Of course, just about the time that was complete, another cloudburst went through and, since they are not equipped with a jet track dryer, it was more brooming and toweling for the Famoso crew.

I wandered, chatted, looked, got wet, and did it all a second time. Everyone was in the same boat (pun intended) or lake, and though there was a smile or two, most folk were miserable. There were puddles and mud everywhere. Race teams pushed water with boards, brooms and even squeegees. Most failed to realize that the H2O they moved from their pit areas just flowed over into their neighbors'.

There were well meaning racers who attempted comedy relief.

After several attempts at getting things going, the first pair of Top Fuelers headed downtrack at just before 4pm. On such a cold, damp surface, it was actually surprising to see Mendy record a very early shut-off 6.18/181 in just the second pairing. A few pairs later, even counting in a short shower, her ex-partner Sean Bellemeur nailed down a 6.22/245. Previous March Meet winner Howard Haight showed that Butch Blair's Fugowie was ready with a 6.13/248. Late in the session, Jim Murphy awed everyone with a 5.94/238, and Brad Thompson came up with a 6.03/250.

Howard Haight, who recently moved to the midwest, was back in Butch Blair's Fugowie

Jim Murphy's runs were both in the 5.9s – WW2 looked good.

Adam Sorokin would love nothing more than to win the March Meet, something his father did 40-years ago.

While the bump wasn't representative of what this field might have been, a tip of my helmet for the tremendous efforts of each and every team for doing what they did! Those efforts included Adam Sorokin's 6.98/228 in the RB Entertainment fueler, a cool forty years after his father Mike sat in the dominating Surfer's fueler at the same site.

Then came the funny cars. I must say that I was anticipating an action-packed session from the floppers, still a very new experiment for Goodguys. I whispered to someone near the starting line that I feared that a few quarter panels were going to be whacked and I hoped nobody would get hurt. But like the rest of the crowd that had waited all day (or all week) I looked forward to booming burnouts and header flames – all the stuff for which funny cars are known. Even if they were unable to turn in great elapsed times and speeds, at least the thrilling starting line show would warm us all.

Then, Nate Bugg broke a rod on his burnout – Lil' Nate was the first car in the left lane – and a major clean up ensued. After that, things went downhill.

I'm not going to put down any one in particular for the lack of show. Instead, I must put down the entire group. In their defense, several cars were new and some drivers were near rookies. However, not one car, new or old, rookie or oldster, did even the remotest burnout – there was barely even a wisp of tire smoke! And, not one car produced a hint of header flame.

Dennis La Charite, 2004 CIFCA champ, stepped the Back in Black Corvette up to fuel. He’s a contractor from SoCal.

For whatever reason, Godfrey & Close now have a 70 Cuda with a painted on Vega grille on top of their potent Chevy powerplant.

2005 Goodguys champ Larry Pettit was in primered Arrow – crossed centerline during one-shot qualifying.

Stephen Rommanazzi’s Visalia, Calif., Vega was best by a wide margin. A 6.40/217 gave this 2005 CIFCA championship team a great deal of credit.

This was a cold, damp track. But it produced a few decent runs for the fuelers. In the case of the funny cars, nobody was getting down it and nobody was going to get down it. Whatever combo these folk chose to put into their cars, it was sub par – assembled fans that had waited and waded through so much deserved far better. They deserved to see something – a burnout, a header flame, something.

I saw a lot of funny car shows in the old days, and being from the northwest, plenty of those were on cold, damp days where track drying was a necessity. Race teams knew that if they wanted a chance, or to get paid, they needed to produce.

Though Shakey Situation is a great moniker for a nitro FC anyway, it is truly named for owner Gary Dale who has developed a Vietnam related condiition causing severe shaking. His son Sean is the driver of the 69 Charger, which is crewed by Jamie and Larry Steinegger, Bill Chapmen and Ron Miller. They hail from various Arizona towns. That’s Ron Maroney’s McCracken-bodied Corvette nearby.

Usual standout Dan Horan got about 400-feet before his Mustang got every which way but straight. He pedaled to a 7.61/157. Mike Savage in the SpeedSport Cuda spun his tires hard and pedaled several times to no avail. The Tucson team does have ties to the historic Modified Roadster gang.

This is almost my favorite photo of the March Meet. Steve Tryon in the Sun Devil Hustler from Mesa, Ariz., took on Mike Adams’ Suns of Thunder Corvette. Neither got very far but it was sure cool for a couple seconds!

The Mill Road Boys showed with some nice stripes and more credit to Steve Nichols. The 100% Chevy was pedaled a half-dozen times to an 8.26/210, not the numbers this Delaware team wanted. Ed Schwartz in the battle-scarred Estrus Vega trailed with a similar tire-spinning effort.

Was I expecting total rookies to suddenly turn into Jungle Jim or John Force? No, but I will suggest that if a couple of the drivers had at least smoked their tires, a large number of the crowd would have made beelines for their trailers to procure T-shirts or whatever.

Out of the group, Stephen Romanazzi was best by nearly a second. His Warrior Vega laid down a really strong 6.40/217. The rest were in the 7s, 8s, 9s and 10s.

Gary Turner’s new Pedaler Arrow was arguably the prettiest FC present. Even Donnie Couch’s-tuning couldn’t help rookie Chris Krabill, an ex-Super Comp driver, manage the animal.

Jack Beckman slipped and slid to an 8.11 in Jeff Gaynor’s brand new Cuda. The team had marathon’d to make weekend one.

Jeff Utterback climbed in the Nitro Charger of Mark Stuckey, and like most drivers present, wore out the loud pedal. Stuckey bases the car in NorCal.

Another car in the pits for inspection only was this Pisano Vega. It was in an unfinished state but caused quite a fervor. Joe’s nephew Danny is behind it, and reportedly Todd Mallory will drive.

I know I said I was going to go to the sprint races, but after saying "goodnight" to a few folk, I decided that I'd been cold and damp enough for one day. So, I went to the motel, changed my clothes and headed to the Jack Williams Memorial. Don't get me wrong, that was not my second choice, I wanted to attend and pay my respects on the original race weekend – it was planned. So I went, nodded to folk, listened to several wonderful testimonials of Jack, and moved along.

I bought some dinner to go, headed for my motel to watch NHRA qualifying from Gainesville, and most importantly get warm.

In the morning, the sun shone brightly as I packed out of the room. I looked forward to a wonderful day of racing as I drove north on 99.

Goodguys has a rather strange schedule for racing. At normal events, they qualify NTF on Friday and Saturday then run round one late on Saturday. I suppose they consider the need for a crowd pleaser on the biggest day, somewhat like IHRA has their Night of Fire.

I believe that what they forget is that most of the racers and fans – especially at western venues – are used to qualifying being completed on one day and racing starting the following day. The split schedule is confusing to fans and is often a nightmare to crewchiefs who must contend with vastly differing conditions.

This event, due to everything going wrong previous, was scheduled to be run in the manner I personally think would work best. That is, beginning NTF at about 10:30am with all 16 qualifiers. No two day elimination deals, no A and B fields.

So it was. A trumpeter blew the national anthem, and the first pair fired on cue to the delight of a pretty decent crowd. And, shock of all shocks, and to the relief of Marc and Gary Meadors and the hopelessly overworked Smokers club members who double as the track clean-up crew, there was not a hint of tire smoke!

Indeed, Pete Kaiser took a close one from Rick McGee, 6.00/231 to 6.05/249! Next up, Howard Haight laid down an effortless 6.17/244 to defeat Rick Rogers who trailed at a tailwagging 6.49/196. Still, no tire smoke. Sean Bellemeur continued the trend with a clean 6.03/252.52 (top speed) to defeat Jason Richey's 6.17/242. I began to hum "What a Difference a Day Makes."

The next match featured Mendy Fry against Terry Cox. I could tell that both mounts were hopped up beyond the norm, ready for serious action. And after what had happened in the first three pairings, all concerned were perplexed when neither car moved six feet before shooting clouds of M&H smoke straight in the air. Both drivers pedaled multiple times, in obvious frustration. Ms. Fry filled the finish line with aluminum smoke but won the round, 7.31/199 to 7.98/197.

After three pairs went smokeless on raceday, it was almost a stunner to see both Mendy Fry and Terry Cox go up in smoke. Mendy backpedaled the Jennings & Scheele Chevy for the win.

Several personnel checked the track and gave thumbs up, and Jim Murphy proved them right with a 5.91/241 win over Bill Schwartz' 6.121/207. Murphy's pace was somewhat marred by piston smoke that began at about 1000 feet. Brad Thompson moved from his #2Q to the favorite's role with a 5.862/240 (low ET) win over Mark Malde who coaxed a 6.07/236 out of Arnold Birky's Chevy. Both engines were clean and dry.

After qualifying #2 (6.033/250), Brad Thompson stepped up to a stunning 5.862 at just 240mph in R1 to take Low ET.

The next race was the one I was really looking forward to – Brett Harris vs. Adam Sorokin. The Deputy was looking to pick up considerably from his subpar 6th place qualifier, and Adam was in hopes of putting the Sorokin name on the new Goodguys March Meet winners' board a second time. Trouble abounded in the Harris camp and after the crew did all they could to fix a fuel leak, Sorokin was sent on a single. It quickly became evident that he'd received a double break when the rear tires came unstuck at about 500 feet and Sorokin was forced to give up the run.

The final pair saw Bill Dunlap wheel Mike Fuller's rebodied and repainted machine to a 6.19/228 to defeat Shannon Stuart's 6.13/214.

It seemed that after delays and stalls, the 47th March Meet was finally under way.

Next up, the A/Gassers saw the strip for the first time all week. Unfortunately.

This was the very last shot I took at the MM2006. I was sad to walk away (see above).

The first pair looked to be on their way routinely until Bill Burch crashed. It was a violent sideways barrel roll that completely destroyed the ex- Gary Fore Willys. A major clean up ensued. An hour or so later, Steve Castelli banged the guardwall with his Hot Rod Willys. Another clean up. Then, about a hundred race drivers walked the track.

What was found was that the massive amount of rain in the San Joaquin Valley over the previous month had saturated the ground enough to be trying to float the Famoso strip of asphalt and concrete right out of the ground! Water was seeping up through every crack and orifice in the track, causing puddles from about 800-feet on.

With so much time to kill on Sunday, craziness did abound. Dave Wallace (left) worked with George “Bushmaster” Schreiber on an ad campaign using SR III and all kinds of firesuits, helmets and goggle arrangements from the old days. “Bush” is presently putting together a dragrace museum in Missouri. That’s Dave’s brother Sky just behind.

It wasn't long before a decision came down that the March Meet for 2006 would be declared a non-race. Not long after, I headed back south to hang out with mom some more.

I thought once again about all the folk that had lost time and money in trying to compete, many of whom had been in Bakersfield for ten days without ever having made a run. I thought more of Gary, Marilyn and Marc Meadors, and the Goodguys organization that certainly lost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Hopefully, there'll be many more vintage dragrace events from the group, and that this won't leave a black eye on the March Meet.

Flyin' Phil

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