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METALLIC CRAB SALAD AND CRUSHED TOES IN BAKERSFIELD: THE MARCH MEET REACHES NEW HEIGHTS

March 14, 2016

by Cole Coonce

(Originally published in Drag Racing Online)

After 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 lede. 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.

The Lee Jennings machine coasted feebly, further pursuit seemed pointless. All Mendy could see and hear while peering around the 6-71 blower mounted in her direct field of vision was the driver in the other lane blithely black-tracking towards the finish line, creating his own guiding light by keeping the throttle pedal pushed to the floorboard, the fuel-stream coursing through the engine, and raw nitromethane oxidizing in the ether.

Then the candles went dark.

“Are you shitting me?” she asked rhetorically, into her balaclava and into the darkness. She had been off the throttle for a two full seconds, and her competitor was now almost 900 feet into his run before he clicked it. Offended as much as anything, she jumped back on the accelerator. This time, it took. The tires grabbed the groove like King Kong squeezing a tube of toothpaste. Her fuel dragster spits fire out of the pipes and began making traction, lickety split-like. In other words, it was absolutely hauling ass.

Her opponent was cruising, a round-win seemingly assured. Just at 1320 feet, however, he was passed by a hurricane. Under full power, Fry nipped him at the finish line.

In the shutdown area, during the obligatory driver-to-driver congratulations and handshake, the loser was inconsolable and pissed. “I had you the whole way,” he muttered. “I had you the whole way…”

“Yeah,” Mendy agreed. “You had me the whole way… until you didn’t.”

The meta-meaning? This anecdote wouldn’t have happened on a 1000-foot course. It took 1320 feet for this sort of outrageous action to transpire. By adhering to a shorter racetrack, not only is NHRA short-changing the fans’ and the drivers’ bang-per-buck. It is also creating fewer memories.

They sing about the quarter-mile for a reason.

And yes, while leaving the March Meet at Famoso Raceway, the phone rang. On the other end of the connection was Steve Parker, calling from his live show, the aforementioned “World Racing Roundup” on Talk Radio One.

Parker was on the line to get a field interview, and to discuss the day’s historic drag race.

All of which was groovy, but what Steve wasn’t aware of was that at the exact moment he called to do our live-on-the-air race round-up, my ride home pulled up at the pit gate to pick me up and I was hastily thrown into the back seat of my pal Andy’s Mini-Cooper.  As we peeled rubber out of the parking lot and motored away from Famoso Raceway, the occupant of the passenger seat, Cuz’n Roy Gittens, in a futile attempt to make himself comfortable, rammed his seat back like a rocket-sled, jamming all ten of my toes under his ample weight. With absolutely no vertical clearance between the bottom of Roy’s seat and the floorboard of the Mini, it was like my feet were jammed in a vise before getting them dropped on by a bank safe.

It was all I could do not to scream in excruciating pain… As I took the call and attempted to answer Parker’s questions intelligently, if not just coherently, I made furious gestures with my one free hand, pounding on Roy’s seat and pointing forward. The other occupants of the car misinterpreted these gestures of distress — they thought I was giving them directions home. While still on the air, Roy and the driver, Strauber, were whispering for me to relax, “we know the way home, we go east on Famoso Road and then south on Porterville Highway.”

While still talking on the air, I pointed furiously and shook my head as if to say “no, no, no, this isn’t about directions” until my eyes began rolling into the back of my head and I just gave up, feebly trying to speak in a language that resembled English.

This went on for five minutes, the duration of my segment on Parker’s show.

During the interview, if my facts and figures were all wrong, I ask Mr. Parker and his listening audience to please forgive the errors, as I was in so much pain I was lucky to even string a sentence together, much less get my facts straight.

After extricating my toes from its bondage, I hung up the phone and let out a belated scream. I told Roy next time I am catching a ride home from the March Meet in Dave Benjamin’s Plymouth Satellite.-30-

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