Hot Rod Drags
The March Meet's Grassroots Class
From the February, 2009 issue of Rod & Custom
By Tim Bernsau
In 1951, there wasn't much going on in the way of organized drag racing. When a club called the Smokers wanted to do a little side-by-side racing in their hot rods, they had to do it at an abandoned airstrip outside of Bakersfield, California. Within a few years the airstrip became a dragstrip, Famoso Raceway, and the annual late-winter showdown got a name: The March Meet. Lucky for the Smokers.
Lucky for us, too. Ten years ago, the Goodguys Vintage Drag Racing Association revived this historic event at its original site. Now, the March Meet is the largest nostalgia drag race in the world. The program features front-engine dragsters, nitro Funny Cars, and Gassers, but the largest class, by far, is Hot Rod Eliminator. This bracket class is open to pre-'73-bodied vehicles running dial-in elapsed times between 9.60 and 12.99 seconds, with no nitrous and no electronic race devices allowed. It's the closest thing to the hot rod racing of 50 years ago.
This year, roughly 150 racers showed up at Famoso to run in Hot Rod. For some of them, this is the gateway to the Gas classes. For many others, it's the perfect class for their budget, their car, and their skill level. Most of the cars in Hot Rod have fairly basic drivetrains; a mildly modified small-block Chevy with a three-speed automatic is a typical setup. Best of all, a lot of the rods competing in the class are street cars. In some cases, the transition from street to 'strip is as simple as swapping tires and marking a dial-in time on the windows. Since there is no qualifying for the class, all you have to do to make Sunday eliminations is not break anything on Friday or Saturday. Also, being a bracket class, even a slow car has a shot at winning. Cut and good light (on a .500 tree) and run your dial-in, and you're back for the next round.
Hot Rod racing usually doesn't dominate March Meet magazine coverage, but this is the class that fills the staging lanes with racers who love running at this cool historic track, and that packs the grandstands with fans who dig these real-world doorslammers as much as they love the Fuel and Gas cars.
The Goodguys Vintage Drag Racing Association series continues at the Nitro Nationals in Las Vegas at the end of April, the Pomona Nitro Nationals at the L.A. County Fairplex in June, and the Fuel & Gas Finals back in Bakersfield in November. If you've always wanted to run your rod on the 'strip, get out there and do it. If you want to see some great grassroots drag racing, go watch these hot rods race.
For info on getting involved, call (925) 838-9876 or go to www.good-guys.com.
At first, we thought John...
At first, we thought John Myers' '50 Olds was a show car. This is his first drag car and runs a 427 Chevy big-block and TH400. His tires never really hooked up and kept him far from the 12-second e.t.'s he expected but couldn't keep him from having a ball. When we saw him in the grandstands, he was still smiling.
Don Ashby went bracket racing...
Don Ashby went bracket racing on his 16th birthday and has now been at it for 35 years. He's driven this '55, with a dual-carbed 383 and TH400, for six years. It has gone 11.80 and sees regular duty on the street. In Bakersfield, "The Bee" lasted the longest of all the pre-musclecar entries in Hot Rod, making it into the semifinals on Sunday.
After visiting the March Meet...
After visiting the March Meet in 2001, Ted McCord has trailered his alcohol-fed '57 Fairlane to Famoso every year. The Ford was rescued from an Oklahoma strip pit in the '80s and built into a drag car for less than $10,000. With a Demon-carbureted 390 and C6 trans, the Ford ran its career-best 11.37 e.t. right before our eyes.
This '37 Chevy pickup was...
This '37 Chevy pickup was built like a true hot rod--with parts and pieces left over from another project. Owner Marc Klose from Fallon, NV, has raced since his high school days in the mid-'60s, and gets out about twice a month. With a small-block, Powerglide, and 5.38:1 gears, the truck has run a best e.t. of 11.59 and came close to that with an 11.6 at Famoso.
With a 454 under the hood,...
With a 454 under the hood, Carl Cole says his '55 will go faster, but he doesn't want to. He disconnects the secondaries on the single 4V carb in order to stay in the 12s. He drives the '55 around town when not racing. Once at Palmdale, he lost to a kid in a rental car, who turned out to be multi-time Super Stock champ Jimmy DeFrank.
Goodguys '03 Hot Rod Class...
Goodguys '03 Hot Rod Class Winner Sandi Mendia received her trophy at the Thursday awards dinner, but her '35 Plymouth developed problems with the TH400 trans the next day and she spent the weekend spectating. She's been racing the 400ci Chevy-powered Plymouth for 12 years, drives it to work during the week, and aims to get into the 11s this year.
Twenty years ago, Larry Wiggins,...
Twenty years ago, Larry Wiggins, from Tehachapi, CA, traded a motorcycle for this '53 Chevy, which was the family car until four years ago, when he swapped in a 9-inch with 4.56 gears and a TH350 behind a 383 stroker motor and began racing it. His quickest e.t. is in the 12.20s. Larry's wife picked the flamed '53's color and its nickname: "Old Man's Mistress."
Inspired by the old FX lightweights,...
Inspired by the old FX lightweights, Bill Pratt's '64 Galaxie 500 XL is all Ford, with a 427 and modified C6 trans. Hood, bumpers, and front fenders are 'glass, and Bill says it's a street-legal car. His best time is an 11.58. He loves to race, but not against other Fords: "I'd rather beat Chevys."
Built as a race car in 1969,...
Built as a race car in 1969, this '51 Chevy changed hands a bunch of times, and was a show car as well as a street car. Randy Guitar bought it in 1980. The 377 runs a single carb; transmission is a TH400. It ran a 10.89 at the March Meet and is still licensed for the street.
Dave Lawson bought this '56...
Dave Lawson bought this '56 wagon for $150 when he was in high school almost 40 years ago and rebuilt it 10 years ago with a 13.5:1 468 and TH400. Now he's building the '55 his father bought new. It'll be his tow vehicle. He went 10.15 at Famoso and is gunning for the 9s. He launches like this just about every time, but he doesn't usually redlight.
Up at Infineon Raceway (Sear's...
Up at Infineon Raceway (Sear's Point), they get to see this 10-second wild Willys pull the front tires off the ground all the time. Pete Camerson has owned and raced the '39 (with a '41 nose) for a decade. The engine is an old '69 Chevy 427 with a single 450-cfm carb, tied to a TCI Powerglide transmission and Mopar 8 3/4-inch rearend.
Rick Berry was displaying...
Rick Berry was displaying his chopped, full-fendered '29 A sedan at a car show in Pomona when a friend talked him into running it down the 'strip. Now it's a street-legal 12-second drag car (it has run 11.95, but without a rollbar, Rick keeps it in the 12s). Powertrain is a 391 Chevy with a 750 double-pumper, TH350 with a shift kit, and 4.56 gears.
Joe Monjack's '55 Ford Customline...
Joe Monjack's '55 Ford Customline was raced in New Jersey before its recent move to the West Coast. It's a Chevy on the inside, running a 555ci Rat motor and TH400, chrome-moly frontend, and four-link rear. It's all about hitting your dial-in in Hot Rod and Joe ran a 10.007 on a 10.00 dial-in.
Mike Burgess' father first brought him to the March Meet 10 years ago, and it's still a family event for Mike. Now, in addition to his dad, his wife Julie and his three little daughters come along. The '56, with beautiful red and white pearl paint with ghost flames, has been in the family since 1990 and became Mike's when he turned 16. He's been racing it ever since and celebrated his 27th birthday at this Meet. The car is powered by a 454 big-block with a Turbo 400 and 4.30:1 gears in a Chevy 12-bolt rearend. Mike runs low 12s to avoid having to add a rollcage.
Mike's '56 is street driven all the time and took an award at Oakland in 1997. The secret to building a dual-purpose car, he says, is not to go overboard when building the engine. The big-block gives him lots of power and torque, but with 10:1 compression, he can run 91 octane on the street. By not running too radical of a cam, he doesn't have to worry about wearing out the valvetrain cruising around.
Many racers come to the March Meet from out of state every year. One is Jamie Ford, whose low-10-second T is as famous at Famoso as it is at Southern Oregon Speedway. Tetanus II was built four years ago using the front wheels, engine block, manifold, and transmission from the original Tetanus. The '26-27 coupe's 10-inch chop, shortened cowl, and roadster-style decklid gets lots of attention. The aluminum louvered lid keeps Jamie cool in the staging lanes, especially since the reclining position of the seat makes it tough to climb in and out. Despite its "extreme" appearance, the car is built with every safety consideration in mind.
A 13:1 350 small-block was stroked to 383. With a modified TH350 and 4.86:1 gears, the car goes through the lights at 6,800 rpm. When it comes to racing, Jamie says "I don't mind who I'm running; I usually race myself. It's like cruising. If you go out by yourself, it's fun. If you go out with other people, it's fun too. You enjoy the car." During the second round of eliminations, Jamie ran right on his dial-in, but his reaction time was too slow. See you next March.
When Eddie Kucker started building his '37 Ford in 1987, he was planning on a street rod but kept adding race parts, "just in case I want to race." After many "just in case" components, he nicknamed the car "Justin." Engine and trans is a 350/TH350 combo. The original frame is beefed up with a Mustang II frontend. It's also the original interior, but he says he's sitting in a hole. New seats are coming soon.
Eddie street-raced in his youth, but this is the first car he's raced at the 'strip. He likes nostalgia events, where he can race other hot rods. At home, he detunes the engine, changes the plugs and timing, swaps the 4.56 gears in the 9-inch for 3.25s, and cruises on the street. His advice to rodders getting into racing: start slow and make minor changes one at a time, so you can keep track of what works. He's dropped his e.t.'s from the 16s down to the mid-12s with simple changes like gears, manifold, and carb. "You can set up a motor and transmission like I've got on a street car and have fun without hurting your pocketbook."
In 1989, Harold Binsfeld bought this '55 Chevy 150 Handyman wagon as a daily-driver camper car, complete with swamp cooler and luggage rack. "We slightly modified it," he joked. The engine is still pretty simple--a 9:1 350, backed by a manually shifted TCI TH350. Adjustable ladder bars and rear coilovers with 90/10 Lakewood drag shocks in front help transfer weight to the rear tires. Harold's crew includes his wife Lisa (who used to race a '57 four-door wagon) and their 8-year-old daughter.
Harold likes the Hot Rod class because it's affordable and his Chevy can be competitive. He advises first-time racers to get a car that is not going to break and to race within their means. "Keep it within what you can do realistically, and just go out and have fun. Bring it on out and see what you can do. It's a blast."