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.

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."