Of all the venues the Speedhunters team travels to in pursuit global car culture, Famoso Raceway in California may be the least notable. To be frank, this quarter mile dragstrip located amid farmland about 20 miles north of Bakersfield is a pretty boring place. There are no famous corners. There is no beautiful scenery. There are no plush pit facilities. It’s a dusty old place in the middle of no where, but I love it.
As a product of California’s Central Valley myself, I have fond childhood memories of tagging along with my dad and his buddies when they would head there to race or simply to watch. There’s no doubt those trips to the drags played a big part in developing the love of cars that dominates my life today, and each time I visit I’m reminded of those good times.
But beyond my own personal memories of the place, Famoso Raceway has a history that goes much deeper. The track began life as an Army training field during Second World War, and in the 1950s Kern County worked out an agreement with a car club called the Bakersfield Smokers to convert the place into a dedicated drag strip. In 1959, Famoso became the site of the first US Fuel and Gas Nationals where Big Daddy Don Garlits came west to do battle with California’s fastest drag racers. The Fuel and Gas Nationals would go on to become known as the March Meet – an event that is still held to this day.
At the same time Famoso began to host events, drag racing fever was spreading across Southern California. Strips popped up all over the region heading south from Bakersfield over the Grapevine to San Fernando, Irwindale (the original) , Lions, Santa Ana, Carlsbad, and more. One by one though, those tracks would eventually be torn down and replaced with housing developments, shopping centers, and container terminals as urban sprawl took over. Famoso was the exception and in 2012 the old track is as lively as ever.
In the last couple of decades the quarter mile at Famoso has become the epicenter of the Nostalgia drag racing scene. Besides the aforementioned March Meet, the track has played host to the NHRA’s California Hot Rod Reunion for the past 21 years.
This year marked my fourth consecutive trip to the reunion and I was joined by fellow Speedhunter Larry Chen this weekend as we got our fix of Nitro-fueled madness.
In a way, I think the title “Hot Rod Reunion” is a bit misleading. You might hear the word “reunion” and imagine a laid back affair where cars make passes down the track just for kicks. In reality, the reunion features some very hard-fought battles as teams fight it out heads up in a number of Nostalgia classes. In many cases, these machines are hunting not just for event glory, but for overall standing in the NHRA’s Heritage Series Championship. This no gathering of gentlemen racers.
Most people will tell you that the marquee racing at the Hot Rod Reunion is that of the Nostalgic Funny Car class. Over the course of the weekend, a field of 30+ entrants are whittled down to a single victor in a series of intense five second, 240MPH+ match-ups. In the end, this weekend’s final fight came down to the “Teacher’s Pet” Camaro of Steven Densham…
…and the “Brand X” Mustang driven by Mike Lewis.
I struggle a bit here, as no words and no photographs can convey what it’s like to stand trackside as two nitro Funny Cars scream down the quarter in a blast of sound and nitro fumes. There is nothing else like it in the world.
In this final match, the Mustang would come out on top with its 5.785 ET and 244 mile per hour trap speed. The race started off pretty tight, but something went amiss on the Camaro as it neared the traps with a puff of smoke, and an ET of 6.53 at just 150 miles per hour. I’ll dig a bit more into the Funny Car phenomenon during tomorrow’s post.
But let’s not forget about the other action besides the “floppers”. The battle for top honors in the Nostalgia Top Fuel class was equally dramatic, with a fellow named Rick Williamson turning a 5.809 and taking out series champion Adam Sorokin, whose engine came apart at the top end of the track in another big cloud of smoke.
You can look down the timing results and see which cars and which classes are the fastest, but the cool thing is seeing the different ways in which the cars get down the track.
Whether it’s low-slung Pro Mod cars running times comparable to Top Fuelers and Funny Cars, or short wheel base Fuel Altereds jumping from side to side down to the track – everything about Nostalgia Drag Racing is so visceral. It simply overwhelms the senses.
There was more than one occasion where I would aim in for a shot and find my camera being physically unable to focus due to the ground shaking vibrations of the race cars. It’s all part of the experience.
As I’ve mentioned during my observations from past editions of the Hot Rod Reunion, my personal favorite competition class is A/FX. With their nine and ten second ETs, they are slowest of the group but are some of the only true factory-based vehicles in the competition lineup.
“Ernie the Attorney”s ’67 Fairlane is an A/FX regular and a car that we’ve also seen running at the Irwindale Thursday Night Drags on a couple occasions. There he is popping his front skinnies into the air during Sunday afternoon’s eliminations.
My only complaint is that the A/FX cars are so quick to cycle through compared to the other classes that it’s very easy to miss them. Unlike the faster machines that burnout halfway down the track and creep back to the line, these cars do a simple burnout, stage and then take off. They can run their entire group in the same amount of time it takes for a pair of Funny Car or Top Fuel runs.
In addition to the elimination rounds, the Famoso strip also plays host to some fun exhibition match races over the course of the weekend. One of them matched the Big John Mazmanian Hemi-Powered ’40 Willys tribute car…
…against a recreation of the KS Pittman ’33 Willys in a classic Gasser battle. Unfortunately, a mechanical defect on the ’40 allowed the KS Pittman car to take home the bragging rights.
As important as the competition is to the drivers, the crowds in the stands seem to be just as excited about the the theatrics. Huge burnouts, wheelstands, and cars getting squirrely are all met with big cheers from the crowd. For many, it’s those things that define Nostalgia Drag Racing more than ETs and trap speeds.
Then again, if one wished, they could have a full day of enjoyment at the Hot Rod Reunion without even glancing at the action on the strip. There’s just so much to take in, including the period correct push cars like this bitchin’ Ford Econoline.
The static car displays in the “Famoso Grove” are another place where you can see both historic competition machines and street-driven Hot Rods that come to the Reunion from near and far.
One machine that didn’t have to travel very far for the event would be “The Green Go” built by Famoso Speed Shop in the nearby town of McFarland. The distinct dragster is running in the Nostalgia Eliminator class.
The Hot Rod Reunion’s swap meet is always the perfect place to give your eardrums a break while looking through stacks of vintage speed parts and the occasional project car chassis. Perhaps I’m strange, but I enjoy this just as much as the racing…
Sure, most people might want to bring home a hat or t-shirt as a souvenir from this event, but how about bringing back something a bit more substantial?
Each year, the NHRA dedicates special space at the Reunion to certain cars or individuals which have contributed to he history and development of drag racing, This year one of the honorees was the Stags Car Club of Ogden, Utah represented by this flamed ’40 Ford.
The Stags were formed in 1957 and established a strong reputation both in terms of racing and serving their local community. They even have their own clubhouse and shop, which I thought was especially cool.
This radically chopped Coupe is another car which calls the state of Utah home.
There’s something about this car that looks familiar to me, and I most likely caught it cruising across the salt at Bonneville back in August. In real time that was only about two months ago, but in Speedhunters time it feels like ages.
In the end, whether or not you consider yourself a fan of drag racing, the NHRA’s efforts to keep its history alive is something to be appreciated by anyone with an interest in cars.
All it really takes to understand this is a trip to that old dragstrip in the fields off of Highway 99 for the Hot Rod Reunion. The setting might not stick with you, but the experience most certainly will.
That will do it for know, but Larry and I still have plenty more to share from Famoso.
Tomorrow I will return with a more detailed look at the historic machines that gathered this weekend while Larry will add some of his impressions on capturing these beasts in the wild.