How Bakersfield Saved Vintage Drag Racing
Promoting any kind of drag races in the 1980s and ’90s without names like Big Daddy, the Snake, Raymond Beadle, Shirley, and John Force was an exercise in futility. Undeterred, Goodguys founder Gary Meadors battled that dilemma for a half decade doing vintage drags, often questioning why he kept doing it. He did it because he wanted Goodguys to be different from other associations. He wanted to offer both rod-and-custom events and old-school drags to his diehard association members. Eventually, his persistence paid off. So, what does Bakersfield have to do with it? A lot. Read on.
Beginning with the 1st Jim Davis Memorial/Brent Davis Benefit in April of 1989, Meadors, along with his wife Marilyn, sons Marty and Marc, and their first-ever employee Kathy Berghoff, rented Sears Point Raceway, gathered all of the big names in vintage drag racing (Champion Speed Shop, Jerry Steiner, Gary Clapshaw, The Kaisers, Howard Haight, and other early vintage Top Fuel warriors) and staged the first-ever Goodguys drag race as a stand-alone event.
The early Goodguys Rod & Custom fairground gatherings were incredibly successful and offered a bright future. It was a great business model and Gary’s decades of promotional savvy served him well. But the first vintage drags, not so much. Empty stands combined with having to pay purse money, hire extra staff, establish and enforce rules, insurance – it was an uphill battle. The hope was that it would eventually blossom.
Enter Famoso Raceway and Bakersfield’s favorite son Jack Williams, who came on board in 1993 as Goodguys’ sponsorship and sales director. Williams was connected. Connected to major corporate sponsors and connected to all of the principle players at NHRA, including a longstanding friendship with Wally Parks.
Famoso Raceway was still operational some 50 years after holding the first Smoker’s Car Club Fuel & Gas Championships in 1959 (that famous event in which the Smokers lured Don Garlits out west from the swamps of the Sunshine State). But things were quiet at Famoso out there in Northeast Bakersfield’s almond and citrus orchards during the ’80s and ’90s.
Although various attempts by Tom Prufer, Brian Burnett, the NDRA, and ANDRA brought smaller events to Famoso, Meadors, Williams, Marc Meadors, and myself held a “what if” meeting in the summer of 1993. “What if we brought back the March Meet,” Williams said. “I know the radio people, the TV people, the newspaper people. You can own that media market for a reasonable budget. There are enough race fans within two hours to make it go. And the racers have always loved Famoso’s track surface,” Williams enthused. From that meeting, a plan of action was set.
The track was booked, plans made, and the stage was set. All Goodguys needed was a strong showing of vintage drag racers and hot rod guys to fill the track with their shiny cars. And man, did they show up! The first Goodguys March Meet, held the weekend of March 11-13, 1994, attracted north of 350 vintage racers, 400-500 show cars, and a midway full of vendors. That singular event changed the course of drag racing history. Meadors and the Goodguys team had succeeded in tapping into the March Meet’s rich history, gave racers a place to gather each spring like they had all those years earlier, and a gave the city of Bakersfield an event they could be proud of. History had indeed repeated itself from a collective effort of promoter, racers, rodders, and the city.
But more importantly, the Goodguys March Meet became big enough and successful enough to subsidize Goodguys’ other vintage drag racing events throughout California, which were continuously held through 2006. If it weren’t for Bakersfield, Famoso Raceway, and the collective effort of everyone who participated, vintage drags might have vanished. In that sense, Bakersfield indeed saved vintage drag racing.