Hot Rodders Can Go Home Again

Old hot rodders never die; they just keep firing up their engines.  And they will prove that yet again this September 30-October 2 when the NHRA California Hot Rod Reunion comes cackling back to Famoso Raceway outside booming Bakerfield, California.  The nostalgic event is being held in a venue with a rich and gritty history.
When California Highway 99 was the main north-south route in the state and the Interstate highway system was merely a gleam in the eye of the man who was not yet President Eisenhower, a local car club placed its focus on a parcel of land in McFarland, north of Bakersfield as a great location for drag racing.  Now called the Auto Club Famoso Raceway, it has grown over the ensuing years without ever losing its
place as a track of dreams for drag racers.

"Auto Club Famoso Raceway has deep historical significance as one of the earliest tracks to host major events," said Greg Sharp, curator of the non-profit Wally Parks NHRA Motorsports Museum, which produces and benefits from the reunion.

Initially formed as the Bakersfield Coupe and Roadster Club, the organizers of racing at Famoso changed their name to The Smokers in 1948, putting their primary focus on drag racing.  Their first event was held at Famoso in March, 1951, setting the stage for the well known March Meet that continues today at Famoso every spring.

"The Famoso site itself is so steeped in drag racing history and legend that it is almost a tangible presence during any visit," said Vic Cooke of the NitroGeezers' Web site. 

The Smokers began building up Famoso quietly until 1958 when, skeptical of the reported times and speeds set in the east by Don Garlits, they invited "Big Daddy" to compete with them.  In March, 1959, he did just that.  The result was the first U.S. fuel and gas championships, often called the "Woodstock of drag racing."  Although Garlits lost in the first round, and Art Chrisman became Top Eliminator, Garlits went
on to become the most celebrated drag racer in history and number one on the NHRA's Top 50 list.  Garlits' presence spread the fame of Famoso far and wide. In 1992, the NHRA California Hot Rod Reunion, thought at the time to be a single event, brought together older cars, drivers and fans to celebrate an earlier era. 

"When we were looking for a place for our Reunion, there was no question that we would come home to Bakersfield," said Steve Gibbs, Parks Museum board member and then Museum director.  "The event has grown over the years and trees have been planted in what's now Famoso Grove to honor the memory of drag racers of the past."

The Grove provides a setting for the street rod display that's an integral part of the annual Reunion, the major autumn event at the track. In 1994, the March Meet at Famoso was resurrected as a race for nostalgic front-engined cars, with entries limited to pre-1972 style racers. 

"In the world of front-motor dragsters only one other event rivals the March Meet," said Jim Davis of wediditforlove, "and that event is The California Hot Rod Reunion."

Although California 99 has long since been supplanted by Interstate 5, it continues to provide great access to the track and the city of Bakersfield. Meanwhile, the track's local events continue unabated, with a full schedule helping to fulfill its original mission of keeping the kids from illegal street racing. 

Cleveland-based Driving Today Contributing Editor Luigi Fraschini is hoping to travel to California for the upcoming Hot Rod Reunion.