At the same time Hollywood experienced its golden age in the 1930s, drag racing was born on the dried lakebeds of Southern California. Over the distance of one-quarter mile, drivers tested their bravado and souped-up engines across the dried desert land.
After World War II, drag racing’s popularity soared. Teenagers staged illegal matches as a means to show off their cars and compete against their peers. The sport grew up quickly and within a couple of years, associations, such as the Southern California Timing Association, started to organize legal events at unused air strips. In 1949, the first organized event occurred at the Goleta Air Base in California.
Soon, more organized events sprung up across California, and in 1951, Wally Parks founded the National Hot Rod Association. That same year, Bakersfield’s local club, Smokers Inc., began hosting races at an abandoned airfield off Maricopa Highway. Large crowds of race enthusiasts showed up to watch the dragsters compete for the best times.
Three years later, in 1954, the club struck a deal with Cecil Meadows to lease an unused airfield just off Famoso Woody Road. This was the start of something big that would soon become a Bakersfield tradition.
The closing of the Santa Ana strip – where previous championship events occurred – provided the opportunity for Smokers Inc. to establish the first United States Fuel-Gas Championship. Feb. 28 and March 1, 1959, promised to be two giant days of drag racing.
For the admission price of $1.50, fans could witness a showdown between the United States’ best racers from the east and west. Drivers on the schedule included California champion Art Chrisman, Texas champion Bobby Langley, Midwest champion Setto Postoniak and National champion Don Garlits.
Garlits was the real attraction.
He had recorded a solid 180 mph in his championship race and the California racers wanted to challenge him. Drivers were slated to compete for $2,000 in savings bonds and trophies.
In the days leading up to the meet, The Bakersfield Californian ran a full-page ad on Feb. 27, 1959, urging readers to come see “200 of the fastest cars in the nation at the Famoso Drag Strip.” But word of the event had already spread across the country. On Feb. 7, 1959, the Chamber of Commerce’s Convention Bureau reported to The Californian that they expected a crowd of 5,000 and that most accommodations were full. There was even a reservation from “as far east as Boston, Massachusetts.” The chamber also estimated $75,000 would be spent in the city by those attending the races.
The chamber’s crowd size estimate was significantly off as the number reached 31,253. This was unprecedented for the Famoso race strip, where crowds usually topped 2,000 to 3,000 fans.
In the end, the California drivers blew Garlits away. The top eliminator and new U.S. champion title went to Art Chrisman of Compton, California. He clocked an impressive 160 mph. Tommy Ivo of Burbank won top eliminator in the gas dragster class, clocking 144.33. Shirley Shahan of Visalia took the top award in the super stocks class. Shahan was one of the pioneering women of the drag racing industry.
Now known as the March Meet, the tradition continues at the Auto Club Famoso Raceway for new generations of drag race fans. ￼