Kelly Brown really didn’t know what he was getting into when, as a 16 year old in March of 1959, a friend told him there was a big deal going on in Bakersfield and they should be there.
That big deal was the first U.S. Fuel and Gas Championship drag race and it was a journey just to get there.
“He had a ’47 Ford and we kicked the rods out coming over the ridge route and hitch hiked the test of the way,” Brown said. “We slept on the ground in sleeping bags.”
Twenty years later, he won the NHRA Top Fuel championship in 1978.
This weekend he is serving as Grand Marshal of the the 27th annual NHRA California Hot Rod Reunion.
“When they asked me to be Grand Marshal I told them they must be running out of names and getting to the bottom of the barrel.” Kelly said with a laugh. “But seriously, to come back here as Grand Marshal is an honor.”
Brown didn’t catch the racing bug at the 1959 race. But he did a couple of year later thanks to Manette Prudhomme, who was his best friend and the older bother of Don Prudhomme, who was just starting what would be a Hall of Fame career.
“I was standing behind the car when Don won here in 1962,” recalled Kelly. “The smoke off the tires and the front wheels up in the air, I thought that was the coolest thing ever. Those U.S Fuel and Gas Championships in Bakersfield and the U.S. Nationals were the biggest races around.”
It wasn’t long before Kelly was behind the wheel of a dragster, first in a Junior Fuel car before progressing to Top Gas, Top Fuel and Funny Car.
Then he had to concentrate on making a living.
“I took five years off to concentrate on my stunt business,” said Brown who worked as a stuntman for 35 years.
He was runner-up in the 1979 championship race and ran a few more years before retiring after the sport got too expensive, he said. But the racing bug has never left him.
“I’ve been to a lot of reunions and some other races, but not too many lately,” Brown said. “I’ve got a ranch in Northern California and that’s where I spend a lot of my time. But I still watch on TV.”
Brown and 2018 Honorees Jim Murphy, Bob Brandt, Jerry Darien, Rich Voegelin and Dave Wallace Jr. were honored at a reception on Friday night at the Doubletree Hotel.
While they were being honored, the racing was still going on at Famoso as day turned to night and the lights came on.
The Top Fuel dragsters had a single qualifying session and Mendy Fry, who has already locked up that championship, showed she wants to go out with an exclamation point.
Fry, who was runner-up at the March Meet, brought the session to an end at 5:30 p.m. with a 5.600-second blast at just 231.44 mph. Defending CHRR champion Jim Young clicked off a solid 5.668-second run and had the top speed at 253.09. March Meet winner Pete Wittenberg stood third with a 5.718 at 231.32 mph.
The Top Fuel cars have two more qualifying sessions Saturday to set the field for Sunday’s eight-car elimination field.
Leading the way after two Funny Car qualifying sessions was Steven Densham, who set the bar in the first session with a 5.679 at 252.90 mph. He did not make a pass in the second session.
Jeff Arend, who also competes on the NHRA Mellow Yellow circuit, was dialed in as he ran 5.71s in both sessions and stands No. 2.
Former Hot Rod Heritage Series champion Jason Rupert had to lift due to a tire shake on his first attempt but came back under the lights with a 5.73 to take the third spot.
The final qualifying session for the 16-car Funny Car field is Saturday at noon with the first round of eliminations in the late afternoon.