Hot Rod Reunion - The roots of Bakersfield

Auto Club Famoso Raceway: The Roots of Bakersfield and Home of the Hot Rod Reunion 50 years of racing, history and civic pride BAKERSFIELD, Calif. -- (Oct. 1, 2007) -- If Bakersfield's known around the world -- and it is -- it's because of ...

Auto Club Famoso Raceway: The Roots of Bakersfield and Home of the Hot Rod Reunion

50 years of racing, history and civic pride

BAKERSFIELD, Calif. -- (Oct. 1, 2007) -- If Bakersfield's known around the world -- and it is -- it's because of country music and Auto Club Famoso Raceway. Famoso is the home of the Automobile Club of Southern California Hot Rod Reunion, presented by Holley, now in its 16th year (Oct. 12-14). Bakersfield was an oil drilling town until after World War II.

It all began to change in the fifties when budding country music legend Buck Owens moved to "sleepy" Bakersfield and little-known Famoso Raceway opened. But the town's visibility on the world stage really improved in 1959.

Two people began their ascendancy in Bakersfield that year -- Don Garlits and Owens. Owens' career took off in the same year that "Big Daddy" Garlits entered the U.S. Fuel & Gas Championships -- now known as the March Meet -- drag race at Famoso. Buck's song "Second Fiddle" hit number 24 on the Billboard country chart and that was followed up with #4 and #3 chart hits.

The economic impact of these two events has been nothing short of amazing. Millions of dollars have been pumped into Bakersfield and Kern County from both racing and music.

Country music's "Bakersfield sound" was created by Owens and his friends, bringing a new generation into the genre and resulting in studios and Owens "Crystal Palace." Famoso, along with the March Meet, created an entire generation of both racers and racing fans and marked Bakersfield as a Mecca for the sport. Legendary Bakersfield racers included the Mears family, the Pedregons, Kevin Harvick, Tom "The Mongoose" McEwen and many, many others.

Before the NHRA's POWERade Drag Racing Series moved its starting date back to February, the March Meet at Famoso was the place where professional racers went to "tune-up" in the pre-season.

As Bakersfield became well known worldwide, the population began to grow -- and many of those people have been fans of both racing and country music. Another Bakersfield family is in itself synonymous with Famoso and drag racing. John Bowser and his son, Blake, are the track operators of Auto Club Famoso Raceway.

John got into drag racing in high school in 1958. "I used to go to Southern California to see drag racing at Irwindale, Lions, San Fernando," John Bowser said. They were 'lunch money' trips -- we'd save up our lunch money from school, pool it together and go racing." His first race at Famoso was in 1959. They've been involved at the track ever since.

John Bowser worked at Famoso, helping the track promoters including the legendary Ernie Hashim, one of the first track operators at Famoso. Hashim was not just a promoter, he was also a car owner, a garage owner and the west coast distributor for M & H Racemaster tires. Hashim passed away on Sep. 15, 2003. By that time, the Bowser family was already steeped in March Meet tradition.

"Everything changed in 1959 after the first March Meet," John Bowser said. "The whole image of drag racing changed. There were so many people at Famoso for it. There were people and cars for days. The whole town was excited. People were hanging out at hamburger stands -- it was like American Graffiti -- one giant car show. Everyone drove up and down Chester Ave."

Jack Williams took over Famoso in 1995. By that time, he was very familiar with the Bowser family, having seen his sister, Arlene, marry John Bowser's brother, Bobby. Williams, the first NHRA Top Fuel season Champion, became a mentor to John and Blake. "Jack wanted us to get more involved in Famoso," Blake said.

Blake Bowser, Famoso vice president of operations, grew up in drag racing -- and in Bakersfield. "I'm still a drag racing fan first," said Blake Bowser, who now holds two degrees from Cal State University Bakersfield. "I was raised as a fan. I've never raced."

He's never made it behind the wheel, but he understands Famoso and the March Meet. "Every year, everyone knew the March Meet was coming to town," said Blake Bowser. We'd cut school to go to it. It was a Senior Ditch Day."

The rich history of the track was assured in 2005 when, on the untimely passing of Williams, Bowser and his father John took over the track's long- term lease. The Bowsers had worked with Williams for many years to promote the fabled track and have pledged to continue for many more. It's not just the Bowser family that pledges to keep Famoso going. Enthusiasts by the score are working to ensure the track's future. "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 nitrogeezers.com.

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 in March, 1951, setting the stage for the first U.S. Fuel and Gas Championships (known as the March Meet) in 1959 and that continues every spring.

The home of the March Meet and of the annual Automobile Club of Southern California Hot Rod Reunion, presented by Holley, has grown over the ensuing years without ever losing its place as a field of dreams for drag racers.

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 March Meet, 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 #1 on the NHRA's Top 50 list. Garlits' presence spread the fame of Famoso far and wide.

"Paving the way for Garlits fabled 1959 appearance, Bobby Langley made the trek to Famoso late in 1958 with his "Scorpion" dragster," said Steve Gibbs, Parks Museum board member and then Museum director. "Langley trekked from Everman, Texas. He was the first big-name out-of-state fuel racer to come west and tackle the big boys. It was Langley's appearance that set the stage for Garlits to make the big splash. What's really interesting is that Langley, Garlits and '59 winner Art Chrisman will all participate in this year's Cacklefest. And the '59 runner-up, Tony Waters, is still active in the A/FD class with his son Darrell driving."

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 Gibbs. "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 and the March Meet.

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. 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. 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. There's an all-new surface at Auto Club Famoso Raceway, but racers, hot- rodders and their fans will feel right at home for the Hot Rod Reunion and for the 50th year of racing at the March Meet, Mar. 7-9, 2008.

"We've completed 3,000 feet of concrete wall," said Blake Bowser. "We repaved the entire track twice after torrential rains. We've had several races since then, and the racers really like what we've done." But that's not all. Bowser said that vendors in the Midway will find pavement instead of dirt, and the complete return road has been paved. "We want to express our thanks to the Auto Club for their sponsorship," said Bowser. "We've put a lot of money into the track with their help. We had plans before, but the Auto Club sponsorship has helped those plans go forward."

Recent upgrades to the media/officials tower are hidden from public view, but welcome nonetheless. In 2004, the track debuted new and taller safety walls which have now been extended.

The 16th annual Automobile Club of Southern California Hot Rod Reunion, presented by Holley, is part of the museum's Hot Rod Heritage Series which works to bring to life the sights, sounds and people who made history in the early days of drag racing, land speed racing and the golden age of American car culture.

Unique among motorsports events, the Reunion honors some of the top names in hot rodding from the past and features a fabulous array of cool drag cars, street rods, classics, customs and muscle cars of the historic and present-day hot rod eras.

A three-day credential for admission to all events is available for $55 by calling 800/884-NHRA (6472) or by completing a form found in the Reunion section of the Museum's web site. Auto Club members receive a $5 discount off Adult credential prices. Credentials include a goodie bag with a dash plaque, lanyard and event program. Children 15 and under are admitted free when accompanied by an adult.

Daily general admission tickets/pit passes will be available at Auto Club Famoso Raceway gate, (www.famosoraceway.com). Cost per person: Friday, $20; Saturday, $20; Sunday, $15. Children 15 and under are free when accompanied by an adult. Auto Club discount is also available at the gate: $2 off Friday and Saturday and, $1 off Sunday.

-credit: museum.nhra.com.

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About this article
Series NHRA
Drivers Kevin Harvick , Don Garlits
Teams Williams