2017 BAKERSFIELD MARCH MEET - EVENT NOTEBOOK
EVENT NOTEBOOK - A WILD WEEKEND FOR A TRIP BACK IN TIME
A DREAM COME TRUE - Ever since Mendy Fry was a kid, her ultimate goal was to earn a place in drag racing history.
In a rain-delayed Nostalgia Top Fuel final at the Good Vibrations March Meet, her dream came true.
Fry, who qualified No. 8 in the eight-car front-engine dragster field, was a giant-killer throughout eliminations taking out the top two qualifiers en route to her first career Top Fuel victory. Truth be known, she performed like a giant with 5.5-second performances.
Fry becomes the third female Top Fuel winner at the historic drag race joining the likes of Shirley Muldowney and Lucille Lee, who met in the 1982 final round.
"I’ll take it," Lee said. "I’ll take my place in history. I really find it as being my lifelong achievement to this point. When I came back to racing in 2000 and got a ride in A/Fuel, and then started lobbying for a Top Fuel ride, it’s like I’ve shown that I will do anything that it takes, right?
"I mean I worked on cars, I’ll drive cars that are underfunded, whatever I can do to stay in the mix to be able to get this opportunity is what I’ve done. And I can’t believe my fortune in being given this opportunity."
Fry was named as driver of the heralded High Speed Motorsports entry for this season
"I’m so happy that High Speed picked me," Fru said. "They had their choice [of drivers], and they picked me, and I just want to be able to deliver what this amazing team is capable of. I need to bring game to match it."
Fry showed her A-game from the time eliminations opened Sunday afternoon by taking out the biggest brawler in the nitro bar in No. 1 Tony Bartone.
While it might appear Fry struggled to get into the field at No. 8, her first round triumph over Bartone showed their hand in the high horsepower card game.
Fry unleashed a 5.597 elapsed time to send defending series champion Bartone packing, as he double-clutched at the green, and followed the miscue by crossing the centerline. The run was two-tenths quicker than she'd ever run before.
Fry pedaled the car in the second round to advance to the finals with a 5.783, 220 over rookie Pete Wittenburg in the Circuit Breaker dragster.
The final round proved to be anticlimactic as Fry singled for the win when Murphy's dragster suffered a broken fuel pump drive. However, there was nothing disappointing about her 5.59-second elapsed time at 252 miles per hour exclamation point to finish a weekend story which started with a bad introduction.
During Thursday pre-event testing, the High Speed dragster's input shaft broke on the hit and grenaded the clutch. The Trick Titanium bell housing safely contained the havoc, but the disintegrated clutch left the team working night into morning. Despite the setback, Fry and her team managed a spot in the show.
Fry is a fighter and has worked her way up the ladder from humble beginnings as a Jr. Fuel racer to racing Top Fuel underfunded and even taking a job driving an AA/FC.
Most every drag racer has a dream to fulfill when they begin driving, on Monday before a sparsely filled grandstand of diehard drag racing fans; Fry achieved what she dreamed would inevitably be her destiny.
"I had a fan ask me, and we were talking about having got to this point, and we were also talking about the big show, and he asked me, ‘Where do you go from here?" Fry recalled, "And I looked at him and said, ‘So you mean the next race or do you mean like philosophically?"
"And he’s like, ‘No, like you’re this far now, what’s your next step?" "I’m just looking at him, and I go, ‘I’m here. This was the step. This is what I’ve been working for. This is what I want. This is everything I want; there is no next step. This is the one."
Fry's one place in drag racing history, this is the next step she envisioned.
WAXING NOSTALGIC - Let the record reflect the Pacemaker is back in business.
In a rain-delayed Funny Car final at the Good Vibrations March Meet at Auto Club Raceway - Famoso, Ryan Hodgson drove his Pacemaker-bannered 1969 Camaro to victory over defending NHRA Heritage Series champion Kris Krabill whose Funny Car burst into flames during the run. Krabill was uninjured.
Returning the Pacemaker name to drag racing success was something important to team owner Ron Hodgson, Ron's father.
The Pacemaker Funny Car, campaigned by the late Gordie Bonin and Gordon Jenner, was a staple of the 1970s flopper scene. Hodgson, a longtime associate of the team, chose to resurrect the name this season.
"We started the Pacemaker car with Gordon Jenner in 1972, and we ran August 26th in SIR in Seattle, ran a 6.56. And I said to Gordon Jenner, and Bonin, ‘We’re going to Indy," Hodgson said. "And we went to the U.S. Nationals in ’72, qualified number two, and we’d runner-up to Ed “Ace” McCulloch. And so yeah, that’s the Pacemaker car. Then we had the Pacemaker car in ’73, ’74; then we went to the Bubble Up car."
Pacemaker isn't just a race car nickname but a company founded by the elder Hodgson. In his automobile dealership in Edmonton, Alberta, they still employ use of the name Pacemaker Motorsports in their parts department.
Make no mistake about it, having the Pacemaker name on the side drums up memories when Hodgson scored monumental victories with Bonin and crewchief Jerry Verheul.
"It makes me feel old is what it does," admitted Hodgson. "Brings a lot of history back. You’d be surprised how many people come up and are happy to see that name from all over the country. From all over Canada, and all over the United States. So that makes you feel good. And you know what, at the end of the day, it’s all about camaraderie and friendship. And that’s what the sport’s about. It’s sure not about the prize money or anything like that. It’s about competitiveness and just all the friendship."
Hodgson admits he's having more fun than back in those days. "Back then, I was working all the time, sending the money to Gordie and Jerry Verhuel," Hodgson said. "So we won six national events. We won Gainesville three times; I never went to one of those races. We won the World Finals twice and Riverside, never went to one of those races.
"But I was at the U.S. Nationals in ’79 when we set the world record and won that. I just was happy to be part of the team, that’s all."
And now he is the team.
"Bob Papernick is the crew chief, a longtime friend from Edmonton," Hodgson explained. "He bought his first Funny Car off of Diamond Jim, and that’s going quite a ways back. And Jim Basko and Ray Basko of Basko Engine Services. And then we’ve got a whole other group of guys from Canada and the United States. So we’ve got a group of guys. No egos involved, everybody just wants to have a good time. And camaraderie. That’s what I said before, and I’ll say it again."
Hodgson's road to the winner's circle began from the No. 5 qualifying position and included wins over Danny Gerber, Dan Horan and No. 1 qualifier Mike McIntire.
TRY IT AGAIN ON MONDAY - In the end, Mother Nature had the final say.
The final rounds of the Good Vibrations March Meet will run on Monday morning after a combination of falling temperatures, rain and hail all nailed the Auto Club Raceway - Famoso following the semifinal round of competition.
Sunday's final eliminations were delayed five hours due to heavy rains which began falling at 8 AM. The skies cleared, the track was dried for competition to get underway.
The Nostalgia Top Fuel final round features a match between Jim Murphy and Mendy Fry. Should Fry, who took out low qualifier Tony Bartone in the opening round, win, she will represent the first female Top Fuel driver since Lucille Lee in 1982 to win the historic event.
The Funny Car final will be a battle between the new-age nostalgia Camaros of defending NHRA Heritage Series champion Kris Krabill and Ryan Hodgson of Edmonton.
Bryan Hall faces James Generaldo Jr. in the Fuel Altered final.
Competition is scheduled to resume at 10 am, PST.
FUEL ALTERED FASHIONS - Most drag racing fans, at least those who prefer the Bakersfield March Meet, consider dressing up to be putting on a pair of jeans and a clean racing t-shirt.
Debra Covern, a clothing designer from Laguna Beach, Ca., has created a line of dressy, collared Hawaiian-style shirts, to cater to this crowd.
This weekend at the March Meet she unveiled her latest offering, a shirt paying tribute to the nastiest of all race cars - the Fuel Altereds.
"I love the fuel altereds," Covern said. "And I knew I wanted to do a new Fuel Altered shirt. And when the Mike Sullivan car won at the California Hot Rod Reunion, and I saw the pictures that they took I just knew I had to go with it. And I talked to all the other guys, and they want to come on board."
Covern, who operates under the Matt Rider Designs name, designed her new shirt to include two Mike Sullivan race cars, the Burkholder Brothers, The Mob and the Tocco, Harper and Garten entry.
The unveiling in Bakersfield on Friday proved to be a hit amongst those shopping at the massive Famoso midway.
"They love it," Covern said. "They love it because the cars are real. I don’t change anything on them. I get permission from all the owners so that everything’s legal. And so, I mean even the decals and the lettering, everything’s on there. So it’s the real deal."
Covern started her company MattRider.com as a hobby, first by making Hawaiian-style shirts for her husband. Once she ventured into the business, she believed it was a better approach to developing a man's name as the designer because as she put it, "Men just wouldn’t wear a shirt with a woman’s name on them,”
Covern's first shirt was a generic drag racing version as a play off of her previous hot rod designs. Then she met legendary drag race team owner Roland Leong, and her designs became more targeted.
"Roland Leong saw me, and he said, ‘Well how come you don’t have a Funny Car shirt?"
"And I said, ‘Well because I don’t know all the Funny Car guys that well."
"And he goes, ‘Well who do you want on it?"
"So next thing you know, Roland’s my best friend. And then after that, he says, ‘You know, I kind of like this."
"He said ‘Let’s do a Top Fuel with all of our Top Fuel cars.' So we went with that too. And I love it. I really love it. I really enjoy what I do."
Covern's product line has grown to include designs featuring the legendary Blue Max, Tom McEwen, Don Prudhomme, Pisano & Matsubara and many others.
Covern's website is www.mattrider.com
ALMOST PERFECT ATTENDANCE - Set up in the shadows of the Auto Club Raceway - Famoso timing tower, a spry Tom McEwen resides under a tent filled with t-shirts and memorabilia. He signs autographs, sells a few of his old wares and has the time of his life.
The March Meet has been a fun tradition since 1958 for the Funny Car legend, who still works as an advertising director for Drag Racer magazine.
"I don’t know what keeps me coming back other than I have always liked coming," McEwen said. "I came up here with Chrisman and Cannon and they won by beating the Tony Waters roadster. And I just came up here every year since then."
In fact, since 1958, McEwen has only missed one. Last year he was in the hospital undergoing pacemaker surgery.
"It’s like going back. It reminds me of the Santa Ana Lion’s days, you know all the guys like you come in and all the people around," McEwen said. "People outside the country even come to this race. A lot of people come here; they don’t go any place else but Bakersfield."
McEwen said he enjoys the hours he spends interacting with the race fans, sometimes three generations at a time.
"Sometimes you’ll get three or four generations of a family that’ll come up to you, that the father might have raced with me or been watching me since the early 50s, and then he passed it down to his kid, his kid's kid, and his kid's kid's kid," McEwen said. "And sometimes the little boy will have a Hot Wheels in his hand, which was a Mongoose or a Snake car that’s been passed down in the family since 1970. And of course it's worn out, you can hardly tell the color on it anymore.
"That’s always fun, the history of that stuff. And then the people come around, the old people. And of course we’ve lost some people since November, we’ve lost about 15, 16 people. But you know, when you’re up in age, and you know a lot of guys up in the age, you’re going to lose a few people. But the family thing to me is what I like, and talking to the kids with autographs and all that. It’s just an enjoyable weekend for me."
LIFE AFTER THE BIG SHOW - John Hale is adjusting to life after the big show, and the biggest lesson for him is how the return to normal life isn't too difficult.
Hale resigned his position as driver of the Jim Dunn Racing Funny Car at the end of the 2016 season. He might have left the major league of drag racing, but this didn't mean he was leaving the straight-line sport.
Hale returned to his comfort zone of racing in the NHRA's Heritage Series, with his nitro-burning 1969 Camaro.
"There is a good life after the big show," Hale said. "You know, this is a special place. It’s nice to be here. I can’t think of anywhere else I’d rather be right now than here in Bakersfield."
In a sense, racing the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series was a bucket list item. Been there, done that and now move on.
"It was a dream of mine since going to the Texas Motorplex and hanging out there, and sneaking underneath the tower on Friday nights and watching qualifying," Hale recalled. "I dreamed of someday being in one of those cars underneath that tower and I got to do that.
"I wouldn’t trade those last two years doing the big show for anything. But it took everything I had time wise, mentally and physically. And I’ve just got some other things that I want to do. I want to promote my barbecue sauce, I want to get my Nostalgia car back running tip top, you know. And I couldn’t do that and do the other at the same time. So I’m content."
Pomona this season provided a few butterflies, but they quickly flew away.
"I was waiting for those emotions to come," Hale admitted. "And when it came around, I wanted to be there. I miss driving the car, but if I were there, I probably wouldn’t miss it. Does that make sense?
"I watched from home on the TV. You know, it really sunk in when I saw someone else driving the car I’d been driving. I’ll probably get back in a car sometime later this year and keep my license current. And who knows what I’ll do next year."
LIVING THE NOSTALGIA LIFE - If you can't copy-cat a friend, then who can you copy-cat?
Randy Ranew, who grew up in drag racing, had a friend who started a shirt of the month club for another industry. He saw how well the idea worked and decided drag racing was ready for this type of business model.
Ranew grew up working at the now defunct El Paso Drag Strip where on a weekly basis they booked in the top names of the 1970s Funny Car era.
"We used to book Tom McEwen, Gary Bergin, Gary Densham, Roland Leong, and a bunch of the West Coast guys," Ranew explained. "Once I got out of the drag strip business, I still had a love and a connection to drag racing."
Ranew believed the era when he worked in the industry was the most special, and believed there were many who shared his belief. He believed the combination of vintage t-shirts and race fans would work as well as, well ... chocolate and peanut butter.
"I talked about the shirt of the month program, and I said, ‘You know, I bet this would work for drag racing'" Ranew said. "So that’s what we did. We started out the very first month we only had seven members."
Ranew is coming up on his five-year anniversary which started from humble beginnings.
"We sponsored Jack Wyatt’s Funny Car," Ranew explained. "He’s a low buck guy, he didn't have any sponsors, and he was one of the guys I used to book into one of my race tracks. So I talked to him and said, ‘Hey Jack, let us do our very first shirt featuring you."
The idea looked good on paper.
"He was in for about five minutes until he got bumped out," Ranew said, shaking his head and smiling. "That’s the way it goes."
All the other ideas on paper have worked out, especially the ones that focused on vintage apparel.
"We concentrate on the vintage stuff," Ranew explained. "Everything from the 60s, 70s, the glory era of drag racing mainly. And each month we feature a new design. Of course, everything we do, we work with the driver/owner/race team, get their permission, get all the rights.
"And we do the design based on their suggestions and their final approval. So once a shirt is completed, we send that to them for approval, and then we start printing, and we ship it out to our members."
The Red Line Shirt Club features members both domestic and foreign; including members from New Zealand, Australia, and Spain just to name a few.
How does one join the club?
"It’s easy," Ranew said. "The basic cost is $23.95 a month, that includes shipping. So, you go to our website, or you can call us at our 800 number, and sign up. We just need your name and address. We get your billing information, and it costs $23.95 a month for sizes up to XL.
"Every month we ship you a shirt. You don’t know what shirt. We only print one shirt a month so it’s kind of a surprise. And when we launched this concept, we were a little concerned that the club members not knowing what they were going to get, that may be a problem. But it’s turned out the opposite. It’s something that’s really attractive."
Ranew admitted he gets emails from members who enjoy the surprise of what their t-shirt will be from month to month. He had the Red Line Shirt Club on the Bakersfield March Meet display and in addition to signing new members, had time to spend with current members.
"We’ve got them coming by our booth all day today and all day yesterday, ‘What’s the shirt next month?" Ranew said. "No, no, no, don’t tell me. I can’t wait to be surprised,"
There are no membership minimums. If you want to join for a month or two, you can.
"I am shocked at the number of guys we’ve had on board with us for three or four years," Ranew said. "We’re happy, and it’s a work of love.
And, Ranew admits, maintaining the integrity of the t-shirt designs is demanding. It's also important.
"Extremely important," Ranew said. "We do take a little bit of liberty on some of the design. We’ll have some of our racers ask for a duplication of the shirts they sold back in the day. But we will what we call improve on it. I guess that’s subject to opinion, but it’s important that we maintain the original integrity of the shirt because we’ll get called out."
Spoiler alert, this month's t-shirt is Tom Prock's Detroit Tiger Monza.
"I talked with him for quite a while and getting all the details and everything he’d like to see on the shirt," Ranew confirmed.
Buyer beware, the Red Line shirt club provides more than just a t-shirt. Every shirt comes with a collector card as well. There are also decal packs, from time to time which are original throwbacks to the era. Some of them are some new creations designed by Red Line.
"What drag racer doesn’t love decals, right?" Ranew asked.
What drag racer doesn't love racing shirts?
"Exactly," Ranew confirmed.