2023 BAKERSFIELD MARCH MEET - EVENT PAGE
FINAL EVENT - COTTRELL MAKES HISTORY WHILE WHYNAUGHT GAINS REDEMPTION
History and struggle created prestige at the 65th running of the iconic Good Vibrations Motorsports March Meet at Famoso Dragstrip. Bobby Cottrell captured his fifth March Meet title in Nitro Funny Car, tying the legend "Big Daddy" Don Garlits, while Mark Whynaught mended his heartbreak from the year before taking home the crown in AA/Fuel Altered.
Joining Cottrell and Whynaught in the winner's circle at Famoso was Eily Stafford in Nitro Pro Comp. The AA/Fuel Dragster group elected to run their eliminations in October during qualifying at the California Hot Rod Reunion, the series finale for the NHRA Heritage series.
The AA/Fuel Dragster group opted not to return on Sunday, postponing their final eliminations until October during the California Hot Rod Reunion.
Cottrell continued his dominance in the Nitro Funny Car ranks, kicking his title defense off in style, capturing his third March Meet title in a row and fifth overall, tying "Big Daddy" Don Garlits.
"We went from zeroes on Thursday to heroes on Sunday," Cottrell said. "Just a testament to my team. They've just been outstanding. We've had adversity from when we got here... actually on the way here. Just to get here was a mountain to climb. I'm just super, super happy to tie Don Garlits. To be in the same sentence with that guy is a big deal for me. Obviously, he's one of my idols. Couldn't ask for any better ending and on to the next one, I guess."
For a team that has shown little to no weakness for the past few seasons, it was on full display this weekend, starting with a fire during testing on Thursday.
Nevertheless, the Bardahl-sponsored Funny Car driver stepped up when it mattered the most. Cottrell eliminated Chris Davis in the opening round of eliminations with a solid 5.685 on Saturday afternoon. However, just as he was getting ready to battle with young Drew Austin in the second round on Sunday morning, Mother Nature had other ideas, forcing the completion of eliminations into Monday.
Although race fans had to wait nearly 20 hours to see the highly anticipated battle of the Austins, the sibling rivalry of car owners, their drivers Cottrell, and the third-gen Austin did not disappoint. Cottrell took the round with a 5.69, nearly edging out Austin, who was right there with a 5.70, and both cars running over 256 miles per hour.
The champ showed off his driving talents again in the semifinals when he defeated Tony Jurado on a massive holeshot, running a 5.82 to Jurado's quicker but losing 5.78.
Cottrell was set to battle with Canadian Tim Boychuk in the final round when his opponent lost fire at the ready line. The team confirmed the Funny Car body pinched the coil wire on the way down after firing, grounding out the magneto.
Awarded a single in the final round, Cottrell finished off the day with an elapsed time of 6.09 seconds at 179 miles per hour, ceiling his fifth March Meet crown.
For his part, runner-up Boychuk worked his way to the final round with wins over Jim Maroney, Ryan Horan, and Brad Thompson.
Whynaught came into this year's March Meet with one thing on his mind... redemption. One year ago, Whynaught seemed well on his way to his first March Meet victory when his opponent Dan Hix smoked the tires right at the hit in the final round. Unfortunately, Whynaught's car lost fire halfway down the quarter-mile, allowing Hix to drive around for the victory and causing heartbreak for the Las Vegas, Nevada native.
One year later, he left no doubt in everybody's mind that he was the one to beat as he qualified his "Nitro Mamba" AA/Fuel Altered on the pole and never looked back. Whynaught took down Jason Pettit in the opening round with a solid 6.237 at 212 miles per hour before shutting off on the starting after staging his car and taking the tree during a bye run in the semifinals when his opponent Derrick Moreira couldn't make the call.
The pressure was on Whynaught in the final round as he squared off against one of the more seasoned veterans in AA/Fuel Altered, Johnny West. Whynaught was up for the task, defeating West in the final round on a holeshot with a 6.120 at 223 miles per hour to West's 6.109 at 247.
"I'm on cloud nine right now," Whynaught said. "I got to thank all my boys for getting this thing tuned up between the rounds. We finally did it after last year blowing it up in the final. It's pretty cool racing Johnny West, getting a holeshot win against a legendary Top Fuel guy from back in the day."
West's "Plan A" AA/Fuel Altered defeated James Generalao Jr and Cory Lee.
From the number one qualifying position, Eily Stafford took home the crown in Nitro Pro Comp at the March Meet.
Stafford, tuned by iconic drag racing crewman Donnie Couch in her Mark Borjon-owned rear engine Top Fuel Dragster, defeated Tim Elckstadt in the opening round with a stellar 6.20 at 225 to Elckstadt's 6.282 at 226. She went on to win a close race over Keith Wilson in the final round on a massive holeshot, laying down an impressive 6.040 at 232 to Wilson's much quicker but losing 5.753 at 261.
"This was my seventh final," Stafford said. "So I think this is what I was waiting for, for this moment. With Donnie Couch and Mark (Borjon) and the guys, this is such a dream come true.
"I went to the March Meet final in 2012, and the last final I was in 2017 here (California Hot Rod Reunion), and we lost by three thousandths, so this is just awesome. It's such a dream come true."
Other winners at the 64th Bakersfield March Meet included Wayne Ramay (A/Fuel), Jason Vanderpool (7.0 PRO), Steve Schoenfeld (Nostalgia Eliminator-1), Scott Chamberlain (NE-2), Ron Anzalone (NE-3), Chris Kurtis (A/Gas), Meghan Gorman (B/G), Eddy Plaizier (C/G), Jesse Howe (D/Gas & Hot Rod).
The NHRA Heritage Series returns to action at Redding Motorsports Park, Redding, California, with Groups 1 & 2. The Nitro Funny Cars' next stop will be May 6-7 for NAPA Auto Parts Ignitor Nitro Opener held at Firebird Raceway in Boise, Idaho.
SUNDAY - RAIN POSTPONES THE DAY UNTIL MONDAY
STICK A FORK IN IT - Persistent rain and cool temperatures won big on Sunday at the 65th Bakersfield March Meet at Famoso Dragway. As a result, the Group 1 and 2 categories will return to complete their divisions on Monday morning. The Top Fuel dragsters will run their eliminations at the California Hot Rod Reunion in October.
Overnight rains wreaked havoc on the event schedule, throwing the race schedule two hours behind. Several of the sportsman categories got in a round of competition, and three of four pairs in the Funny Car division were completed before the rain began to fall again. There was a break in the precipitation where the race could continue.
The Famoso Raceway staff nearly had the track dry when the rain began falling again. This proved to be the nail in the coffin for the day.
"Very disappointing," said Famoso Raceway Director of Race Operations Mark Dawson. "We really wanted to get this day in. After having such a high on Friday and Saturday with good racing, Today was just not our day to get it done.
"The top end of the track was just too cold, and we couldn't get it dry enough. With the sun going down, it just isn't going to get any warmer. It's safer for us to postpone Groups 1 and 2 to tomorrow. We will figure out everybody else later."
SATURDAY NOTEBOOK - COOL TEMPERATURES CAN'T COOL DOWN A HOT DAY OF RACING
SATURDAY NOTEBOOK - IT'S COLD OUTSIDE, BUT THERE'S PLENTY OF HEAT ON THE TRACK
THE CREAM ALWAYS RISES TO THE TOP - One might think it's always a piece of cake watching Bobby Cottrell go to work every time he fires up the Bucky Austin AA/Fuel Coupe.
But looks can be deceiving, based on the first three days of the 65th Bakersfield March Meet.
The five-time NHRA Heritage Series champion, who has won the March Meet four times, started the weekend with a fire while testing Thursday. On Friday, the team couldn't get in its usual dominant groove, and Saturday's first session didn't offer much improvement as he hovered in the fourth and fifth positions.
But in Saturday's final qualifying session, Cottrell unleashed the beast with a 5.661 seconds, 256.50 mph to snatch away the top spot from Tim Boychuck, who ended up second with a 5.692.
"It hasn't been easy; started off kind of rough for us," Cottrell ended. "We broke some stuff, and it resulted in a fire. Hit the blower pretty hard, burned up the motor. We had to walk through this thing pretty much. The guys are working hard and putting their heads together. Bucky has done his homework in the offseason. It's starting to come around."
That was an understatement as Cottrell laid down a 5.685 to take out Chris Davis.
The biggest upsets in Funny Car came when No. 14 qualifier Derrick Moreira ousted Cory Lee and Brad Thompson took out Kamaka Pocock. Headed into the second round, Boychuck will face Jim Maroney, Kris Krabill will take on Ryan Hodgson, Tony Jurdado will face off against Billy Morris, Ryan Horan will duel Mike Peck Sr., and Drew Austin will tangle with Matt Bynum.
In Nostalgia Top Fuel, Tyler Hilton understood what Cottrell went through, as he, too, struggled in the early qualifying sessions and scrubbed the retaining wall in Saturday's early session. It all came together in the later session as he thundered to the top spot with a 5.757, 250.92.
"It was a ride. It just got out from under me," Hilton said of the Q2 session. "The chassis was fine. It was definitely a moment. The third run was a good one. The team came together and fixed the car. We made some changes and did some Hail Mary stuff."
Hilton will face seasoned veteran Jim Murphy in the opening round of eliminations.
Mark Whynaught took the top spot in the AA/Fuel Altered division at 6.053, 240.12.
Racing resumes at 9 a.m. PST with action in the sportsman divisions before the professional classes kick off start at 11.
TRYING TO GO BACK TO BACK - Billy "The Kid" Morris, driver of the "Problem Child" Nitro Funny Car, rolled into the March Meet have closed the 2022 with confidence -- a win in the 30th annual California Hot Rod Reunion here to end the NHRA Heritage Series season.
Morris hopes to continue that momentum this weekend and capture his first March Meet title.
"Well, of course, we come to every race wanting to win," Morris said. "But with the success we had at the Hot Rod Reunion, coming to the March Meet, out of all the races, this is the one we want. This is kind of the Super Bowl for us. Winning the March Meet is definitely something that we're trying to accomplish sometime in my career."
Morris finished second in last year's Heritage Series Funny Car points standings behind the five-time and reigning champ Cottrell. Morris, crew chief Eddie Knox, and the entire "Problem Child" team want to finish one spot higher in 2023.
"If we could start off strong, we're going to try to find the funding to make those races out there, Bowling Green especially," Morris admitted. "Haven't made it out there yet, but if we can start off strong, I think we can give Bobby (Cottrell) a run for his money."
But Morris, who was an established sand-drag racer before moving over to asphalt, is just happy he has a car that can contend at each outing.
"There are so many strong cars out here and great teams," Morris said. "As far as the car's performance, I got to really give all the credit to Eddie Knox and the team. They're really spending the time, putting in the effort, just going through all the details to make this car run strong and consistently. It feels great to have that car behind you so you believe that you can come to each race and get the win."
PULLING DOUBLE DUTY - Popular Nitro Funny Car driver Cory Lee already had a ton on his plate entering the March Meet. Not only was he expected to do his normal duties of tuning and driving Gary Turner's "PEDALER" flopper, he's pulling double duty by driving the iconic "SheepHerder" AA/Fuel Altered.
"Johnny West, a friend of mine, a good compatriot, I've been working with him for a couple of years now on some projects," Lee explained. "He's got me involved in a couple of things, and he appreciates what I do, and I appreciate what he does. And we just kind of got together, and he had a friend that had a Fuel Altered that needed a driver and a little help, and I was able to go over there and be successful with that."
Lee is familiar with the "SheepHerder," having been behind the wheel of the iconic car most recently at the Night Fire Nationals in Boise, Idaho, last year. He lost in the final round there, and again in an exhibition race in Tuscon, Arizona, last fall. But what makes driving the "Sheepherder" even more remarkable is that the car is outfitted with its original body and steering wheel that dates back to 1976.
"For me, it's the history of it all," Lee said. "Knowing the guys like Johnny West and Eddie Pauling and Tripp Shumake and a lot of the guys, a lot of them aren't with us anymore, but those guys all use that steering wheel. I just feel really proud to not only be driving the car but to be using some of the parts on the car -- the front wheels, the body and the steering wheel that all those historic drivers ran with."
He admits manhandling both cars is a handful.
"It's two different animals, two different beasts, whatever you want to say," Lee admitted. "The technique is different, busier in one steering and certainly busier in the other with the procedures. But it's not so much driving that's the challenge, it's the timing.
"I've got a lot of work to do on one, and then I have a mediocre amount of work on the other. But the bottom line is I never get to focus 100 percent. My problem is I want to really get at it, and it's tough to be a 100 percent on both. I can't, but I'm giving it my best, and so far, so good."
Lee has been coming to the March Meet for most of his life and is a historian of the sport of drag racing, He would love nothing more than to add his name to the list of legends to have won this fabled event.
Lee has worked hard to improve the Funny Car's performance, and he said team owner Gary Turner has given him the green light to "pour the coals to it."
"The past, prior to me coming here, the program was in shambles," Lee admitted. "I had to dig us out of this mess, and we really did it. It took a little while to get out of it. I had some friends, like Del Worsham, and others who helped me with a couple of problems.
"We got through all that, and I have a nice program. It's really refined. I didn't push my cart ahead of my horse. I wanted to get the tune-up right before I pushed it. I don't like to cause damage. Whether I pay for it or not, I treat it like I own it. And once I got the damage out of the car, then I could push the tune-up, and it's really come around. We're beginning to be competitive. Gary told me to go for it. So I'm going to push the numbers now and here on the first weekend, we've already shown some good forward motions."
FRESH NEW LOOKS FOR THE AUSTINS - Drew Austin and his dad Pat are always a threat to win when they show up. But in a 2022 that was something of a struggle, Drew won the California Hot Rod Reunion, and they have debuted a new Ford Mustang body here this weekend.
"Paul Romine ran that body for years," Austin said. "It's a '79 Ford Mustang, and we just did a Cobra package on it—the Cobra on the front and everything. My grandpa's always been a fan of that. So we put that on there for him.
"We actually built that body ourselves. So we laid it up, we formed it, we sanded it, and then the only thing we did not do to it was the tinwork. Randy Parker did that at home. He's a fantastic fabricator. He used to work for (Brad) Hadman, and now he has his own shop, so he is really good. ... And so basically this product, everything we've done with our own hands. My dad puts a lot of time into the motors. We put a lot of time in at the shop. Everything we can do, we like doing ourselves. So that's how we roll."
To go along with their new, orange ProMax Mustang body is their innovative Ford motor, which the Austin family developed many years ago.
"It's got the same valve angles, same camshaft location. It takes a stock head gasket, so it fits within the rules," Austin explained. "My dad built all this at home, and we got the CNC shop, we've got blocks, all that stuff now. So we're ready to rock and roll. But we do it all in-house. We like being different. That's kind of what my dad's always been known for and my grandpa. So that's kind of how we roll, and it's a lot more work for us because it's one-off stuff, you know, can't just call somebody up. But it works well for us, and we're proud of the product we put on the track."
Austin would like to add a March Meet title to his resume.
"I want it," Austin exclaimed. "We're focused this weekend. Last year we really struggled. We had a hard year, and it was a big learning curve. But we're dialed in, and we're ready. We got our game face on. We're going to go out there and try and rip their throats out."
UPSET OF THE DAY- Derrick Moreira pulled off the biggest upset in round one of Nitro Funny Car when he took out the number three qualifier Cory Lee to capture his first career round win. In round two on Sunday morning, Moreira will take on one of the best-running cars in round one, Brad Thompson.
LEARNING ON THE FLY - Rookie Ryan Horan, making his Nitro Funny Car debut this weekend, advanced to the second round of eliminations after scoring a round-one win in a pedalfest over Mike Peck. Horan will take on veteran Tim Boychuk in the quarterfinals Sunday morning.
FRIDAY NOTEBOOK - IT'S NOT ABOUT HOW YOU START, AND BAKERSFIELD STARTS STRONG
LEADING THE CHARGE - If NHRA Heritage Series Funny Car racer Tim Boychuck didn't know it when he started qualifying at the 65th Good Vibrations March Meet, he did when he completed his second qualifying run.
It's good to be No. 1.
Joining Boychuck atop their respective categories amongst the professional categories were Pete Wittenberg (Top Fuel) and Dylan Winefsky (Fuel Altered).
Boychuck finished the day with a 5.692-second elapsed time, 248.61-mph performance to grab the provisional No. 1 qualifying position in the AA/Funny Car division. Cory Lee was a scant seventh-thousandths of a second behind at 5.699.
Friday's performance was just part of a big-picture performance, Boychuk said.
"We made a commitment last year. I told [crew chief] Twig [Ziegler] that I was going to race for a few more years, so let's get some new parts and get some stuff happening; I told him to turn it up. Obviously, I did that today."
If only the day had started as smoothly as it ended. Boychuck launched, and his "Happy Hour" Funny Car immediately spun the tires before going into a speed wobble that eventually broke the car's steering.
"I had no steering," he said. "Good thing I shut the car off."
On the opposite end of the chart, Rian Konno is on the bubble with one session left at 6.554.
Wittenberg was the top runner in the lone Nostalgia Top Fuel session. Driving the "Circuit Breaker" dragster, Wittenberg went from end to end at 5.820, 227.46, to edge Shane Bowen's 5.838, 205.54. The Top Fuel cars are racing in an eight-car field this weekend amid speculation there would be a 16-car show.
"Anything can happen, but we are going to see what happens tomorrow, sneak up on it a little bit," Wittenberg said. "If the track will hold it, maybe we will do a little better -- still stay No. 1."
Fuel racing veteran Jim Murphy sits on the Top Fuel bump at 6.160.
Notables on the outside looking in in Top Fuel include Bret Williamson, Adam Sorokin, and defending NHRA Heritage Series champion Tyler Hilton.
Winefsky set the Fuel Altered pace with a 6.192 to out Johnny West's 6.217.
Qualifying concludes Saturday with one session for the floppers and two for the dragsters.
REBRANDED AND READY TO ROLL - It's pretty fitting that young Kamaka Pocock, who has had to hustle and grind his way to where he is now, is at the wheel of Don Nelson's famous "California Hustler" Nitro Funny Car.
Pocock has high expectations, given that he finished runner-up in the Funny Car standings in 2021 behind Bobby Cottrell. Pocock's '21 tour included a runner-up showing to Cottrell at the Nitro Nationals in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and Rookie of the Year honors.
But the "California Hustler" decided to compete in only two events last year, both of which were at Bakersfield.
"Towards the end of (2021), we were still trying to find ourselves and get dialed in. And so the start of 2022, we came out and still had some issues as far as getting where we needed to be. So the crew, Don, and I decided to take a step back, regroup and get our feet back under us," Pocock said.
"You go out there not having your shit together, you're just going to spend a bunch of money, blow stuff up, and it just wasn't worth it. Getting parts was an issue as well. So being limited on parts and never knowing what's happening in this crazy world of ours, it was a good year to step back, take a deep breath, regroup, and figure out what our direction is. I had my beautiful baby girl, so it was a good year to focus on that."
But now the "California Hustler" team and its driver Pocock are back with a fresh new look. They've switched from their 1976 Firebird to a 1970 Camaro body that has sponsorship from Lemon's Headers. The team has also added the tuning services of Mark Leigh, who dabbled with the team in 2022 and is determined to turn the team's program around.
"He brings experience for sure," Pocock said. "We're an inexperienced team. We're getting there, and all hard workers, but as far as the nitro game goes, we're green. So having someone who's been around the game forever in Mark Leigh brings a sense of comfort."
Reigning and five-time champion Cottrell remains the man to beat, but Pocock hopes to leave it all on the table and supplant him at the top.
"Being a competitor, you're always aiming for that championship," he said. "You hate to spend all that money and put in all the time and effort and go out and say, 'Well, at least we qualified.' We want to rotate the earth. It will be a tough season. Everyone is stepping their stuff up. Obviously, we're chasing Bobby, but last year it showed everybody else is right on his tail. The field is so tight now it's really hard to compete. But we're aiming for that championship."
THERE'S A NEW HORAN IN TOWN - Given the March Meet's history and prestige, it's only fitting that third-generation racer Ryan Horan would be making his official nitro debut and continuing on the family legacy this weekend at the 65th annual March Meet. And for the young Horan, racing at the hallowed grounds at Bakersfield is an opportunity of a lifetime.
"Man, I'm ecstatic," said Horan, son of Dan Horan Jr. "This is what people live for right here. This is the March Meet. This is what we're here to do. We're here to race and have a good time. I'm really excited and blessed to have the opportunity to do this."
Horan and his family contemplated which car he would be behind at this weekend's event, debating between the family's championship-winning Top Fuel dragster or their competitive Nitro Funny Car. He's licensed to drive both, but the team chose the car in which he has more experience.
"These Top Fuel cars, they're pretty gnarly to drive. So my dad and I decided, 'Hey, let's get some good runs in the Funny Car. You're comfortable in it, and then maybe in a couple of runs, we can transition into something else.' So it was good."
The young Horan has already made quite a few laps behind the wheel of the Nitro Funny Car, having run an exhibition race in Seattle last summer and later in the Legends Nitro Funny Car race held at the Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
Dan Horan Jr. is driving the Top Fuel dragster this weekend. Getting to compete in the same event with his dad makes this a special weekend for Ryan.
"You ask any dad, they don't want to see their kids in one of these," Horan said. "But this weekend's going to be special. If we both qualify, it'll be the first since the Kalittas (Connie and son Scott) that did it. So we're kind of trying to make a little bit of history here."
Horan has had a lot of great mentors around him so far during his young driving career, and although he has set high expectations for himself and has a competitive nature, Horan knows that learning to drive a nitro car will be a work in progress.
"We're going to just try our best," Horan said. "It takes three years to build a championship team, so we're kind of resetting with me in the seat. So, if I win an event, amazing, it's a blessing from God. But at this time in my life, I'm just focused on keeping that car in the groove and doing everything I can in the seat to be as good of a driver as I possibly can."
GOING FOR MARCH MEET WIN #3 - Top Fuel driver Adam Sorokin knows all about the history of the March Meet. In fact, Sorokin said he was conceived in a Bakersfield hotel room after he dad, Mike, won Top Fuel in what is considered the greatest March Meet of all-time, 1966. Adam Sorokin won the March Meet in 2010 and 2019.
"The history of this race is probably the greatest history of drag racing races, in my opinion," Sorokin said. "Even more so than the (U.S.) Nationals. For us, this race has been going on since 1958, '59. All the names that have won this race are all legendary. If you get a shot to put your name on that, that's a big deal. This is the one you want to win if you're in nostalgia."
Sorokin enters this year's March Meet on a four-year losing drought. But after finishing the 2022 season strong and bringing out a familiar chassis late in the year, Sorokin hopes the this weekend's March Meet will be the race he can end the drought -- and he needs to if he's to meet his goal of matching "Big Daddy" Don Garlits' record of five March Meet titles.
"When you win one, you get greedy and all you want to do is win these. So, now I want five, but I got to get the three before I get the four, before I get the five. So we'll see," he said.
"Nobody's going to eclipse that guy's (Don Garlits) career or anything he's ever accomplished. But if you can get close, it's a big deal."
WOULDN'T MISS IT FOR ANYTHING IN THE WORLD - Shawn Bowen had every reason to sit out the March Meet. He and his "Violator" Top Fuel team were plagued with parts and logistical issues just days before the event, but they thrashed to be a part of it.
"We live on the other side of the country in Michigan, and we had a little truck issue," Bowen explained. "We had our motor rebuilt, and it just got done before we left Monday afternoon at about 5, and we planned to leave Sunday night. We left Tuesday morning at 6 and ran into some snow in Arizona -- got shut down for a while. Then, of course, the snow in California here over the Grapevine slowed us down a little bit, too. But we got rolled in Wednesday night, right around midnight. ...
"We were coming no matter what. We made sure of that."
Bowen, who won the Nitro Nationals in Tulsa last year, is known as one of the heavy hitters in the front-engine Top Fuel class, and is one of the favorites to take home the title this weekend.
But showing up to the March Meet is also important for Bowen and his team because they're racing for points in the Heritage series this season. They plan to run all the races.
"Our goal is to try to run for the championship," Bowen said. "It depends, obviously, on how we do here because we actually have a race in Michigan that coincides with the Boise race the same weekend. But if we're in a points battle, we're definitely going to Boise. So we want to be. I'd love to have No. 1 on the side of my car."