Famoso Raceway’s March Meet has long been one of the anchors of Top Fuel drag racing in America. By 1959, when the very first U.S. Fuel and Gas Championships took place at the Bakersfield, California track, Famoso was thumbing its nose at the NHRA-sponsored ban on nitromethane, joining a number of other independently-operated promotions in keeping the cackle alive. Thousands upon thousands of fans turned up, driven largely by the drag racing grapevine rather than any concerted advertising campaign, to see Don Garlits’ mythical Swamp Rat fuel car. The East-meets-West match-up would fizzle for Big Daddy in the early going, but ultimately be remembered as one of the flash points for the sport’s booming popularity. By 1969, Fuel and Gas had officially moved to Long Island, but the Bakersfield date remained to make its nickname – the March Meet – its new official title.
Mendy Fry might have been born a decade after that first March Meet, but ever since she was a 16 year old working alongside her father, the late Ron Fry, building and racing hot rods of all shapes and sizes, she’s been working to get to where she found herself at this past spring’s Good Vibes event: holding the trophy for the overall Top Fuel class win with a time of 5.59 at 252 mph.
“I’ve been trying since 2004, when I got my shot in Top Fuel, to get my first win – but really, it’s taken me 32 years to get to this point,” she told us, a few days after her victory in Bakersfield. “I realize that the March Meet hasn’t always had a spot for fuel cars – there was a long hiatus, and I can remember when the March Meet was actually a points race held in May! – but I feel like this is what I’ve been working for my entire life.”
Understanding why the win is so important to Fry, whose decades-long drag racing career is dotted with record-setting runs (including a stint as the fastest Top Alcohol driver in the world in 1988), and a successful business building cars for a long list of teams and privateers, means taking a closer look at what nostalgia drag racing has to offer outside of the NHRA mainstream. While top-tier drag racing has done a better job than most other motorsports at remaining accessible to fans, the influx of megabucks has changed numerous aspects of competing at the elite level.
“I was alive when the NHRA pro classes, that whole scene, fundamentally changed,’ Fry said. ‘I even had aspirations of being a pro drag racer, and I think that it’s the best thing that didn’t happen to me – that it didn’t come to fruition. The sport has morphed into something that’s harder for fans to connect to, and it’s very much a case of ‘what have you done for me lately,’ going and finding sponsorship, less about your abilities as a racer. There are a lot of really, really talented drivers out there that can’t find rides.”
It’s easy enough to glom on to the appeal of Mendy’s 206 Hadman front-engine Top Fuel rail, built by Tom Shelar and the team at High Speed Motorsports, but it’s far from the only fascinating example of drag racing’s living history to be on display at the March Meet. Categories also include Nostalgia Funny Car, Nostalgia Eliminator I-III, Hot Rod Eliminator, Jr. Fuel, and a number of Gas classes. This amazing collection of creative cars, some built from scratch to meet older rulebooks, others lovingly restored from battle-scarred shells weary from their original tours of duty, transforms Famoso Raceway into a moveable feast for the eyes and ears each year. Fry concedes that while a sizable number of spectators are there to relive past glory and revel in the watching the cars of their youth light up the 1320, in her opinion that’s only part of the story of what makes nostalgia drag racing (and the Hot Rod Heritage Racing Series) such a strong draw.
“There’s a very big section of people out there at the track who simply weren’t alive when these cars were in their heyday,” she said, underscoring that memories aren’t the primary driver for the event’s popularity. “But at a heritage series race, you’re seeing people that own and work on and drive their own cars, some of them second and third generation, and as a fan you can right up to a car and talk to people in staging lanes in pits and get a close-up look at all of the heart and effort that keeps this sport moving forward. Yes, you can do this at NHRA too, but nostalgia just feels more accessible to people.”
Mendy expanded on how the passion for the sport mixes with that of the fans. “At nostalgia, there are five races a year – there’s no money in it, I can tell you that. Everyone here has a day job, and shows up on the weekends because they just love it. That can’t help but come out in the final product.”
The data would seem to agree, with Fry pointing to attendance and car counts rising steadily with each passing year.
“I think that the momentum nostalgia has will continue,” she said. “I hope that I can keep my seat for as long as this team continues in this class. They are the ones who gave me my first shot in Top Fuel more than 10 years ago, and this is by far the most competitive, best prepared vehicle I’ve ever driven in the class. Joining High Speed Motorsports right now a point where they are really reaping the benefits of all those years of experience, with finely-honed team dynamics, is a privilege.”
Fry is exactly where she wants to be. “I don’t have aspirations to go to the big show,” she said. “Don’t get me wrong – I would love to feel what it is like to go 300 mph. I would step on that throttle, no problem. I just don’t want it as my career. There’s no next step for me. This is the step – this team, this class.”
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