Livin the March Meet Life
BAKERSFIELD, Jan. 31, 2011: Blake Bowser is Bakersfield born and March Meet bred. Like his dad John, Blake has been at Auto Club Famoso Raceway most of his life. John has worked at the track since the late 1950s, and Blake has been there helping since he was seven years old. The Bowsers helped run the track – best known for the iconic March Meet drag race – for years. They officially became the track’s owner/operators in 2006. This year is the 53rd edition of the March Meet (Mar. 18-20) and in this Q&A, Blake discusses the world famous event.
Question: Why is the March Meet (Mar. 18-20) three weeks later this year?
Blake Bowser: Sometimes we have shaky weather in early March so moving it up should give us warmer, drier weather. Plus, the time change will give us an hour more of light. That will allow us more time to run all the cars, especially if there are weather issues. The race is after St. Patrick’s Day so hopefully we’ll have the luck of the Irish all weekend.
Question: You have a change in classes this year. What are the details?
Bowser: We’re at the mercy of weather so I’ve cut back on some cars that race. The March Meet was the only race in the NHRA Hot Rod Heritage Series that had every class competing, but for 2011, we’re eliminating Group 1. It will now compete at the Hot Rod Reunion for points now.
Our loss is the Reunion’s gain: it’s going to make it a better drag race with a true final for all categories. It’s going to help the series as a whole because cars that normally run just at the March Meet for point will now have the opportunity to visit other tracks. That’s going to help other racetracks with their car count. Most importantly, it’s going to give the March Meet more time to run about 450 cars.
Question: So it’ll better show for March Meet fans.
Bowser: It’ll give us more time to breathe. With the extra daylight, warmer weather and smaller car count, we won’t just drag race all day long. Fans can relax, get something to eat, drink, go to the midway, shop some and go to the pits. Normally we race nonstop from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. and it’s great. I’m glad we have so many cars that want to come here. It’s an awesome race, but there’s more happening. We want to let people experience it, so we’ll free up some time by cutting group one. I would like to run all of the classes. The only way we can run all of the classes is to make the March Meet a four day drag race. Maybe we can do that for 2012?
Question: Even with 450 cars, the March Meet still has more cars and racing than any other event.
Bowser: It’s the biggest by far. The next would be the Reunion with 200 cars. But they need time for Cacklefest and other stuff, so the smaller car count is by design. With 450 cars, I want to finish the race on time and give the fans a great show.
Question: Speaking of classes, Funny Cars are now the rage.
Bowser: Funny Cars are still affordable as far as a nitro nostalgia car. They’re also not killing parts every time they run. It’s a clean, safe class that allows people to compete affordably and have fun.
Question: Why are they so popular with fans?
Bowser: It’s the whole package – the wild paint jobs, the sounds and the nostalgia factor. Fans can see famous cars like the Blue Max and the Bubble-Up car and go, ‘I remember that car.’ It strikes a memory chord. They are different from the front-motor cars, which are harder to recognize. They can’t wrap those cars with a Funny Car-type paint scheme, which fans like.
Question: But don’t the fans also love the speed and power of the front-motor cars in Top Fuel?
Bowser: Top Fuel is where you get great ET and mph. Top Fuel is for pure performance but Funny Cars mix performance and memories, a great combination.
Question: Any plans to stage a Cacklefest during the March Meet?
Bowser: That’s a Reunion program. We don’t have time to parade many cars – we’ve got to race them. That’s what’s so nice about the Reunion: they built the timeframe in by running 200 cars. That’s why they’re two different events: the March Meet and the Hot Rod Reunion.
Both events do have similarities. They had 40 Funny Cars last year and we had 32. We’re going to do a 16-car field this year. I’m creating a plan for the cars that don’t qualify. We’re going to have 40 to 50 of them: 16 qualify, 24 going home. I don’t want to see that. We’ll do a Chicago-style shootout, take the non-qualifiers and give them a timed run and bring back the quickest. It’ll be a chance for them to run their car rather than packing up and going home.
Question: Shirley Muldowney’s the Grand Marshall of 2011. How did that come about?
Bowser: Tom “The Mongoose” McEwen helped. He called Shirley and she said she was honored and excited. She hasn’t been here for 25 years. Shirley won here in ’81 and made the finals three straight years (1980-82). In ’82 she was part of NHRA history as her and Lucille Lee made up the first all-female Top Fuel final. Lee upset Shirley, but history was made at the March Meet.
Shirley will be at the March Meet all three days, signing autographs and kicking off the race. She’s also going to be at the Winternationals (Feb. 24-27). She’ll be there for their 60th anniversary and will make some appearances in our display booth.
Question: What other special things are you doing with Shirley?
Bowser: We’re designing a special “Shirley Returns” shirt, tin sign and poster. It’s going to be fun. Everyone knows who Shirley is. Some people loved her, some didn’t, but you had to watch her. I think she’s great – I’m a huge fan. She’s iconic and let’s be honest: she kicked butt. I don’t look at what she did as a female who broke barriers: I look at her as a racer who flat out beat all the best guys: Connie Kalitta, Don Garlits, our top local driver James Warren. She left them all in the dust. She’s a world champion and one of the all-time best.
Question: You and your dad have been running Auto Club Famoso for many years: any new improvements?
Bowser: We recently paved more of the pit area, adding all the access roads. We couldn’t make these improvements without the Auto Club and the race fans that come to the March Meet and the Reunion. The Auto Club really supports the track. They’re the title sponsor, but go above and beyond promoting the raceway. They allow us to put money back into the track and the March Meet.
Question: Doesn’t Bakersfield and the whole area benefit from the March Meet?
Bowser: The influx of millions of dollars generated by the race definitely helps the community. We see it in the hotels, stores, markets, gas stations and restaurants. It’s unreal.
Question: Last year you added the premium-seating Quarter Mile Courtyard for fans. Is it back?
Bowser: Yes, but in a modified form. This year we are offering a chance for race fans to purchase a weekend upgrade or a daily upgrade for the Courtyard area. The Courtyard offers exclusive elevated seating, an elevated viewing deck, private restrooms, a private concession area all in a fenced in Courtyard area.
Question: The March Meet hasn’t raised its ticket prices in years. Why?
Bowser: We want to keep it affordable to all, pure and simple. The March Meet is still the best racing value anywhere. A Super 3-Day Pass – available online – is only $75. Daily tickets – on sale at the track Mar. 14 – are $25 for Friday, $30 for Saturday and $30 for Sunday. It’s priced right for family fun. Plus, Auto Club members get a $2 discount off daily admission tickets when they buy tickets at the track. And daily tickets for children 7 to 12 are only $10 while kids 6 and under are free when accompanied by an adult with paid admission. You can’t beat it!
Fans can get out there at the crack of dawn and we won’t chase you out. You hear a nitro car cackling in the pits of Bakersfield at night and it’s so cool. We’re fortunate because we have no curfews. We have fun for three days straight.
Question: Doesn’t the camping fill up fast?
Bowser: The primary camping spots on the east side of the quarter mile are full the first day. If you’re thinking about bringing a motorhome, get there early. On the entire property, we get 600 to 800 motorhomes. In the motorhome area alone, there’re 400.
Question: What does the March Meet mean to Bakersfield?
Bowser: The March Meet is Bakersfield. It’s a feel-good event. My dad and I are obviously proud of it because we operate the track and put on the race, but the community, as a whole, is just as proud. It’s a chance for us to showcase Bakersfield which has been the butt of many jokes. Those of us who were born and raised here and are now raising kids, we’re proud of our city. The March Meet is a real good chance for us to show it off to people all over the world.
Question: The local community really backs it.
Bowser: Absolutely, in their attendance and preparations for it. The restaurants and hotels gear up. The March Meet brings millions of dollars to the area. When the race is in town, I hear waitresses say they made $200 in tips in one day. People spend money all over town and at the track and it spreads throughout the community.
Question: This is the 53rd edition of the March Meet, and you’ve been around it your entire life. What does it mean to you?
Bowser: To me, the March Meet is just as big as Christmas and Easter. I’m 43 years old and the March Meet has always been there. It’s something you plan on every year – you know it’s going to come. That use to be senior ditch day – everybody ditched school and went there. I was fortunate because I was already there as a kid, selling programs. I got to see all the legends race there. For me, the March Meet is a special time.
Question: Why do people still love the March Meet?
Bowser: People connect with the March Meet. It’s a chance to come back to a special time and place. It’s very personal. It brings families together. Generations of fathers have brought their sons, and now they are doing the same. The March Meet makes you reflect what you’ve done in your life. You stroll through the gates and it’s like walking back in time. You’re with your friends and reliving a part of you. But it’s not all about looking back; it’s about looking forward, too. That’s why they say the windshield is much bigger than the rearview mirror.
Question: It seems like a whole new generation is coming to the March Meet.
Bowser: We’re seeing multiple generations walking side by side at the track. That’s what’s so cool. It’s reinventing itself over and over again. The March Meet has stood the test of time. It doesn’t survive, it thrives. Question: Football has the Super Bowl and horse racing has the Kentucky Derby. Is the March Meet nostalgic racing’s biggest stage?
Bowser: Hands down. At one time, it was one the biggest NHRA races. It was important to win at Bakersfield. It’s like that now as a nostalgia race. It’s the biggest and the one you want to win. Same as Indy, today’s NHRA’s must-win race. For nostalgia racing, it’s the March Meet.
Question: Which one was your favorite March Meet?
Bowser: I don’t have a favorite – they’re all pretty cool. I like to say the last one we had is my favorite ‘cause I learn so much and try and do a better job. When I was a kid, watching James Warren win three years in a row was special. I had the most fun when I was selling programs for former track owner Marvin Miller.
It’s funny: I have the same job I had when I was a kid…but with a bit more responsibility. I saw what Marvin and his boys, Mike and Jeff, were doing, along with their mom Barbara. They were making a living running the track. I realized early on I wanted to do that.
Question: What was it like when you and your dad officially took over Auto Club Famoso as owner/operators?
Bowser: Stressful as hell. I couldn’t even brush my teeth in the morning. It was a big-time financial risk. To produce/promote the March Meet successfully, you have it to do everything correctly. You have tons of expenses. Advertising and racers’ purses are just part of it. It’s upwards of $300,000 so we’re risking a lot. But the reward is also there. We’re not after the big payday, because we put the money back in the racetrack. We don’t go Hawaii every year or live in big houses. I still wear a Timex watch. I’m too dumb to do anything else, but I’m happy. My wife’s supportive and my girls know what I do. I miss a lot of stuff with them and it sucks to get a call from them saying, ‘I scored a goal today in soccer.’ But working at the track is a labor of love. I wouldn’t trade my job for anything.
Question: Wasn’t your dad supposed to retire?
Bowser: He keeps finding new things to do. He’s now certified to be on a fire truck. He’s pulling a scam on me: he put a fire suit on and nobody can tell who he is. He goes to the finish line or the top of the race track and hides in a fire truck. If something goes wrong or someone’s got a complaint, who are they going to come to? Me. I’m standing where all the action is and he’s hiding in a fire truck. He’s still teaching me some lessons, isn’t he? He’s not going to retire until we’re throwing dirt over him.
He keeps talking about the grind. We’re out there, every weekend. We start mid-February and go to mid-November. We can be there six weekends straight. We take off some holidays, but it’s tough for us and the staff. By the end of the year, we’re burned out and ready for a break. But a few weeks into the off season, we’re already thinking about next year. We get refreshed, energized and want to do it again.
Question: Are you trying to bring more events to the track?
Bowser: We are, but we don’t want to forget our bread and butter, nostalgia racing. That’s our home run. We’re going to hold events throughout the summer. I’m billing it as ‘Saturday Night Nitro.’ We’re going to run a new category: Nostalgia Rear-Motor Top Fuel. The rules were written by me; Bill Condit, our starter; Jim Skelly, formerly with NHRA, now with SEMA; and Robert Reehl, a Top Fuel racer and seller of performance parts.
Races are planned for June, July and September – just one-day deals. We’re going to run Funny Cars and Rear-Motor Top Fuel cars. Mike Boyd is bringing the Winged Express and getting guys lined up. Just show up at the track Saturday, run your car at night and go home. No need for a hotel or to spend a bunch of money.
It’ll be good for the fans, too – more nitro. Normally we run nitro in March and October so we’re filling the gap. Bakersfield and the March Meet were founded on nitromethane. When the NHRA’s nitro ban took place back in the 1950s and 60’s, we didn’t observe it. We were known as the ‘Outlaw Track,’ and kept running fuel cars. The history of Bakersfield is based on nitromethane.
The new Saturday night, “nitro under the stars” races will make fans happy.
Question: Is the track still available for other events?
Bowser: Absolutely. We’re still doing our Friday night street-legal program. Auto Club backs us on that. We don’t run just street-legal cars, but on Friday nights, from May through September, anybody can bring their cars out. Keeping kids off the street – we’re all for that. And we always have guys testing their modern-day fuel cars, all the way down to junior dragster. We also do a Summit ET. We run four American Nostalgia Racing Association events, too. We also get the occasional film shoot as well. So we are always busy…and I love it.
Now celebrating 53 years of racing, the March Meet is a three-day speedfest that enthusiasts call ‘the jewel of Nostalgia Racing.’ It attracts drag racers and spectators from around the world and also includes a hot rod car show, swap meet and a vendors’ midway. The 2011 March Meet will be held Mar. 18-20 at historic Auto Club Famoso Raceway.
Daily tickets; $25 for Fri., Mar. 18; $30 for Sat., Mar. 19; and $30 for Sun., Mar. 20.
The Kern County Racing Association operates Auto Club Famoso Raceway (just north of Bakersfield, Calif.) and promotes a full schedule of races year round, including the world famous March Meet, which is recognized as the Mecca of nostalgia drag racing. For more details, visit www.autoclubfamosoraceway.com.