Drag Racing Online: The Magazine

Volume VIII, Issue 4, Page
BUCK OWENS, Top Fuel and the death of the Bakersfield sound


They're gonna put me in the movies. They're gonna make a big star out of me. We'll make a film about a man that's sad and lonely. And all I have to do is act naturally

D– John Bright Russell, Voni Morrison, “Act Naturally”

akersfield, California is one of a handful of places on the planet where a purist can hear the aggressive roar of supercharged drag racing machines burn unlimited percentages of nitromethane in an internal combustion engine.

Last month on a Sunday morn in a vineyard, I sat in wooden grandstands and absorbed the Sounds of Bakersfield.

I listened to Vintage Top Fuel cars on bodacious loads of nitro as they rumbled, cackled and ack-ack-acked, and beat their chests thermodynamically with a vicious, beastly aplomb.

After they ran the first round of Top Fuel, three gas coupes crashed in two tries. The sun was coming out after it had rained for two weeks in a row and water seeped up through the asphalt and made the drag strip too slippery to traverse. The race was cancelled.

I drove home through the back roads of Famoso and Oildale, and went by country music star Buck Owens’ ranch.

I grabbed Highway 99 South by the old Rain for Rent billboard and motored through town, catching a glimpse of the Crystal Palace, Buck’s personal-yet-public shrine to the heritage of West Coast Country Music, as well as a restaurant/night club for local shit-kickers and boot-scooters.


Country music has been the called the white man’s soul music or the honky’s rhythm and blues, and that is hard to argue with. Unfortunately, like soul music, the form of country music has been corrupted and mummified, and has become a doddering replication of itself.

A few folks argue that country was kaput when Ernest Tubb allowed a snare drum on a Grand Ol’ Opry radio broadcast over 50 years ago. But that would overlook some tremendous performances by a coterie of crucial country artists, including the work of some pivotal California pickers and grinners, musicians like Red Simpson, Merle Haggard, and Buck Owens, all of whom made names for themselves as Bakersfield troubadours whose bands were often made up of the sons and daughters of migrant dirt farmers who had escaped the Dust Bowl of Oklahoma.

Like the Dust Bowl topsoil, the sound of Bakersfield is damn near gone with the wind, despite Buck Owens' attempt to keep it stoked at his Crystal Palace.

On damn near every Friday night for the last 10 years or so, it was a recurring meta-media moment that manifested itself every time its owner and star attraction, Buck Owens, strode onto its stage.

I went to see this for myself five or six years ago with a couple of drag racers, after the opening day of the March Meet.

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