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Return To Glory:

Don't Try Telling 25,000 Fans That Bakersfield Ain't What It Used To Be

Words by Dave Wallace with Photos by Tom West

In his maiden outing with a new team and unfamiliar AA/Fueler, "Wild Bill" Alexander didn't exactly live up to his hard-earned nickname at Bakersfield. Rather, the 60-year-old participant in both of drag racing's slingshot eras finally won a March Meet with unspectacular precision, calmly and methodically laying waste to the quickest front-motored field ever. As if to punctuate this dominating performance, in all three rounds of racing, Alexander confidently clicked it at 1000 feet, then dumped his laundry well in front of the finish line.


Of approximately 8000 people present on Sunday (following a much-larger crowd on Saturday), those with the closest views of Wild Bill's premature parachute were three favored opponents, all past Goodguys Top Fuel winners. After qualifying third in 6.11 seconds at just 211 mph (the slowest speed of all eight starters, plus the next seven alternates!), Alexander turned 6.097/210 in Round One against Lee Jennings; then 6.090/206 racing Gerry Steiner, who literally did everything but turn his car upside-down to keep from losing a semifinal rematch of 35-year California rivals; then 6.10/220, finally, against Goodguys' three-time-defending world champion, Jim Murphy (6.17/211), who had hoped to join Don Garlits and James Warren as winners of three or more March Meets—and become one of two drivers to do it in three straight, as did hometown heroes Warren, Coburn & Miller did in 1975 though 1977.

Murphy didn't go home empty-handed, however: In addition to runnerup money, the recovering Funny Car racer set Low ET at 6.04; received a "popcorn" Top Speed slip of 268.49 mph that nobody believed (Steiner's next-fastest 244.63 was believable); and collected a $1000 product voucher from Titan Speed Engineering in starting-line ceremonies honoring Jim's WW Two team for earning the Number One spot on the new Nitronic Research AA/FD list.

At the same time, Nitronic Research founder Cole Coonce was surprised with one of the cast-Hemi trophies normally reserved for VRA pro-category winners. Ironically, the writer and webmaster was being honored for bringing media attention to the same association that once hired him to provide race coverage for its Goodguys Goodguys Gazette magazine - then reconsidered and fired Coonce less than 24 hours later, before he'd written a single word!

Joining Wild Bill and his jubilant Ground Zero team in the winners' circle were fellow heads-up champions Gary Reinero (Pro Supercharged); 70-year-old Steve San Paolo (A/Fuel); the legendary Don Enriquez (Jr. Fuel); Mark Mahood (A/Gas); Dewayne Sanders (Nostalgia One); Kevin Riley (B/Gas); and Jim Davis (Nostalgia Two). Dial-your-own titles were claimed by Ken Ratzloff (Hot Rod One); Sandy Mendia (Hot Rod Two); Jeff Kleeman (Street Machine One); and Denny Valvo (Street Machine Two).

Debuting here as official Goodguys Vintage Racing Association (VRA) categories were A/Fuel (for blown-alcohol or injected-nitro diggers); Nostalgia Two (8.50 index, center-steered cars); and B/Gas (8.50 index, doorslammers). All three new eliminators attracted full fields, led by 22 Nostalgia Two entries. Overall, Nostalgia One topped the heads-up classes with 38 contestants (including Jeff Bennett's Fiat-bodied AA/Fuel Altered, whose five-second qualifying pass for a 7.50-indexed program was literally the talk of the town all Saturday night). In Top Fuel, a nostalgia-record 28 different teams attempted to qualify, including Larry Huff's Soapy Sales Corvette and Ron Hope's Rat Trap roadster.

The majority of any crowd at Famoso Raceway traditionally hails from Fresno, about 90 miles away, and these folks were richly rewarded this year when Wild Bill lit up that win light with the Fresno-based Ground Zero fueler of John Eirich and friends. Further sweetening the Fresno team's upset victory was the opportunity for its new driver to demonstrate that whatever was wrong with "Root Beer" Frank Hedge's car last season was something other than its last driver, Bill Alexander.

After clocking a career-best 6.08 early in 1999 for Hedge, Alexander smoked that car's tires so regularly that intrateam finger-pointing ultimately degenerated into Wild Bill's abrupt departure from Hedge's cockpit—right in the middle of Oklahoma's big Heartland Hot Rod Reunion. Thus ensued an unprecedented (for nostalgia racing)

postseason which saw Denver Schutz vacate the seat of Eirich's Ground Zero, then replace Jeff Diehl in Jim Cullen's Dale Emery-tuned Texas car; Rance McDaniel follow the retiring Sammy Hale in the 5.87-second Champion Speed Shop Special; and Bobby Neal end his quarter-century partnership with Arnold Birky, to be replaced by unknown Mark Malde.

None of these major realignments, however, could rival the recent announcement of Hedge's chosen replacement for Alexander: Tim Gibson, NHRA Top Fuel shoe, supercharger manufacturer, and resident aerodynamicist for John Force Racing. Considering that "Techno Tim" had never sat behind a racing engine, expectations for Gibson's ability to fill Wild Bill's big shoes were not exactly high, outside of Root Beer's MasterCam team.


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