Fremont Dragstrip: A Quarter Mile of Asphalt
Most Saturdays and Sundays in Fremont, California were filled with the roaring sounds of funny cars, fuel dragsters, and even jet powered-dragsters as they thundered down the quarter-mile-long double-wide asphalt pavement of the Fremont Dragstrip.
Back at John F. Kennedy High School in Fremont, in my auto shop class, our classmate, Billy Joe Clifford was telling us about a cool job that he had somehow gotten at the Fremont Drag Strip. He worked the weekends, and a few evenings after school helping around the raceway and helping get it ready for race days which was nearly every weekend and on Wednesday night for “grudge night.”
Billy Joe told us while we were tinkering with a valve job on one of the students’ cars that they needed workers and that we should consider going out and applying. Since I loved cars and I wanted to work, I wasted no time the next Saturday morning rising before the sun came up and walking the three miles from my house to the drag strip. We lived in Irvington, one of the five smaller cities that were incorporated to form Fremont in 1956. The drags were located on the far southern end of the city in a remote and near desolate part of the outskirts.
Back in the 1950s car culture was becoming ever increasingly popular. Car enthusiasts needed an outlet to show off their cars and their performance. Oh sure, there were a few car racetracks in the area, like Lodi, Vacaville, and Half Moon Bay, but there was no venue here in the immediate Bay Area. And the Bay Area was growing rapidly.
Along comes car enthusiast Ron Lawrence who also happened to live in Fremont who formed a partnership of sorts with Washington High School auto shop teacher Vern Eichner and a handful of locals who proposed to the fledgling city’ s fathers that a quarter-mile drag strip was just what the city needed.
The proposed site of the dragstrip would be on leased land that was owned by the Southern Pacific Railroad who had bought the property from the U.S. Navy after the second world war. Originally the proposed site was an abandoned airfield that the U.S. Army had constructed, prior to World War II, as an auxiliary landing strip for Moffett Naval Air Station which was built to serve gigantic airships. The huge airship bays at Moffett could be clearly seen from the site of the dragstrip.
With the freshly incorporated city of Fremont, it was a major challenge for Lawrence and the partners to obtain the necessary permits to construct the asphalt runway and the associated amenities that were required to create a venue of this type. There were toilets to be built, grandstands, parking facilities, snack bars, starting and finishing lines, timing towers, lights, and generators to operate them, not to mention insurance and safety precautions like ambulance services and basic first-aid.
Along with Ron Lawrence, Herm Barnick and Les Arnold the permits finally got approved. With the work of Don Jensen, who helped design the track layout and surveying of the land, and with the addition of the iconic announcer’s tower, Fremont Drag Strip opened for business in 1958.
Above, Pure Hell, the double-A, fuel altered hot rod roadster owned by drag racing legend Rich Guasco, was always a fan favorite at Fremont Drag Strip. Pure Hell was the first fuel-altered roadster to run over 180 mph and under 8.50 seconds on the quarter-mile. In 2011, Rich Guasco was inducted into the International Drag Racing Hall of Fame.
Above, pretty much a pure hell for my parents, I got the job at the Fremont Drags and bought myself a two-door, 1950 Pontiac with factory mohair seats and straight-eight motor. It cost me fifty bucks, but I still had to walk to work most times because gas was so expensive– twenty-five cents a gallon!
My first experience at the Fremont Drags was actually a few years earlier. My cousin who lived in Hayward, well Baumberg actually, was a big car enthusiast. His buddy, a neighbor who lived across the street from him, was the son of a family who owned a large auto wrecking yard near the Hayward-Bay Bridge not far from the garbage dumps at Russel City. One Wednesday night they picked me up to take me to grudge night at the drags. I put on a healthy application of Jade East aftershave, even though I didn’t yet shave, and they could both could tell that I had a lot to learn about drag racing.
Grudge racing was a very popular event on Wednesday nights at the Fremont Drags. This was where anyone could take any standard street car and race it down the quarter-mile asphalt. That included the family “grocery getter” of which I deny ever borrowing while Dad was taking a snooze from working the graveyard shift!
To compete in the weekly grudge night races, all you had to have was enough gas and a seat belt for the driver, which wasn’t always so easy since most cars didn’t have them. You had to go to the wrecking yard to find a set, then you simply bolted them onto the thin floorboard.
Above, the fastest 1950 Pontiac to have ever run on the Fremont Drag Strip quarter-mile. Of course, it may have been the only 1950 Pontiac to have ever run on the track. At other times, when it rained before a big drag racing event, race drivers were asked to race their hot rods down one track and back up the other in an effort to dry off the wet paved surface.
In the early days of Fremont Drags, the mighty Mission Peak loomed over all of the surrounding lands. Just between Mission Peak and “Penetration” a Plymouth driven by Larry Apodaca, sits the massive General Motors fabrication facility. It would later become New United Motors and then Tesla would use the facility for building their electric cars.
Back in the early 1960s, there were two small airports in Fremont. One was located near the Nimitz Freeway (880) on Mowry Avenue. It had a short dirt and gravel runway and would offer weekend airplane rides. The other was a narrow strip just off Durham Avenue that was adjacent to the Fremont Drag Strip. It served as a site for a weekend flea market and would eventually undergo some renovations, albeit very minor ones at that. Skyways Airport, as it would be called, was used primarily as an airfield for gliders, who loved the updrafts around Mission Peak. In its heyday, the airport would be one of the busiest “glider ports” in the world.
Nowadays it is hard to imagine that these rare vintage Chevrolet Corvettes were cut, chopped and otherwise modified for racing, but they were. The drags were not just a place to watch great racing but to see magnificent cars, not just the ones that were racing but those from the fans, the drivers and the crew. Note the yellow 1956 Chevy in the background. In the above photo, you can also see the drive-in theater in the background where many teenagers spent their Friday and Saturday nights.
My job at the Fremont Drag Strip entailed many different tasks. The main task was to clean up the spectator grounds and get the pits ready for the numerous cars and support vehicles that would show up for race day. The entire crew consisted of high school boys and we did just about everything including filling the light generators with gas and oil, assembling trophies, hand-sweeping the track, picking up trash, and parking cars. Afterward, we got to watch the races for free.
Billy Joe Clifford, our high school classmate, had the best job out of all of us. He was the smart one and rarely did any of the menial hard labor that we did like patching large holes in the parking and pit areas. Or siphoning out the portable toilets. His job was at the return section after the cars finished their race and were hooked up to their tow vehicles. Billy Joe maned a remote station where the drivers picked up their official Elapsed Time (ET).
Once, before a very large drag meet, a seagull had crash-landed, dead in the pits. So before race fans arrived, Ron Lawrence took me out to where it was in his old flatbed dump truck that was loaded with gravel. He was always pretty good to us boys but had little patience with our inexperience. He and I patched a few large parking lot holes with the gravel and our shovels. Then we drive over to the large dead bird and he tells me to get out and throw the dead bird into the truck. No problem, I hop out and when I went over to it, it full of crawling maggots! I nearly lost what little I had had for breakfast. He kept shouting for me to hurry up and I just couldn’t get my damn shovel to move under that dead seagull. Finally, his impatience had run out and he climbs down from the old truck, walks over to the maggot encrusted bird, picks it up by the wing with his bare hands and tosses it into the back of the truck. He looks at me and says, “what was so bad about that?” Oh, not much, just something that I would probably remember until I come to the same conclusion as that damn dead bird!
One of the cool things at Fremont Drags was that you would pay one price to sit on the “spectator” side. But if you wanted to sit on the “pit” you had to pay an additional fee. That price would get you into the “pits” where you could walk around, look at the cars, talk to the crew and drivers and you had seats near a snack bar.
Although I have always been a Ford man, Jungle Jim Liberman, and his Goodies Chevy was one of my favorites. “Jungle Jim” was a fan favorite and by the end of the 1960s and early 1970s, the Fremont Dragstrip was booming. High powered radio ads were blaring on all of the San Francisco Bay Area pop radio stations announcing some big meet or some big drag racer that was coming to the Fremont Drags. And I got in for free!
Above, yes, they misspelled Fremont, but most people did back in the day.
One of my favorite cars, when I was a kid, was the original 1964 Ford Mustang. There was just something about their style that I liked.
Above, eventually, I saved enough money and bought myself a 1964 Ford Mustang.
Funny cars were a popular attraction at most dragstrips, and they began using lightweight fiberglass bodies that tilted up so that the crew could easily work on them.
By 1967, Tom Grove switched from Super Stock to AA/FC and ran his blue Ford Mustang “Charger” below.
Along with cars, I have always loved photography. It started when my dad, a damn good photographer himself, bought me a Kodak Brownie camera. It was a bulky little device made out of brown Bakelite and it held 127 film that was developed by Kodak and introduced back in 1912. Depending on your preference (and budget) you could get 12 or 24 exposures for the Brownie camera. I usually could only afford 12 because you also had to pay for developing and printing which cost more for the 24 exposures. And loading the film into the camera was an exact science that I really didn’t have the patience to learn.
And so, after my shift, I grabbed my little brown camera and took as many photos as possible. It was not like today where you can snap off as many shots as you want with a digital camera and see the results in real-time. Oh no, first of all, you hoped that you had loaded the camera correctly and not exposed the film to light and ruined each negative. Then you tried to focus on your image using the weird parallax system that was inherent in these simple fixed lens cameras. This one above of the charming Miss Turbonique didn’t turn out too bad.
Another fan favorite was a local race team Souza Bros and Dad. The Fremont Dragstrip would under several name changes from Fremont Drags to Fremont Raceway and eventually in its final years in operation to Baylands Raceway Park.
Another fan favorite was Dyno Don Nicholson and his Eliminator I Mercury Comet. Among the first of the so-called flip-top funny cars, they were on the leading edge of design and innovation. Fremont Drags had sell-outs whenever Dyno Don found his way to race at Fremont, running his Eliminator in the S/XS (Supercharged Experimental Stock) category.
Wheelie-popping dragsters would soon become that rage as many racers moved toward these light-weight, high-powered slingshots.
Above, “TV” Tommy Ivo’s sleek fiberglass dragster painted in “traditional” 1960s decorations.
Above, Connie Kalitta’s super aerodynamic rocket sled could be heard in the far reaches of Fremont when the dragster would burn-in the massive “slicks” or make a run down the asphalt that lasted mere seconds.
The location of the Fremont Dragstrip was such that it sat at near sea-level. This made the air around the track dense which gave the race car tires super traction making this a very fast track.
Fremont Raceway would be the site of the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) Golden Gate Nationals from 1981 to 1983.
Drag race legend, Steve Woods at Fremont Dragstrip with his “Old School” classic that featured Cragar back rims.
Hercules, above, was a small 1962 Chevy Nova with a huge, powerful 427 engine.
One fall after a long hard day of working in the hot day of a typical California Indian Summer, several of us decided to go home rather than spend the rest of the day that would surely go well into the night at the racetrack. Billie Joe Clifford had the job of handing out the ticker with the elapsed time to the race drivers, so he had to stay. Oftentimes we would either walk home or simply hitchhike a ride home which was relatively safe back in the 1960s. When Billy Joe didn’t show up for school the next day, we found out that he had thumbed a ride home with a lady who was extremely drunk and had slammed into a parked car on the way to taking him home. She came out okay because her side of the car had seat belts, but Billy Joe hit the windshield with his face and is probably still showing the scars from that night.
During the racetrack’s heyday, it was the location for several movies including More American Graffiti and a made-for-television movie Hot Rod that stared Pernell Roberts, who played Adam on Bonanza.
Some time while I was working at the Fremont Dragstrip Ron Lawrence left and the place was taken over by a guy named Ron Miller. I don’t know all of the details and what had happened and what was Ron Miller’s role, but he was the guy who hired, fired and paid us. I didn’t like him. None of us did.
After Ron Miller took charge of the drag strip, somehow the luster of working there diminished. He tried to rip off the workers and made us do all sorts of difficult tasks. He hired a few new kids from other high schools in the area and one was a particularly lazy kid who could have been my twin, at least at a distance. The kid would smoke and talk while he was supposed to be working and one day Ron Miller sees him goofing off. Long story short, he thinks the kid is me and I get fired. I didn’t even bother to argue and figured it was for the best.
During 1965 to 1968 there was a weekly TV series, a drama called Run for Your Life. It was a story about a lawyer played by actor Ben Gazzara as Paul Bryan, who is told by his doctors that he is terminally ill and has less than two years to live. I know, nothing like saying that your TV program is going to last for only two years. Anyway, Paul Bryan decides to do all of those bucket list things that he never had time for while he was such a busy attorney.
Some years later, one night most of us who had worked at the dragstrip were at a school mates house watching television and enjoyed some libations. On comes Run for Your Life and it’s about a race car driver and so with not much in the way of alternative TV we watch the show. At some point the scene switches to a car race, out on the Bonneville Salt Flats I think, and to our utter amazement, there is Ron Miller driving one of the race cars! We all booed and gave the single-fingered salute as we all disliked the man!
It had only been a few years before when John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas while I was in my Junior High School woodshop class. By the time I worked at the Fremont Dragstrip, the Vietnam War would be raging. I loved working on cars, and it seemed that perhaps that would wind up being my advocation in life.
A month after taking some of these photos, on April 4, 1968, I would learn while I was in my high school auto shop class, that Martin Luther King was murdered. Damn! It was the summer of love and peace and all of that! What the hell?
Then just two months later, on June 6, 1968, presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy was gunned down by an assassin in Los Angeles. It was a confusing time.
The Fremont Dragstrip would continue operations for another twenty years, closing finally in November 1988 after much legal wrangling with Catellus Development Corporation. They would convert the land into a multi-use development, the Pacific Commons, in 1996 after razing the remains of the former glorious racetrack.
For anyone that seeks to step back into a different time, the ghosts of those long-ago races at the Fremont Dragstrip can still be visited. The location of the former site sits in the quadrant just south of the intersection of Interstate 880 and Auto Mall Parkway. The coordinates are 37.503768°N 121.972511°W
You may just add another drop in the bucket!
All photographs are the copyright of Jim Jackson Photography. Please contact me for authorization to use or for signed, high-resolution copies.
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