03/22/12 04:40 PM


The Invasion of Fresno


Richard L. Railton


I walked into Pete Ogden's racecar shop (where I was employed as a part-time fabricator and full-time go-for/college student.) only to find him engrossed in whittling the excess from a Ford front spindle.

When he quit making sparks at the grinder, I announced my arrival with some mundane appropriate greeting and looked for whatever was that I was working on the previous day.  Cleaning something or draw filing the barbs off something that I had made not quite up to the Ogden standard the day before.

What's doing this weekend?"  He asked before returning to work more fitting for a person of his obvious status in the dragracing community.  

Having as open an itinerary as would be typical of a student/part-time fabricator I answered: "nada maes!"  Exercising what little benefits I had garnered from high school Spanish.  (After all you were in California, considered the "occupied territories" by some") having had the same year or two of first-year Spanish has had I, Pete aknowledged my reply by continuing with what he was saying.

Paul has a 1320 standard match race scheduled with Frank Canon in Fresno this weekend.

Pete, Paul, Dennis Craig and I had been employees of the legendary (or infamous, depending on your point of view?)  Jim's Muffler Shop, known locally as "the muff"  The Muff was locally recognized as communications Central, or the social centroid of the automotive community in eastern Contra Costa County.  It also had numerous other monikers, but that in itself is reason for a number of stories.

Paul had recently exited the deployment of the Muff to head south to Long Beach in search of fame and fortune as a professional Dragracer.  We at the muff were well aware of his resolve and his almost singular ability to focus on a goal.  Paul was going to work for an old friend and previous employer: Woody Gilmore.

Woody started the business that was to become "Racecar Engineering" he legendary name in drag racing chassis design.  We had a shop on Signal Hill, not far from material suppliers, aircraft subcontractors, Long Beach dragstrip and a good cocktail lounge.  The perfect environment.

So Paul had screwed new spark plugs into his 41 Cadillac, filled the crank case with fresh oil, rolled his race car on to hIs somewhat eclectic home-built trailer, loaded his tools, packed his flannel shirt, a couple of pair of Levi's and departed the muff for the bright lights and big-city known as Long Beach.

This was not to be unexpected in that LA had become the place to be for up-and-coming drag racers.  And in the hinder- lands of northern California one was apt to get lost in the proverbial shuffle.  If northern California was to be considered a secondary venue of dragracing we have to realize that second in a drag race is the loser.

 In that Long Beach was now his place of residence we the prior residences and employees of the muff were not privy to old Saul's wit and wisdom of P. Nothing (Paul's muff shop moniker)

Peter and I, between our assigned tasks discussed the details of the upcoming trek to the bowels of beautiful downtown Fresno. The logistics of and the personnel list became a topic of conversation: who was going?  What was going?  And the myriad of detail tasks that would be usually handled by a travel agent, Secretary or other organized individual involved.  Not having such a person, decided to soldier on ourselves.  (This may have been a mistake)

We mentally surveyed the landscape of the invasion trip, (Invasioned trip) if correctly informed, were going to attend a number of different events.  Pauls match race, and given enough time, some type of dirt track event in a neighboring community.  Part of the traveling contingent was made up of those people involved in close quarters Circle track racing on dirt.

There are those that say that there is nothing more exciting than watching sprint cars or modifies on a good dirt oval.

There also those that believe that dragracing is for dummies because you don't have to turn in the competition?  (Different strokes, different folks!)

Gordy VanNest the original leasee of the building in which Pete had his shop, was an ardent oval track constituent.  With a sponsorship for a local “hot-shoe” modified driver by the name of: Govan.  Rich Govan was a competitive and talented racer.  Govan was also looking for more exposure i.e. in the valley towns for example does near Fresno.

Gordy was an excellent mechanic, Govan was a up-and-coming driver of note, Fresno was the next regional race.  It is not hard to see where this is going.  Fresno.

So at this point the personnel list and the equipment was compiling.  I was going, Pete was going, Rich was going, Rich's wife, never one to be left at home, was going, Gordy's wife, Gale, was going, and after a few phone calls, Kitty, my lady friend, would be convinced to go.

At this point, Pete and I decided to address the idea of transportation and lodging needs.  But we didn't address it much.  Race trips seem to work best with a relaxed schedule.  What ever occurs, can be adjusted to!  "That's racing!"  We decided, and opened another beer.

The extent of our preplanning could be explained by: "we'll meet here sometime Friday afternoon."

Considering the fact that neither of us were a part of the credit structure, travel was done by the now defunct barter system of federal cash in hand.  (Soon to be made antiquated by the new concept of plastic money, and concept wealth) we consider the reality of a weekend of travel in modern times.  Scary though it may be!

After all it was 1962, Levi's were 595 a pair and a $20 bill would get you dinner at most places.  By previous experience we knew that LA was not more than two sixpacks down Highway 50 in Fresno could be no more than about halfway to Long Beach!  Right?

So far we had, one mechanic (Gordy) one racecar driver (Govan) & a not very pleased spouse,

Cordy's six-foot tall long-haired, long leg and long hair spouse (Gale) Pete and I, and Dennis Craig (our one-time employer at Jim's Muffler Shop.  And what ever we accumulated along the way?

We were going to Fresno and to the races.  Which was almost a contradiction in terms.  Races in Fresno?  Not likely! 

I didn't even know that there was a dragstrip in Fresno.  I wasn't even sure that there was a dragster between San Jose and Los Angeles other than the incomparable Bakersfield where everyone that was anyone met every spring at the March Meet.  (Dragracing's answer to New Orleans' Mardi Gras.)

Friday, those of us that hadn't already left, met momentarily at Pete's shop and dispersed in every imaginable direction to accumulate what ever we had forgotten in the first place.

With a fresh sixpack, a few 20s, a 5 foot nine surfer chick, (Kitty) a cursory map to the alleged dragstrip in Fresno and the proverbial "never been without" church key we headed south.

Neither we nor Fresno is really aware of what was about to happen.

After splitting the aforementioned sixpack, enroute we arrived at the racecar pits the chance in started to look for Paul's trailer.  Pulls trailer had always been relatively easy to spot.  When at the muff shop, concocted the most eclectic of racecar trailers.  A not particularly a statically pleasing conglomeration of misshapen unmatched pieces of discarded steel welded together to form a structurally questionable transportation for his racecar.

Look as we might, no such vehicle of transportation was in sight.  The pits were littered with trailers but all with proper fenders, legal lighting, and current license plates.  Obviously none that wouldn't qualify for a proper race team, but not one that would historically be attributable to the P. Nothing that we knew.

A short distance away, sitting on the tailgate of a new, or nearly new station wagon sat someone who looked vaguely familiar.  Tall, almost unbelievably thin and in the proverbial Sutherland slump was the celebrity of the day.

Paul was disguised as a proper dragster driver.  Dressed in a new state-of-the-art Simpson Nomex fire suit and attributable Simpson expedients, he looked little like his old muff shop alter ego. Hell he could have been driving for Penske or someone!  A high dollar operation.

Was virtually unrecognizable in his Long Beach persona.

And next to his racecar "The Charger" a new name But, one recognizable from the pages of "Mad Magazine, was his trailer made of properly sheared, and brake-formed never used sheet metal.  Certainly not of a muff shop beginning.

The race for itself was obviously a product of an inventive independent thought process.  With the first set of Zoomie headers that I had ever seen.  On the end of each 2 1/4 up-ended exhaust pipe was a vacant Campbell's soup can, protecting the innards of his personally built Nitro race motor from the elements that would wreak havoc on its expensive pieces.

As we tardly arrived in the pits, we observed Frank Cannon sliding his none too svelte torso into a dragster not unlike Paul's.  (Obviously of the same manufacture, I correctly surmised.)

The two challengers made their way onto the none too wide racetrack and prepared for the usual full-length starting procedure: each pushed by their respective station wagons .  Cannons filled with his contingent of longtime LA drag racers, Paul's recently acquired Yeagle Plymouth introductory dragracing dealership promo filled with what the LA thinking termed as northern intruders.

Everything went well until:

it would seem that a certain amount of the northern California crew, as well as the Southern California, Neo Southern California driver had been tasting of forbidden beverage: Demon Rum.  And was suffering from the sin of overindulgence.  As well as its ill effects in the area of logical judgment.

Because someone had forgotten to remove the protective soup cans of their previous position over the ends of  their individual respective exhaust pipes when the engine started to fire it shot Campbell's soup cans in every imaginable direction.  Littering the about- to-be used racetrack with the remnants of a case of chicken noodle soup cans.  Not exactly the preferred pavement for top fuel elimination runs.

While Paul sat presumably unperturbed in the driver's seat of his record-setting TFD ,his errant , if not legally inebriated, at least alcoholically impaired pit crew scrambled out of his station wagon like the clowns out of a circus taxi.  Heading in different directions as soon as their feet touched the pavement.

It was not unlike a Super Bowl halftime event.  Strangely dressed people running in all directions searching for eight empty soup cans on the loose.  Professional comedian couldn't have written it any better.  While patiently sitting in his awaiting world-class, state-of-the-art many horsepower chariot Paul was surrounded by his pit crew combing the surrounding tall grass for the errant soup-cans that would undoubtedly, if left to their own accord, roll back onto the racetrack and the most inopportune time.

Meanwhile the a customer, spectator sat in his seat eating hotdogs, drinking Coca-Cola, and doing things that spectators normally do whilst the comedy troupe searched for  empty cans and old Frank Cannon awaited his competitor.  And those spectators with a sense of humor enjoyed one of the best impromptu comedy acts ever to be seen at Fresno International Dragstrip?

We in the pits, having nothing in particular to do, were left to our own resources, as thin as they may have been.  It seemed time to have a beer.  (If all else fails....?).

He reached into the trunk of my Pontiac and retrieved a relatively cold sixpack of what ever brand of beer was popular at the time.  Noting that drinking beer in the pits was pretty much universally outlawed, we had in a rare instance of foresight, armed ourselves with a newly marketed product form of a sleeve that slipped over your socially unacceptable beer and disguised it as socially acceptable nonalcoholic soft drink.  Pepsi, 7-Up, Coca-Cola, what ever?  Providing one with the appearance of legality, even when joining a favorite alcoholic contraband substance (beer).

While the alleged pit crew was busy picking up the racetrack, we surmised, between sips that more was afield than the antics of the Keystone cops that was in process, by the sadly dramatic crew.

While the group of the unoccupied pit side group members watch over the disguised cans of illicit beer, progress seemed to be occurring on the dragster.  Not only were the full contingent of soup cans accounted for, safely inside the confines of bush wagon, but also was the search party.

Once lined up, the driver's hands appeared above the rolli-bar signaling for a push.  After checking oil pressure, etc. switches were turned, injectors purged and valves turned on allowing the supercharged Nitro burning behemoths to ingest their first drink of nitromethane and begin the ritual popping and banging that announces the awakening of a serious fuel dragster motor.

Both cars now with their engines running proceeded to behind the starting line to turn around and stage for proper alignment.

During the turn, not only Paul , but also one of the NHRA starter crew thought they had heard an ominous sound emanating from the rear end gears.  Top fuel dragster's rear-end gears are not to be trifled with or even left unattended or you would literally play hell getting from one end of a dragstrip to the other without serious consequences. 

The decision not to run the race, a true conscientious of opinion by Frank Cannon, who had little if any desire to be on the same race course as someone, no matter how good, with a seriously flawed racer;; a certified starter/Tech crewmen was certainly not going to take the rap for whatever disaster was to follow.; Nor Cal Muff Shop pit crew, and Honorary Cocktail Tasters  was of course, in no state to make a valid decision on anything more complex than a martini/Gibson controversy.; the Fans, filled with undercooked, hot dogs, overcooked hamburgers, flat 7up, stale lukewarm Coca-Cola partially melted Junior Mints and no verifiable evidence of any thing identifiable from any of the commonly accepted 3 foodi groups.  When asked, this group said that they would spend a weeks wages to see a Christian eaten by a lion, (or vice versa.).

The most concerned citizen; Paul, taciturn appearing was sitting in the driver's seat of a car with final drive gears that were making noise like two robots sharing a long-awaited coital event.  Paul was a very brave driver, Paul was not a stupid driver.  Paul was contemplating making a hard run with a car that depending on which of many components in the rear end had given up.  When certain components, for instance, spiider gears, get worn beyond practical usage, they cause erratic transfer of power to the wheels.  This in turn lets the car drive itself in any direction it damn well wants.  With little or no warning.  Not a good thing from the driver's point of view.

Managing the deportment of such a car is far beyond the reasonable requirement of a sane dragster pilot's definition of the fun afternoon.

Paul staged his wounded car at the starting line, thinking about $300 prepayment in his pocket and the exhibition runs that it promised.

The dragster was not the only one in less than competitive shape.  Paul himself was suffering from the excesses that old friend reunions often initiate.  And was a little less than enthusiastic about making a run with a less than cooperative mount.

Meanwhile back in the pits, the Paul's cheering section was growing a little antsy.  As was a contingent of spectators.  And a concerned if not thoroughly panic ridden strip owner/event manager waiting with baited breath for his well advertised staring entertainment.

Promised to be a two out of three match race, as were all the 1320 Standard top 10 Challenge Races, with the possible exception of equipment failure this venue at least two runs of top rated fuel dragsters and their drivers with a minimum of mediocre




This site was last updated 03/22/12 04:40 PM