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
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
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
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
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!
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?
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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