Realizing the Dream

The dream actually began some 35-odd years ago. Nestled in my school library was this:

ed radlauer

In those 32 pages, it etched something deep in my elementary school soul that I’ve never been able to shake. I discovered more and more books about drag racing in the library of Mission Valley Elementary School in Fremont, CA. It fed an already insatiable fascination with cars, and put a sharp focus on it. There have been times when the passion for drag racing has gone dormant, but it always comes back again. I liked all the drag cars I saw in the books, but I was always particularly drawn to the pictures of front engine dragsters, and that’s where my dreams were invested.

By the time I actually made it out to the drags for the first time in the late 70’s, the dragsters from the pages of my elementary school books were long gone, and the sport had gone pro in the early 70’s. It’s odd because a book that is 7 ot 8 years old isn’t an old book, but in terms of drag racing itself, it was light years away. The front engine dragsters (also known as slingshot dragsters because with the driver sitting behind the rear axle and the rest of the lines of the frame, it made the driver look like a pebble in a slingshot) had become obsolete by 1972, replaced by the safer but somehow less romantic rear engine dragsters that are still around today.

I grew up in a religious family and we weren’t allowed to do anything on Sunday that involved physical exertion or spending money. Fremont Raceway, which was only 3 or 4 miles from where I grew up, almost always held their meets on Sunday, and besides- I was the only one in my family with this fascination. I would go to the quietest place in the house- which happened to be the hall bathroom- and I’d listen to the nitro cars in the distance and wonder what it would be like to be there. I’d sit in the bathtub and pretend I was in the cockpit of a front engined digger. I’d time my steering movements to the distant sounds from Fremont Raceway when a car made a pass. When I’d go along with my Mom to the grocery store, I’d sit in the middle of the back seat, with one leg on either side of the driveshaft hump, pretending that I was in a funny car, and I’d wait when we sat at a red light and look over into the lane next to me to see who I’d be racing when the light went green. My dad worked for GM in Fremont and when I was a kid would paint cars in our garage to earn some extra bucks on the side. My Dad’s paint respirator became my dragster pilot’s breather mask

So I remember going out to the drags at Fremont Raceway for the Nitro Bowl on New Year’s Day 1977 (because it fell on a Saturday) with my Dad dropping me off on the corner of Durham Road and Christy Lane with enough  money to get in, get a pit pass, and a hot dog. He told me to be back out there at 8:00 and he’d pick me up. I was in heaven, but at first I was also confused that there were only rear engine dragsters. I guess I thought that the dragsters in the pages of the Ed Radlauer books  still ran alongside the rear engine cars. Slightly disappointed, I was still hooked once I heard the staccato thump, saw the header flames, and caught a snootful of nitromethane via a top fuel dragster.

As time went on, we moved to the Sacramento area and my passion for 60’s drag racing remained unabated. This was still the late 70’s, so a kid obsessing over what at the time was just old junk that was considered merely obsolete, not “vintage,” was just plain weird. (the concept that old race cars could have any real worth hadn’t been even thought about in the drag racing world at that point.)  

I was 12 in 1979, so even though what I lusted after had only been gone for 7 or so years, it was like ancient history to me. The era when the front engine dragster was king was a whole world away- and trying to unearth info on that era was akin to an archeological dig. None of the grown ups could figure out why this weird kid was obsessed with drag racing circa 1965. They kept telling me “Hey, it’s gotten better since then! The cars are both faster and safer!” But I knew better. The new cars just didn’t speak to my soul. 

My older cousin bracket raced a late 60’s GTX Mopar, and then a ’23 T Altered, so I’d go out to the drags at Sacramento Raceway with him a lot.  At the time, there were cars called “econo rails.” What 10 or 15 years previously was a killer front- engined AA/FD, or Junior Fueler was now sporting a stock small block Chevy with a single carb, collector headers, usually a tall fiberglass scoop and an automatic transmission.

Some of the cars were cosmetically redone- usually with a then-trendy late 70’s “graphic” paint job, but often times they were kinda ratty with used slicks, a worn out or rattle can paint job, ( or sometimes both- using rattle can paint to block out the previous owners name that was lettered on the car years ago) or the cosmetics were handled by slapping on what seemed like a 100 manufacturer’s contingency award decals.  It was bucks down fun and it was usually the guys who couldn’t afford newer rear engine dragsters. The old cars were  just a way for someone with little money to get involved and get experience until they could move up to something else more modern.

But I’d roam the pits and I was captivated by these old slingshots, and I’d stare at them and wonder what cars they started out as. We’re any of them the actual cars I saw in my old library books or 60’s Hot Rod magazines?  It felt as though the harder I’d stare then maybe some clue or something would reveal itself. Or maybe I could imagine what it looked like in 1965, when the chrome wasn’t rusty or pitted, and there was a blown Chrysler, or injected small block between the frame rails, and the paint was new and there wasn’t a patchwork quilt of added tabs or aluminum sheet to cover some more recent backyard engineering.  

But sometime in  the early-to-mid 1980’s I lost interest in going to the drags. There was just something missing. It was changing even more- getting ever more slick and corporate. Even the old barnstorming match race circuit- one that would see the likes of Don Garlits versus Shirley Muldowney, or Don “the Snake” Prudhomme versus Tom “The Mongoose” McEwen roll into Sacramento Raceway a couple times a year to race each other to see who could take “2 outta 3” for  the capacity crowd- was going away. It was all about national events which seemed to multiply, and not about local tracks anymore. Drag racing was going from being merely professional, to just being another business.

 I didn’t realize it, but I had caught the tail end of the “professional hobbyist” nitro racer. Those guys all eventually got squeezed out because of the increasing costs and the disappearance of booked in match races that paid guaranteed money. In the case of some guys- ones like Gary Densham and Jim Dunn, they made the jump from serious hobbyist (Densham was a high school shop teacher, and Dunn a firefigher as their day gigs)  to the big time for a few years with corporate-sponsored rides. 

I just felt frustrated and couldn’t relate to what was going on anymore. Even the old cars that ran as econo rails had disappeared. The rear engine dragster had become old enough that low-budget racers were replacing their front engine cars with early 70’s rear engine cars.

By that time my music obsession was  full blown and instead of the drags, I redirected my obsessive tendencies to going to gigs and checking out punk rock/mid-60’s rock n’ roll /new wave/power pop/ and garage revival records and bands, and trying to get my own band together.

 Later in the 80’s I discovered vintage sports cars and road racing and spent a lot of time throughout the 90’s going to Sears Point and Laguna Seca and researching old sports racing cars and developing an obsession with old British Sports cars. My life (and garage) was filled with a  string of old Brit sports cars: a Triumph TR4, an MGB, an Austin Healey Sprite, and an MG Midget.

But in the late 90’s something struck me and I found myself with nothing to do on a Saturday afternoon. They happened to be having a vintage drag race at Sacramento Raceway, so I decided to venture out there for old time’s sake.

By that time, there were plenty of ugly “newstalgia” dragsters on the scene- they were technically front engine dragsters, but not really in spirit. They were all zooty and high-tech, with carbon fiber pieces and parts, and a modern sensibility. Very cold and tool like with not a whole lot of hot rod personality. But I happened to catch the tail end of what was a brief era where guys were actually racing genuine 60’s dragsters with blown Chrysler Hemi’s on nitro. I remember seeing the Foothill Flyer- which at the time was a genuine oldie with a few updates to the roll cage, and I got the chills. Here was a car just like those I grew up dreaming about when I was a kid, in front of my very eyes and actually making runs down the quarter mile. I was absolutely mesmerized and that experience awoke the then dormant passion once again.  

It has taken about 13 years since that day, but a good friend and I have started to embark on a realizing a dream I had started to give up on. I’ll fill you in next time.

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4 Responses to “Realizing the Dream”

  1. Racin'Jacin Says:

    It ALL starts with just a dream…….

  2. Hoffy Says:

    Just found you blog. Interesting read.

    I have to ask you a quick question. Was the book you mention in this post part of a series? I remember a series of motor racing books in my schools library, all from the 60’s with bright vibrant colour photography. I have long forgotten the name of the books and the author, but this book looks kinda familiar!

    Cheers

  3. rocinante rides again Says:

    Hoffy, Ed Radlauer wrote a lot of kids books about drag racing, and I was a big Radlauer fan as a kid. In my 30’s thanks to book sales and ebay, I bought up the titles that I loved as a kid. He also wrote about karts, mini bikes, slot car racing – all the stuff that I dug as a kid.

    • Hoffy Says:

      Great to see you are still responding to your blog!

      You have just made my Day! I did some more research last night and I am 90% certain they are the books I fell in love with as a 7 year old. The one picture I remember distinctly from the Drag Racing book was a 4 engined 4 wheel drive car (please tell me that is in the book…..). I also remember the Midget racing and the Slot Car racing books.

      And did the books have an influence on my life? Well, frankly, they did.

      This is the beauty of the internet…I am from Adelaide, Australia. I grew up in a small Rural community in South Australia. My parents were hard working farmers (and quite religious to boot as well – I remember having a conversation with my mother when I was 12 or 13 telling her that I wanted to get into motor sports, which would probably mean I wouldn’t be able to go to church any more…… She wasn’t as horrified as I thought!) and motor racing was viewed as a bit of a wast of money. Those books helped to spark the fire for at least myself and my next oldest brother.

      Anyhow, I loved it all as a 6 and 7 year old. I pleaded for my parents to take me to the drags (the closest strip was in a town called Tailem Bend, which was 35 minutes away), but unfortunately, the facility was closed down not long after. (Ironically, after 35 years of public inactivity, one of the richest business men in Adelaide is rebuilding the place to a near world standard, which will include a drag strip).

      But my folks didn’t let us down. I was about 9 when I saw my first motor sport – speedway. I loved going to the track on a Saturday night, getting covered in dirt and cheering along the local favourites.

      My biggest love, though, was road racing. I bought and raced Karts once I started working in my late teens, thinking that I was going to be the next thing (I’m sure we all did). But, as I got older, priorities changed and I gave all of the active involvement away (I still tried to be involved, as an official for a while and then taking photos…but alas, I have given that away as well). I still watch as much motorsports as I can (Australian V8’s, Indycar, F1, NHRA and NASCAR if I am really bored), but its just not quite the same as being involved.

      Ok, sorry for the long post. You have really sparked my inner 7 year old today (& yesterday) – its kind of a weird feeling!

      I hope you haven’t given up on your dream and I hope one day to see pics or video of Rocinante with a touch of tyre smoke and a grinning driver…..

      Cheers

      PS – I came here to look at your car! You and Mike (RIP) have done a stand up job.

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