November 26, 2008 > History: Fremont Drag Strip
History: Fremont Drag Strip
Photos By courtesy of Ken Gittings
The History of Washington Township mentions Josh Chadbourne's garage and the names of local autos - a Thomas, a Cadillac and a Stevens-Duryea. The book also notes, "These demons rushing about at ten miles an hour are dramatic evidence of our modern march as the Township has been gaining speed ever since."
Area newspapers sometimes covered oval track races in Oakland or San Jose before World War II. The Township Register reported that Fred Agabashian of Berkeley, driver for Roy Canright, set a new record for stock cars at the San Jose Speedway.
Wes Hammond described the activities of Irvington race car builders in his book, Remembering My Life in Irvington, California. He wrote that Fred Agabashian started his driving career in Irvington, driving cars built by Ron Canright, Frank Cardoza and Joe and George Amaral.
In the late fifties, Fremont's Ron Lawrence, partnered with several localities and supported by people like Washington High Auto Shop instructor Vern Eichner, proposed constructing a quarter-mile drag strip off Durham Road, next to the Fremont Skysailing Airport and west of the Nimitz Freeway. Other tracks in the greater Bay Area included Half Moon Bay, Cotati, Vacaville and Lodi. Participation in the sport was soaring. Lawrence felt Fremont would be the perfect spot to provide a new race track.
It wasn't easy getting the necessary permits for the facility but once approved a pair of perfectly straight paved roads, almost 3/4 of a mile long, appeared in the fields. Airline pilots sometimes used the track as a landmark. Grandstands, concessions, the official's timing stand and announcer's tower, ticket booths, etc., were soon added. Spectators were fenced 100 feet from the strip behind heavy log barriers. The track eventually boasted a fully paved pit parking area. Upon being sanctioned by a national race association, Fremont Drag Strip (FDS) was in business!
The local raceway's operation strongly impacted Washington Township economy, as an employer, plus the thousands of fans and drivers who spent cash here every week. Additionally, Fremont's beautiful new facility virtually eliminated illegal street racing.
From the very beginning, FDS was the scene of world record runs by drivers like Chris Karamisines, Don Prudhomne, Art Malone and Don "Big Daddy" Garlits - all champions. Top fuel racers happily noted that the damper air, thanks to San Francisco Bay, helped them attain spectacular runs. Only bad weather stopped the racing action.
The nationally known racers brought fame to Fremont, and the track's weekly grudge program provided drivers with a safe and controlled site for good competition. All a driver had to do was sign up, pass a simple safety check and a tech would use white shoe polish to paint the car's class and number on the side windows. Then you were ready to race!
The starter made sure drivers were lined up precisely at the line before he dropped the flag for each pair of racers. Both traveled the 1320-foot distance (quarter-mile) at top speed. Each vehicle's elapsed time for the distance plus speed through the traps at the end of the run was announced and printed on time slips.
Lawrence, and his wife Jodie, created a Drivers Club for Fremont racers, complete with window decals and a weekly newsletter. There were special Fremont Drag Strip jackets to win or purchase. Even on weekday nights, the high school drags attracted several hundred drivers and a thousand or more fans. Racing usually continued until the track's curfew.
Fremont hosted many major events including the annual West Coast Nationals for the National Hot Rod Association series. The track appeared in at least a dozen movies including American Graffiti II. Television crews often visited for special programs. All of this undoubtedly "put Fremont on the map" for the next 30 years.
Catellus Development Corp. presented a plan to the City Council in September 1996 to "transform a crusty, flat expanse of cow pastures and wetlands into one of the Bay Area's largest business parks." A later map showed the former drag strip and former glider airstrip within the proposed project boundaries between Auto Mall Parkway and Cushing Parkway. A local writer noted, after council approval, that "Catellus Corp. has been given the go-ahead to develop one of the Bay Area's largest business parks from the vast, scrubby tract of flat pastures and cracking concrete where Fremont's drag strip and glider airport once operated." After 12 years of wrangling, Fremont Drag Strip was slated to become part of the Pacific Commons complex development.