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April 30, 2013 > History: Car Racing in Fremont

History: Car Racing in Fremont

The City of Fremont is not usually recognized today as a place with close ties to automobile races and their racing history, but there are some historic connections. Wes Hammond wrote about "Building Race Cars in Irvington" in his book" Remembering My Life in Irvington. The cars were built by the team of Joe and George Amaral, Roy Canright and Frank Cordoza in the early 1930's. Wes displays a photo of "Car No. 28, the Chevrolet Special" as the latest of the race cars built by the team. He notes that "the distinctive grill has a classic European appearance." They towed the cars to races at San Leandro, Fresno, Santa Rosa and Los Angeles.

Roy Canright operated a garage about one quarter of a mile south of Irvington on the San Jose road where some cars were built. He and Joe Amaral built the race car body and installed a commercial Chevrolet or Ford engine. George Amaral was the driver, but in the mid 1930's they hired a seventeen year old driver from Berkeley named Freddie Agabashian. He drove until World War II ended the racing enterprise. After the war, Agabashian resumed his racing career. He raced at Indianapolis and drove the first diesel powered car to race there.

Egizia Di Giulio Ragghianti leased part of her building at the corner of G Street and Niles Blvd. to Jerry Unser and his partner, Walt Clevenger. They opened an auto repair garage called the U. C. Garage in Niles in 1926. About a year later, they moved the business to another building, then to Castro Valley. Jerry was Castro Valley's first fire chief in the late 1920's. Louie Di Giulio and Sergio Zilli attended a dedication of a new fire truck for Castro Valley in the mid 1990's. The dedication was to Jerry Unser for his service. Jerry's son, Bobby also attended. Jerry apparently trained Louie to be a mechanic. The Unsers became the first family of sport racing and dominated every aspect of the Indianapolis 500 racing world over a span of four generations.

Joe Amaral began building midget race cars in the late 1930's. His brother George was the driver. They sometimes raced their cars at the Oakland Speedway. Their cars normally had a four-cylinder Continental or Offenhouser engine.

George Kato, Jr. operated the "Sunrise Service Station" at the front of the Canright Garage. George raced regular roadsters, powered by special engines, with the fabric top removed. He towed his car to races at San Jose and competitions at Reno, Nevada.

Area newspapers sometimes recorded information about car races on the oval tracks at San Jose or Oakland before World War II. The Township Register reported that Fred Agabashian who drove for Roy Canright set a new record for stock cars at the San Jose Speedway.

Car racing came back to Fremont in a big way in the 1950's, but this was a different kind of racing. Ron Lawrence partnered with several local men to build a quarter-mile paved drag strip next to the Fremont Skysailing Airport. Straight paved roads almost 3/4 of a mile long were constructed. Grandstands, concession booths, an official timer's stand, announcers' tower, ticket booths, etc. were soon added. Spectators were fenced 100 feet from the strip behind heavy log barriers. The track eventually boosted a paved pit parking area.

The track was sanctioned by a national racing association, and the Fremont Drag Strip (FDS) was in business. 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 and assured the City of Fremont a place in the history of racing.

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