Early Nostalgia Drag Racing – Fremont Fury
Early Nostalgia Drag Racing got its start way back in the late 70s in the Western U.S. in both Southern and Northern California. The sport really got going when Tom Prufer rented Fremont Raceway so that he and his friends could go race with minimal rules for maximum fun. Sixty cars and 300 spectators turned up.
Drag racing had changed. Gone corporate. Maybe it was Big Daddy’s 1971 move to rear engine dragsters, maybe it was the 1975 advent of big time Winston sponsorship. Ed Donovan’s 417 aluminum hemi was the beginning of the end according to some. Whatever it was the days of two guys and a trailer were gone. While the sport definitely got bigger some people felt it hadn’t got better.
Because of the cool Bay air and a good surface Fremont was a fast track that attracted the likes of “Big Daddy” Garlits, “The Snake”, “The Goose”, “The Greek” and many more. However, like all tracks near human habitats it was threatened and eventually closed at the end of the 1988 season. The land sat vacant until 1996 when it was slated for development. Today its buried underneath a Home Depot. Sigh.
Speaking to him for this story Tom Prufer said, “I was on the road a lot and needed somebody to answer the phone as the event grew. I recruited my friend Brian Burnett of Los Gatos Ferrari to field the calls.”
By 1981 the attendance had quadrupled, and Gray Baskerville of HOT ROD Magazine tagged the event the First Annual Hot Rod Drags even though that was actually the third event. Perhaps the most memorable race from ’81 was between Pete Chapouris in The California Kid and “TV Tommy” Ivo in his jet dragster. Ivo psyched out Chapouris who, even with a seven-second lead, missed a shift and lost.
By 1983 nostalgia was not what it had been and the circus grew another ring when Ferd and Mouse Rhodes, Jeff Carter of Street Rodder magazine and others joined the fray and formed the Nostalgia Drag Racing Association. They took the show on the road to other tracks around the country but as Tom said, “We were doing it for fun but it grew out of control and Fremont was the only track where we had even marginal success.”
Thankfully, I got to attend several nostalgia races and recently found my snaps from 1985 and ’87. Several other images were collected for this article as well.
Back then, I was a freelance journalist and dealer for Pete and Jake’s Hot Rod Parts and consequently was in the thick of the action. At the time, it was all about fat fenders with Pete and Jake debuting their purple fat fendered ’39 convertible, “Fat Jack” Robinson his orange ’46 Ford and most famous of all Jerry Moreland and his twistin’ ’n’ shakin’ ’40 Ford. Ron Fry and his 17-year old daughter Mendy came along a few years later in a stack injected big block powered ’27 T roadster that beat everyone.
Moreland’s black Tudor ran high nines at a buck seventy and initiated the quest for the world’s fastest street rod. Sadly, Fatty’s orange was crushed in 1987 when it made an unscheduled right turn at Fremont that was by now named Baylands Raceway. You can see the devastation in the clip below.
A front engine Top Fuel class and other sportsman classes enjoyed popularity, especially the fuelers led by Jim Davis, Tom Topping, Jerry Steiner and others. Steiner’s runs in the legendary Mooneyham and Sharp 554 ’34 roadster was a highlight of early nostalgia drag racing.
Unfortunately, as they often do when things get going well they start to come apart. There was the inevitable in-fighting, Fatty crashed big time and Fremont, the only money-making venue on the schedule was scheduled to close the following year which it did at the end of the ’88 season.
Thankfully, Gary Meadors of Goodguys, a huge supporter of all things nostalgic stepped into the ring and began to host vintage drag racing events. With Fremont shuttered Goodguys moved their premier event north to Sears Point Raceway and west to Sacramento, and south to Famoso Raceway in Bakersfield as well as Pomona dragstrip. The Goodguys/VRA as it was known ran big time nostalgia meets from 1989 through 2006. More than 30 years later Goodguys continues to host Friday Night Vintage Drag races around the country.
But the ball got rolling at Fremont by Tom Prufer. Anyone who takes up a seat at their local vintage drags can thank him.