Fremont Raceway – the Glory Years
Fremont Raceway (1959-1988) was known for many things. Located in the bayside marshlands 30 miles Southeast of San Francisco it featured the best “bite” and “air” of any quarter mile in the United States. The land was owned by Southern Pacific Railroad who doled out property leases to a long list of promoters including local car clubs, Steve Evans and Bill Doner, Jack Williams, and Terry Kniss who renamed it “Baylands Raceway” In the 1980s.
As a kid growing up in the small town of Sunol in the hills above Fremont, I could hear the distant top fuel thunder when the “hot cars” ran. I talked my parents into taking my siblings and myself there for the 1974 Northern Nationals. When we merged onto Christy Lane from Durham Road, the trailers were stacked a mile deep. Prudhomme, McEwen, Pisano Matsubara, Gene Snow, Jungle Jim, Rich Guasco’s Pure Hell, the Blue Max, Jeb Allen, Frank Bradley, Dennis Baca the list went on and on.
During the Doner/Evans years, the track became famous for its “screamer” radio ads. With Doner and Evans both doing radio spots, the ads were so dramatic they read as though they were penned by a Hollywood script writer. Jack Williams once told me the story of his “Nitro Bowl” race held on New Year’s Day. Talk about rolling the dice on weather! One year he was late on booking cars and when it came time for the radio ads he had nobody to tout. So he got clever. He had Steve Evans do the ad; “Who’s comin? They’re ALL comin’ – make your own list!” screamed Evans. Good stuff.
The fans came in droves to witness some of the most legendary racers to ever sit behind the butterfly. Evel Kneivel jumped here several times, Shirley “Cha” Muldowney and “Big Daddy” Don Garlits matched wits dozens of times over the years here as did the Mongoose and Snake.
In the late 1970s through the track’s closure in 1988, “Nostalgia” drag racing took off here under Brian Burnett and Tom Prufer. 1960s and 70s era sportsman racers and some daring front engine top fuel drivers dusted off their old equipment for hi-speed exhibitions. From 1981 through 1983 the NHRA staged the “Golden Gate Nationals” at Fremont attracting the sport’s biggest names in cut throat NHRA Championship competition. In 1983, the last running of the GGN, Gary Beck set the national top fuel record here running back-to-back 5.39 ET’s – the first driver to ever crack the 5.30 zone. That 5.39 ET stood for nearly a decade.
Baylands Raceway as it was known in the 1980s hosted legendary NHRA Division 7 sportsman points races. Famed drivers like “Bad” Brad Anderson, Pat Austin, Gary Scelzi, Blaine and Alan Johnson, the Santos family of S&S Automotive and Mendy Fry all forged their skills during those events.
With its central location inside the San Francisco Bay Area and its relatively close proximity to Sacramento to the east and Los Angeles 385 miles south, Fremont Raceway was an easy drive for competitors. The pits were always stacked.
The track shuttered in 1988. It was a sad day. Drag racing had grown up to encompass the NHRA National event tour, IHRA and the last vestiges of AHRA competition leaving little independent tracks such as Fremont Raceway to struggle to make it. Lease holder Terry Kniss threw in the towel. The last drag race was a knock-down, drag-out affair which saw non-stop action for four days, going out with a bang.
We’re grateful to ace lensman Dave Kommel for sharing these images with us of some of Fremont’s 1970s and 80s glory. You will surely recognize some of the names and cars. It truly was drag racing’s golden age. We miss this place!
Fremont Raceway Photo Extra! (All images courtesy of Dave Kommel)