IF YOU’VE been bitten by the drag racing bug, there are few things better than being able to step back in time and feel like you’re right back at the roots of the sport. Nowadays, it’s quite in vogue to revive traditional events with a big song and dance and a hefty entry fee, but one place you’ll never need to make sure you’re wearing period-correct leather chaps is on the runway at Eagle Field airbase.
Situated in Firebaugh, California, roughly halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles, Eagle Field opens its gates each May for nostalgia drag racing in its purest form: heads-up, flag-drop eighthmile grudge matches. It’s a real throwback to the gritty racing of the 1950s and 60s, with low-tech track facilities, open pit and staging lane areas, and tiny, weather-beaten bleachers.
Once you drove through the gates for this year’s event it was pure pandemonium. Oil-stained drivers lay in the dirt to wrench under their cars, while quads and pit bikes zipped past terrifyingly close to punters. The aromas of barbecue, cigars and avgas were heavy in the air.
Safety was minimal. The fence was knee-high to a grasshopper and spectators stood wherever they could find space. The potholed dirt return road acted as the only boundary between them and the racing.
The burnout pad was well-grooved and cracked, and there were no timing lights up on the startline. The track official waved each car forward until the front wheels hit a faded white line – give or take. The short Native American gentleman with the green flag and a feather in his ponytail was long-time official Eves, who’s been involved in Californian drag racing since the first days of the Fremont Drag Strip in the 1950s. He was the Christmas tree at this track!
Drivers came from all over the west coast, and the racing was quick and constant. As soon as the flag dropped and racers howled
off the line, two more cars were already smoking their bags and creeping forward.
The schedule called for a whole day’s racing broken up by some classic exhibition drawcards, including The Beast jet drag car piloted by Jeff Atamian, and wheelstanding performances by dragstrip stalwart ‘General’ Jerry Lee and his son Hoss. The hoots and hollers from the crowd drove home how popular these cars still are, and everyone cheered as a haphazard cacklefest procession idled past on the return road, kicking up dirt and deafening children.
There were no defined competition brackets or dial-ins, just pre- 1973 cars filling the sunny Californian air with noise and tyre smoke.
In between all the hot rods, gassers and early muscle, the almighty roar of nitro Hemis reverberated as Pure Hell and Revelation fired up for some friendly passes (read: eighth-mile smoke shows). Two of the angriest nostalgia drag cars on the west coast, they were both covered in bright candy red paint and were ready to cause a ruckus.
The Pure Hell fuel altered was pedalled by both Larry Huff and Brian Hope (whose father Ron is owner/driver of the infamous Rat Trap altered). Revelation was piloted by Randy Winkle.
The Camfather, Ed Iskenderian, sat calmly right near the fence at the burnout lane, happily observing the kinds of cars he’s been around for nearly a century. Though understandably hard of hearing, the energetic 94-year-old was out and about shaking hands and having photos taken. Isky spent a bit of time on Aussie shores up in Queensland when he was in the air force during WWII, flying military supplies to the Pacific Islands. He said he loves Australia, but can’t stand Vegemite!
Once the official events were at an end, a cry from the announcer went up: “If your nose is in the sky and your rear end can smoke ’em, then your number is called!” That was the cue for some sunset gasser races for all eligible pre-’65 cars, put on by Portland’s Estranged Car Club. The idea was simple: keep racing until sundown, and some club picks would be handed out at the end, with no real winner.
With a storm on the horizon, the action took on an apocalyptic aura, with tooth-and-nail racing and constant smoke shows continuing for nearly four hours.
After the last pass of the evening, the Estranged boys gathered around member Nate’s radically modified Model A altered The Loose Tooth and handed out their copper-plated awards. One was Best Period Survivor, which went to Aaron Von Minden, the custodian of a super-cool original nitro dragster that was built in the 50s but never even got painted before its racing days were up.
In the diminishing light the crowds slowly rolled out onto the farm roads and back into the 21st century, having spent the day in a different era, enjoying the raw grassroots racing of the good ol’ days. s