At Eagle Field, vintage drag racing is at its best

Drainpipe starting line structure, flagman, and two-story tower without A/C demonstrate the basic nature of Eagle Field | Jim McCraw photos
Drainpipe starting line structure, flagman, and two-story tower without A/C demonstrate the basic nature of Eagle Field | Jim McCraw photos

In the tiny farming town of Firebaugh, California, there is a World War II Army Air Corps training facility called Eagle Field. It has been there since 1942 and there is so much aviation fuel, so many lubricants and other chemicals in the soil that, right in the middle of the huge San Joaquin Valley, one of the largest and most productive agricultural valleys in the world, there is hardly a blade of grass.

Eagle Field has changed hands many times from government to investor to farmer and back to government, and was rescued in 1980 by airplane aficionado Joe Davis, who has started assembling an aviation museum. In 2009, a group of local drag racers asked if they could use the one surviving runway to do some racing.

The racing has evolved into the Eagle Field Runway Drags, also known as the Fresno Dragways Reunion, held twice a year, in May and October, an event unlike any other in drag racing. Promoter and racer Rocky Phillips has been running the event ever since with his wife Tamara and an all-volunteer crew of 90 people.

There is no Christmas Tree starting system…  At the other end, a human judge sitting up high uses a checkered flag to indicate which lane the winning car was in. There are no trophies and no cash prizes.

The strip is only an eighth of a mile long, to keep speeds down. They use soda syrup sprayed on the track surface to enhance traction.

They race with no electronic timing devices, no photocells to line up the cars evenly, no electronic scoring devices.

There is no Christmas Tree starting system. A human flagman (in this case either Earl Boyajian or Eves Tall-Chief), starts the two cars, which was the way it was done up until 1963 or so. At the other end, a human judge sitting up high uses a checkered flag to indicate which lane the winning car was in. There are no trophies and no cash prizes.

Much of the machinery here runs on naturally aspirated and supercharged Ford Flathead V8 engines, Ford four-cylinder engines, and Chevrolet/GMC inline six-cylinder engines. Some of those use Cragar, RaJo, Riley and Winfield overhead-valve conversions. Some of the cars are laughably ancient, and some are crude, but everyone seems to be having fun.

The drag strip is lined not with half-million-dollar motor homes but with 10 x 10 pop-up tents to fend off the 100-degree heat as three generations of families hang out, watch the races from folding chairs, and cook food. No alcohol is served or tolerated.

80-year-old General Jerry Le, brought his Model T wheelie truck and wowed the crowds
80-year-old General Jerry Le, brought his Model T wheelie truck and wowed the crowds

After eight years, the word has gotten out as to what fun this is, and racers come twice a year from Oregon, Washington and Nevada to participate. This year, 22 teams from the Estranged Car Club all came down from Oregon to race their gassers.

There is a Saturday evening cacklefest, with half a dozen supercharged, nitro-burning dragsters firing up one after another, this year featuring Sonny Messner’s restored Don Garlits Swamp Rat III dragster and the beautiful red dragster of ‘60s standout Joe Schubeck. A witness to the 2017 cacklefest was 95-year-old racing camshaft pioneer and special guest Ed Iskenderian.

Now that we’ve finally seen it for ourselves, walked on the sandy soil, eaten the dust and the drag strip food, heard the sounds, and seen all the sights, we award our five-star recommendation to the Eagle Field Runway Drags.

Photos by Jim McCraw

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