Goleta - The First Drag Race

An excerpt from "High Performance" by Robert C. Post


"On a crisp Sunday morning in 1949 a group of hot rodders converged on a stretch of two-lane road north of Santa Barbara. The road ran westerly toward the ocean from California's Coast Highway, Highway 101. Ordinarily, it provided access to a landing field at Goleta, but on this April weekend a half-mile had been closed off with portable fencing. Although the site was well known among local street racers, this was a special occasion--a match race between two out-of-town celebrities, both of them dry lakes veterans, Tom Cobbs and Fran Hernandez. Cobbs had been winning races all around Los Angeles in his Ford roadster, a 1929 Model-A body channeled over a ‘34 frame. The engine was a ‘34 V-8 with a Roots blower from a GMC diesel truck or bus fitted on top as a supercharger. Cobbs had challenged Hernandez, who raced a fenderless but otherwise stock-bodied ‘32 Ford three-window coupe with a new Mercury V-8 that had been over bored and stroked to 3-3/8 x 4-1/8, 296 cubic inches compared to Cobbs 249. But there was no blower on top, just three Stromberg carburetors on a special manifold.

"There were marked contrasts between the two racers themselves as well as their hot rods. Cobbs was called “a clever engineering sort who could afford, as heir to tobacco fortunes, to experiment and test on Stu Hillborn’s dynamometer.” Hernandez, who managed Vic Edelbrock’s place on West Jefferson Boulevard in Los Angeles, was “a scrappy master of machine shops.” Cobbs hung out in the beach town of Santa Monica with Hillborn, who manufactured fuel injectors for dirt-track racers, and Jack Engle, who who was one of the first Southern Californians to go into business regrinding Detroit camshafts, changing lobe profiles to alter valve timing. Hernandez’s buddies were Bobby Meeks, who worked for Edelbrock, too, Ed Iskenderian, a one-time apricot pitter from Fresno who had a cam grinding shop just down the street from the Edelbrock Equipment Company, and Lou Baney, who rebuilt engines in a shop on South Normandie. Nominally, Cobbs roadster was in “legal” trim and could be driven on the streets, but Hernandez’s coupe lacked such niceties as headlights and mufflers, so he had towed it in with a pickup.

"Other hot rodders--nearly all of them young men around twenty, with just a few girlfriends in evidence---showed up to participate, to drag it out with one another, but the Hernandez-Cobbs match was the feature. Everyone crowded up close for a good view, either at the starting line or near the finish, where there was a hump and the roadway narrowed to cross a culvert. The course that had been marked off allowed the racers three-tenths of a mile to accelerate and sufficient room to stop before coming to a sharp turn beyond the culvert. Hernandez’s coupe was balky about starting, so it had to be hand-pushed and fired on compression. When it finally kicked over, the exhaust fumes immediately betrayed the presence of something other than gasoline. Cobbs may have been surprised, but Hernandez already had a reputation as one of the select few who were expert in setting up Stromberg carbs for nitro.

"Side by side, a few feet apart, Cobbs and Hernandez edged toward a white line across the pavement, where the starter stood holding a flag on a wooden stick pointed towards the ground. Then, just as all four front tires touched the line, the starter yanked his flag skyward. Open headers roared and Hernandez jumped out in front while the roadster spun its tires, filling the air with clouds of white smoke. Although Cobbs finally regained traction and was closing the gap toward the end, Hernandez’s deuce crossed the culvert a length ahead. He quickly gathered his things, while his friends bolted a towbar to the frame of his coupe and hitched it to the pickup. Then he was gone.

"Word of the outcome quickly got around, and hot rodders rehashed it long afterwards, a diversion known as bench racing. Cobbs had changed to lower rear gears, thinking (mistakenly) that this would give him an advantage out of the chute--could he have won with “lakers gears” like Hernandez had? Did that “Jimmie” blower really produce ten pounds of boost, as some people said? What kind of load was Hernandez running anyway? The collective memory later coalesced as a tale titled “The Day Drag Racing Began,” which was reprinted time and again. While eyewitnesses could attest to its essential accuracy, it had all the makings of a classic legend. The details need not be taken literally.

"Clandestine drag racing had been going on for some time, of course, but what was unique about this particular event is that officials of the Santa Barbara Acceleration Association had sought, successfully, to have the California Highway Patrol confer approval: The races at Goleta were not against the law."

If you only own one book on drag racing, make sure it's "High Performance" by Robert C. Post. Available at better book stores or through the John Hopkins University Press

"This book will be the bible of drag racing for future generations." -- Don Garlits



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