More Tales from the Old West
A couple of vignettes from the very first organized drag race.

By Don Prieto


And the word went forth in the spring of the year of Nineteen Hundred and Forty Nine. From The 'Wich Stands in LA and in Glendale, to the Piccadilly in Santa Monica,…to all the hangouts: Big Doin's are planned at the airport in Goleta, north of Santa Barbara California. Tom Cobbs and his blown flathead '29 roadster on '34 rails will face off with Fran Hernandez and his fuel burning '32 coupe---a grudge match. LEGALLY! Bring your hot job to Goleta Airport on Sunday morning. Be ready to race--- to drag it out.

A legal drag race (the first in recorded history) would be held. Some enterprising Santa Barbara street/lakes racers got together with the Goleta Airport and got permission to race on the access road next to the runway. A willingness to do anything to keep these guys and their hot cars off the street, the proprietors of the airport agreed to give it a go.

The turnout that April Sunday in 1949 was about what you would see a big local street race on Sepulveda during that era; made up mostly of hardcore lakes racers, street jobs and hangers on. In attendance were some future names that all of hot rodding would come to know: Howard Johanson, (Howard's Cams) Vic Edelbrock, Al Barnes, (Barnes Systems) Greg Cunningham, (Cunningham Rods), the Peirson Brothers, Ed Iskenderian, Lou Baney, Stu Hilborn, Jack Engle, Don Montgomery, to name a few.

Greg Cunningham and his partner Bill Davis had been running a track roadster on the dirt with Howards four port Riley "banger". Cunningham borrowed the engine from the dirt tracker and scribbled the layout of a chassis on the garage floor. In three days he had a four banger powered "rail job"-- the first. It was the bare essentials. Tube chassis, (no body), engine, gearbox, rear end, steering, seat, seat belt, and a kill switch, (one of those war surplus jobs that was on off on). Having just finished his "special" the night before, Greg brought it to Goleta just to show it off.

It soon came time for the match of the day between Hernandez and Cobbs. Cobbs roadster , fully streetable with its 371 blower started right up and moved up toward the flagman. Hernandez was having trouble starting as he had not made any warm up runs and his battery had run down. With a healthy push from the gang of Edelbrock helpers, the coupe roared to life putting out instant eye stinging exhaust fumes. Cobbs was surprised but could not do anything now. Both drivers experienced at clutching off at street lights, they rolled slowly toward the flagman. As the flag was jerked skyward, both cars lurched forward in a cloud of tire smoke.
Hernandez grabbed a slight lead as Cobbs snow tread tires spun. Through the gears and nearing the end the coupe still had a slight lead but the blower on Cobbs roadster was coming on. But it came up short and the coupe won by about a car length. The trap speed was 110 miles per hour. Hernandez collected his side bets and looked around for any other challengers. There were none. However the excitement caused by the match led others to choose off one another and give it a go.

As the race fever spread that day, Greg decided to unload the nearly finished rig and with Jim Kavanagh at the wheel, they prepared to make a single run just to see what she could do. Loud protests were heard from the mostly street vehicle types about the lack of a body.

"How can it run without a body, man? It's crazy and besides there's no place to put the number" was the strongest complaint. After much deliberation, a number was dabbed on the side wall of the tire and it was allowed "one " attempt.

Driver Jim Kavanagh tells the rest:

"With the seat belt fastened, Greg and Bill gave me a push to start it up and it lit right off. I let it warm up a little bit and moved toward the starting line. While I was still rolling forward, they threw the flag. I stomped on the gas pedal and stepped off the clutch. It pulled harder than anything I had ever driven and when I speed shifted into second gear, I realized that the throttle was stuck wide open. Since I was only gonna get one run, I wasn't about to shut it off. I pulled it into high and headed to the finish.

"When I was ready to shut it off, I reached for the shutoff switch and realized that with the seat belt on, I couldn't reach the switch. So I lunged at the switch and swatted at it. I managed to reach it but when I swatted it down it went from on through the off position and back on. While I was lunging for the switch I pulled the steering wheel to the left with my other hand. When I looked back at the strip, I was sliding sideways off the asphalt and onto the grass and down toward the ditch that ran along side. The wheel dug in and the whole rig flipped over one time and came down on all four wheels with a great splash in the stagnant water that filled the ditch. I stopped dead. I was stunned and soaking wet but other wise okay. I undid the seat belt and got out of the seat and climbed part way up the embankment and sat down to gather myself up. When I looked back toward the starting line, here comes thousands of people running down to see what happened. I'm told the splash could be seen clear back to the start and it looked like an explosion. Most of the people ran right by me and down to the car. As it turned out both the car and I were alright."

Jim had just survived the first crash at the first organized drag race. He added:

"Nothing was hurt, but I smelled really bad from the stagnant water. My brand new levis and tee shirt were a mess. Greg made me ride in the race car on the trailer to a gas station where I hosed myself off. They told me that if I didn't rinse off they weren't gonna let me ride in the car with them back to LA."

"Oh by the way, we had fast time".

Such as it was.


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