John Shoemaker 1942-2008

Celebration of Life



John Shoemaker realized in his early teen years that he was more interested in hot rods than baseball (his older brother Bob was signed by the Detroit Tigers as a pitcher at 17 years old and his dad played semi-pro baseball for many years).

John and his high school friends all had cool hot rods. John had a '32 three-window coupe that he used to play "ditchem" with the CHP after school. (There were five exits at El Camino High School.) They cruised Mel's Drive In with cars like John's, and Ted Holden's blown Willy's coupe, and challenged the guys in their dads' new '59 Impalas to race out on El Centro Road for $10.00 beer money (always winning).

The first dragster chassis John ever built (at 23 years old) had a full body with a swoopy tail section painted beautiful purple metal flake with wood grained panels on the sides of the tail (similar to the Hawaiian). It was show quality and was featured in a 2-page layout in the September 1968 Rodder and Super Stock magazine. John would have been the first to tell you, however, that the chassis was made out of one inch mild steel tubing, and although very nice looking, tended to droop in the middle after only a few runs. That's how you learn! John built a second stronger chassis and sold it to a friend before he ever completed it for competition.

John continued building race car chassis from 1966 to 1984 building over 125 cars, including one front engine and one rear engine dragster for the late Gary Ormsby, 1989 World Champion. John's chassis shop would have as many as four cars at a time in various stages of completion. He also built chassis for many other local top fuel racers in the mid '60s and 70's including Ron Welty, Shorty Leventon, Gene Winther and Bill Stammerjohan. He built two top fuelers for Frank Martinez, the self-proclaimed "World's Fastest Mexican" and the Trillo brothers out of the bay area. John also drove both the front engine and rear engine top fuel dragsters he built for Bill Stammerjohan. John built a rear-engined junior fuel dragster called the Outcast Jr. with Vaughn Raviart long before Garlits' accident and subsequent building of his first rear engine dragster. (The idea was conceived after a few beers at a party one night.) Shoemaker actually built cars for racers all over the west coast.

Every car was custom made for the owner and driver from start to finish and John says it would have been boring any other way. Every car he ever built from day one also had a deep four-point cage even before they were required. John did all of his original work in his large shop attached to his home where he hand fit all of the tubing and did all of his welding. John also did some of his own bodies while Jack Hagemann, Sr. did most of them, with Ron Covell and even Hanna doing a few. The usual mode of transportation for John was to take the chassis to Hagemann's shop 1 1/2 hours away was on the roof rack of a '64 Chrysler wagon! Randy Ayres of Sacramento also built several bodies for John's creations in the 1970's.

John was also one of the pioneers in blown alcohol racing, with the first-ever six-second run in the then Pro Comp field at Irwindale's Grand Premiere in January 1975 driving one of his creations, Gene Gilmore's Renegade blown alcohol dragster. John was runner-up at the Winternationals and also set the national record that year with runs of 6.78 and 6.87 at NHRA's championship series event at Sacramento Raceway all in Gilmore's Renegade.

John drove the Shoemaker Clan rear engine '34 Ford B-fuel coupe to a win at the 1964 Bakersfield Fuel & Gas Championships. Twenty years later in 1984 he won the Fuel & Gas Championships in his blown alcohol dragster. That same year John, with his wife Judee began campaigning their own Shoemaker dragster throughout the west. John finished 2nd that year in the then combined NHRA Divisions 6 and 7, with two wins, two runner-ups and two semi-final finishes. John began his commitment to the northwest at that time, finishing 2nd in 1987 and 1988, winning the Division 6 Championship in 1989 and was runner-up again in 1990.

Shoemaker's began 1992 with a new 275-inch Shoemaker dragster, and inspired by the Persian Gulf war, became the "American Eagle" with John holding up the American flag as he backed up from each burnout, with the tradition continuing today.

1994 began with the most exciting and prestigious win for the "American Eagle", the Winternationals at Pomona in February. Shoemakers continued to compete through 1998 with much success both divisionally and nationally with a second national event win at the Autolite Nationals, Sears Point Raceway, Sonoma in July 1998 (their home national event track).

After a short retirement to concentrate on his chassis business Shoemaker returned to the drivers seat in 2001 with the advent of the Nostalgia Top Fuel class. For several years he was a "hired gun" driving cars owned by Bill Schwartz, Arnold Birky and John Blanchard. But in 2006 John decided to build his own Top Fuel car and it was a beauty. After shaking it down with no paint, John and Judee thought long and hard about a color/graphic scheme. Their "American Eagle" debuted its new stunning paint job at the 2007 March Meet. Sadly the car never got a chance to reach its potential.

On March 8th 2008 the drag racing world lost one of its finest in John Shoemaker. Under sunny skies and nearly perfect racing weather the second session of Top Fuel qualifying for the March Meet opened with Jim Murphy and John Shoemaker. Both cars left good but Murphy experienced engine problems at the 900' mark and shut off - Shoemaker ran right down the groove to a 6.111 at 249.93 (a career best speed) but it was instantly apparent that something was very wrong as the car continued to accelerate with no sign of any attempt to stop it ... no chutes, breaks or fuel shut off. Going an estimated 300 mph the engine finally ran out of fuel and banged the blower but by then Shoemaker was very rapidly approaching the very end of the asphalt track. The car went off the end of the track, through the dirt field, into a berm and then into an orchard. The entire facility held its collective breath but those who have been around this sport for a long time knew this was not going to end good... and it did not. The 65 year old veteran Top Fuel driver apparently suffered a coronary event (lost consciousness) near the end of the quarter mile and never had the facilities to react to something that would normally come naturally to him.

The drag racing fraternity lost a great racer, Judee lost her husband, many lost a great friend and legions of fans lost a hero. John Shoemaker had been a drag racer for his entire adult life. He was a superior chassis builder, quality driver and ace mechanic. He will be sorely missed.

On March 15th a celebration of John's life was held at the Haggin Oaks Golf Complex in Sacramento. For an event put together in less than a week the turnout was incredible. The large tent was filled with friends and family. There were tears, laughs, touching stories and humorous tributes. John and Judee's friend and drag racing photographer Steve Wallace was on hand to take pictures so the event could be shared with all of us who couldn't make it to Sac on short notice.

Most of the photos below speak for themself but Judee Shoemaker was able to add her commentary and guest IDs to many of them.




These banners and throughout the pictures on the walls were all done by students at Garfield Elementary school in Carmichael. I worked there for 25 years and retired last June. After the outdoor assembly John had the car on display and all of the classes got to come out and see the car and talk to him, so they all knew who he was. On Friday, March 14th they had their outdoor flag salute as a tribute to John. It was a very special moment for myself and the crew.

















Jim Shoemaker and Donna




















Wade Nelson was the master of ceremonies. He is a longtime friend of our son Jim and a family friend.







Steve Glucoft was the first speaker. He is a special friend and crew member.


Mendy Fry, Top fuel driver. We have known her since the 1975 Renegade days when she used to back John up from his burnouts.


Dave Smith, the owner of Sacramento Raceway and longtime friend.


Merrill Leslie, John's sister.


Wade Bozarth, former racer and friend.


Margie Cassie, family friend. They own the Night Train NE3 Shoemaker chassis front engine dragster built in the 60's and upgraded for today.




This is Garfield staff singing a tribute to John & Judee to the tune of Crocodile Rock.






Mike Espinor, special friend & crew member.



Bob Santolini, John's best friend, master machinist and crew chief on the American Eagle.




Haley Beedle, 14 year old granddaughter.



Max Cassie, holding one of John's trophies telling a special "Shoemaker" story.


Racers For Christ pastor Angelo Stanton.


Shirley Alexander Leventon, family friend.






Long time friend Jamie Jackson.


"special friends" Steve & Corry Glucoft


Joel Gruzen wore his racing uniform - as did several others.


Fellow Top Fuel driver and long time friend Brendan Murry and Bud McCoy who helped John build the American Eagle body.


Judee with some of the guests.






Gary Ormsby, Jr., his Mom Kathy and fellow racer Dale Carlson.



















Gene "Geno" Gastelum and Sally Martini.







Top Fuel driver Bill Dunlap and photographer Steve Wallace.


John Cox & Geno





Long time friend and fellow racer, Bob McClennan (gray jacket).



Ronnie and Jeep Hampshire


Grisel family


The American Eagle crew.





I would like to thank neighbors Melanie Shanley and Jenny Sabol, longtime friend Carol Siefkin and the American Eagle crew for orchestrating the entire celebration. I would also like to thank John & Cheryl Cox, Sacramento Theatrical Lighting, for all of the incredible picture collages, and Garfield School students and staff for decorations. Special thank you to Don Ewald and Steve Wallace for sharing the celebration and photos with all of you. And a huge thank you to everyone who attended the event, called, sent cards and emails. It is truly an incredible racing family.

Judee Shoemaker



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