Veteran automotive journalist Rick Voegelin reports from Eagle Field, a World War II airstrip in California where the drag racing is strictly old school. -lead photo by Dave Kommel
The Eagle Field Experience
By Rick Voegelin
photos by Rick Voegelin and Dave Kommel, www.davekommel.photoshelter.com
The smiling volunteer who manned the entrance to Eagle Field didn’t resemble Rod Serling, but I was reasonably certain that I had entered the Twilight Zone. The entry road was unpaved, the admission charge was affordable, and the worker welcomed us with genuine warmth. This is drag racing the way it used to be.
The Eagle Field Runway Drags is a trip back in time. No suites, no suits, no sponsor plugs, just Old School drag racing on a disused World War II-vintage airstrip near Firebaugh, Calif., just down the road from the Middle of Nowhere. The asphalt runway is surrounded by Central Valley’s finest dirt, the “grandstands” are wooden bleachers, the “timing tower” is a flatbed truck, and the starter uses a flag. There are no elapsed times, no top speeds, and no timing equipment. A worker at the end of the 1/8th mile strip signals the winner with a flag. It’s authentic, it’s real, and it’s remarkable. Dave Kommel photo, www.davekommel.photoshelter.com
Constructed in 1942 as an Army Air Corps training base, the Eagle Field airstrip was decommissioned in 1944 after nearly 5,000 pilots had earned their wings there. Several of the original structures and aircraft have survived, giving the track a ghostly aura. Joe Davis bought the shuttered facility in a federal auction in 1980 with the idea to preserve the vintage airfield. Rocky Phillips approached Davis with a wild notion about holding races there, and thus the Eagle Field Runway Drags were born.
Twice each year, in spring and autumn when Central Valley temperatures are tolerable, Eagle Field rises like a phoenix. Phillips’ brainchild has grown into a roaring success that attracts hundreds of racers, friends, and families. Pop-up tents and folding chairs line the runway. The Dos Palos Lions Club grills hamburgers and tri-tips—need we remind you that the Lions sponsored the legendary Lions Drag Strip back in the day? Tire smoke and the scent of barbecue mingle in a heady mix of gearhead perfume.
Tech inspection is “sympathetic,” and eccentric cars that would never be seen at a sanctioned event are welcome at Eagle Field. Racing on pavement with the friction coefficient of a typical K-Mart parking lot (despite being treated with vintage “Soda Syrup” traction compound) does present a challenge. The racers’ mantra is “If You Drift, Lift!” and unplanned excursions into the surrounding countryside are thankfully infrequent. Helmets are required, and a sense of humor is mandatory.
This is the kind of quirky, oddball event that appeals to Mac’s Motor City Garage. There were, of course, restored musclecars, chrome-plated street rods, and pristine race cars—but we’ve seen those before. So here is our slightly twisted take on the spirit of Eagle Field.
There is something so right about a flamed ’55 Chevy with rust, a straight front axle, flip front end, and a supercharged big-block set back under the windshield. Pay no attention to the motor home in the background.
This is certainly the coolest Tempest since Arnie “The Farmer” Beswick’s supercharged Mystery Tornado S/FX. The owner of this straight-axle Pontiac has two more at home, and we’re truly envious. Truth in journalism requires us to report that it is equipped with a “Brand C” engine, however.
This Willy Gasser still wears the original candy apple red lacquer that was applied in 1962. And the owner still has the parts that fell out prior to an unscheduled engine overhaul, below.
Sunday, Sunday, SUNDAY! The headline attraction was a three-round match race between the Super Factory Experimentals of Justin and Adam Brennerman. True to their Sixties vibe, these proto-Funny Cars combine production sheetmetal with outrageous supercharged engines, below.
Vintage tow rigs can be as engaging as the race cars they haul. This ’55 Plymouth wagon is perfect with authentic patina, a roof rack, and removable towing mirrors.
Behold Ralph Nader’s worst nightmare: a Corvair with a supercharged engine in the trunk up front. Fortunately the “Nader Hader” proved to be safe at racing speeds.
Speed equipment is where you find it. A high-rise Maxwell House induction system is the perfect complement for corrugated steel fenders on this high-tech piece.
This Willys pickup Gasser won the unofficial MCG Altitude and Attitude award with its tail-dragging stance. No jack is required for oil changes with this timeless chassis setup.
Once upon a time, “Ingenuity in Action” referred to hot rodding and drag racing. Today the concept survives in this motorized cooler kart we spotted in the Eagle Field pits, resplendent with fat fenders and wheelie bars.
It began life as a ’64 Falcon, but after being narrowed and shortened, it’s now an open-wheeled bird of a much different feather.
Behold the Blackbird, a ’63 Thunderbird equipped with a nitro-burning Hemi from Rich Guasco’s Pure Hell AA/Fuel Altered.
Whitewall tires, chromed five-spoke mags, and white VHT headers are period perfect on this Valiant Gasser.
Undoubtedly the coolest rig in the pits was this Art Deco hauler powered by a mid-mounted, fuel-injected Chevy big-block V-8.
Looking for a vintage Mustang Funny Car with real provenance? This fiberglass shell was once Roger Garten’s War Horse before it was put out to pasture in 1976.
There’s a lot to like in this pit scene, from the tail-finned turquoise Cadillac trailer to the furry-seated mini drag bike chained to an 8-lug wheel for security.
Stormy Byrd’s “Revelation” Modified Roadster took on the Pure Hell Fuel Altered in Saturday’s featured match race. Unfortunately, Byrd sacrificed a small-block Chevy on the altar of the gods of nitro. Byrd claims that if he owned an 18-wheeler, he’d only use it haul this homebuilt trailer to the races. John Force, eat your heart out.
V-16 the hard way: Side-by-side Chevy small-blocks with six two-barrel carburetors and a Model T shell.
The lightweight and stylish ’55 Chevy two-door post sedan was the car of choice for racers long before Two-Lane Blacktop and American Graffiti turned this model into a Hollywood star. Check out the low-profile header collector peeking out beneath the door; a quartet of two-barrel Rochester carburetors were under the hood.
This high and mighty Altered sported classic suede paint, chromed injector stacks on a nailhead Buick V-8, and a no-nonsense header design.
Eagle Field racers don’t take themselves too seriously. “Idiots Gone Wild” favored purple paint on a tasteful lime green background to make their mark, while the owner of the P.O.S. Vega opted for venerable white shoe polish. He confided that the abbreviation does not stand for “Point of Sale.”
There are treasures to be found inside Eagle Field’s cavernous hangar, like this Jaguar XK roadster parked alongside a jet aircraft.
Prowling through the storage yards at Eagle Field yields gems like this classic Bentley sedan . . .
There are ghosts at Eagle Field. The Spirit of San Joaquin Lockheed Lodestar L-18 stands as a silent sentinel at the entrance to the former Army Air Corps base.