GOLETA

Goleta. Most people have never heard of it, but it’s small town about 11 miles up Highway 1 west of Santa Barbara, California. No reason to pull off except that there’s an airport there that was a WWII base and the site of the first organized, scheduled drag races. It’s actually not called Goleta but Santa Barbara Airport.

According to an account by Wally Parks in his book Drag Racing Yesterday and Today and Robert C. Post in his book High Performance, there was a paved road on the north side of the airport than ran east to west, away from the mountains and towards the ocean.  

Around 1948, a group of local hot rodders started using the network of paved roads to tune up their cars. Then, members of the Motor Monarchs club from Ventura and engine-builder Bob Joehnck of Santa Barbara, decided to approach the airport manager to see if they could use the property for legal drag races. He said fine, if they could get some insurance, which they did. This group named themselves the Santa Barbara Acceleration Association (SBAA), and started holding organized drag races every other Sunday in late 1948 or early 1949.

Contemporary photographs show a two lane road with central markings probably about 25 feet wide. Cars ran east to west while a good crowd just stood to the side and watched. There appeared to be no safety barriers at all along the half mile road. According to Parks, “Three-tenths of the distance was used for accelerating and the remaining two-tenths to get stopped.” 

Apparently, track length was limited by a locked gate at the top end. The finish line was a small narrow bridge, and spectators could tell which car won by seeing which one bumped up over this bridge first. Timing was done with stopwatches. There were three classes: roadsters, fenderless coupes, and fendered coupes. To raise money for trophies they passed a hat and got a percentage from a chuck wagon that came out to sell burgers and dogs.

Old photos show typical cars of the day running, for example, a ’39 Ford Coupe racing a ’40 Chevy, but there were plenty of hot rods. One weekend two guys came up from Los Angeles to “drag it out.” Fran Hernandez in his stock bodied ’32 3-window and Tom Cobbs in a ’29 A Roadster channeled over a ’34 frame. Hernandez was running a bored and stroked 296-inch Merc with triple Strombergs and Cobbs a small but Jimmy-blown A Roadster on a ’34 Frame.

Most would bet the blown car would win but the strange smelling Coupe crossed the culvert a length ahead. Hernandez apparently quickly gathered his kit and was out of there, revealing to no one the secret of nitro. According to Joehnck racing at Goleta petered out when other better surfaces were found and when the SBAA got tired of all the work involved in putting on the races. Albeit short lived, Goleta was the site of the first organized drag races and probably the first use of nitro in a drag race.