Monday, January 9, 2017

“Fabulous” Freddie Agabashian
photos and article by Tom Motter

 

     Northern California has produced many auto racing stars in the past 3/4-century, but none ever shown more brilliantly than Freddie Agabashian.

 

     Born in Modesto, California, August 21, 1913, his family moved to the Los Angeles area and later still, to the East Bay Area community of Berkeley.  His racing career started while he was still a student at Berkeley High School.

 

     Fred’s first races were in modified street roadster races held at Oakland, San Jose, and Calistoga in the early 1930’s[1].  At that time local auto clubs such as the Oakland Auto Club and the R.P.M. Club of San Francisco were promoting most of these roadster races in northern California. The Oakland Auto Club held most of its races on a half-mile track cut within the one-mile Oakland Speedway in San Leandro.  San Jose’s 5/8- mile dirt track was popular with the roadsters as was the ½-mile fairgrounds track at Calistoga.

 

     In 1933, Bay Area newspapers were reporting Aggie’s successes in roadster competition at San Jose’s 5/8-mile track.  His battles with Johnny Fannuchi were often mentioned in press stories of ’33 and ’34.  In August 1934, Aggie suffered his first serious injuries in a racing crash.  On August 19th, The San Jose Mercury News reported “Fred Agabashian of Berkeley, 21, sensation of the San Jose Speedway, was inured seriously here in today’s time trials when his car overturned, pinning him beneath it.  Agabashian suffered a jaw fracture, severe lacerations of the head, several missing teeth and internal injuries.”

 

     By 1935, Aggie had expanded his racing interests to include competing with the A.A.A.’s Pacific Coast “Big Cars”. 1935 and ’36 were the last years that A.A.A. sanctioned races at the Oakland Speedway and Aggie was by then a regular competitor at these events.  The 1935 Pacific Coast Point Standings list Aggie in 38th position.

 

    In September 1936 Agabashian married the former Mable Nyman, a high school sweetheart and it was probably at this point that he decided to confine his racing to northern California.  No doubt Aggie could have placed higher in the A.A.A. point standings but his decision to race “close to home” and never to venture too far from the Bay Area excluded him from a number of the A.A.A.’s major point races.  It wasn’t until 1947, his first trip to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, that Aggie did any racing outside of California.

 

     Aggie was a regular victor at the big car” races held during 1936 at the Oakland Speedway (then sanctioned by the American Racing Assoc.).  He eventually won seven straight main events at that track.  These winning ways continued at Oakland through ’37.  1936 was also the year the Aggie added midget racing to his list of racing endeavors.  He was a regular at San Francisco’s Motordrome as well as the Emeryville track, all races sanctioned by the newly formed N.C.M.R.A (Northern Calif. Midget Racing Assoc.).

 

     In 1937 Aggie captured the N.C.M.R.A. midget racing crown in northern California, culminating a two-year effort in the “small” cars.  He continued racing big cars, roadsters and even stock cars at races held mostly at the Oakland Speedway.  1938 and ’39 continued to be big racing years for Aggie as he continued his winning ways in midgets, big cars and an occasional stock car race. 

 

     By 1940, big time racing on the west coast was beginning to wind down.  Looming war clouds in Europe were beginning to have a telling effect on auto racing in this country.  On the west coast, particularly in northern California, inter-association strife between Charlie Baker’s S.T.A.R. organization and Joe Banzi’s N.C.M.R.A. had so severely split the midget owners and drivers that there just weren’t enough cars and drivers to put on a quality race for any one promoter.

 

      Two of the street-modified roadster clubs (Oakland Auto Club and the San Francisco R.P.M. clubs) consolidated and formed the Bay Cities Roadster Racing Association[2] in 1939 and within two years began sanctioning midget auto races, primarily held at the Vallejo Recreational Ball Park. 

 

     With the Emeryville, San Francisco and Neptune beach tracks now gone, there was no more weekly racing being held in the Bay Area.  Only the Oakland Speedway was racing and these were held on a sporadic basis only.  By 1940 Freddie Agabashian had pretty much “retired” from auto racing.

 

     In July 1942 the Federal Office of Defense Transportation (O.D.T.) decreed that all auto racing in this country would be banned for the duration of World War II.  This Act was an attempt to preserve the countries use of rubber and gasoline, two commodities crucial to the War effort.

 

     On September 21, 1945 Bay Cities Racing Association once again began racing midgets in northern California.  It was a short (12 races) season and the pre-war star, Freddie Agabashian was missing from the line-up of those twelve races. He was still in “retirement”!

 

     With the start of the regular 1946 season of midget racing, car owner, Jack London, debuted his “hot” Roy Richter-built, rail frame, V8-60 midget that had recently been brought up from southern California.  In the cockpit was none other than Freddie Agabashian!

 

     Thirty-three cars flashed by the timing lights at Bayshore Stadium[3]during qualifying on April 7, 1946.  When the evening’s events were over, it was Petaluma’s hard-driving Ed Normi who had won that initial Main Event.  116 races latter, on October 27, the 1946 season came to an end, and it was Freddie Agabashian, driving the Jack London, Number 2X, who had won the championship by winning thirty five Main Events and finishing over a thousand points ahead of second-place finisher Fred Friday. He had won over 30% of the races run that season!

 

     When the 1947 BCRA season began Freddie had a brand new midget and a new car owner.  George Bignotti, a Daly City florist, supplied Aggie with a new, state-of-the-art, Kurtis Kraft midget and Aggie proceeded to repeat his success of 1946.  After a season that went 154 races, Aggie won 27 Main Events and, once again, won the BCRA championship.

 

     In 1947, Aggie departed from his long-time rule of not leaving the Bay Area to go racing.  Bay Area auto dealer and race-track owner, Ross Page, made an offer to him to drive the Ross Page entry in the ’47 Indianapolis 500.  The temptation was too great and Aggie left for Indianapolis to have his fling against the top drivers in the nation. He finished a creditable ninth in his first attempt at the “500”.   

 

The winning team of Agabashian and Bignotti was back for the 1948 BCRA midget racing season.  Not only did this potent combination repeat their 1947 performance by winning the ’48 Title, they also went to Mexico City in February 1948[4] for a seven race series and won the so-called, “Aztec Championship” as well.

 

     Again, in 1948, while leading the ’48 BCRA title chase, he headed back to Indianapolis to compete in his second “500”.  Unfortunately, Aggie, in the same Ross Page entry, was forced out on the 48th lap due to oil leaks.

 

     In 1949 Aggie began to cut back on the number of races he participated in.  He had made a good deal of money in racing and it was time to enjoy some of it.  He still participated in BCRA midget races, coming in 7th in the final point standings for the season.  1949 also marked another high point in his racing career.  Driving for another famous Armenian, J.C. Agajanian, Agabashian won the inaugural “Golden State 100” Championship, Big Car race held at the old State Fairgrounds in Sacramento in October.  The fact that Agajanian, the car owner, was also the promoter of the prestigious race made the win even more significant. In winning this “West Coast Classic” Agabashian proved once again that he indeed was one of the biggest stars in auto racing.  In ’49 he again competed in the “500” but once more was forced out after 38 laps with mechanical trouble.

 

     1950 was Aggie’s last year in the midgets.  He drove only occasionally with BCRA during the ’50 season and finished in 29th spot at season’s end.  He was, however, at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway during the annual “500” Classic.  Driving a brand new Kurtis Kraft car, Aggie qualified second only to go out of that race after 64 laps with a plugged oil line. 1951 saw him qualify in 11th position and finish in 17th, out after 109 laps with clutch problems.

 

     In 1951 Aggie made headlines at the “Speedway” by qualifying a conceptual diesel powered race car that was larger and heavier than anything that had ever been seen at the Speedway.  The car, powered by a Cummins Diesel engine, had been built by Frank Kurtis specifically to accommodate the diesel engine.  Freddie’s pole setting, qualifying speed of over 138 mph was a new record!  Unfortunately, during the race, the supercharger intake clogged at 71 laps, forcing him to drop out of the race.

 

     Aggie raced in each Indy “500” for the next seven years, ending his racing career in 1958 when he failed, for the first time, to qualify a car for the annual race.  His best finish at the Speedway was in 1953 when he came home in fourth spot. 

 

     After his active racing career was over, Freddie worked for the Champion Spark Plug Company and their Highway Safety Program[5].  This public relations concept placed famous racing drivers at high schools, military bases and business’s throughout the country, talking about safe driving practices.  They had no more congenial personality than Fred Agabashian!  He also spent a number of years as a “color-commentator” for the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Radio Network, as a commentator for the “500” race.

 

     “Fabulous Freddie” was many things: A great racing driver, a devoted family man and in particular, a great spokesman/ambassador for the racing community.  His genuinely likable personality was infectious.  When he entered a room, he was immediately the center of attention.  His years of racing experience were put to good use in many ways.  At the Speedway Aggie was considered a mentor to many of the new drivers.  He had the ability to be able to show and tell rookie drivers what they might be doing wrong or how to do it better and faster.  In a word: He was respected!
 


 

      I was fortunate to be able to witness Freddie’s last ride in a race car.  On August 12, 1983, the Western Racing Association (a group of old-time racers running exhibition races in restored, vintage race cars) were a part of the contemporary midget racing program at the Contra Costa County Fairgrounds track in Antioch.  Agabashian happened to be in the grandstands that afternoon and when his curiosity got the best of him he ventured down to the pit area to look over the W.R.A.’s restored versions of classic midget race cars from the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s. 

 

     The vintage race cars were actually running exhibition races on the quarter-mile dirt track as an added attraction to the regular midget racing program of the night. 

 

     It didn’t take too much coaxing to get Aggie to just “sit in one of them” for a moment.  He was right at home!  When it was suggested to him that he might want to put on a helmet and strap into the midget and take a few laps he jumped at the chance.  A dozen vintage midgets took the green flag to start a 10-lap race for the old-timers with Aggie starting in the back of the pack.  It had been, after all, a long time ago that Aggie had competed in a midget race.  Thirty-three years earlier in fact.  The green flag dropped and all twelve of the vintage midgets were once again fighting for the number one position.  What a sight!  Twelve beautifully restored midgets, gleaming with new paint and chrome, once again roared down the front straightaway, disappearing into turn one in a cloud of dust. It had all of the excitement and color of those early days of midget races.  Not too many fans in the grandstands knew that Aggie was in the number 48, Bob Hansen Offy,  but there he was working his way towards the front, just like he’d done many times, many years ago.  At the white flag (signifying one lap to go), Aggie was in fourth spot, charging hard.

 

     As the leaders came out of turn four, heading for the checkered flag, Aggie made his move to the outside of the track, up against the crash wall.  The scream of the four-cylinder Offy racing engine could just barely be heard over the roar of the crowd as they watched the #84 car blast down the front straightaway, rear tires spraying dirt, front wheels turned slightly to the right to correct for the fact that the race car was speeding forward in a slightly sideways position.  As the flagman dropped the checkered flag, only those of us in the pits knew it was 70-year-old Freddie Agabashian who had just won another midget main event. 

 

     When Aggie pulled the race car into the infield after a cool-down lap, I was standing close by and was able to watch him reach down, pull the car out of gear, shut off the fuel valve and hit the ignition shut-off switch; all moves that seemed to have been made “naturally”.  They were, of course; he’d made them all, hundreds of times, years ago.   It was only when he pulled down the goggles, un-snapped the helmet and looked up with that famous grin on his face that we knew Aggie was back!  He had been gone from the sport for a long, long time and it was good to have him back.  He belonged there!

 

In 1984, the Bay Cities Racing Association inducted Aggie into their BCRA Hall of Fame.

 


     I saw Aggie just one more time after that, in August 1988.  The Napa County Fairgrounds track in Calistoga was one of those tracks that Aggie had raced on back in the 1930’s in those early street roadsters.  He was just visiting at the race track, enjoying himself and like he was prone to do, made a visit to the infield to chat with his old friends with the vintage racers.  I like to think that he recognized me but it was probably my race car that reminded him of one that my Uncle Earl used to drive in those days when he and Aggie used to compete with BCRA.  He came over and we chatted a bit about those by-gone days.  A photographer came by, recognized the familiar Agabashian smile and took a picture of Aggie and me alongside my restored vintage midget.

 

     Fred Agabashian passed away the next year, on October 13, 1989.  The bright light from the racing star that had shown so brilliantly in the 1930’s, 40’s and 50’s had finally flickered out.

 

      In 1994 he was inducted into the National Midget Auto Racing Hall of Fame.




[1] Before the completion of the Oakland Speedway in September 1931 there were apparently a couple of “impromptu” street roadster races held there. The personal account of Henry Schroeder (an Uncle of  race historian, Don Radbruch) recalls that Freddie Agabashain did participate in at least one of those events. As a spectator, Schroeder recalls hearing the announcer (using a bullhorn) referring to Freddie and having a terrible time pronouncing his last name.
[2] Even though the B.C.R.R.A. was incorporated as a modified roadster racing only organization, it was quickly determined that most of its members had an interest in a resumption of midget racing in northern California. By 1941, B.C.R.R.A. was sanctioning midget racing and in 1943 they revised their corporate by-laws to include midgets. For those interested in a complete history of the Bay Cities Racing Association, please see BCRA, The First 50 Years (The Official History of Bay Cities Racing Association) by Tom Motter, Published by BCRA, 1990.
[3] Bayshore Stadium, located behind the Cow Palace in South San Francisco, had been a pre-war dog-racing track.  California legislation had banned pari-mutual betting on dog racing in 1935 but the grandstands and facilities were still there. It didn’t take much to convert the track to allow for midget racing.  That venue lasted until 1949 when the property was sold for a drive-in movie site.
[4] Aggie, still mindful of his desire not to go racing at the expense of his “home life”, took his wife and two small children with him on the Mexico City trip.
[5] Other northern California racing drivers that participated in this program were Bob Veith and Johnny Boyd. All three of these drivers were “graduates” of Bay Cities Racing Association midget racing.

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