Wags Wanderings

Before I start wandering, a little history of how we got here is in order!

March 29, 2016

By Ken Wagner


The idea of Wags Wanderings is a combination of retiring from race watching and looking for something new to challenge me, plus the fact I have a wealth of memories in my brain about how I got here to this point in my life, and maybe I could share some of that which still moves me from time to time. So, once upon a time………………

First as I look back in time over the last 50 years plus, my life in sprint car racing couldn’t really start until after Lions Drag Strip closed in Wilmington, CA. in 1972. My passion for racing begin in the early 60’s when I went to a drag race at the Mo-Kan Dragway near Joplin, Mo. After that awakening, I spent some time doing a little drag racing while in college until I discovered I couldn’t afford it, imagine that even back then. So I became a big fan of watching drag racing and keeping up with it from the publications like Drag News, Drag Sport Illustrated and other trades of the times that showed the results weekly. Getting married to my first wife and moving home to the So Cal world where I mostly grew up, was an adventure. From that point my weekends were filled with going to the drag strips of Lions, Irwindale, Fontana, Pomona, Bakersfield, Riverside, San Fernando, and Orange County, all nearby my home in Whittier in Southern California. Other strips I went to occasionally were Santa Maria, Baylands, Tulsa, OK, Ozark Speedway in Missouri and a few more.

I was pretty much obsessed with Top Fuel, Top Gas, A Gas Supercharged and the Fuel Altereds during most of my wandering around the So Cal area. Funny Cars were fun to watch, but the Fueler’s were the best show for me. This went on as I worked my first real job at Baker Oil Tools in Commerce, Ca for 6 years. At Lions I witnessed some of the greatest full quarter smoky races, it was awesome. I saw many interesting things during those times and attended the Winternationals ever year. I saw things like the Logge, Steffey injected Chevy from Chicago beat some top fuel Hemi Chryslers in match races. A few fuel alterds like Pure Hell run with the top fuel boys and beat them. And yes, I was there the night that Don Garlits had his famous rear-end explosion that started the rear motored dragsters that are the fastest projectiles in the sport today. You never knew when the biggest race would happen. Frank Cannon’s 200 mile run was stunning. Watching the cars pull into the push out lane in front of the grandstands at Lions was a show all by itself. Them firing up going towards the starting line, then turning around and blasting off is still unreal in my mind! Watching the Snake, the Mongoose, the crazy Greek Chris Karamsines, Don Garlits, John "the Zookeeper" Mulligan, The Surfers, the Freight Train, Stone, Woods and Cook and all the great hero's of the now long ago past, was so much more than I can describe. The annual Hot Rod reunion at Bakersfield each year brings back a little of it to me, and that's why I still go there! The Fuel and Gas Championships at Bakersfield called the March Meet in the 60's was some of the very best cars from all over the country racing against each other. They had 64 car fields smoking up the place ever year as it was the March Madness of it's time.

One of my most remembered times was when a friend of mine and I went to the end of the drag strip for the final run, like we sometimes did. The shut off area on the top end had telephone poles on each side of the strip. I always wondered why, and one night we found out. We would park the car facing back towards the starting line and use binoculars to watch them leave the starting line until they went through the traps. As the chute came out on one car, I noticed it was moving over towards us and the nearer it came, we became very nervous as it looked like it was zeroing in on us, and it was. I was behind the wheel and my friend in the passenger seat when it looked obvious that car was probably going to hit us. When the fueler got within about 15 feet, it hit one of the telephone poles and rose in the air, changing the direction just enough, to sail right by our car at eye level and landed behind us coming to a stop too close for words. We immediatel hightailed it out of there, knowing the driver was fine as he started climbing out of the car and cursing us! We never did that again!

I did that methodic work all week at Baker Oil Tools and watched drags nearly every weekend until I moved back to Tulsa Oklahoma in 1970 to sort out my marriage. There, after failing that, I was divorced from my first wife and did a little drag race watching and somehow discovered Super Modified’s at the Tulsa Fairgrounds. Emmet Hahn, Benny Taylor, Jackie Howerton, Harold Leep, Buddy Cagel, JR Taft and a bunch of local heroes ran against many hot drivers from Kansas, Oklahoma, Missouri and Texas. What a sight that was as the racing was special every Saturday night and I didn’t miss many, especially when you could get a $3 ticket from Get N Go, a quick trip kind of place. I read up on these open wheel cars and discovered that sprint cars were almost identical and they ran back in LA, too!

On my trips back to visit California, I went to Ascot to compare. Wow, Tulsa was really good, but the CRA at Ascot was beyond belief, and I was totally hooked. In Tulsa at Pepsico, Intl where we worked, I met and married my Mrs Wags and we relocated back to So Cal in 1975 and started our life together. After we settled in Fountain Valley, we went to Ascot about once a month at first, then went dirt bike riding in the Anza Borrego desert also once a month and I worked as a computer operator until I found my job at Kawasaki in October of 1975. Kawasaki hooked me into the dirt bike riding after the racing season ended from the get go. This included yearly Thanksgiving campouts that grew with my work mates to large 4 day gatherings that were a blast. When I revolved into a sprint car fan, the desert trips kind of petered out and we rarely went camping any more except at the races.

It was fun mixing racing, camping, three kids, bowling, softball and volleyball into my busy life. My connection to dirt track racing didn’t get locked in until I had taken a few trip to Northern California and hit the very first CRA tour when I visited my mother in Kansas City in 1985 and my boys were running at I 70 nearby. I have always enjoyed the speed and noise of race engines and when I saw the I 70 track, it was fast, really really fast. More so than any other track I had been to until then. At the time I 70 and Eldora were fighting in the trades for the fastest ½ mile dirt track title. When the familiar CRA cars hit the track at I 70, the first hot laps session produced the only crash of the night. A car going down the backstretch got over the low crash wall a flipped right up to the ticket booth. Kind of scary, but on it went and I was mesmerized!!!

The corners were very high banked and after rolling around them and coming to the flat straight stretches, you could see the cars up high really going fast before setting the car to hit the next turn. The fast guys stayed high and the not so fast ones kept it low. Ron $human won that first ever CRA tour event at I 70 on May 3, 1985 as he battled with Bubby Jones, Eddie Wirth and Jac Haudenschild. It lit a fire under me to get on the road more!

Harold Hubbs and I started planning a “dream Tour” trip back East to primarily watch the WOO for months before we took off in July of 1986 on a 4 week trip in my little Nissan Motorhome that would run over 7000 miles along the road and include our first stop at Eldora and the Kings Royal, then into Ohio and Penn and back thru Knoxville before heading home after seeing 24 races in that 27 day saga. A mind blower if I say so myself as we hit Williams Grove, Sharon, and many more race tracks that we had never been to before. I remember being at Williams Grove and wandering around the parking lot where I ran into a lady who lived nearby. Her home was over 200 years old, as were many others in the neighborhood, and her family had always lived there from the beginning. Go figure!

That trip went so fast, yet I remember, even today, most every event as we moved from track to track and saw wing and non wing events of WOO, All Stars, USAC and some local associations along the road. We came back with t-shirts from everywhere and had to learn to pack well just to get it all home. This trip convinced me to write about a 6 page letter documenting what I saw and felt along the way. It was actually the start of what I loosely call my “writings” which became the Wagtimes. That letter went to a couple of scribes I met back east, and a few more friends who would understand. It was indeed a story told by me, but not a race report by any means.

Come the end of the 1987 racing season, I was glad and sad when it was over. We had met a lot of people in the Ascot grandstands and were sorry to have no place to see races for a while. I decided to write my first Wags story called Wagswatch I, and I was off and running heading to today. In that missile, I introduced myself as Wags and gave a brief synopsis on why I was on this tangent. I also talked about many of the soon to be Wagtimer’s we shared the stands with. It already included many from a trip to the Dirt Cup in Skagit, the Peteluma Posse from Northern California and the Ascot fans. That first writing was lacking in grammar, but made up for it in the story of where we started this chapter of my life that went on for over 30 years! That first “newsletter” ended by stating a catch phrase I always used from that point on “When it’s racetime, it’s Wagtime!!!! When the 1988 season opened at Ascot, I passed out about 25 or 30 copies of this nonsense to the fans I knew.

The next race I got a lot of feedback from the fans and that encouraged me to do another newsletter called Wagswatch Too! It started out with “you knew there would be another one, didn’t you? I put in my racing planner calendar with all the races that were scheduled for the season. In order to get more involved, I joined the CRA. This issue listed all the tracks I went to and rated everything from the racing, the food and the scenic views. The last item in the thing was a poem I wrote called

“A Little Sprint Ditty”:

Here’s to the sprint cars may they continue to zoom,

Deep in the corners until they run out of room,

Sliding so graceful as they round the turns,

Passing with the skills that each driver learns.

Out on the dirt where the ruts can get rough,

The fast way around is for those who are tough,

Many have tried to harness these machines,

And some have left with a mess in their jeans.

Running the cushion is asking for trouble,

one wrong move and your car turns to rubble,

keeping her fast and still in the groove,

usually it’s a good sign that you’re on the move.

All of the drivers are admired by their fans,

especially the ones who sit in the stands,

waiting for the starter to wave the big green,

then roaring thru the pack looking mean and lean.

Long after light’s out and the track goes cold,

bench racing continues with each story told,

nobody knows what’s in store for the next race,

only that fans will be there in their favorite place,

The story’s of race fans include many great races,

Anticipation and excitement show on their faces,

Checking the schedules and planning their weekends,

They roar thru the season until it all quickly ends.

Here is another Wags poem entitled

“The Wags ode to the CRA of 1988”

Here’s to the class sprint cars of the CRA

some of the finest machines in the U.S.A.

challenging all comer’s to come and compete

they put on a show that is hard to beat

Agajanian’s promotions include bikes and more

but on saturday nights the sprinters will roar

throwing it sideways they just can’t be passed

running without wings they are unsurpassed

Dicing and straining to slide thru the corners

down the long backstretch go all the hot runners

for a visitor to pass them its always so tough

as the locals are strong and they make it rough

On the southwest tour the don’t give any slack

racing to victory on someone else’s track

ready to pick it up at the sight of the green

CRA’s starts are refreshingly fair and clean

Rookies try hard and do whatever it takes

To run with the best they give up eating steaks

beginning without sponsorship and starting off slow

with a little practice they begin to make the show

After rebuilding their cars during the break for winter

crews each week have to maintain their sprinter

at the end of each race and the lights have gone out

some of Wags racing buddies still mill about

It’s hard to come down and leave the track

Wishing it were already time to come back

No matter how late it is when we leave the place

Some are already planning the next CRA race

There are times when things keep us away

like our boss asking us to work Saturday

regardless of it all the superfan continues

to go to many tracks and sample the menu’s

And how can we forget the new CRA t-shirt

Sandra’s stuff sells at the greatest show on dirt

At the end of the each season we look back and smile

knowing our future include’s Ascot’s half mile

we chit and we chat and we boo and we hiss

is there anything else that’s better than this?

In March of 1988 I continued on with monthly diatribe Wagswatch’s that finaly became the Wagtimes in June of that year. It took that long to realize I was doing a monthly newsletter that I still passed out at the track. I began to get mailing addresses and mailed a copy to the small readership. It wasn’t long that the readership grew over 100 and I pleaded for 12 stamps to keep it coming their way. Over time we got over 500 subscribers and it was tough keeping all the stamps located and then used each month. Then something shocking happened one night when I knocked over a glass of water on the table I stored them in. When the next newsletter went to press, it was time to print, fold, and staple, add labels and stamps and go to the post office. I reached in the drawer to get my stash of stamps, and lo and behold, I had one huge stamp! Yes my friends, they were all stuck together! Now I had to soak them, peel them apart and then add glue and stick em’ on the newsletter. That made me request a subscription renewal for $10 a year. Surprisingly people sent in a check and we roared on into history. Later I converted to the Post Office system that had me code the address label and sort them in a particular order and put them in their boxes at the Post office. I would quit that when the rules changed, again, and I went back to first class. Even though the thing got much larger with more stories and info, I never charged more than the origonal amount, but it was too time consuming just to go to press.

. So the newsletter continued on until the last paper issue of November 1999 when it ended, thank goodness as all the print, fold, staple, label and stamp crap was getting old. Steve and Kim Lafond, the high techer’s that they are, offered to build me a website, and thus wagtimes.com was born. My weekly Wagsworld column was born and the Wagtimes newsletter was sporadic and eventually discarded because the Wagsworld had all the news that was fit to print. Now the Wagsworld is sporadic because I am not going race watching very often so there is no news to repeat from others telling me since I didn’t see it. Thus Wags Wanderings was born to tell the old stories in my memory and keep in touch with you. Hope it’s enough to get you going. I hope Terry will publish some of her racing romance stories she has written, but retirement for her hasn’t meant she was becoming a new author like she intended, so we wait for that pot to boil. Send her a message if you want her to start writing and publishing her works.

Wagtimes.com has been a lot of fun over the last 16 years and I will still update it as I get photos and stuff in. I will write about events I go to. The website now is like a racing dictionary for CRA history with all my stories and pics out there for review. If it’s important to you, let me know so I don’t waste my time.

Thus before I really go wandering in my new venue, I thought a little back ground would be appropriate. Hope it gets you thinking about the good times that we shared and maybe you will send a few cherished memories in for me to share.

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