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Drag Racing Legend: Fearless Fred Goeske

Drag racing might have been born in the forties and grown up in the fifties, but it took the Super Sixties to make it  explode. Coast to coast, every weekend, nitro-gulping monsters were shakin’ it down the 1320 like nothing anyone had ever seen before. Bleachers were packed and the rules were loose. Horsepower increased exponentially. Detroit factories had finally stopped being coy and were stuffing stupidly large V-8 engines into regular passenger cars. Gas was cheap. Even the guitars humming out of the one-speaker AM radios were getting distorted and fuzzy. Overkill was some alien concept that only buzz-killing nerds and Naders could understand. These were the gold years- the nine coats of clear over gold metalflake years- of this thing we call Motor Culture. Today, drag racing is all about big business and multi-million dollar budgets and ridiculous ticket pricing and even Don “The Snake” Prudhomme can’t swing the sponsorship to compete any more. The super sixties came and went like everything has to, and we missed it, most of us. Born too late, we had to learn about it after the fact by building Revell model kits or collecting Hot Wheels and dog-eared old magazines. But as you sink your teeth into this era- the greatest and most spectacular time in drag racing, you learn that not every quarter-mile hero, not every glorybound wild man got that little potmetal Hot Wheel or that plastic Revell kit. And some of them are still around. fred-goeske-drag-racing-history-04 I wait in a small office at in a Canoga Park machine shop that manufactures wheel adapters. The shop is busy and I’m hoping this isn’t an inconvenience. The office walls are covered with framed artifacts from the glory days of drag racing. Photos of race cars. Blackened wall-mounted fire suits that have actually seen burning nitro. A torn drag chute behind glass. Pieces and parts of rocket engines gather dust on a metal shelf . The door swings open and Fearless Fred Goeske assesses whether I’m worth his time. He’s got some years on him, but he stands tall and his eyes are clear and alert. He steps in to shake my hand which I take as a good sign. He looks you hard in the face when he speaks, “What would you like to know?” I think to myself- I want to know what it’s like to implode a blown Hemi at 200 miles per hour in front of four thousand people. I want to know what it’s like to shut down another racer in the last ten feet of track before tripping the timing lights. And I want to know what it’s like to kiss a fresh-faced seventeen year old trophy girl after I just won a club race in a car I built myself. I know he can tell me these things. All I can say is, “Let’s start at the beginning.” fred-goeske-drag-racing-history-14

Where It All Begins

“I was born in Oklahoma and we moved to Thousand Oaks when I was a young boy, so I grew up in California. I don’t look like it, but my mother was half full-blooded Cherokee Indian. I guess I got my dad’s coloring. ” “I’ve just always liked cars. My first one was a WWII surplus jeep. Out here in the San Fernando Valley-  there was still a lot of dirt roads, lots of orchards. Not a lot of people, not like now. You could have a good time messing around with a jeep.” “In high school I got a ‘32 Ford. We did lots of street racing, me and my buddies. We’d go from Thousand Oaks to the Bob’s Big Boy on Van Nuys Blvd. And if you kept going, the road would turn to dirt. There just weren’t that many people out there but the cops would still come after you. We’d drink beer out on some remote road somewhere- no marijuana or any of the other stuff. This was 1955 and it was only beer back then. In Thousand Oaks we had one cop- a deputy sheriff from Ventura. We knew him and he knew us.” If this sounds like a Beach Boys song or the start of a cheesy delinquent B-movie plot, it’s because those pop songs and those movies were written about real guys like Fred and his hot-rodding buddies. They were carving out a new lifestyle and didn’t even realize it. They hit the Auto Age at the perfect time. “I’ve always been mechanically inclined. After High School I had a Crosley with a Chevy V-8. I used to take it to the San Fernando Valley Drag Strip. Tommy Ivo was a good friend.  At that time there was no christmas tree at the strip, just a flagman.” He switches his train of thought. “Hey, remind me to take you out back. I’ve got something in one of those containers that you won’t believe. It’s the fastest street-legal vehicle in the world. I might want to sell it.” “Okay.” “I spent a lot of time at that dragstrip. Having a good time messing with cars. Man, I thought I had everything beat.” “Then in 1960 I got drafted.” He paused and thinks about that a minute. “Hold on I have to go out and check something.” He disappears into his shop. fred-goeske-drag-racing-history-01

Making the Best of a Bad Situation

“So Fred, Uncle Sam pulled the plug on your party.” “Yeah. But I’ve always made the best out of any situation.” This, it should be noted, is supreme understatement. “The Army was fine. You just deal with it. I got stationed in Germany and me and another fella named Fred Neives came up with a plan.” This was the height of the Cold War and everyone expected the Russian masses to come thundering across Europe at any minute. There were a few hundred thousand GI’s planted in the land of schnitzel and beer to try and convince the godless commie bastards not to overrun civilization. Fred- the good capitalist- saw an opportunity. “I got discharged from the Army and walked right out of the gates and into a business arrangement. I started a finance company.” At the time, a new VW bug cost $1400 and could be bought with only a hundred dollars down. “Every GI wanted one. The problem was that the Army insisted that financial relationships between foreign banks and enlisted men was strictly verboten. But I had an idea.” The newly-discharged financier convinced serving GI’s to give him their money and he would run it through a bank in the Bahamas for them. “We were financing up to a thousand VW’s a month.” He smiles, still pleased with himself. And he should be. It’s one of those things that seems so simple after the fact. This is called making the best out of a situation. “I was living high, I don‘t mind saying it. I had a Porsche and a Jaguar. I chased women. I bought a Brabham Formula Two car to do some hill climbing and club racing.” He finds a photograph, “Here it is. That’s me at Hockenheim, where Jimmy Clark was killed. I sure wish I still had that car.”

Back on the Dragstrip

Drag racing in 1966/67 was sort of an organized street brawl. Things were loose as a goose and everybody seemed to be trying some new method to extract that extra tenth of a second. The door-slammers were production based, with fiberglass front fenders, doors and hoods. Things like ashtrays and push locks remained. Mickey Thompson was bolting his custom Hemi heads on big block Pontiacs. Gas Ronda would slam the first non-blown 8 second quarter in his Mustang powered by a ferocious injected SOHC Ford Nascar 427. Chrysler was rollin’ with the ultra-potent and now-godlike 426 Hemi, but they were still a little buggy and the old blown 392’s were still dominant. As the horsepower was really getting shot into the stratosphere, the cars stayed heavy and brutal. The classes kept changing- AFX Factory Experimentals to SXS Super Experimental Stockers. In a couple of years they’d just be known as Funny Cars. fred-goeske-drag-racing-history-13

Creating the Hemi Cuda

Now stateside, Fred focused on the flash-bang world of professional drag racing. And he was gonna do it with an unconventional car - a car that was considered a failure by its own builders. Fred thinks for a minute, “It was just there.” Plymouth had the idea for a rear-engined Barracuda in 1965. They hired Bob and Don Spar of B&M Transmissions to make it happen. Pat Foster, Hugh Tucker and Larry Dixon Sr. did the building. It was Pat Foster’s first real race car.  Tom McKewen was set to drive it. The original rear-engined Hemi Cuda was all steel and had a different stance- high up front like a gasser- than the one that came after it. Fred’s Hemi Cuda was actually the second one built. The first one came to a dramatic end when some unforseen aerodynamic issues bit hard, and with the heavy engine in back giving in to physics they sent McKewen into a full-tilt Hemi boogie back flip. Let’s try this again. The second car stood lower, had the air flowing better around it. It sported fiberglass doors, hood and front fenders. The Plymouth Dealer’s Association wanted to drum up some excitement for their performance cars and saw this funky fastback as the answer to their checkered flag trophy girl dreams. Their money and all that talent? What the hell could go wrong? fred-goeske-drag-racing-history-03 Such a wild concept called for some creative fabrication methods. Dana Winters, currently restoring the Hemi Cuda got this from Pat Foster. “That huge rear windshield is all made of thick plexiglass and we had no idea how to make one that would fit. Finally, we made a wood buck to match the original glass and then took it, and a giant sheet of plex over to this pizza place near the shop. The owner was okay with it and the whole thing barely fit in his pizza oven. But it worked.” “It’s impressive work” says Winters, “all the stock rubber fits perfectly around it. The detail work on the car is top notch.” In spite of a lot of effort, sweat and the talents of three legendary race car builders, the Hemi Cuda never did live up to expectations. After some mixed results, McKewen parked it at the end of the ’65 season and Plymouth wanted to forget about it. Enter Fred Goeske. Hot rodder from the Valley, now back from Germany and considerably less cash-starved than when he left. “I went to see it with Don Alderson. He’s the ‘Don’ in Milodon. Another guy I’ve known my whole life. His father was a 7th Day Adventist minister in Newbury Park when we were kids. We go back that far.” “So there I am back from the army, and Don tells me about this crazy Barracuda with the motor mounted in the back. It’s at a local Plymouth dealer and he says- Fred it’s just sitting here. What are you gonna do about it?” Fred thought about the oddball set-up. Well, if nothing else, it could be a tax write-off. “Dave Zeuschel was maintaining the motor and told me that there was no way I’d ever get that car. It belonged to Plymouth and they didn’t want to look bad out on the dragstrips and they’d never let it go.” “I went to the President of the Plymouth Dealers Association and made him an offer for the whole package and they turned me down flat. A few days later the guy calls me and asks if I intend to run the car on the West Coast. I tell him yes, I do. He told me that if I got good results with it, I could keep the sponsorship. But he also said that there’s no way you’ll beat what they’ve already done.” “I told him- we’ll see.” Fred spent the next few weeks going over the motor and figuring out his new car. fred-goeske-drag-racing-history-06

Setting the Record

Back at his old stomping grounds, the San Fernando Drag Strip, Fred unloaded his new car and launched it through the quarter quicker and faster than it had ever gone before. “I told Pat Foster and he told me that the clocks must’ve been messed up at that strip.” Fred cracks a grin. A week later at Irwindale, Foster watched as Fred shimmied himself in between the firewall and the steering wheel. The motor took up all the back seat space and half of the front seat as well. The front glass would almost touch the tall lanky driver’s nose. “The lights flash, I launch and we went quicker and faster than we went at San Fernando. I got out of the car and turned to Foster and said- well, I guess the clocks are screwed up at Irwindale too!” Fred heads back into his machine shop with a grin that says everything anyone needs to know about the satisfaction of that day 40-something years ago. Smite the disbelievers. “See, all the other cars would leave on us at the line. We only had a single-speed transmission. High gear only. B&M came up with it. Called it the Torquemaster. There wasn’t room for a regular transmission.” Fred figured out how to powerbrake the ‘Cuda at the launch and then be patient while the car caught up to the gearing. About halfway down the strip the car would lift visibly and after that it was Go-Time. The car was it’s own show and Fred knew it. He’d lay down monster burnouts at the line and be able to hear the crowd cheer over the engine noise as the tire smoke cleared. “It would start slow, but once it got up to speed with that one high gear, that Barracuda would be movin’. The other guys were doin’ about 170. When we got up to speed we’d hit 185. Later 190. We’d get ‘em about 100 feet from the finish lights.” Fearless Fred the showman- shooting past at the last possible second. Crowds on their feet, straining to see the finish. “The car became known for that.” fred-goeske-drag-racing-history-12 The underachieving Plymouth became a scene-stealer. “I don’t think it was McKewen, I think they had engine issues. But when we got the ‘Cuda working right, the Plymouth people started throwing money at us. They’d pay for everything there for a while. Tools. Beer. Ice cream cones. For a while, I had the best thing going.” “Another thing Pat Foster told me,” says restorer Winters, “ is that Fred was the first guy to really get the 426 Hemi to pound out the ponies the way it should.” At the time there was a method of setting the timing on the awkwardly placed distributor. “You’d take a 3/8 wrench and shove it into a spot back there and turn the distributor until it hit it. That was something like 23 degrees advance. One day Fred mistakenly picked up a ½ wrench and set the timing at what turned out to be 55 degrees.” His 426 immediately picked up 20 miles an hour. Zeuschel warned that the motor wouldn’t hold together. “I told him it would have to. I wasn’t givin’ up 20 miles per hour.” “Out at Riverside they had the Hot Rod Magazine meet. We brought out that rear-engined ‘Cuda and did real well.  In the final it was me and Gas Ronda. And we won that meet.” I want to know how he got his nickname. “They just always called me Fearless Fred…along with a bunch of other names that I don’t want to say.” Fred closed out 1967 by winning his class at the Winternationals in that crazy Barracuda that everyone said wouldn’t work. For ‘68 Goeske retired the little rear-engined Hemi-That-Could and commissioned a new car, this one a Barracuda with a conventional lay-out. Pat Foster and Ronny Scrima did the knuckle busting and Fred called it the Hemi ‘Cuda II. fred-goeske-drag-racing-history-08 Goeske, already a fan favorite, really carved out his name with this one. The ‘Cuda made a big splash with a win at the opener at Lions. Fred turned a 7.78 at 191.88 which, for a few months, made him the fastest hotshoe on the West Coast and he made sure everyone knew it. Fearless Fred wasn’t afraid to walk through the pits telling everyone that he was going to win the next round and then he’d back up the boast. “I’d always agitate the other drivers. I’d tell them how much better I was than they were. Just to psyche them out.” The Hemi ‘Cuda II would eventually be destroyed in a fire. “I did have several bad fires”. Fred points to a framed photograph on his office wall. The black and white image is a total fireball. I can’t even make out a car. “That’s me in there.” Fred backing up his nickname, and without losing any momentum, bought another Barracuda, the candy-colored Bushwhacker, and ran it successfully for the rest of the year. For 1969 the Plymouth Dealers wanted something different to promote their cars and Fred gave it to them with the one and only ‘69 Roadrunner Funny Car.  By now the cars were full-race flopper chassis with fiberglass shells. Much lighter weight. But the shells still had to be of stock proportions. The fact that the Roadrunner had probably the biggest and flattest nose going at the time didn’t slow Goeske down at all. Spitting on aerodynamics, he started the season as he’d ended the last one and still was one of the fastest drivers going, smoking Match races all over the country. fred-goeske-drag-racing-history-07 Coca-Cola  came up with a circuit called The Coca-Cola Cavalcade of Stars. There was guaranteed appearance money and bonus cash for placings and wins. You didn’t have to win to get paid. Fred and a pile of other big names joined the series on a nationwide nitro-fueled tour. They hit dragstrips all over the country from big cities to jerkwater towns. Some of the strips were short or narrow or in need of repairs, but money was money and most of the drivers figured it was still safer than the street racing they used to do for nothing. Fred spent the next few years runnin’ and gunnin’ on the Coke series tour, first in the big Roadrunner, then in a tidy Duster- one of the first ones out there. fred-goeske-drag-racing-history-18 “I used to like doing huge burn-outs at the line because the fans loved it. One day I peel a monster burn and then find out I don’t have a backup gear. So there I am in front of thousands of people and I don’t know what to do. So I just light ‘em up again and powerslide the car around facing backwards and burn it back to the line. And then I power it back around facing forward again. The crowd went out of their minds over that one. After the run the track promoter came up to me and said that if I could do that every time, he’d give me an extra two grand whenever I showed up there.” fred-goeske-drag-racing-history-02 fred-goeske-drag-racing-history-11 The Match racing and the Coke tour meant about eight months out on the road. That kind of gypsy life made a lot of drivers homesick. “We’d hit a local bar after the races wherever we were. I’d always liked having a cold one after the races with the other fellas.” Dana Winters puts it this way. “Fred was always up to some kind of antics. He’d psych them in the pits but after the racing was over he was a good guy to hang out with.” I get the feeling that most of his antics would get someone arrested nowadays. “I did hear a story once about Fred clearing out a bar. He was the only one left- up on the pool table, howling…” I believe it. Continue on to Part 2 of this story...Fearless Fred's JET-POWERED journey! Many thanks to Fred Goeske and Dana Winters for their generous sharing of history.
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