VACAVILLE — At one time, race car drivers from as far away as England came to Vacaville to race.
At its height in 1965 and 1966, the Sports Car Club of America held part of its national championship series at the Vaca Valley Raceway, while the roaring thunder of dragsters was a common sound on the weekends, according to race announcer and later co-leasee Jim McCombe.
“We were the first one to use the Christmas tree starting lights (for drag racing), but we never got the recognition for it,” McCombe said.
The idea to build a raceway east of Vacaville goes all the way back to late 1946, according to research done by local historian and Vacaville Heritage Council member Doug Rodgers, who wrote a history of the raceway in the 2011 Solano Historian.
The track was located on vacant land on the northwest corner of Lewis and Weber Road just south of what was then Highway 40.
Rodgers described what remains of the raceway now as little more than “a ghost track” with little more than patches of weed-dominated asphalt, a lonely power pole and a decrepit entry gate.
“It just crumbled away,” Rodgers said, adding that almost all of the track was disked under after it was closed to keep local kids from sneaking their cars onto the track for impromptu races.
One has to take to the air or use Google satellite maps to see the discernible outline of the oval track and the drag strip.
The aerial view makes it easy to understand why the drag race organizers had their dragsters race north to south.
McCombe said that if they ran the drag races the other direction, there was a good chance that racers who failed to slow down quickly enough would end up tearing down eastbound Highway 40/I-80, much to the chagrin of more sedate commuters.
McCombe had been working at the track when he was offered the job for $35 “and I was told you could race your own car,” McCombe said.
Its promoters in the 1950s said it was the second track in the state to be built for sports car racing and designed in cooperation with the Sport Car Club of America for maximum driver and spectator safety, according to Rodgers.
The track was built by Royce Ratterman, a Richmond contractor, and Harry Burge, a Concord businessman, as an Indy-style 2.1-mile, seven-turn race track which also incorporated a 1.25-mile interior oval with banked turns and a 4,500-foot drag strip on the east side. It was reputed to be one of the first such tracks to have all three in one location.
Everything from Indianapolis-style cars, sprint cars and midgets, to dragsters, motorcycles and sports cars from Fords to Ferraris completed at the raceways that also boasted grandstand seating, concession areas and parking for 15,000.
Racing – at least drag racing – was held in the area before the Vaca Valley Raceways was opened, according to Rodgers’ research.
Dragsters from as far away as San Diego came up to an abandoned gliderport runways called the Vacaville Drag Strip, where locals raced their drag cars in the 1950s.
Vaca Valley Raceways opened July 5, 1958 on land owned by Durham Jones with two days of sports car road races sanctioned by the Sports Car Club of America and the ribbon cut by then-Mayor Albert Porter. An opening-day flier described it as “the greatest competition center in the west.”
McCombe was there, towing one of the first cars to race at the track. It was a 1936 Chevy six-cylinder Coupe brought from his home in San Pablo.
Opening day had a good crowd, but also had the first death on the drag strip, when a driver lost control of his dragster.
“The next thing I saw was a cloud of dust. The car did a series of barrel rolls and the driver was ejected,” said McCombe. “The car still sits up there in a heap today.”
Racers were made of pretty stern stuff.
McCombe remembers one driver who McCombe told should chain down the hood of his 1956 Chevy, only to be ignored.
The Chevy took off in the subsequent race only to have the hood fly up, causing the driver careen off the track and over a berm, snapping his seat belt and ejecting him from the car.
“We went and looked for him. I heard a moan and it was Walt. He had lost his seat belt, his helmet and got ejected. He broke a thigh bone, but still continued to race (after he healed),” McCombe said.
Races drew some of that era’s big names, because the raceway’s operators offered purses up to $1,000 – good racing money then.
It became a favorite venue for drivers from throughout the state, according to McCombe. It was also leased out for testing, driver schools and regional/national road racing events, according to Rodgers.
An idea that did not go over so well was running four dragsters side-by-side, which McCombe remembered as popular with the crowds and “created a lot of smoke.” It also generated an angry next-day call from the group that sanctioned dragster events, telling them to knock that off.
The track’s biggest show was as 68-car Funny Car event that brought notables in the sport from all over the county, McCombe said.
The track’s longest show involved a car whose engine exploded halfway through the series. Because some of the engine parts were made of magnesium, the Dixon Fire Department declared that they would simply have to let the car burn itself out.
“We didn’t finish that show until 3 a.m.,” said McCombe with a chuckle.
The raceway was the first track in Northern California to run a jet-propelled race car called The Untouchable, according to Bill Taggart, Jr., the son of Bill Taggart, who took over running the track from Jones in 1968. It was also the first track in the nation to break the 12-second stock car barrier, when Tommy Grove of Oakland fired his Melrose Missile No. 1 across the finish line in 11.99 seconds.
Taggart Jr. liked his father’s business and racing so much that one day the youngster, not even 10, hopped into one of the racers and started driving down the track. His father spotted the young driver and the subsequent punishment gave a new meaning to the old racing phrase “spanking the competition.”
Vacaville restaurant owner Joe Murdaca was one of the many locals who raced at the Raceway with his 1966 Chevelle. He joined other local racers such as Jimmy Utz, Gary Pena and Bill Bradshaw.
“I was just a young kid who was interested in racing. I had a lot of fun doing it,” said Murdaca, who added that his family’s restaurant would stay open a little late to allow one of the out-of-down drivers to stop by after the races to pick up a pizza.
Neighbors weren’t annoyed by the noise because the raceways were so far out of town.
The track was doomed by the deteriorating condition of the track asphalt that was never fully refurbished.
One of the original builders, Burge, had a habit of taking all the profits from the track and spending them on building a nightclub on Concord, according to McCombe.
When McCombe and Taggart took over the track as a partnership, “it was like a washboard at the finish line,” McCombe said of the track conditions.
“We needed to completely redo it and we didn’t have the money. We ran small events, but we didn’t run any fast cars,” McCombe said.
By the beginning of the 1970s, “we knew the end was near because better tracks were coming along, and Sears Point was the coup de gras,” McCombe said. Vaca Valley Raceways finally closed in 1972, with both McCombe and Taggart going to work at Sears Point, where McCombe still does announcing for races.
There has been talk since then of bringing back the race track, but nothing has come of it.
The Vacaville Heritage Council and some of the racers are in the process of organizing a reunion in the spring or summer for all those who worked or raced at the raceway, as well as some of the cars.
“You would not believe how many cars that were out at the raceways that are still out there,” McCombe said.
For more information about the Vacaville Heritage Council, call 447-0518 or go to www.vacavilleheritagecouncil.org.
Reach Ian Thompson at 427-6976 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ithompsondr.