California, here I come!


(Photo by Gary Shulte)

Irvine, Calif. Aug 5, 1967: This is the Grand Opening celebration at Orange County International Raceway! Over 700 race cars turned out for all seven NHRA Eliminator positions.  A capacity crowd stood most of the time to watch.  As Race Director, this was a little more than most Saturday nights at Tri State Dragway. But with a great crew, we pulled it off.

In mid-summer of 1967, my life accelerated quicker than driving my Top Fuel dragster.  One hot Phoenix, Arizona Sunday, Bernie Partridge of NHRA, visited to recruit for O.C.I.R.   We traveled to Los Angeles and Orange County to interview with GM Mike Jones. The talks went well, so we drove to Kahoka, Mo. to wind up business at Tri State Dragway. The Mo. track was being operated by Gary Trump and Ronnie Redding during the last year of operation. They did a good job, with able assistance from announcers Danny Hobbs and Tony Sheffler. Tony would go on to become a national event announcer at AHRA and the track operator at Lee County Dragway in Keokuk, Iowa. Danny still lives in Kahoka, and has been a valuable assistant with this column.

THE CHUCKLE: We barely arrived at our home in Missouri, when a call came from Jones accepting my application to be ‘racing director’ at the new‘Super Track’ called Orange County International Raceway. As I hung up the phone, a white Corvette came screaming into our driveway.  It was popular Tri State Dragway racer, Mike Brown, who brought the following message: ‘Bill Walte, wants you to call him immediately.’  “He moved to California two years ago,” I replied. “What's up?”

Turns out, Bill too had applied for a job at O.C.I.R, and like me, he was accepted.  He was then told he would be working for Jim Baker, his former boss at Tri State Dragway, per the powerful reference he had given. The problem was, although he did race at Kahoka nearly every weekend, he had never worked there.  BUSTED!

A week later, we pulled into a motel in Santa Ana, California.  The next day, I started orientation at OCIR. On August 5, 1967, we opened the track to a capacity throng of both racers and spectators. I did not know Butch Leal prior to our opening at O.C.I.R. We met, shook hands and I still did not really know the ‘California Flash’.  However, in 1970, at Bill Thomas Race Cars, while building a state of the art Pro Stock Camaro, I became a lifelong friend of the man I consider the best driver, Pro Stock or otherwise, that ever lived!