Flashback Friday: Drag Racing At NorCal’s Half Moon Bay

From the 1950’s to the 1970’s, dragstrips big and small were littered all up and down the Pacific Coast of California, and sadly, less than handful of those remain today. One of the regions more popular quarter miles during this golden era was the Half Moon Bay Dragstrip, located just outside of San Francisco.

In 1942, the Calfornia State Highway Department constructed the Half Moon Bay Airport 20 miles south of San Fran for the U.S. Army during World War II, which was turned over to the Navy at the war’s conclusion. In 1947, San Mateo County acquired the airport and ten years later, with the hot rodding movement exploding  across the region, drag racing took over the Half Moon Bay Airport.

Two area car clubs, the Lightning Rods from San Bruno and the Piston Pushers from San Francisco joined forces with plans to conduct legal drag races on the airstrip that literally rests within a quarter mile of the pacific shoreline. Because none of the members of either club were 21 years of age, San Bruno police officer Dick Walrod signed on their behalf. The clubs held races at Half Moon Bay for two years, but later as more clubs urged to join and the city demanded demanded improvements to the strip and insurance put in place, the group was forced to give up it up from lack of funds.

It was then that a couple of street racers, Don Smith and Jim McClennan, stepped in. The pair approached the county and the clubs creditors, agreed on a price, and Half Moon Bay was back in business. Several improvements were made to what was the largest dragstrip in Northern California, including fencing, bleachers, a safety net, a timing tower made from a bread van, concessions, and the latest and greatest timing and starting line equipment. They were also one of the first tracks in the nation to use radio and television to advertise their racing events.

Image credit: Champion Speed Shop

In a recent interview with Coastviews Magazine, Smith said, “In the early days the Raiders had just started out. We would out-draw a Raiders football game. These events would create bumper-to-bumper traffic, blocking off Highway 1. The highway patrol was going crazy trying to get everyone in.”

The Half Moon Bay Dragstrip quickly became one of the nations premier tracks, and on January 23, 1966, “Big Daddy” Don Garlits and Don “The Snake” Prudhomme match raced there for a $5,000 winners purse. Interestingly, Prudhomme’s name had already been etched on the trophy before the race, yet Garlits pulled off an incredible upset win over California’s native son.

Half Moon Bay played host toe very big name the sport had to offer during the 50’s and 60’s but sadly, in 1968, the strip was sold and closed down ashort time thereafter. For the next 26 years the Bay remained quiet, but in 1994, sound tests were conducted at the track in hopes of a revival to promote the then-new NHRA Jr. Drag Racing League. Efforts were spearheaded to reopen the track with Jr. Drag races, muffler-equipped stock vehicles, and occasional nostalgia races, but to this day, nothing has materialized.

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About the author

Andrew Wolf

Andrew has been involved in motorsports from a very young age. Over the years, he has photographed several major auto racing events, sports, news journalism, portraiture, and everything in between. After working with the Power Automedia staff for some time on a freelance basis, Andrew joined the team in 2010.
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