It is September and Clyde “Fergy” Ferguson is forced to sit out the 2013 season, out of a race car for the first time in 43 years, since his rookie year in 1970, due to needing hip replacements to get back into his Thunder Roadster. One of a handful of drivers who have been the continual face of Redwood Acres Raceway, his friendly manner and trademark Abe Lincoln beard and low, rich voice, together with his career as a railroad engineer have always given him a salt of the earth appeal, and he has remained a fan favorite at the track who has stood the test of time.
“I’m from Eureka, California, born and raised” Fergy says. “Left here for two years when the President needed me, ’65 to ’67, been here ever since.”
“I worked with the railroad as a locomotive mechanic. I got severed out in ’69, moved around some service stations, two or three sawmills, until I got another job for the Arcata Mad River Railroad out of Korbel. They shut that one down but fired up Eureka Southern, and finished my time out there in Eureka. I was Trainmaster at the end, running the outfit for the last 5 years. I ran the operations; the scheduling, took care of all the crews. It was a good job, I liked it. The thing was we weren’t union, so I could also work on locomotives and engineer, runnin’ a train down through the canyons when a guy didn’t show up. I could do anything I wanted, I loved it.”
“When I was young, I always liked cars, I was a car guy. Working on cars, drag racing on the street; I lost my license three times for speeding. In 1969 old Tim Nelson came to me and said ‘Dick Luzzi is putting another car together and he needs somebody to weld the top back on’ so I went over to his house and welded it on, and I just got involved from there and it just took off. The racing, I loved it. From then on I was hooked. Dick, Dave and Ray Luzzi, they were good competitors. But that’s how it got me….welding a top on a car.”
Fergy’s first car in 1970 was the #121 Hobby Stock car. “That was the first Don Price paint job – he ‘laced’ it.” (Shown below in 1971 at the annual Rhododendron Parade in Eureka)
Racing in the old dirt days had its share of stories.
“One race Casey Dungan lapped us all. Matt Kunkler got so upset he just gave up, so I passed him. I was runnin ahead of him and we had a yellow come out, and he decided he wanted to get it back. We drove down the main straight and I knew what he was doing, he was going to use me as a bumper going into one, so I hammered the breaks and he went right past turn one and right off the track. There were no walls back then.”
“If you talk to Angelo Marcelli, ask him about the Suitcase Race”, Fergy says, standing in his living room looking down at his feet, dropping the hint of a good story to be told. “We raced around the track, stopped, got out, then opened an old suitcase full of women’s clothing that we had to put on before getting back in and racing again. Angelo won but he cheated; while I was taking time to pull on the pantyhose, he was shoving his legs in and ripping them apart. He didn’t care how they looked.” There was no comment about who might have had the edge in experience in such a race.
Another race Fergy recalled was the time Medford’s Tom Wyatt won the A-Main but was disqualified, managing to stay out in front of the rest of the field in spite of driving on three wheels. “He was black flagged. Broke the lower ball joint, so he’d go through the turns and it would set it back up, but then down the straight it would lay back down again. I think it was a ’57 Chevy too. Dane Smith used to come down here and race too. He was really fast. He was a helluva dirt racer. He just won everything on the dirt. All those guys loved Redwood Acres. They all really enjoyed coming down here. It was bigger and it was fast. The big track, not the doughnut.”
“I didn’t do a lot of out-of-towners, I went to Placerville with the first Super Stock I got. I bought John Morrison’s ’57 Chevy. I went to Redding a couple of times. Never did get the gear ratio right for running on asphalt. They were dirt in the early years but they asphalted real soon. I went to Medford with the ’57 and turned fast time of the day up there. It was unbelievable. I went out and qualified, came in, I got out of the car and was walking and I hear sssssssssss and the air was coming out of one of the tires. I had run over something. I didn’t bring any spare tires, that was just what was on the car. So I pulled the tire and ran it down town to see if there was someone who could patch it. I found some service station that would fix it for me and when I finally got back the guys were waiting for me and they said “Get in the car!” I said what do you mean get in the car, ‘You get in the car, you’re in the dash! You turned fast time!’ I said c’mon quit kiddin me. ‘No get in the goddamned car you’re in the dash!’ So I got in it and couldn’t do anything, they just beat me to death, I brought that car back and every rim was bent and the bumpers on both ends, they just tore me up. And I lost the clutch during the main event too. It was quite an experience. The dirt was similar to Redwood Acres, it had a little cushion to it. Quarter mile D-Shape and had a little tiny short straightaway; a turn all the way around. I just took the green, put my foot on the floor and let it hang out all the way around, never let it off. Beat all the fast guys, old Jack Keck, Tom Wyatt, all those guys were there. I actually turned faster than all those hot shoes. That was the highlight of my out of town career there”, he says laughing.
Fergy has fond memories of Jerry Carter – driver and then flag man at Redwood Acres, who also put together the weekly race program, the Stock Report: “We were racing in the main event, I come off of turn four, and everybody was slowing down, so I just went to the outside and I was going down the wall then I realized what had happened- Jerry Carter had spun on the inside, and came back across the track and parked it backwards right in front of the flag stand, and I’m coming full boar down the straightaway and I thought I was going to kill him. I reached up and grabbed the wheel and snapped to the left and I went sideways and I took the front end of his car off, straightened it back out, and kept on going. That was one of my scary moments because I thought I was going to T-Bone him. I was wide-open. I think it bent my fin a little bit. But I was still able to race.”
“I thought he was a good flag man, myself. Of course I thought most of the flag men were good, and everyone else hated them. There’s no doubt it’s the hardest job. No matter what you do, you are going to offend somebody.”
(Both are pictured at right in the 1973 SRRA Yearbook)
Fergy has lived in his current home in Eureka for 30 years; approximately one mile doorstep to start line from the track at Redwood Acres Fairgrounds. Before that he lived on Marsh Road by radio station KINS. “Didn’t have far to go with either house. I kept myself close”.
“One night after a race I drove my race car home from Verla’s Pizza House out on Myrtle Ave. We towed it on a chain, and the guy that was towin’ me took off and didn’t come back. And after having some beers and pizza and all that, I said well what the Hell, jumped in it and drove it home. It was crazy. I didn’t have to go that far, luckily.”
Racing at Redwood Acres at that time was governed by the Six Rivers Racing Association, with many of the drivers as board members, including Fergy. “I was on the board for about 5 years or so. I was Vice President, 2nd Vice President, then President after that. My wife Ann helped as VP. The VP’s job was to get trophy girls, and Ann took care of that, standing in as trophy girl herself at one time. She won Best Legs in the Hot Pants competition too.”
“We used to say each car in the pits brought 5 people, at a minimum. So the more cars you can field, the more people in the pits or in the stands. Start another class- more cars meant more people At one time we’d have 130 cars, all in the infield, at least two or three classes. When we’d have an open, we’d have C and D Mains even, 150 cars.”
“I tried being impartial as the president. No Qualify – No Race. Ed Tanferani came in late, told him ‘don’t even unload it’. A special board meeting took place in the middle of the track and overruled my decision and they let him race. Overruled the rule book. He was the big hot shoe, what do you mean he can’t race! I stuck by my guns.”
“Everyone was supposed to pack the track, get their car out there, a lot of the hot shoes didn’t want to get mud on their cars. You were supposed to pack the track, get it out there. You watered it, even though it was ‘dry slick’ it would still slick out. The guy who was filling in on preparing the track for a while would put dried cement in the turns. He’d come out with bags of cement and sprinkle it in the turns, then water it, he was tryin’ to make it hard. He wanted it dry slick, he definitely got there.”
Fergy loves reading about drivers from the old days. “There’s always the ‘gray areas’ in racing. Smokey Yunick and his two inch fuel line snaking all around the inside of the car, zig-zagging and holding an extra 5 gallons of gas. He was an ‘Innovator’. Smokey Yunick was the best, he did all that stuff. Drilling out holes in sealed parts to make them lighter, wrecking the car and building it back with a cut roof. The Innovators – they like to play in the gray.”
As with any local short track, Redwood Acres had its share of characters and fine racers. “Hank Hilton; he was a good old boy, Hank. He enjoyed his racing. Crazy Mitch Gilbert- The One-Armed Bandit. Don Price, Larry Pries, (Jim) Walker, I got along with all of them. Jimmy was a good racer. He won the Rose Classic a couple of times. He was a good shoe. Pries ran good at Riverside too, so did Don Price. I always told everybody if I could be as aggressive as Larry Pries and as smooth as Jimmy Walker, I could win everything. I used to watch Larry going into the turn and everybody let off and he’d jump in there two car lengths. Oh man, he was an animal. He was something else.”
Fergy raced the classic Shakey’s Pizza ’57 Chevy from 1976 to 1979, he’s shown above wearing the mandatory white pants in the infield pits for safety and the Firestone windbreaker with racing stripe for promotion and all-around coolness. The ’57 Chevy was a common car at the races back then. “Now you kick yourself in the ass for tearing them up” he says. “I bought one in Fortuna for 35 bucks- it had one dent on it on the fender, had all the checkerboard on it, all the chrome, everything was just beautiful. I ripped all that stuff off and made a race car out of it. And now you say to yourself ‘If I had that now it would be worth $75,000!’ Cut them all up, make them race cars.”
“In the Stock Report Jack Clark wrote an article on me saying ‘Don’t leave the lid off your garbage can because Fergy will come around and steal your leftover parts.’ I’d go by Casey’s and take all the stuff he took out of Ken Wallan’s motor and put it in mine. They were already broke in”, Fergy says, laughing. “I had one motor where everything was used- I think the only thing I had money in was the head gasket and the oil. I figured out I had $64 in the motor. It ran like Hell too. I put some stuff together, they blew up too, but that was the fun part about it. We’d go out there and run with nothing.”
One of the great things about short track stock cars is seeing the dents and damage patched together as the season rolls on. “I had put a gallon of bondo on mine, I already had a gallon or two on it, just to make it look good. It ended up looking good but if you hit it the whole side would have fallen off of it. That’s what I told the guys- don’t hit me too hard, my whole side will fall off! It’s all bondo!”
Ed Rassmusen was a drag racer who in 1976 put together a blue #50 ’69 Camaro known as “Thumper” to race at Redwood Acres. Thumper made an impression, and Ed won A and B mains during the year and finished 6th in the Super Stock points as a rookie. In 1979 Fergy bought Thumper and turned it into an orange #21. In 1981 Fergy would win the track championship in the Limited Sportsman Division with that car. “We did good with that thing. I won everything.” But as often happens on local tracks when one driver wins most of the time they become the villain, even the popular Fergy Ferguson. “The year I won the championship was the only time I ever got boo’d”, Fergy says. “That’s just the way if is. They told me I shouldn’t be running in that class and I didn’t belong in that class. I didn’t have any money in it. I never had any money in any of my cars. That year was my year. ”
In the early 1980s Redwood Acres Raceway was still a dirt track, but drivers ran asphalt setups on it and slick tires. While you could leave the area to run on paved tracks easily, the true dirt cars set up for clay did not exactly work here. “When Ron Peters first came over to go racing here he came in and pitted pretty close to me and I introduced myself” Fergy says. “I looked down and seen the tires he had on and I said ‘Ron, I hate to tell you this but you can’t run those dirt tires.’ He said ‘What do you mean, it’s dirt aint it?’ ‘Well, not really, it is dirt but its not; we run these asphalt tires.’ ‘Dirt’s dirt’ he says. He went out, went down the front chute and went out the end, came down the back chute, went out the end, went around a couple more times and kept going off the track, came in the pits and said ‘Well Ferg, I guess you’re right. These things dont work.'” (Ron evidently saved those tires for when the clay was later added because he became Track Champion.)
“I don’t remember how it got determined to change from a dry slick to a good clay track. In the meetings we thought that was the direction to go, was to get some really good sticky clay on there and make it a real dirt track.”
“We hawked our ass for that clay. Everyone signed for a $10,000 note to put that clay in. And man that was the best thing that ever happened. We had the fastest dirt track on the west coast, it was just animal. Guys were pulling the front end off the ground as they went down the straightaway. They stuck like glue. You’d walk across it and you’d pull your shoes off, it was sticky shit. ”
In 1988 Rich and Linda Olson took over promotion of the track and it was paved with a wall added from turn one all the way around the track, with the intention of luring NASCAR races and therefore more fans and more money to the fairgrounds, thus ending the Six Rivers Racing Association. “It was over, we were through”, Fergy says now.
“It scared me to death when I came out the first time on asphalt. There was a wall all the way around, you couldn’t get out. It took me a while to run up against the wall. It was scary as Hell.”
After initially racing a modern Trans Am race body on the newly paved track, in a real old school move, when other drivers had moved to lighter aluminum and fiberglass, Fergy decided to buy a Chevy Nova from the Street Stocks and run it in the Super Stocks division. And in keeping with his Lucky 21, the car was already running his number on the side when he bought it, just waiting for him. He raced it in the original red and white colors before painting it his trademark gold. “I bought it and put a motor in it, ran it in Late Models. I had a good time with that Nova. Everyone had gone to plastic front ends. That Nova was still steel. Called it ‘The Dinosaur’. I put a quick change on the back of the automatic transmission so I could get the ratio I wanted. They said the 10 bolt rear end wasn’t heavy enough to run, but I did it. The thing was crazy. It was a good car, had a lot of fun with it. It was all steel. Geoff Neely asked ‘What you got underneath that doggone Nova? You’re liftin’ the left front wheel off the ground.’ I said ‘No wonder that sumbitch don’t handle through the turns!’. But man it took everybody down the straightaway. Geoff was a good racer. He ran good.”
Fergy would trade his Trans Am to Crescent City Late Model driver Howard Ford for a Chevy Lumina. “I had a car that I was trying to race and it wasn’t working out, so I traded in that because he wanted the front end from that, and that is where the Lumina came from.” The cars over the years would change but the colors generally remained the same- always the #21 and a variation of red and gold colors.
Fergy’s cars often won Best Appearing Car at Redwood Acres Raceway. “In the early years I had Don Price paint them for me” Fergy says. “Don did all my paint jobs on the dirt. In the later years I painted them myself, and my son painted one or two of them for me. When we went to asphalt I started painting my own cars and creating my own paint schemes. I was always trying to get the gold, never did find the right color until late. Finally found the bright gold I’ve been looking for for years.”
“Always trying to get the gold…”, his voice sounding like an old prospector.
In 2006 Fergy joined the Limited Street Stock division, a class of vintage muscle cars with wide tires and lots of power, they were a faster alternative to the Real Stocks and became nearly as fast as the Sportsman. They were cars after his own heart- more like the old Super Stocks in the 70s, a link to his racing past. And to cap it all off, he came up with a paint scheme that was a throwback to the old Wood Brothers Grand National cars. But the struggling car class soon went away due to dwindling car counts. With drivers migrating in and out of classes, one goes up and others go down, an ongoing story at local tracks. “Every class they had they escalated out of what they originally were, the pure stocks escalated so far so they had to then start over as Real Stocks. This has gone that way for years.”
The ‘Thunder Roadster’ was designed by Charolotte Motor Speedway director of research and development Rudy Zeck, who also happens to be a two time Redwood Acres track champion. Much like Legends and Bandoleros, they are identical “spec” cars with sealed engines designed for close racing. Visually, Thunder Roadsters have the look of the Indy front engine roadsters of the 1960s. When introduced at Redwood Acres around 2006 they caught on with returning track veterans like Ken Wallan, Dave McMurray, Bill O’Neill, and Nyle Henderson. Some had not been to the track in 20 years or more.
“I decided to go to a Thunder Roadster instead of a Sportsman because they are a lot cheaper if you tear them up. The initial cost isn’t cheap but they are fairly easy to maintain. The economical thing is that if you actually wreck it they are breakaway parts; aluminum struts and joints where all the front end geometry is – you just replace it, it’s very low cost as far as that’s concerned. They’re fiberglass, you don’t completely destroy them. I hit the water barrels and took the nose out, the left side of the car, and I think it cost me 500 bucks. If it was a Sportsman it would have cost me three grand, at the low end. It has a sealed engine- the motors are spec and one shouldn’t be faster than the other…but they are.” He repeats with a wry tone for emphasis, “But they are.”
“It’s very frustrating, I’ve always been used to running up front and now I can’t keep up with the fast guys. It’s a momentum type car, you have to get into the turns and get through them quickly. A lot of it is those young guys have no fear. They get up on the wheel, they go. A lot of that has to do with my age. I’m probably a little more cautious than they are; I’ve hit every wall out there. When I was younger, I got after it too.”
“I’ve had a good time most of my time racing”, Ferg says. “Back in the day, back on the dirt, I threw motors together right and left, just to go. I built the motors myself, did everything, it was pretty simple on the dirt. I’ve never really had a bundle of money, but we always could compete.”
My thanks to Fergy Ferguson for welcoming me into his home and sharing his great collection of photos and stories from his days in the Six Rivers Racing Association racing The Acres. We talked about doing this over the years and it was great to finally make it happen for real.