NHRA - National Hot Rod Association

Train stories keeps rollin' all week long

Readers share their memories of the famous Freight Train
28 May 2008
Phil Burgess, NHRA National Dragster Editor

One great thing about great stories is that they beget others. The story of the fabled Freight Train, as told here last Friday, inspired, as I suspected it might with a topic that memorable, a flood of love for the Train and the memories coupled to it like so many old cabooses.

One of the fun parts about writing this column is digging through ND’s vast photo archives for interesting pics to illustrate the columns. I came across this photo of owner John Peters and driver Sam Davis in the winner’s circle in Bakersfield after they won the 1970 March Meet. I love the humongous twin-triangle trophies – one for winning the event and one for outstanding performance of the meet, regardless of class – and the way that Davis seems to be flirting with the trophy queen, the lovely and famous Linda Vaughn, while Peters looks on with a wry little smile on his face, perhaps wishing he were holding L.V. instead of the trophies. The original of this pic was kind of washed out, so I had to do a little restoration work in Photoshop to bring out the details, but you get the idea. This victory was especially sweet for Davis because it came two weeks after he crashed the car at Lions (see photo in entry below) on his first run. The trophies were so tall that they wouldn’t even fit into the trailer and had to be dismantled for the ride home.

More Train stories: My old buddy Dave Wallace dropped me a line to make sure I asked Peters about the Freight Train’s penchant for breaking the roller starters at Lions Drag Strip.

“When they first put in those roller starts at Long Beach, they had a little electric motor on it,” remembers Peters, “and it just didn’t have enough power. The rollers would spin as long as we weren’t trying to light the motors, but as soon as we let the clutch out, it bogged down and burned the motor out of it; had flames coming out and everything. Trying to fire two motors at once just put too much of a strain on it. We had to start them one at a time like we do now -- the front one first – so we don’t put too much strain on everything."

As much as reader Don Burt of Ojai, Calif., enjoyed seeing the photos of the Train, he also got a kick out of seeing the Ken’s Engineering twin. “Ken's was in Oxnard, Calif.," he remembers, “and I would browse through the store and dream. I would get goosebumps looking at all the speed equipment. I usually bought a decal, even though I didn't have a car worthy of drag racing decals. We would attend the Smokers Fuel and Gas Championships each year and Lions Drag Strip weekly if we could. I was probably between 16 and 19 years of age when I was really into it. I am now 61 years old, so I think I remember probably the second or third annual Fuel and Gas Championships. Your stories and photos really bring back the memories.”

Clifford Short of Riverside, Calif., who first saw the Freight Train as a 9-year-old at Lions in '69 and followed the team in the pages of Drag News and National DRAGSTER, had his own brush with greatness at an L.A. Dodgers game in 1972. “I was standing in line to get a dog and a Coke,” he remembers. “I had worn an OCIR T-shirt, and I heard a guy behind me say, ‘You like drag racing?’ I turned around and said, ‘Yes, sir, I do; I go as often as I can.’ Then this guy asks me if I ever heard of the Freight Train. I said, ‘You bet; it's one of my favorite cars.’ He then introduced himself as John Peters! Talk about making a kid’s day! I couldn't talk about anything else at the game to my dad other than I got to meet and talk with John Peters! That is one day I will never forget!”

Regarding the story behind the Freight Train’s naming, Herb Iske says he has heard a different version that “had more to do with the track's up and down undulations through the trap/shutdown area, which apparently caused the Train's engines to ‘unload’ and puff very noticeable exhaust to the extent that it resembled a steam engine on a freight train. Even if incorrect, it makes for a believable story!”

Although the Freight Train may have been the most famous twin, it’s obviously not the only one. Dennis Friend dropped me a link to his site, Twins To Go!, which so far has compiled a list of 192 twin-engine cars that have stalked the dragstrip. They have a special section devoted to the first 10 twins with some cool and rare old photos.

And finally, speaking of great photos, initially I thought the image below was just a cool photo of Train owners John Peters and driver Bob Muravez posed with their car in front of one of their homes. It kind of had a down-home feel about it that I liked.

But something about the street sign in the background caught my attention. The shape, the color (even though it’s a black and white pic). I know, a street sign’s a street sign, right? But this one was different. Upon closer inspection, I could read the lettering: Maxella Ave. Hey, I remember a Maxella Avenue near where I grew up. How many Maxella Avenues can there be in California? And those hills in the background? They look pretty familiar, too.

Turns out that Peters lived in West Los Angeles, just a few miles from where I grew up, in Culver City, Calif., and went to the same high school that I did: Venice High School (known to movie buffs everywhere as Rydell High in the movie Grease). Venice High School (home of the Gondoliers … “rowing not drifting”) isn't actually in Venice (“where the debris meets the sea,” as we used to joke) but a few miles inland, in West L.A.

(Other famous VHS alums: actress Myrna Loy, whose statue for years graced the senior lawn and was targeted by pranksters who would put different outfits on it; Les Clark, the first of Walt Disney's legendary Nine Old Men band of animators; Apollo 7 astronaut Walter Cunningham; former NFL Pro Bowler Leon Clarke; actor Gary Collins; singer Teena Marie. I graduated with actor Sam Whipple, best remembered for his role as Dr. John Ballard on the TV series Seven Days; he died six years ago of cancer.)

Peters attended VHS from 1955 through 1957, about 21 years before me, and was classmates with land-speed baron Craig Breedlove (Peters and Frank helped Breedlove build his first jet car) and actor Beau Bridges, who, as we all know, later played Connie Kalitta in the Shirley Muldowney biopic Heart Like a Wheel.

Small world, eh?