I Was There

By Martin DeGrazia


Back in the mid 1970’s, and earlier I’m sure, Seattle had its own illegal race track along the waterfront at the entrance to Golden Gardens. Sadly, I am just old enough to have caught the tail end of this era. I must’ve been 15, maybe 16 years old and was looking forward to hanging with hot rodders and racers. There was, of course, a lot of posin’ going on, too.

The immediate surroundings consisted of a public beach, a couple of nice restaurants and lots of moored sailboats. On the other side of the road were railroad tracks. They’re still there to this day. Racers had room to run, because there was about a mile of straightaway without intersections and just a few parking lots to contend with.

It was ideal for the purposes of a group of young people out for an exciting time. The water, the beach with its bonfires and lots of other people looking for fun made for a good mix on a Friday or Saturday night.

The area was relatively quiet at night until the cars would start gathering; some intending to race and some intent on just watching. This crowd ultimately included all of us teenagers that showed up in our wannabe hot rods.

The standard wardrobe of guys back then consisted of bell bottom pants, t-shirt or floral print tops, very wide belts, and a lot of us wore platform heal shoes. You weren’t cool unless your hair was long and your ears were completely covered.

When you first arrived you could drive around “the loop”, careful to look just right. The posturing is no different than today; just different players in different cars and clothes.

When we were ready to start, there would be cars in both the north and south bound lanes, heading south. The race would start at the entrance of the park. There was, of course, the prerequisite pretty girl who stood between the two cars and dropped her arms for the start. It was just like you see in the race scenes of nostalgic movies that have been made ever since the baby boomers came on the scene.

I’m really not sure how long these races lasted because I was always watching them from the sidelines at the beginning of the race. The driver in the left hand lane would get the choice of who he was going to race. The driver on the right would either be given thumbs up or thumbs down. It was understood that you didn’t get to race unless you were deemed worthy enough. If the other driver didn’t want to race you, then you had to go the back of the line again. Each line usually had about 15 cars in it.

One hot summer evening while “cruisin’ the Gardens”, my friend Larry, in his $300 dollar ‘55 Chevy, decided that he needed to race another ‘55 Chevy that was there. Even back then you did not get much for $300 dollars, but Larry was a pretty good back yard mechanic. So, it was a lot better than some of the cars, but not as fast as many of them. It had a stock V8 and a three speed. Today the patina on Larry’s car would be desirable, back then it was just another beater with expiring paint that was breeding corrosion.

Larry watched the ‘55 Chev that he intended to challenge go into the left hand lane and swung over to the right. The other ‘55 got to the front and started waving off cars to the right. This was getting exciting. Larry looked over at me and forcefully said “Marty, get out of the car!” I said, “What?” He said, “Get out of the car. I need it to be as light as it can be when I race!”

Boy was I bummed. I got out and stood with about 30 to 40 other people. The ‘55 on the left continued brushing off the other cars until Larry had slowly made his way to the front; where he got the thumbs up. I had gotten over my feelings of dejection and was back in the spirit, anxious to see how Larry would do.

The dueling ‘55’s began revving their engines; each ready to peel out as soon as the pretty girl dropped her arms. Off in the distance, a couple of cars approach from the south. As soon as they were out of the way, the race would be on. Suddenly, their blue lights came on. It was the cops!

Larry and the other ‘55 quickly exited to the left. All the other bystanders scrambled hastily to their cars and took off. I found myself standing alone.

After about 10 minutes I realized that my friend Larry was not coming back. I started making the trek up the long winding road. It felt like about a mile or more. It’s a very steep hill. About the time that I finally got to the top, Larry pulled up. He said he took so long because he wanted to be sure the cops were gone.

That night was the closest I ever got to racing at Golden Gardens and it wasn't long after that night that it was pretty much on lock down as far as racing. I had always heard about the racing at school and had just wanted to be a part of it; and I got to be, if only for a short time.

These days, the Golden Garden stories are legendary and I am glad to say “I was there”.