The pictures on the wall of his Oildale home, trophies in a case and a scrapbook filled with clippings from the 1950s and ‘60s are visual delights, but listening to Frank Secrist tell racing stories from years gone by is pure joy.
A spry 88 years young, Secrist will be inducted into the West Coast Stock Car Hall of Fame on June 22 in Napa.
“Racing is the only thing I know how to do, the only thing I wanted to do,” Secrist said. “My stepdad had a Model T racer, and in the winter it would sit under a grape arbor with a canvas over it. I’d take the canvas off, get in there and ‘race.’ I won more races than you can believe. In my mind I was racing. I thought, ‘Some day, I’m gonna drive a race car.’ ”
And he did. For five decades in a variety of cars at numerous tracks – including Daytona International Speedway, where he set track records in the Modified/Sportsman division in 1961 and 1962.
After competing in a handful of NASCAR Grand National Pacific Coast races in the late 1950s, Secrist made his first trip to Daytona in 1960 with a ’39 Chevrolet, which wasn’t the car for the job. He came back home and built a ’53 Studebaker that worked much better.
He set quick time in 1961 at 154.812 mph then went a bit quicker the following year at 155.911 after some advice from an up-and-coming southern racer.
“I’m going down that long straightaway and think I’m going fast so I lifted a bit going into the corners,” Secrist recalled. “Cale Yarborough walked over to me and said ‘You’re quick, but you’re lifting going in.’
“I said, ‘Well, hell yes I’m lifting.’
“He said, ‘You don’t lift here.’
“I said, ‘OK, if I crash, you SOB, I’m going to hunt you down and thrash you.’
“I went in the first time and didn’t lift, and it stayed good.”
None of that could have happened, Secrist said, were it not for the generosity of his employer, Varner Brothers.
“I was a mechanic and worked for Varner Brothers, and when I had all the trucks running good I was building that Studebaker and getting paid for it,” he said. “When I went to Daytona, they paid all my expenses and my wife (Judy) picked up my check for the week just like I was working. Where do you find people like that?”
Racing dreams become reality
As a young boy, Secrist used to watch his stepfather race that Model T at Sportland Park (2nd and Union) and dreamed of the day he could do so.
Secrist’s mother died when he was 13 and, tired of abuse from his stepfather when he drank too much, he left home at 15 and gravitated toward those involved in racing.
“My dad was mechanic, and when he was sober he showed me mechanical things, so that was my thing and I could fix the cars for a buck or two,” he said. “That’s how I kind of survived.”
Sportland Park was basically shut down for World War II, but racers being racers, they cleared weeks off the track and went racing when they could, which involved finding enough people willing to give up gas-ration stamps to secure the needed fuel for the race cars.
At first, Secrist would just help, but he soon found himself behind the wheel in some outlaw events.
Bakersfield Speedway opened in 1946, and in 1950 Secrist went all-in on racing.
“I built a ’34 Ford 4-door sedan, ugly piece of crap,” he said. “My (first) wife told me I wasn’t going to drive it, and I said, ‘Yes, I am.’ She said, ‘No you’re not,’ and I said, fine, your brother will drive it. Well, I thought I’d do better, so one night I got in the car and after the race she came down and told me I couldn’t drive the car.
“I said I wasn’t driving and she said, ‘Oh yes you were, my brother doesn’t have a tattoo’ (on his right arm). She told me to quit racing or get out. I packed my suitcase and left.”
And went racing.
He won four track championships in the jalopy division at Bakersfield Speedway and two others in Hanford.
“I won that trophy for the Bakersfield Speedway championship in 1954,” Secrist said, pointing to a clock trophy. “It’s run ever since. You can set you watch to that clock. That’s the best trophy I’ve ever won.”
Along the way came personal success in the form of Judy Wattenberger, who became his wife and biggest supporter on and off the track.
“I don’t know why she stayed with me,” he said. “We’ve been married 60 years.”
While he had success in the full-body enclosed cars, Secrist’s real passion came from racing the open-wheel Super Modifieds and Sprint Cars.
“I just didn’t like stock cars; they weren’t my thing,” said Secrist, who quit driving them in the early 1960s. “I just didn’t like that caged-in feeling. I liked the open air.
“A lot of times I would race Kearney Bowl (Fresno) on Friday nights, San Jose on Saturday nights and Clovis Sunday night,” he said. “We won a lot of races. We had the Super Modified hooked up like you wouldn’t believe it.”
In 1966 he raced his Super Modified, which could be converted into a sprint car in a couple of hours, 11 times at El Cajon Speedway, winning nine times and finishing second twice.
“The best racing I ever had in my life, Super Modifieds,” he said. “Them are my babies. Just loved those race cars. They’re fast and they do what you want them to do.”
Danger in every corner
He also raced and won, in Sprint Cars, though those cars gave him his greatest pain.
On Aug. 19 1969, “a date I’ll never forget,” Secrist said, he hit the wall at 605 Speedway (near Irwindale) and suffered severe facial and head injuries.
“I didn’t want to go in backwards, because I’ve got 30 gallons of alcohol in the tank and going in backwards you’re going to bust that tank and be on fire,” he said. “So I nosed into the wall. I had a blowout fracture, stuck my skull through my eardrum … two of the best doctors down there saved my life.”
Grand mal seizures after the accident left Secrist unable to drive any type of vehicle, but they eventually subsided and Secrist was back in a car in 1971, when he had an encounter with his biggest fear: fire.
He was running a Sprint Car at Clovis Speedway, had a fuel line break and saturate him with alcohol before igniting and burning 60 percent of his legs.
“I never hurt so bad in my life,” said Secrist. “I wouldn’t let them do skin grafts, and it took 20 months to get my skin back.”
Yet, he raced again as soon as he could.
When the old Mesa Marin Raceway held its first race in the fall of 1977, Secrist was the first car on the track for practice.
Finally, in the mid 1980s, and in his 50s, Secrist had had enough.
“I hit the wall at Mesa Marin a couple of times and I said that’s it,” he said. “I told my wife you don’t have to worry about (crashes) anymore. I quit.”
Asked if he ever gets out to watch the races at Bakersfield Speedway, which is just around the corner from his home, Secrist shrugged. He’s not much for watching.
“No,” he said softly. “I’m a racer.”