Back in the 1960s, sand drags and/or hill climb competitions were held on the “big weekends” throughout the US. The events were run right on the beach or dunes, not like today’s purpose built sand drag facilities. In the early years, buggies and 4×4 rigs would line up and go. Over time purpose build dragsters and hill climbers were ruling the events.
The late Saburo Wantanabe of Guadalupe, California was there from the beginning competing with his water pumper buggies and continuing to race until 1994 with a rear-engine, normally aspirated B/Pro Comp class car with a best E.T. of 3.01 sec. at 108 mph.
Saburo grew up close to the Pismo/Oceano Dunes area, so he was always watching others and their sand machines. He and a group of friends would go on to build their own buggies to play in the dunes and ultimately evolved into purpose build competition cars and organized events, which he helped with as a member of the Dune Riders club based out of Oceano, California.
Saburo built a total of seven buggies/sand race cars in his gas stations/automotive shops that he had over the years. His close friend and high school buddy, Tom Silvera, helped with machine work and welding and whatever they could design. Another great friend Leroy Saruwatari also was involved and ran a similar buggy built for the dunes. Many other local racers also helped with his builds.
Saburo ran competitive cars. One year he took the hill climb at Pismo on 4th of July weekend and runner upped in the drags and his buddy Leroy took the drags and runner upped in hill climb. Then, Labor Day weekend, they did the opposite. Lots of work and effort paid off for him.
He raced whenever possible: Pismo/Oceano Dunes, Spillway Park, Santa Maria, Oceanside, Bakersfield, Glamis, Oxnard, Hanford, Avenal, Glen Helen ORV Park, San Bernadino, Riverside, and Hermiston, Oregon.
The racing legacy of Saburo Wantanabe continues today through his son’s at Watanabe Racing; Robert Watanabe is the driver, John Watanabe is the crew chief, with assistance from Gary and Larry Sakaguchi.
In fact, the Watanabe’s brought one of their father’s sand dragster to the Old School Buggy Reunion (Pismo, August 2016). Nothing on beach and dunes sounded like that car when they fired it up.