Few in racing have contributed to the sport in a more diverse manner than Levon Fredrick “Freddie” Agabashian. He was an 11-time Indianapolis 500 starter, winner of multiple midget championships, a popular spokesman for the sport and an acclaimed radio and TV commentator.
The children of Armenian immigrants, Agabashian and his three sisters were gifted with a passion for success, and an entertainer’s disposition. His sisters capitalized on these attributes and became singers of note. Alice in particular gained fame with radio programs in San Francisco and enduring notoriety as a lounge singer in Reno.
Born Aug. 21, 1913, in Modesto, Calif., Freddie Agabashian sought success and expressed his talent for entertainment in the extreme world of auto racing. Renowned for his peppery radio interviews and colorful driving uniforms, he understood the impact of public relations and became West Coast midget racing’s most popular driver. Later, that celebrity took him into radio and television.
Like many aspiring racers, his beginning was inauspicious. He destroyed his Chevy roadster at San Jose, but the 17-year-old high school senior persevered and captured the 1930 Northern California Roadster championship.
Agabashian toured three years with Irish Horan’s Automotive Thrill Show, perhaps an acknowledgement of his theatrical leanings, but by the mid-1930s his focus was exclusively on midgets, securing the NCRA championship in 1937.
Following World War II, Agabashian’s achievements in northern California midget racing peaked. He earned the 1946 BCRA title driving Jack London’s midget. Switching to future Indianapolis master mechanic George Bignotti’s midget, he repeated BCRA championships in 1947 and ’48.
In 1947, Agabashian joined a host of other West Coast midget racers who trekked to Indianapolis during the post-war years. They shocked the establishment by approaching the 500 like an extended sprint race, rather than a plodding endurance event.
Agabashian made his debut in the Ross Page Kurtis, starting 23rd and finishing ninth. He never enjoyed good luck at Indianapolis. He was fourth in 1953 and sixth in ’54. He was too often waylaid by mechanical issues.
However, he was always fast. In his 11 Indy 500 starts, Agabashian started on the front row three times, and in fourth twice. Undoubtedly, his most memorable front-row qualifying effort was when he captured the pole in 1952 with the groundbreaking Cummins diesel.
Officials of the Cummins Engine Co. contacted Agabashian early in the development of the historic racer because of his reputation for fixing the handling of temperamental cars. This unique ability had earned him the nickname, “Doc.”