Born in Chihuahua, Mexico, in 1922, Fran arrived in Los Angeles as an infant with his family, exiles of the Mexican Revolution. When WWII broke out he signed up with the U.S. Navy serving in the Pacific.
Returning to Los Angeles after the war, he became a machine-shop owner with automotive engineer Fred Offenhauser. But after a few years Offenhauser bought him out and he went to work for Vic Edelbrock. At Edelbrock’s he became a specialist in setting up Stromberg carburettors and being with Edelbrock’s crew fostered his love for speed. When they weren’t working for customers, Fran and the guys modified their cars for illegal street races, which saw them run foul of the law from time to time.
Taking it off the streets, he took to racing on the west coast salt flats, including Bonneville. His reputation as a racer led to a grudge match in 1949 with another lake racer named Tom Cobbs. The event took place in a legal venue sponsored by the Santa Barbara Acceleration Association, on a service road at the Santa Barbara Municipal Airport. In the highly touted race, Cobbs drove a supercharged roadster, a '29 Model A body over a '34 Ford frame, but it was no match for the souped-up '32 Mercury three-window coupe that Fran drove. ‘Souped’ is probably the correct phrase, as one of the tuning tricks the Edelbrock guys had pioneered was the use of nitromethane.
During the ‘50s Fran went on to work for Indianapolis 500 winner/team manager Peter DePaolo, and for race car builder Bill Stroppe, both with workshops side-by-side in Long Beach, California. Through DePaolo and Stroppe’s links with Ford, Fran developed a strong reputation in developing, building and managing special vehicle events and programs.
DePaolo had won the Indy 500 in 1925 before forging links with Ford’s racing efforts in the 1930s. When Ford decided to do some racing in the 1950s, they engaged DePaolo to run a variety of programs, including NASCAR, with a driver line-up that included Ralph Moody. In September 1956, DePaolo Engineering coordinated a 50,000 mile Durability Run for the Ford Motor Company on the Bonneville salt flats.
Stroppe had strong links with Ford after proving his tuning ability with Ford motors in boat racing, and became the West Coast performance arm for Ford’s Lincoln-Mercury division. Stroppe became a longtime campaigner of Mercurys in USAC stock car racing and NASCAR. Stroppe also prepared the Lincoln entries in the Carrera Panamericana road race, clean-sweeping the stock-car class in 1952 and 1953. Looking after the cars and logistics were Fran, and Stroppe’s parts man, John Holman. Stroppe’s operation also signed on with the Electric Auto-Lite Co. (later 'Autolite') as a consultants for that company's racing program.
From July through November 1957, Fran was temporarily loaned to Ford for another high-profile endurance run. The assignment was to drive two 1958 model Ford Fairlane 500s around the world in 80 days. One member of the team was Phil Remington, another graduate of salt flats racing. But Fran seemed to have moved away from his Ford links when he joined Autolite full-time in late 1959 and became the competition manager, looking after Autolite’s racing support programs. These programs were wide and varied, and they built Fran’s reputation away from DePaolo and Stroppe. As a side note, when Ford pulled out of NASCAR after 1957, John Holman and Ralph Moody together bought out the Ford stock of race bits and started Holman-Moody in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Then, almost as if by divine intervention, Fran returned to the Ford fold when they bought Autolite in 1961. He continued in the Autolite role until, October 1962 when he was moved to Detroit to look after special vehicle operations for his beloved Lincoln-Mercury Division. This included a variety of events designed to demonstrate the performance and durability of Mercury cars, including the 100,000 Durability Run at Daytona in 1963, the Pure Oil Performance Trials at Daytona and the East African Safari rally.
To engineer these programs, Fran consulted his old friend Bill Stroppe, who was doing it tough as Mercury had stopped racing. Stroppe was helped by his protégé John Holman, who formed Holman-Moody-Stroppe, and this company looked after the Mercury competition programs including Grand National speedway and Pikes Peak. Fran’s work with these promotional programs was certainly a success – Comet sales in 1964 rose by 44,000 units.
It was about this time that Ford were spending big on motorsports world-wide, especially targeting Indy and Le Mans. Fran was able to get Mercury into drag racing, which by 1965 it was one of America’s big spectator motorsports. Kids were still street racing, and it soon became clear that they preferred to watch drag cars with production bodies. He got Stroppe to build him 15 lightweight street-bodied 289 Comets for the B/FX class, race-prepared and sold to hand-picked professional racers. These customer racers would buy the cars at a nominal fee and then select from a whole range of FoMoCo performance parts to turn them into race cars. The whole deal was managed by Al Turner, who Aussies would know, went on to be special vehicles manager for Ford Australia.
In 1966 Mercury moved up to the A/FX class and this had developed into full fabricated chassis cars with 427 engines and fibreglass bodies, or ‘Funny’ cars, as we know it. They hired two of the best competitors, Don Nicholson and Eddie Schartmann and dominated the class.
By this stage, the Mustang had received plenty of press by winning the 1966 Trans Am road racing series, and Fran saw this as an excellent target for the Mercury’s own pony car, the new Cougar. Bud Moore had impressed Fran with his running of Mercurys in NASCAR, so Moore was contracted to run the Cougars, with stars Parnelli Jones and Dan Gurney as the main drivers. Moore did a great job, and with only two cars, they only just failed to beat the Mustangs that scored many extra points from privateers.
Unfortunately Ford didn’t like its big-selling Mustang being upstaged by another one of its divisions, so the Cougar Trans Am program was canned for 1968, and transferred to NASCAR’s Grand Am competition. By this time Fran was working directly with the Ford special vehicles operation, Kar Kraft. That had its own benefits, including some special company cars to take home!
The Mustangs got their entrails handed to them on a plate by the Camaros in the 1968 Trans Am, so in 1969 they brought Moore back into the series to run a second Mustang operation. Fran was also in charge of a special build program for the 429 Boss Mustang, setting up a unique Kar Kraft production facility at Brighton.
Although the Camaros won again in 1969, Bud Moore finally set things right in Trans Am in 1970. Fran helped to implement an inline four-barrel Autolite carburettor, but the SCCA thought that was a bit exotic and had it banned before it could be used. With the Mustangs of Parnelli Jones and George Follmer fully sorted and professionally run, they won the series in its most competitive year.
When Ford did another withdrawal from motorsport in 1971, Fran managed Ford's Fabrication & Build Activity, which handled a variety of special vehicles most notably the 1988 Presidential limousine for Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. He retired in the 1990s, and sadly passed away in 2005. His family maintains a Facebook page in his memory, which is the source of most of these photos.
-Fran Hernandez Facebook page
-Ford Racing Century
-Edelbrock: Made In USA – Tom Madigan
-Holman-Moody: Legendary Race Team – Pierce and Cotter
-Ford Total Performance – Alex Gabbard
-Hemmings Motor News articles
Edited by KarKraft, 09 June 2012 - 08:48 AM.