Believe it or not, there was once a time when a guy on the East Coast didn’t have direct access to the best speed parts of the era. There was no Internet, no lightningfast shipping capabilities, and no parts warehouses with millions of components on the shelf, ready to ship. Getting parts from California carried huge bragging rights, and it generally meant you would ultimately be faster than the guy without the fancy speed equipment.
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These days, we’re accustomed to worldwide access to all of the high-end parts our wallet can handle, but this wasn’t the case in the early days of drag racing. That’s why most folks say that the West Coast was light-years ahead of the racers back East, even though the extreme ingenuity of the Northeastern and Southern racers made up for the lack of technology and parts availability. Without question, California was the place to be during the golden era of drag racing, as it was packed with diehard racers and lots of big-name engine builders, parts manufacturers, and wellequipped drag strips.
It all started with the Santa Ana Drags in 1950, which was nothing more than an unused portion of the Orange County Airport with some cobbled-together timing equipment. The track was the first of its kind, and it created a demand for more facilities across the state of California, while setting standards that are still in effect today. As racers heard about the first official drag strip, they banded together to create more places to race, and by the beginning of the next decade there was a multitude of drag strips.
Southern California was definitely the hotspot, with drag strips popping up all over. Fontana, Carlsbad, and Pomona are only a few of the popular tracks in SoCal, with the most memorable being Lions Associated Drag Strip in Long Beach. Other extremely popular tracks built during the 1960s were Irwindale Raceway in the San Gabriel Valley and Orange County International Raceway in Irvine, neither of which survived the test of time.
So, why did the boom in drag racing popularity result in such an unfortunate end? For the West Coast, and more specifically Southern California, it was all about population growth and city expansion. With neighborhoods, schools, hospitals, and shopping centers being built at a feverish pace, the cities could no longer afford to allow acres of land to “go to waste.” During the 1970s, hard economic times and the rising costs of racing competitively drove many drag strips out of business, but the increasing safety regulations and city ordinances also caused a great number of drag strip closures.
Southern California had more than twenty drag strips, but that number is drastically lower these days. The only real survivor is Pomona, which is now called Auto Club Raceway, located in the massive Los Angeles County Fairplex. It’s a major NHRA-sanctioned drag strip that hosts the Winternationals (the first event of the NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing season) as well as the Auto Club Finals (the final event of the season).
Other parts of the Western region took advantage of the momentum carried by the great number of racers in the SoCal area. Surrounding states held regular drag races at a variety of legitimate drag strips, with popularity growing in the 1960s, just as it did in California. Drag strips, such as Bee Line Dragway in Scottsdale, Arizona, had great success, but due to a number of reasons could not survive. With ultra-flat land and wide-open spaces, building a drag strip in Arizona proved to be rather easy, but that didn’t mean the folks in the mountainous land of Colorado hesitated to build drag strips as well. The urge to provide a place to race was evident across the country, but it definitely got its start west of the Rocky Mountains.
North and east of California, drag strips appeared frequently, giving car guys a place to race without breaking the law. Washington, Oregon, and Nevada had their share of strips in the heyday of drag racing, but fell to the same troubles as the legendary tracks featured in this chapter. It’s safe to say that drag racing out West had its advantages in the early days of the sport, but racers from the other side of the country made quick work of leveling the playing field.
Huge races with incredible car counts and thousands of spectators gave these Western tracks a very strong reputation, but it wasn’t enough to keep them alive during a tough time for the sport in general. With fewer places to race, the fellows who couldn’t afford to travel eventually gave up on the hobby, which created a vicious cycle of retiring racers and decaying tracks. The result is hundreds of abandoned and repurposed drag strips across the country, hiding in the shadows of today’s big-money professional drag racing series. In the case of most California drag strips, the property didn’t sit abandoned for long. Real estate is extremely valuable in California, so it didn’t make sense for all those acres to lay idle.
While it’s sad to see these hallowed grounds in such poor shape, it’s important to remember the good times, when drag racing was simple, fun, and exciting for everyone involved. Even if you aren’t old enough to have experienced the good times at these legendary racing facilities, it’s easy to see how drag racing became a major motorsport in such a short period of time. The pictures could tell a story all by themselves, but the tales of great innovation, wild action, and unbelievable sportsmanship explain the fascination with West Coast drag racing, as it thrived in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s.
LIONS ASSOCIATED DRAG STRIP
Whether you referred to it as the Beach, LADS, or simply Lions, no one can deny that Lions Associated Drag Strip was the destination for drag racers in the heyday of the hobby. It was a premier track and it certainly left a lasting impression on thousands of performanceminded fellows during its time in operation, so it ranks highly in the world of nostalgia. Many memories, good and bad, were made at Lions, and it certainly went out with a bang, so let’s dig into what made this track so special.
The idea of building a drag strip spawned from a Long Beach judge, Fred Miller, who believed that a legitimate drag strip would reduce the urge to race on the street. A meeting with well-known gearhead Mickey Thompson put the process into motion. For a short time, the track was known as Harbor Area Drag Strip, but it was most commonly known as Lions Associated Drag Strip because the Los Angeles area Lions clubs were the only associations to raise funds for the building of the track. The $45,000 they raised to build the track didn’t quite cut it, so the crew of volunteers took a gamble and pressed on. After working out some of the preliminary details, the deal was struck, and the Los Angeles Harbor Commission leased an unused railyard to the Lions Club on a thirty-day revocable basis. Mickey Thompson was the only paid employee, working as the track manager until the mid 1960s. All proceeds from the track went to charities, as designated by local Lions Club chapters.
On October 9, 1955, Lions Associated Drag Strip held its first event. The track crew expected a large crowd, but when the tally of spectators soared north of 10,000, it certainly overwhelmed the workers. The first event proved its worth, but it took a few years to get the bugs worked out. By 1957, lights had been installed at the track, allowing night racing, which was a huge hit. Lions drew large crowds for its big races, but it also had a great following with its street car and grudge racing events, so it was a well-rounded facility with a certain fl air that was never duplicated.
Part of the unforgettable atmosphere was the fact that its location near the Pacific Ocean offered something that can only be described as “rare air.” The track was at sea level, so it already had an advantage, but the dense air from the nearby ocean gave it a reputation as one of the quickest and fastest tracks in the country. It was truly a destination for racers and spectators from across the country.
Under the management of Mickey Thompson, Lions Drag Strip set the standard for all strips, with its timing system and what is now affectionately known as the Christmas tree. Though not as sophisticated as today’s tree, the starting system at Lions did away with the flagman starter, which made great strides to legitimize the sport. When it was time to resign from track management and focus on his other business ventures, Mickey Thompson passed the torch to C. J. “Pappy” Hart, who ran the facility and helped develop a number of classes, including Jr. Fuel.
Pappy was instrumental in the drag racing world, so it was only fitting for him to manage the country’s premier track during the height of its popularity. He worked hard to keep the track in top form, experimenting with various coatings to enhance traction. Pappy went as far as snagging a chunk of pavement from the defunct San Gabriel Drag Strip to analyze for research.
Steve Evans took over management of Lions in 1972, and worked with the NHRA to hold its Grand Premiere event at the legendary track. Records fell during the NHRA event, and the non-stop action kept spectators buzzing, so Steve was on the right track for a successful term as track manager.
Late in 1972, the Harbor Commission revoked the thirtyday lease agreement with no warning. Neither the Lions Club nor any of the track’s supporters could stop the quick-moving Harbor Commission, which stated the reason was increasing noise complaints. The truth of the matter was that the property was a valuable asset to the Commission, and it had an opportunity to make a large profit by utilizing the property to its full potential. Months later, the track was transformed into a warehouse and shipping yard, but not before one of the most amazing events in drag racing history—“The Last Drag Race.”.
Held on December 2, 1972, the last race ended an era that can never be duplicated in drag racing, but to say Lions went out with a bang would be a major understatement. Already expecting a big crowd, the track crew thought they were prepared, but more than 20,000 spectators made it an overwhelming experience. With virtually no control over the crowd, the track crew could only hope that no one would be seriously injured during the final event. Spectators scaled the fences to get a closer view of the races, and got an early start on the destruction of the track.
Racing went well into the night, with the spectators growing wilder as the minutes and hours ticked away. No one could prepare for the hilarity that ensued after the final round of eliminations, which saw Tom “Mongoose” McEwen outrun Don “The Snake” Prudhomme in an epic Funny Car battle. Later, it was Carl Olson getting past Jeb Allen in the Top Eliminator finals, which was ultimately the last drag race at Lions.
As the last pair blasted down the quarter mile, it was utter chaos as the massive crowd of spectators literally fought for pieces of memorabilia from the famed track. Signs, posters, and anything that could be removed were stripped from the track that very night. The 30-foot-long Lions Drag Strip sign was split into three pieces and hauled home by three groups of spectators, while the racers packed up their machines and waited for their final payout from Lions.
The closing of Lions Associated Drag Strip was heartbreaking to thousands of racers and spectators in the area, but if you missed out on “The Last Drag Race,” you missed one of the wildest drag racing events in the history of the sport. There will never be another track like Lions, but we can reflect on all those good times, thanks to folks like Don Gillespie who have devoted countless hours collecting information, photographs, and videos from the legendary drag strip. Lions will never be forgotten.
ORANGE COUNTY INTERNATIONAL RACEWAY
In the mid 1960s, drag racing continued growing in popularity, evolving over the course of nearly two decades of its legitimate existence. Racers competed at high-brow events, and put on a great show, but marginal amenities for the competitors and spectators created the need for a “super track.” Not an abandoned airfield or a low-budget operation, it was actually a high-class facility that offered the absolute best in terms of safety, spectator satisfaction, and racer appreciation. This facility was called Orange County International Raceway (OCIR).
Built in only six months, the high-tech track was state-ofthe-art in every way, and it certainly wasn’t a singular effort. Initially, Larry Vaughn, Bill White, Mike Jones, and Mike McKenna joined forces to create the concept and successfully obtained a fifty-five-year lease on a 113-acre piece of property in East Irvine where the Golden State and San Diego freeways met. The location offered easy access, but it also offered competition, as Lions and Irwindale were both a mere thirty minutes away. Mike Jones designed the track with high hopes of luxury, and even though reality didn’t quite meet his original expectation, it was certainly a step above any track of the time.
With the help of many investors and business partners, OCIR opened for its first event on August 5, 1967, and set out to take over the drag racing world with its ultra-plush environment. Spectators enjoyed spacious restrooms, clean concession stands, and perfectly positioned seating, while racers took advantage of a flawless racing surface with the utmost safety precautions. The track had an extremely long shutdown area, including a 300-foot sand trap in case a half mile wasn’t enough. OCIR even had rollers, powered by a small-block Chevy engine, to start up the fuelers, which normally needed a push start. Total cost to build the track came close to $750,000.
Originally sanctioned by the NHRA, multiple changes in track management resulted in a five-year deal with the AHRA in 1973. Several managers ran the track through the early 1970s, including Bill Doner and Steve Evans. The track switched back to NHRA sanctioning, with former racer Charlie Allen taking over operations. A major renovation brought the track back to life, and some say that the best years of OCIR were under Charlie Allen’s management. Huge events, such as the “64 funny cars” events, brought in thousands of spectators on a regular basis, but rising taxes and fees made deep cuts into the profit margin.
Another problem was the increase in property development surrounding the OCIR grounds—the end was near. As each year passed, the property owners realized how much the 113-acre piece of property was worth, so the group pushed to take over the property and develop it. Desperate to keep the track alive, one of OCIR’s original team members, Larry Vaughn, was able to squeeze another few years out of the property. The sad fact was that OCIR was the last remaining drag strip in Southern California, as all of the other greats had been closed for various reasons. Lions, Irwindale, Fontana, San Fernando, San Gabriel—they were all gone.
In October 1983, it happened. The last drag race was held, and just as Lions had done more than a decade prior, OCIR went out with a bang. A capacity crowd stayed until 3:00 am to watch the finals, which saw Gary Beck take the win in Top Fuel and Kenny Bernstein take the Funny Car victory in the professional classes. A huge field of bracket racers also turned out for the final event.
What many people don’t know is that the “last drag race” wasn’t technically the last race at OCIR. The following Saturday was the real last race, but it was a low-key event compared to the week before. It gave local racers a chance to sit back and enjoy their last time at the track, and reminisce about the good times and the bad times that OCIR had brought into their lives. It was a sad goodbye, as the “super track” fell victim to Southern California’s ultimate urbanization.
The track’s final operator, Charlie Allen went on to build Firebird International Raceway in Arizona, where he used many components from OCIR. Sitting unoccupied for months, the track was stripped of its grandstands, timing equipment, and anything deemed usable. What was once a state-of-the-art timing tower stood alone in a vast, empty expanse of property, which was later filled with various businesses. The only thing left from the legendary track is the Sand Canyon Avenue gate, but it offers very little nostalgic value, considering the scope of what will always be referred to as the first super track in the world of drag racing.
RIVERSIDE INTERNATIONAL RACEWAY
While the other tracks in this chapter served strictly as drag strips, a facility known as Riverside International Raceway had many more uses. In fact, it was more popular for its road course, which played host to NASCAR, Formula One, and multiple Indy Car events. The idea of a multi-use race track was ingenious because it allowed anyone with an interest in automobiles to partake in the fun, instead of catering to one specific niche of the hobby. As we all know, NASCAR fans aren’t necessarily drag racing fans, and vice versa, so the broad appeal of Riverside International Raceway made for a very profitable business.
The track, originally known as Riverside International Motor Raceway, had been proposed in the mid 1950s, and obviously took a bit more effort to construct than a standard drag strip, due to its complex road course. Even so, it took less than a year from start to finish to build. Riverside’s road course had a total length of 3.3 miles, made up of nine turns and a 1.1-mile straightaway. It didn’t take much consideration to turn the back stretch into a drag strip, as it had plenty of length, plenty of width, and a smooth surface.
The first recorded race at Riverside occurred in September 1957, but it wasn’t a drag race—instead it was a California Sports Car Club road race event. Drag racing at Riverside didn’t begin until 1959, and further track development resulted in a small asphalt oval, which utilized a portion of the road course. It was truly a motorsports park.
In terms of drag racing, the Riverside facility was a popular place. It had all the makings of a professionally sanctioned drag strip, and it was certainly in a nice location for spectator accessibility. And though C. J. “Pappy” Hart of Santa Ana Drag Strip fame had already set the standard length of drag racing to a quarter mile nearly a decade prior, it was decided that Riverside would hold half-mile drags on its extremely long strip. These half-mile events were not sanctioned by the NHRA or any other drag racing organization. The events were put on by the SCTA, the same group that raced regularly on the salt flats and dry lake beds. Because of unfit track conditions, the land speed racers ran at Riverside during what they considered the off-season. Regular drag racers joined in the fun, but the SCTA Half Mile Drags were geared toward land speed cars and lasted for only a few years in the early to mid 1960s.
Standard quarter-mile drag racing at Riverside consisted of the normal West Coast crowd, with big-name fuel cars making up a large portion of the wow factor. The NHRA held regional races at Riverside in the 1960s, but in terms of drag racing, the track may be best remembered for the Hot Rod Magazine Championship Drags, held from 1964 to 1969— what many consider the heyday of drag racing. The Hot Rod Drags had huge sponsorships with very healthy payouts and prizes, so it drew large crowds of racers, which inherently drew large numbers of spectators. These sponsored races were the idea of Hot Rod staffers, Bob Greene and Ray Brock, who worked closely with Wally Parks to create an event that very much mimicked an NHRA national points meet. In fact, the NHRA timed the event, and honored any records set during the events, so it was a legitimate deal.
Riverside underwent major changes in the late 1960s and into the 1970s. The back stretch and adjacent turns were reconfigured to make the road course safer by reducing the speeds possible on the back stretch. This put the drag strip out of commission for some time, and it wasn’t in the best interest of the track to continue holding drag racing events, so Riverside concentrated on its bread and butter (the road course) for several years after the end of drag racing. Nearly fifteen years later, the track again featured drag racing, but for the most part, the thrill was gone.
In general, the track had the most success under the leadership of former NFL player, Les Richter. Highly respected in the racing world, Richter ran the Riverside facility from 1963 until 1983, before handing over the keys to new owner Fritz Duda. During this time, the drag strip was brought back to life for the final five years of its existence. Drag races were held until the track’s last season, but it didn’t cater to the big dogs, as in the old days. The modern era of drag racing at Riverside was best suited for street cars and mild drag cars, rather than all-out fuel cars, which ran there on a regular basis in the 1960s.
As the SoCal population continued to grow, the track’s owner realized the value of his property and closed Riverside International Raceway in 1989. The final major race was held in 1988, but the doors were officially closed the following year. The first new structure to be built on the property was the Moreno Valley Mall, which was completed in 1992. Next, houses filled the southern portion of the track, while other areas remained untouched for a few more years.
Today, there’s nothing left of the old track, aside from the fond memories of each racer who laid rubber on the famous asphalt. Unfortunately, it’s not even recognizable, as the landscape has changed dramatically, but it will forever remain as one of the greatest racing facilities of all time, thanks to its versatility, location, and solid management.
BEE LINE DRAGWAY
Of the four drag strips featured in this chapter, Bee Line Dragway most perfectly embodies the true spirit of an abandoned drag strip—a ghost track if you will. It’s still in the middle of the desert, but the noise of drag racing is long gone, making for an eerie feeling, as the dust blows across the ground, essentially burying the weathered racing surface with loose sand.
Originally built in 1963, Bee Line Dragway offered a convenient place to race for many gearheads in the Mesa, Tempe, Phoenix, and Scottsdale area. It was approximately twenty minutes northeast of Phoenix, and was located in an unpopulated area with very little civilization in sight. The wide-open space of the East Valley didn’t have the same “in your backyard” feeling as many of the other tracks, and that had its good points and bad points. Situated on the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community, Bee Line was built and managed by Jim Rodgers, who was part of a team of investors. Rodgers found the property and obtained a lease from the Native American community, then laid the foundation for what eventually became a world-class drag racing facility. Bee Line Dragway opened in 1963 and wasted little time bagging a major event, the AHRA Winter Nationals, held in February 1964.
During the development of Bee Line, the main objective was safety, as many of the drag strips had earned bad reputations because of poor safety precautions. Bee Line was an extraordinary track that not only kept the safety of spectators in mind, but also that of the drivers, who put their life at risk every time they strapped into the cockpit.
For crowd safety, a 3-foot-high concrete safety barrier separated the racing surface from the spectator area. And for the drivers, the strip of pavement was 60 feet wide and 3/4 mile in length, with another 1/4 mile of runoff area, in the case of throttle hang-ups and ’chute malfunctions. Even if you couldn’t get stopped in the provided mile of pavement, there was literally no structure in sight, so the worries of running out of room were all but gone when racing at Bee Line.
With an initial investment of $125,000 to build the track, it was a top-of-the-line facility, with a glass-enclosed, three-story timing tower and a purpose-built timing system from Chrondek. Racer convenience was also considered during the development of Bee Line, with fully paved pits making life a lot easier for the drivers and the crews, no matter what class they raced.
According to an article in the November 1963 issue of Drag News magazine, Jim Rodgers worked as track manager, while a team of investors helped run the business side of Bee Line. The team consisted of President Tim Rodgers, Vice President Archie Campbell, Secretary William Orr, and Treasurer George Podd, none of whom had any prior drag racing experience, but had plenty of business knowledge. Without question, the track was a big hit, with its high level of details, central location, and extreme safety precautions.
In the pits and spectator areas, concession stands offered food and refreshments, while permanent restrooms added to the convenience factor. A quality PA system with numerous speakers throughout the pits helped racers to hear necessary announcements, such as being called to the staging lanes, which ultimately meant less downtime for the fans. Parking space was virtually unlimited, and Bee Line offered a lot of spectator seating for large events. The track also committed to having emergency vehicles and tow trucks on hand at all times, in case of an accident on the grounds. Many of these details were not yet established at most drag strips, making Bee Line a great place for national meets.
In the beginning, Bee Line was sanctioned by the AHRA, which was a huge competitor to the NHRA sanctioning body. Different rule sets, class structures, and drag strips separated the two organizations, and during the early to mid 1960s,AHRA made a name for itself by allowing nitromethane during the infamous NHRA “fuel ban.” While the AHRA sanctioned numerous small tracks across the country, it made big moves in the industry by making deals with new, high-tech tracks.
As mentioned earlier, Bee Line was selected as home of the AHRA Winter Nationals in February 1964, and continued to host the event until 1974. The second year of the Winter Nationals at Bee Line marked a huge breakthrough in drag racing, as the AHRA set aside a specific class for factory experimental, altered-wheelbase cars, which later became known as A/FX, and then Funny Car.
Through the years, the track remained a drag racing staple in the Phoenix area, and underwent major renovation during the early 1970s. By 1972, the track had a brand-new timing tower, this time much larger and positioned on the opposite side of the track. The huge tower remained unpainted, showing its bare cinder blocks for some time, but was eventually painted to incorporate Winston logos, a major sponsor at the time. As time went on, the track changed to NHRA sanctioning, holding events such as the NHRA Winter Classic, the season opener. The AHRA moved its Winter Nationals event to Tucson, Arizona.
After seventeen years of successful operation and many national events from various sanctioning bodies, a disagreement between track management and the land owners spelled the end of Bee Line Dragway. The Native American Community reclaimed the land, but had no intention of reopening the drag strip. Redevelopment of the property wasn’t part of the plan either—the owners of the property simply abandoned it.
The tower is still standing, but little remains of the racing surface and pits, after more than thirty years of neglect. Large portions of the track were dug up to prevent passersby from making an illegal pass down the deserted strip, and there is now a fence blocking any outsiders from vandalizing the forgotten tower, even though it is covered in graffiti. Although faded, you can still see the Winston logo, as well as various local sponsors, such as Saguaro Automotive. The bleachers are gone, the concrete barriers are gone, and the catwalk is gone . . . just a lonely timing tower remains to tell the story of a track that saw lots of amazing moments and provided nearly twenty years of drag racing action to the greater Phoenix area.
Written by Tommy Lee Byrd and Posted with Permission of CarTechBooks