Spread over 240 acres of the Los Angeles County Fairgrounds parking lot this week have been more than 500 drag racing machines, ranging from the $1-million operation of funny car champion Kenny Bernstein to the backyard garage stock eliminator of Linda Myers, a deputy coroner from Victorville.
They are there for the 28th running of the Chief Auto Parts Winternationals, traditionally the most successful of the National Hot Rod Assn.'s 16-race, $15-million world championship drag racing season.
Last year's final eliminations attracted 54,000 spectators to the Pomona Fairplex, the highest single-day attendance in drag racing history. An even larger crowd is anticipated today.
Drag racing is undergoing a golden era boom unparalleled in racing.
Last year, more than one million spectators attended 14 NHRA national events, a combined audience of more than 200 million viewers watched drag racing on television, more than 120 companies participated in a sponsorship program that offered $14 million in contingency prizes and the roster of the NHRA reached more than 56,000, including 160 member tracks and 20,000 registered competitors.
"There are many reasons, but foremost I believe, are television exposure, the continued financial support of Winston as our series sponsor, an increased involvement in Detroit for high-performance cars and the fact that spectators can get right alongside the cars in the pits," said Dallas Gardner, president of the Glendora-based drag racing organization.
"Television stimulated more awareness of drag racing, and we are sure that when viewers saw the professionalism of our competitors, it gave them a different perception of what our sport is all about."
Indeed, the row upon row of high profile 18-wheelers--rolling machine shops as well as traveling billboards--that fill the Pomona parking lot with their sophisticated, space-age race cars, must shock old-timers who remember not too many years ago when most arrived towing cars from home with spray can paint jobs.
The big deal when Wally Parks took hot-rodding off the streets and dry lakes of Southern California to found the NHRA in 1951 was arguing over the merits of the Ford flat-head against the Chevy 6.
Today's cars are one-of-a-kind creatures that are put through wind tunnel tests before they ever show up on a racing strip, and when they do run, every twitch of the throttle, clutch, tires and driver is measured by computers.
But one thing remains from the old days, and that may be the true measure of drag racing's popularity.
For the price of a pit pass, spectators--even children--can gather around a car, from Dick LaHaie's world champion top fuel dragster to Tony Foti's '67 Camaro super gas eliminator, to watch crews at work. Foti is a police officer from Simi Valley whose LAPD Racing Team entry looks like a patrol car, complete with the blinking red light.
"Sometimes people crowd in so close that we can barely get around to work on the car, but just when I'm about to get angry with them, I remember that they are really the backbone of our sport," said (Big Daddy) Don Garlits, the premier driver and innovator in drag racing.
"We're the only sport where the fans can get close enough to touch the cars and watch the mechanics working on the engine. They actually can get closer to us than they can to their own cars at their hometown garage."
It is not unusual to see thousands of fans still milling around the garages at the same time that cars are running eliminations.
"I've been coming out here for 20 years at least to see the Winternationals because it's the one chance I have to see what guys like Garlits and (Don) Prudhomme have for their new setups," said Greg Smith, a Pasadena pool contractor. "I know it's been 20 years because I've been bringing my son Tim every year and he's 20 now."
The cars and crews aren't the only attraction in the pits. A manufacturers midway, featuring products of the major sponsors, is like a gallery of high-performance equipment. Products are not for sale, but many offer decals, brochures, souvenirs, T-shirts and photographs.
"It's like going to Disneyland," Gardner said. "Some of the larger sponsors even hand out shopping bags, and after walking up and down the pits, a youngster can get it chock full of things to take home.
"A father and his son can get to the races at 8 or 9 in the morning and stay until 5:30 in the afternoon and spend the day breathing nitro and burning rubber and see a motor sports exposition at the same time. They'll go home exhausted, but happy and loaded with souvenirs."
The beginning of drag racing's increased popularity occurred with the arrival of two organizations in 1975 and 1976. In 1975, the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. joined forces with the NHRA to sponsor the Winston World Championships. And the next year, NHRA contracted with Diamond P Sports of Woodland Hills to produce and package all its television shows.