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Lead Feet and the Stuff of Legends

Hart, Hunter opened Santa Ana Drags, the nation's first commercial drag strip, in '50. It closed nine years later, but fans revere it. And the old racers still love to speed.

May 31, 2003|H.G. Reza | Times Staff Writer

Creaky joints, an aching back and 92 years on the planet have slowed C.J. "Pappy" Hart. But not when he is behind a steering wheel.

A few years ago, when he was 87 to be exact, a Texas cop wrote him up for speeding. He was doing 85. In his motor home.

Nowadays, though, he drives a Ford Focus, for which he is deeply apologetic. "I like the gas mileage," he allows. "But I can run it at 95 mph when I want to."

Widely credited for turning drag racing into a motor sport when he and Creighton Hunter opened the Santa Ana Drags in 1950, Hart is alive and well. So is Hunter, 83, another old dragster.

Speed may kill, but in the case of the two old dragsters, it's an elixir that keeps them going, still pushing the speed envelope in their own way.

Hunter, a Santa Ana resident, owns a 1933 Ford roadster, a hot rod powered by an eight-cylinder Mercury flathead engine, which he still drives. Parked next to the Ford in Hunter's garage is a four-door Buick Park Avenue, a more conventional senior citizen's car.

But never one to embrace conformity, Hunter ordered the Buick with a supercharged engine. "I don't get passed a lot when I take it out," he said.

Friends for more than 50 years, Hart and Hunter are icons in the hot rod community, the fondly remembered fathers of the Santa Ana Drags, the first commercial drag strip in America. Races were held Sundays on an unused runway at what is now John Wayne Airport, from 1950 to 1959.

"They were pioneers, no doubt about it. Especially Pappy," said Greg Sharp, curator at the National Hot Rod Assn. museum in Pomona. "He started the country's first organized commercial drag strip and left his mark on the sport."

Although nothing more than a memory now, the Santa Ana Drags has taken on mythical proportions among those in motor sports, like a treasured old baseball stadium long since turned to dust.

Reproductions of the strip's decal promoting Sunday drag races at "Orange County Airport" are sold at car shows. Old photographs are collectibles. And when the strip was forced to shut down in the summer of 1959, Life magazine reported its closure with a huge spread on the Southern California street and drag racing scene.

Hunter, a retired oil distributor, sold his interest in the strip to Hart in the first month of operation. Hart, who owned a gas station in Santa Ana at the time, went on to run the strip with his wife, Peggy, a dragster herself.

The Harts are enshrined in the International Drag Racing Hall of Fame, and C.J. -- Cloyce Joe, but always "Pappy" to friends -- is a member of the Motorsports Hall of Fame.

Before organized drag racing, Hart and other speed merchants challenged one another "to drag it out" in illegal street contests. Harbor Boulevard. Baker Street. Golden West Avenue in Huntington Beach. He raced a 1932 Ford roadster with a Cadillac engine that he claims to have topped out at 156 mph in a Mojave lakebed.

Peggy Hart raced a 1933 Willys coupe with a supercharged engine that registered 129 mph as its fastest time in a Mojave race.

According to C.J. Hart and Hunter, they were inspired to establish the Santa Ana Drags at the tip of a Marine bayonet. Racing lore has it that Hart and Hunter held illegal races on an abandoned Navy airfield on what is now Mile Square Park in Fountain Valley.

"The strip was so wide we could run up to eight cars abreast," Hart said. "So you always had good chance of beating somebody."

One Sunday, a truckload of Marines pulled up and chased off the dragsters. Hart and the others continued to race illegally on side streets and thoroughfares alike. City officials in Santa Ana finally suggested that they try an unused runway at Orange County Airport.

Airport officials agreed to rent them the runway for 10% of the gate. Admission was 50 cents, later increased to $1, and racers paid a buck to compete. For an extra 25 cents, spectators could hang around the pits and watch mechanics work on the cars.

Attendance at the first race was about 500, plus 60 or so racers, Hunter recalled. After that, attendance averaged about 2,500. Hart said the final Sunday drew more than 4,000.

Hart also began paying the top eliminators in each class. Winning drivers received $1 per mile and a $4 trophy.

"None of the winners ever got rich," Hart said. "Sometimes the winners would sell the trophy back to us. They'd rather have the money. Other times I'd have to give money to the drivers who didn't win so they could get home."

The Harts did not race. But on most Sundays, Peggy Hart would challenge the winners in her class with her '33 Willys.

Jerry Hart, 65, remembers his mother's races. One of his favorite photos shows her at the starting line inside her Willys, wearing a straw hat for a helmet and with no roll bar in the car.

"When I was a kid, I never thought it was strange to see Peggy in a dragster, competing against men. I thought it was a perfectly natural thing to do," said Jerry Hart.

C.J. Hart and Hunter swear that Peggy Hart, who died in 1980, never lost a drag race. Hart said his wife "loved speed and was an easy shifter who got off the line quick."

The Santa Ana Drags closed because airport operators needed their runway back. So that was that. Many of the dragsters moved off to the Lions Drag Strip in Wilmington. Hart went there too and managed the strip from 1963 to 1971. Though long retired, Hart still has the passion for the roar of a drag strip competition. His summer vacation plans? Catching the drags in Sonoma County.

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