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Finish Line Comes Early

Use of Inyokern's airport turned reckless young drivers into safe competitors 51 years ago. An FAA edict is about to end a public-spirited tradition.

October 10, 2005|Andrew H. Malcolm | Times Staff Writer

INYOKERN, Calif. — During the first Eisenhower administration, Sheriff "Mac" McKernan had a dangerous problem with young people racing hot rods on Kern County's rural roads around here. So he helped the kids form a nonprofit group and arranged for them to drag race legally and safely on a taxiway of this town's little-used airport.

For 51 years, three generations of local families have gathered at what purports to be the world's oldest continuously operated drag strip. At times reaching 200 mph, their homemade dragsters flashed, roared and sometimes sputtered down that quarter-mile of pavement, earning unquantifiable glory and uncounted memories. The racers paid rent to the airport and donated other funds, such as race entry fees, to local charities such as the Boy Scouts or someone needing an organ transplant.

California has long been known for its love of cars and culture of speed; the National Hot Rod Assn. isn't headquartered here by accident. But although Inyokern Airport is still little-used, airport security has new meaning today, and the Inyokern drag races are coming to a sudden stop.

Transportation Security Administration officials don't object. But after half a century of apparently looking the other way, the Federal Aviation Administration has threatened the airfield's certification and federal funding if non-aviation activity such as drag racing continues beyond the next meet, a major regional race for young drivers set for Friday and Saturday.

An FAA inspector issued the order recently after a routine inspection of the county-owned and -operated airport, a move that puzzled and saddened locals.

"We're just regular working folks in an isolated place," said Dennis Garrett, a 70-year-old racer who helped found the local Dust Devils Car Club and today is its president. "Our families have a stake in the community, and along comes this L.A. guy with no offer to sit down and issues his shutdown orders. This isn't some international airport, you know."

Indeed, the 1,660-acre Inyokern Airport's scarce private aviation activities and three daily flights to LAX are so widely spaced the terminal is often locked. Someone drives the sun-baked, wind-blown runways most mornings to shoo away coyotes. And the official baggage claim area for IYK is a folding table.

Airport manager Nancy Bass is in such a difficult position, she's decided to retire in December. She's charged with maximizing airport revenue. But there are only so many rental hangar spots and so much demand for aviation gas. And the parking -- long- and short-term -- is free of charge.

Bass helps make ends meet by charging the club $1,000 per racing day. And there is occasional income from film producers who cherish the old-fashioned buildings, unobstructed mountain vistas and sunny days.

"Runways and taxiways were built to serve aviation," Tony Garcia, an FAA airport compliance specialist, wrote in the desist order after a spring inspection. "If racing promoters are allowed to use airport infrastructure, they are, in effect, [forgoing] their own investment in a racetrack and, instead, being allowed to capitalize on the public's investment that was intended to exclusively serve aviation."

But Garcia's letter ("use of runways, taxiways, or ramps for non-aeronautical purposes is inappropriate") seems to threaten filming too.

An FAA spokesman, Donn Walker, acknowledges that the FAA allows movie and commercial filming at LAX but said his agency has previously expressed disapproval of drag racing, an airport use that appears exclusive to Inyokern.

"These activities have always not been allowed," Walker said. "This is a small airport in an out-of-the-way place, and now we'd like this activity to desist."

For decades, the airport temporarily closed Taxiway A six or seven weekends a year. Although flight operations could continue on other taxiways and all three runways, drag-racers and their families, from as far as Arizona, would compete in quarter-mile races lasting 6 seconds on up.

The timing equipment and cars are more sophisticated today, but the drag racer's collegiality survives, with competitors helping one another fine-tune their machines and children following in the tire tracks of their parents.

"It's a nice family atmosphere," said Steve Parsons, a 40-year-old perennial local champion who has gone on to win major races at other tracks.

Parsons and other Dust Devils often spoke to shop classes in Ridgecrest schools, urging students to visit the taxiway for special "high school days" when safe, legal racing could be taught off the streets. The club's public address system was also available for loan to local clubs and parades.

"So many things don't work in our society," Parsons said. "Yet here's something positive that does, and some guy wants to crush it. I don't understand."

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