'You'll always be No. 1, John. You're the greatest."
That line from "American Graffiti" is said with hero worship from "Toad" to Big John Milner, the aimless one with the souped-up car who had just won a drag race when the other guy flew off the highway. But to the grown-up movie audience, Toad's words drip with poignancy because we know that having the fastest car in the Valley isn't much to hang your hat on.
I could easily fill up the space today with outrage over the two young men who turned La Paz Road in Laguna Hills into their own private Thunder Road.
Outrage and sympathy and pity are all in play, because a street race is such a senseless way to end a life. And that is what happened Monday night when an 18-year-old lost control of his BMW and died. Two of his passengers were critically injured. The other driver, 20, and behind the wheel in a Mercedes, wasn't injured but faces possible criminal charges. For whatever reasons, my thoughts are turning less toward indignation and more toward lamenting and bafflement.
What makes two young men want to do 90 in the city?
"Are you aware that commercial drag racing started in Orange County?" asks Dave Wallace Jr., a former Orange County resident and president of hotrodnostalgia.com, a mail-order company in Northern California that sells vintage racing memorabilia.
The father of local drag racing, Wallace says, was the late C. J. Hart, who organized races in the 1950s at the Orange County airport. Wallace quotes Hart, who died two years ago at 93, as having said, 'People say I invented drag racing. I didn't invent drag racing. That thing's been going on ever since the second car was made.' "
That suggests the urge to race is in our blood, a notion Wallace doesn't dispute. Southern California was particularly fertile race territory. World War II sent a lot of young men this way and left them with mechanical skills from working on aircraft and Jeeps that they might not otherwise have had. On their California stops, they no doubt saw the glut of cars in the perennial summertime and, most likely, caught a racing bug. And they would have learned local racing lore and of the area's dry desert lakes that featured races often with cars 10, 12 or 15 abreast.
Can Wallace connect those distant dots to today's young men? Can he tell me why they still do the seemingly unthinkable and turn city streets into raceways?
"I've done it myself," Wallace says, now 56. "I've been around it my whole life. I think it's a basic urge to compete. It's really intoxicating when you pull up next to someone. Even today, I've been known to do a short burst with somebody."
Wallace tells of riding in a Ford Taurus with Hart, then pushing 90 years old, and being at a light in the Lake Elsinore area. A young man in a Volkswagen pulled up alongside, looked over at the old man and smirked, Wallace says, because the road ahead was narrowing to one lane. "Hart put his foot to the metal and they raced about 100 yards," Wallace says. Hart "played with him," Wallace says, jockeying for position until forcing the kid to fall in line behind him.
The muscle car era peaked in the early 1970s, Wallace says, replaced with emphasis on smog control and auto safety. Now, \o7vroom\f7 is back, fueled at least in part by what he says is a resurgence of talk about "performance" on TV car commercials.
However, the number of local drag strips has diminished, Wallace says. An Orange County kid "who wants to go run his car" is hard-pressed to find a place and finds it impractical to head for tracks in Irwindale or Fontana.
Wallace expresses sympathy for the Orange County victim.
But he's not baffled by it.
"I think anybody who's ever blasted away from a stoplight can relate to this," he says.
"You'd be surprised at some of the people who have been killed street racing, who should know better. Adults. I was going to run this one guy for 100 yards, but when that fender is right next to yours and he's looking over at you and you're looking over at him, there's that urge to extend it just a bit longer."
It'll do no good for me to moralize about the need to fight the urge.
Maybe, for some, it's in the DNA.
The urge to race.
The urge to risk.
The urge to kill or be killed.
Dana Parsons can be reached at (714) 966-7821 or at dana