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Losing track of a special time

A generation ago, Southern California was a drag racing hub with several venues, but growing population and rising land prices led to the demise of most of them. NHRA drivers return to Pomona this week.

October 30, 2007|Jim Peltz | Times Staff Writer

Panning across a vacant strip of asphalt and empty grandstands, a homemade video clip on YouTube.com shows the now silent Los Angeles County Raceway, a drag strip in Palmdale that closed this summer.

It's a requiem for a wind-swept parcel of land that presented drag racing for more than 40 years, a track that outlasted -- until now -- the march of progress that long ago doomed most other such venues.

But a generation ago Southern California was a drag racing capital, with nearly a dozen quarter-mile drag strips from Saugus to Long Beach at various times between the early 1950s and early 1980s. It was drag racing's golden era for many fans, with mostly grass roots racing and celebrated drivers with nicknames such as Don "The Snake" Prudhomme and Tom "The Mongoose" McEwen.

"California was the hub of what was happening in drag racing," said Tom Madigan, a former racer who chronicled the area's racing history in a book this year, "Fuel & Guts: The Birth of Top Fuel Drag Racing."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday, November 17, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 54 words Type of Material: Correction
Motor sports: In the Oct. 30 Sports section, a map accompanying an article on the history of drag racing in Southern California incorrectly placed two defunct raceways. San Gabriel Drag Strip was in Irwindale, not San Gabriel. And L.A. County Raceway in Palmdale was off state Route 138, not just east of Route 14.

Then there was the outsider they all feared, "Big Daddy" Don Garlits, a Floridian who wasn't particularly big in size but whose black "Swamp Rat" dragsters often humbled local drivers on his frequent trips to Southern California.

The region's drag racing heritage comes to mind as the sport's top professional drivers return to Pomona this weekend for the season finale of the National Hot Rod Assn.'s premier circuit, the Powerade Series.

The Auto Club Raceway in Pomona is among the few surviving drag strips in Southern California because it remains to pro drag racing what Indianapolis is to Indy-style race cars and Daytona Beach are to NASCAR. The only others left are a drag strip at the California Speedway in Fontana and a one-eighth-mile strip at Irwindale Speedway. Another survivor is the Auto Club Famoso Raceway in Bakersfield.

Otherwise, the drag strips that once featured mostly amateurs racing in Long Beach, San Gabriel, Colton, San Fernando, Orange County and other Southern California cities are long gone, squeezed out by surging population and land that became too valuable for the sport's nitro-burning, tire-squealing cars and were too noisy for ever-encroaching homeowners.

"It was urban sprawl," Garlits, now 75, said on a recent visit to the Famoso track for a drag racing reunion. "It's not the same as it was when we were getting going in the '60s, when there was a drag strip in every little town, practically."

Drag racing took hold here after World War II, when returning soldiers and others with a few extra bucks and a love of racing built cars they initially ran on dry lake beds. As the hot-rod culture took root in Southern California in the early 1950s, drag racing blossomed as public drag strips began opening, with plenty of land and weather that supported year-round racing.

"At the dry lakes, it was hot, dusty and a long way from here," said Greg Sharp, curator of the NHRA Wally Parks Motorsports Museum in Pomona. "At the [local] drag strip you could go every weekend and your car didn't get filthy dirty."

Whether it's coincidence, as the drag strips have disappeared, the number of accidents and arrests related to illegal street racing has become a major problem in Southern California.

Some former drag strips in Southern California were opened 50 years ago, at least in part, to get the kids off the streets.

One of the region's most popular old strips was Lions, just outside the Long Beach city limits. It was started in 1955 by several chapters of Lions civic clubs, a Long Beach judge and a manager named Mickey Thompson so that people would have a legal place to race. Lions quickly became one of the drag racers' tracks of choice, and Thompson would later become one of Southern California's leading motor sports promoters.

"Each drag strip had its own specific character," Madigan said. "That was important to the guys who ran them. Like Long Beach. You didn't have any nerve if you didn't run Long Beach. It had a mystique about it.

"It's kind of hard to describe, but that drag strip became hallowed ground," he said. "You could smell the oil from the nearby refineries, you could feel the smog."

All the drag strips enabled drivers of modest means to keep racing, and gave fans the opportunity to see flame-spewing, ultra-loud dragsters up close for an admission of $2 to $5. "We ran Long Beach one day and the next day San Fernando," said Tony Waters, 80, a drag-racing pioneer who also attended the reunion at Famoso. "Back in those days the drag strips were everywhere, and everybody could afford it."

Sharp said most racers "ran on a weekly basis and it was open to all-comers, anybody who wanted to come and try to race."

"They would typically be racing for $500 cash or a $500 savings bond, something like that," Sharp said. "But they were all mostly amateurs."

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