When considering the fact that more than
12-hundred drag strips have been built in the United States since
1949, perhaps no single track has ever captured the imagination,
created more legendary figures, or held as many noteworthy events
than a stretch of real estate sitting quietly off the San Diego
freeway in Wilmington, California, just south of Los Angeles.
But don't bother to grab your jacket and camera and set sail for
this holy grail of quarter-mile landmarks, as Lions Drag Strip's
18-year reign ended with "The Last Drag Race" event in
the wee hours of December 2, 1972.
Given this 30-plus year stretch of cruel time since the last pair
of tire-burners scorched the mystical patch of asphalt known initially
as LADS (Lions Associated Drag Strip), today's fans might be wondering,
who the heck cares?
|Two-way runs were tried early on; here's
Calvin Rice preparing to make his "return" run while
starting from the finish line area toward the starting line.
I have been asking myself precisely that for the past three decades
as I pondered some sort of Lions tribute. Initially, I thought this
was due to it's proximity to my childhood home where, as a wide-eyed
kid growing up just a few miles away, I got my start with a Brownie
camera at age 14.
But history - and the words and deeds of those who experienced
the "magic" firsthand, teach us that there is a real and
viable basis for placing Lions at the literal top of the list.
After spending 30-plus years as a drag racing photojournalist and
more recently as a freelance TV motorsports producer for niche shows
on ESPN2 and Speed Vision, I settled on doing an in-depth video
documentary. These past two years, while gathering materials and
research, have become an eye-opening journey into a past filled
with marvelous stories, gripping film and photographic depictions
and heartfelt recollections which, for the sake of argument, explains
Lions' major role in shaping the sport from near infancy to the
format of 320 mile-per-hour rear-engined missiles witnessed today.
|Zane Shubert once tried a dual rear-engine
"sidewinder", but a pair of backwards runs sent the
crude machine to it's demise at the end of a cutting torch.
When it initially came to making a decision to either do the project,
or walk away, a phone call was placed to one of the sport's most
revered figures, C.J. Hart, known to many as "Pappy",
who opened the sport's first commercial dragstrip on an unused airport
landing strip at Santa Ana, Calif., in 1950. He later managed Lions
in the mid to later 1960s.
The gist of the conversation was that he was in his 90s, his health
was in decline, and if I wanted to get any such stories out of the
proverbial horse's mouth, "You better get your butt out here
- and soon," he quipped.
Less than two weeks later I showed up with video equipment at his
door, hence the first interview - and literally Pandora's box of
drag racing lore was opened.
Subsequent cross-country trips netted interviews with such pioneers
and notables as Fritz Voigt, Art Chrisman, Gene Adams, Don Garlits,
Tom McEwen, Don Prudhomme, Tommy Ivo, Chris Karamesines, Connie
Swingle, Roy "Goob" Tuller, Roland Leong, George Bolthoff,
Ed Lenarth, Sush Matsubara, Bill Schultz, Paula Murphy, Don and
John Ewald, Gerry Glenn, Joe Koenig and speed merchants Joe Reath,
Ed Iskenderian, Chet Herbert, chief starter Larry Sutton, promoter
Doug Kruse, photographers Steve Reyes and Jim Kelly and writers
Ralph Guldahl, Dave Wallace and Don Prieto, plus C.J. Hart's son
and Lions announcer, Jerry, likewise announcer and part-time starter,
Tim Kraushaar, Drag News gossip columnist Suzy (Kelly) Beebe and
artist, Tom Hunnicutt, to name a few. Others who graciously allowed
our cameras into their homes were early track photographers Roy
Robinson and Don Hale.
|Before "Big Jim" Dunn became
an NHRA funny car owner, he was burning up the tracks in top
fuel; he campaigned a Volkswagen-bodied creation, plus a couple
of successful Fiat-bodied altered before that.
And then there was Judy Thompson, who recounted her early years
as a young girl infatuated with a quick tempered and hot rod-afflicted
young man who would become the proverbial "speed king"
of the industry, her husband - and Lions' first general manager,
the late-Mickey Thompson. At her home we also spoke with the track's
original "hot" and "stock" car tech directors,
Roy Swanson and Ray Halladay, respectively.
But let's backtrack one moment, because how the track came about
is quite important. At the time period immediately following World
War II, the day's youth had a lot of energy, a dollar in their pocket,
an excess of sedans and roadsters to tinker with (thanks to a bevy
of newsstand magazines later on such as Hot Rod), plus an infant
industry capable of producing go-faster, do-it-yourself bolt-on
parts, much of it from innovative and inquisitive thinkers with
backyard and garage industries born from knowledge gained in area
aerospace and metalworks.
Due to Southern California's year-round mild climate, youthful
hot rod activity was a constant, and initially street and purpose-built
racers converged on several dry lake beds such as nearby El Mirage
and Muroc. The plentiful and unused concrete runways of airstrips
newly abandoned by the military provided equally tempting locations
for airing out one's hot iron. The need for such locations came
at a price, as illegal street racing and highway incidents and deaths
climbed in alarming proportions by the late-1940s, long before freeways
The local police, including Los Angeles police officer Gordon Browning
and specifically Long Beach's Bob Cabot (who along with the Associated
Car Club of Long Beach), made it their business to convince area
car club members to direct their energies toward safer, supervised
activities. A Long Beach judge also became alarmed at the newspaper
headlines and court cases involving street racing and he got behind
a movement to build a local dragstrip. The local Lions Club was
informed, and altogether nine Lions chapters from the Los Angeles
harbor area got involved, a piece of land was secured, bonds were
sold to create working capital, and in the summer of 1955 work began
on the construction of one of the sport's first purpose-built facilities.
Thompson was hired as it's sole paid employee.
|Top fuel legend Don Garlits suffered a
transmission explosion so severe that the cockpit was torn completely
away, leaving the front section and engine by itself. This incident
led to the first successful "front driver" car in
the class - and the death of the "slingshot" one year
Amazingly, Thompson at the time had just built the sport's first
"slingshot" dragster, while he simultaneously operated
a muffler shop, worked at the Los Angeles Times as a pressman, and
was about to take on a job of immense proportions as the dragstrip
The track opened on October 9, 1955 - and so too did a great number
of tales. Take for instance an 11 year-old kid who on that day was
looking for lizards on some property near his home in west Long
Beach when he heard a huge roar of sound. He walked toward the noise,
parted some scrub brush and there he was near the finish line turnoff
of an enormous new drag racing facility. Frank Fedak literally became
a kid who pressed his face against the Cyclone fence for a closer
look at the smoke-belching cars at the starting line. Within several
years he became a regular competitor - and winner in the elite top
fuel and junior fuel divisions. Before that his family moved to
nearby Garden Grove, and at 14 he introduced his next-door neighbor
to the sport, a kid named John Mulligan (later of top fuel Beebe
& Mulligan fame).
|Wild action from the altered wheelbase
A/FX machines drew huge crowds and new legions of fans, as shown
here by Dickie Harrell's Chevy Nova well past the starting line.
At the start the cars were mostly dry lakes racers, but quarter-mile
specific machines soon became the norm. And Lions' location in the
literal center of civilization and later on conveniently at the
south Alameda off-ramp of the newly-built 405 (San Diego) freeway,
was the place to witness big league racing every Saturday evening
for the hot cars, and again on Sundays during stock and bracket
Much innovation and bravado was displayed in the early going, with
initial sanction through the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA),
which was itself formed "as a social club" some five years
prior. Through Thompson's efforts it was the first track to utilize
an electronic starting system instead of a flagman, for example.
Later it would become one of the first to place electronic monitoring
equipment at specific intervals along the track for
increment times, incorporate concrete starting line pads, roller
starters replaced unsafe push starts due to a frightening dragster
accident in the mid-1960s and is a track where the advertising of
major match races was born and flourished. It was also the second
dragstrip to draw crowds from Saturday night racing "under
the lights" (Saugus was the first), and as luck would also
have it, Lions was located just a couple of city blocks from where
the sport's first "weekly bible" was published - Drag
After a year-and-a-half of successful operation, on February 3,
1957 a stunning series of runs by nitro-burning dragster pilot Emory
Cook's San Diego-based machine netted a best of 166.97 mph, resulting
in seven area dragstrips who voted to place a total ban on fuel
competition. The infamous "fuel ban" initially hit Lions
and area racers hard, but resulted in some of the most innovative
and exciting times in the sport's history. It also
spawned the successful creation of an alternative event - the U.S.
Fuel and Gas Championships at Bakersfield (a three hour drive north),
and when NHRA adopted the gas-only limitations for all of their
sanctioned tracks, including it's handful of national events, the
result was the elevation of a rival organization who indeed placed
a premium on nitro-burning machines as major drawing cards, hence
the emergence of the American Hot Rod Association (AHRA) with the
likes of Don Garlits, Setto Postoian and Chris Karamesines, among
|Perhaps no one made more runs, drove more
exotic and tempermental cars - or commanded more match race
boos than Long Beach local, Tom McEwen, who was given the nickname
"Mongoose" by Ed Donovan from a character in Kippling's
"Jungle Book" as a response to his nemesis Don "Snake"
Because a single-engine, gas-burning powerplant could only produce
so much horsepower, inventive racers started to employ two engines;
some placed inline like Lefty "Allen" Mudersbach, Glen
Stokey, (John) Peters & (Nye) Frank (whose Quincy Auto rail
was later known as the "Freight Train") and Chet Herbert's
next-door neighbor, Zane Shubert. Others were side-by-side sensations
including Tommy Ivo's, Howard Johansen's "Twin Bear",
(Jim) Nelson & (Dode) Martin's "Two Thing", Thompson
and Voigt's "Monster", (Don) Hampton & Dye's "Too
Bad", plus consistent early winner "Jazzy Jim" Nelson's
twin-Merc with a Fiat body. The envelope was finally reached when
former-child actor Ivo tried a four-engine creation called "Showboat",
which was relegated to exhibition runs when it spooked NHRA officials.
The mid-1950s also witnessed the last days of the flathead, as
Chrysler, Olds and Chevrolet V8 engines became the norm, and these
were soon being topped with superchargers for greater power. With
most of these racers building their own machines from the ground
up (including Jerry Baltes' dragster frame built using his daughter's
swing set), some like the locally-based "Bustle Bomb"
came with an engine in the front, and one in the rear. Art Arfons
towed in from Ohio with his Allison aircraft-powered behemoth; utilizing
one of the sport's first parachutes. Another rear-engine oddity
housing a blown Chrysler initially built by Paul Nicolini and later
campaigned by Chuck Jones and Joe Mailliard, became known as the
"Sidewinder" and from 1959 was driven solidly by a gas
station operator from the area, Jack Chrisman (Art's uncle), who
later drove a series of other cars to great success, including single
and dual-engined dragsters for Mickey Thompson, plus an all steel-bodied
Mercury Comet with a blown, nitro-burning engine in 1964 that became
one of the sport's first funny cars.
|Motorcycles were also part of the Lions
roar, as shown here by the homemade "Barn Job". In
the early days the top motorcycle would be paired with the fastest
car for top eliminator, which the two-wheelers claimed on many
All of this innovation, lack of adequate safety and the sheer numbers
of cars that congregated at Lions (because it's proximity to the
ocean meant incredible air and power-producing capabilities), came
at a price. In fact, by the time Lions reached the mid-1960s, it
had claimed more lives than in all previous years of the Indianapolis
500. When it closed, more than 18 are known to have perished there,
some famous and others anonymous.
Names that have long since faded from the headlines included such
notables as Leonard Harris, nephew of Ansen wheel and speed shop
founder, Lou Senter, who won more than a dozen straight top eliminators
with engine master Gene Adams and chassis builder Ronnie Scrima,
plus Mickey Brown, the first man to top 150 on gasoline; both died
there while testing cars for fellow racers. Joe "The Jet"
Jackson lost his life while also trying out a car for another team.
Jackson literally lived out of his push-car - ironically a hearse,
after having moved from Maine to California during the winter months
with his red top fuel dragster in search of drag racing paydirt
that never came. Dave Gendian was the first, and others like Pete
Petrie, Harrell Amyx and Boyd Pennington joined a growing toll on
the sport's pioneering dark side.
Other incidents were less tragic and have become the basis for
time-tested lore. Current NHRA official starter Rick Stewart crashed
at speed in the mid-1960s, and when he asked a nurse at the hospital
why the world was on fire, she told him he had suffered a head injury.
Stewart reportedly asked again why the world appeared on fire while
looking through the window, and she responded, oh yeah, the Watts
Riots just started.
Zane Shubert once made a pass there in a twin front-engine machine
in which his feet resided under the rear-end, and when someone negated
to properly fasten his restraining belts, he was thrown out of the
cockpit after deployment of the parachute; he managed to hold onto
the steering wheel with his face was pressed next to the back engine's
magnetos, while looking rearward toward the starting line through
|Many a racer ventured to Lions in search
of fame and glory, as did Maine's Joe Jackson, who lived in
his hearse push-car during midweek, and died in a friend's dragster
Long Beach resident Gary "Rocket Man" Gabelich once crashed
in the fog, and wasn't found for the longest time. And when they
finally reached his dragster upside-down and under a fence, his
first question was "Did I win?" Glen Stokey also went
through the infamous Willow Street barrier with a dragster, and
the first person on the scene was an elderly man, who saw the blossoming
parachute and rollcage bolt from the sky and asked safety personnel,
"When did they start dropping these out of airplanes?"
Engle Cams general manager Don Moody likewise had a terrible-looking
accident at speed in Dave Zeuschel's fueler one night, and when
the dust settled, after taking out scores of recently installed
plywood fencing, he was found sitting on the track with nothing
but a shell of seat between his rear and the asphalt - with literally
no injuries. And in the funny car days of the early 1970s, the Beaver
Brothers had quite a scare the night their
"L.A. Hooker" machine had the throttle stick just as two
crewmen lowered the body - and went on one heck of a ride until
half-track, where the two crewmen fell off, got up and walked away
lucky. The tale was told by owner Gene Beaver's nephew - a kid who
got his start in the sport with his mom's car at Lions, John Force.
Perhaps my favorite was a contest between Bill Maverick's "Little
Red Wagon" and Chuck Poole's "Chuck Wagon" wheelstanders.
In their final round with the scored tied, Maverick shocked the
crowd when he set his front end down in the actual sand trap without
too much damage and just a few yards from the property fence, and
was feeling pretty good about his pending victory. But Poole would
have none of it, and when he became disoriented from the fog past
the finish line, he drove, wheels-up, past Maverick, through an
opening in the fence, down an access road, out the gate, and crashed
upside-down into the adjoining property - the winner!
|With pits jammed full of racecars on a
given Saturday, the infamous Lions "watering hole"
proved an interesting place to visit after dragster qualifying.
In those days there was sheer power in numbers, and following the
lifting of the fuel ban in 1962 the numbers of fuelers in the southern
California area grew to nearly one hundred. While you now have to
wait all year for a sizable drag racing national event show in your
"market", it was not unusual in the mid-1960s to witness
more than 60 top fuel cars on a given weekend at Lions. Some events
like the Mickey Thompson 200 Mile-Per-Hour Club Meet had 64-car
Toss in a match race with the blown, gas-burning Willys of "Big
John" Mazmanian versus "Stone, Woods & (Doug) Cook"
during what became the infamous "cam grinder wars", long
lines of blown AA/Fuel and gas Altereds, AA/Gas Supercharged Anglias
and Austins, wheel-stander and jet car oddities, (injected) junior
fuel dragsters (started at Lions by Hart), top gas dragsters and
later nitro funny cars - and even an injected funny car class and
every sort of two-wheeler imaginable, and you get some sense of
made this place so special in terms of depth. Oh, did I mention
that in the early years they used to run the stock cars four at
a time, because there were so many!
Another facet of the track was it's unique layout, with pit-side
grandstands so close to the racing surface that dragster pilots
who were push-started from the finish line toward the starting line
said that the fans leaning over the fence could practically slaps
hands as they drove past prior to a run. Also, the finish line "on
deck" road was near another set of large
grandstands, allowing spectators the opportunity to converse at
the fence with racers while awaiting the call to suit up. It was
not unusual to see little kids chatting with big name drivers in
their firesuits just prior to their flame-throwing, on-track excursions.
Likewise, the physical layout was built to where the enormous pits
funneled to conclusion under the timing tower behind the starting
line like a sieve, and as a spectator you could stand there and
literally rub elbows with engine builders Black, Sid Waterman, Ed
Pink and Dave Zeuschel, plus Isky, Leonard Van Luven, Bruce Crower,
Dean Moon, Donovan and writers Guldahl, Prieto, Wallace and Terry
Cook as they and the drivers and car owners exchanged barbs, ideas
and laughter - then watched as metallic-suited men climbed into
machines so volatile and dangerous that some never made it home
|Mickey Thompson literally did it all while
managing Lions, as he also ran his El Monte muffler shop, was
a pressman for the Los Angeles Times and was simultaneously
building a speed parts enterprise - including construction of
his four-engine Bonneville streamliner "Challenger"..
From a perspective of ambience, the huge petroleum refineries to
the west, which were always burning off excess fuel with large feathers
of flame and smoke, plus a mass of tall electric powerline towers
just to the east gave the place a feeling of enormous power and
provided an eerie backdrop. Toss in the smell of hot dogs, tamales
with chili, your hand wrapped around the latest copy of Drag News,
souvenir booths sometimes manned by a guy who would airbrush you
a Rat Fink t-shirt - named Ed "Daddy" Roth, plus a wad
napkins needed to wipe the dew from your seat as the night air grew
thick, and you get some idea of what a typical night was like at
Lions - for 18 years!
In its mid-to-latter stages the dragster boys put up a valiant
series of political stands with big United Drag Racers Association
(UDRA) meets; coupled with area meetings and boycotts designed to
force NHRA to pay more monetary rewards and resolve safety and licensing
issues; some worked and other attempts failed. By the mid-1960s
the diggers were then slighted as the southeastern FX/AFX and funny
car craze took stage with a literal stranglehold, then top fuelers
made a comeback with a couple of epic "dragster-only"
PDA meets run impeccably by fabricator, Doug Kruse. Eventually both
classes lived side-by-side until the end.
Just before the axe fell Lions was the setting for one of the most
dramatic series of runs in the sport's history, when Don Garlits,
the front-engine dragster "king", came to the line in
the finals on March 8, 1970 during a meet under the track's then-AHRA
sanction (and management of C.J. Hart). At the flash of green the
transmission exploded in his "Wynn's Charger" and cut
the car completely in half from his feet forward. Garlits was sent
just past the staring line, minus a portion of his right foot above
the arch, plus a spectator also lost an arm in the incident.
Garlits returned to the racetrack early the following year to officially
debut a machine that placed the engine safely behind the driver,
and with a slower steering ratio which alleviated the problems faced
by many of the sport's earlier back-motored machine. His final round
showing and realized success (as he went on to win the NHRA Winternationals
and Bakersfield March Meet in subsequent weeks) started a land-rush
movement which obsoleted the front-engine "slingshot"
within a year.
|Early Lions gas dragster and top eliminator
standout Fritz Voigt teamed up with Thompson later on and together
they campaigned this frightening, four-wheel drive and twin-engine
dragster "The Monster", which later became a Bonneville
Amazingly, after it's first pass at Lions, while sitting on the
return road, a new funny car driven by John Collins crashed, and
the complete running engine made a beeline for Garlits and the new
dragster. It bounced straight up in the air, glanced off the cowling
on one side of the dragster, then kept on rolling. Both Garlits
and crew chief Tommy T.C. Lemons commented that, had that engine
hit the dragster any harder, because of their heavy race schedule
(and with another front-engine car ready to go), they may have never
rebuilt that rear-engine car.
The remaining season-and-a-half witnessed Steve Evans as it's third
manager, who gave the track a fresh new look and a major NHRA season-opener
(while returning to NHRA sanction) with the Grand Premier, plus
an adjacent motocross motorcycle track was built to increase income.
But with Wednesday night grudge racing, Friday motorcycles, Saturday
and Sunday drag racing, it was becoming a further nuisance to nearby
homeowners. Shortly thereafter when the next-door-neighbor "Lone
Star Mothers" (who were widows or wives of military men living
in large housing complexes) pressured local officials to revoke
the track's lease with the Los Angeles Harbor Commission, he became
the reluctant architect of an epic, "The Last Drag Race",
which fittingly pitted Tom McEwen against Don Prudhomme in the funny
car final. The last two cars to officially grace the Lions surface
occurred between eventual winner Carl Olson and Jeb Allen; both
were kids who literally grew up there and later became top fuel
Well, the above paragraph is partially correct, and points to more
of the colorful commentary and laughter I hope everyone - young
and old, will derive from the video, dubbed "Lions - The Greatest
Off-the-record the final pass was made sometime later before sun-up
by the track's official starter, Larry Sutton and his assistant,
Bill Keys - and it was accomplished while they were being towed
down-track by a rather intoxicated individual driving a station
wagon while standing inside a wooden outhouse. Realizing their predicament
at speed well into the run
(especially considering the size of the crowd that day and the contents
of the "hold"), the rope was nervously cut, the outhouse
then smacked a guardrail, spun a few times - and Sutton and Keys
emerged from their confines right at the finish line alive and "in-the-lights".
|With upwards of 100 top fuel dragsters
in the southern California area, side-by-side tire-scorchers
were a normal sight and featured some of the biggest names in
If you think that's an isolated case, there's a whole bunch more
to be found on the video, scheduled for release to the general public
by late-2004. To date more than 52 individuals were interviewed
on-camera and a huge amount of never before seen 8-mm home movie
and 16-mm film, plus close to a thousand still photos including
the work of Reyes, Kelly and Don Varian (thanks to Dick Towers/Match
Race Madness) Robinson, Hale, Jere Alhadeff, Norm Grudem, Doug Hayes,
Alan Earman and Mickey McIver, plus the Don Garlits Museum of Drag
Racing and NHRA Motorsports Museum, for example, have been
acquired. There's even a 8-mm film which surfaced within the past
two years of the infamous Garlits front-engine accident that you
must see to believe.
A separate trip to Colorado last summer likewise allowed access
to a private individual's film collection, who had footage of the
track being built from "day one", plus the original film
reels from KTTV (Los Angeles), of a 90-minute black-and-white "live"
television broadcast from Lions in September 1961. Included on this
are interviews with the likes of Jack Chrisman, Gary Cagle, Stokey,
Prudhomme, McEwen, Dode Martin, Ronnie
Hampshire, Bob Muravez, Mudersbach, plus the show was even emceed
by track manager Mickey Thompson, himself.
Other snippet items of interest include an audio taped interview
with "Wild Willie" Borsch, conducted in 1988 before the
legendary AA/Fuel Altered pilot's untimely passing. Also, the current
property owners allowed our cameras onto the facility, which provides
an interesting before-and-after perspective, including panorama
views from the rooftop of their multistory office tower.
|With Hollywood nearby the track became
the scene of numerous movie and TV show shootings over the years,
as exhibited here during an episode for the Musters called "Hot
Rod Herman". That's Ansen Automotive's Lou Senter posing
with "Herman" character actor, Fred Gwynn.
As a final thought, consider the plight of Mickey Williams, a weekly
bracket racer who lived for the excitement of Saturday nights and
Sunday afternoons when he competed with his Bracket 3 machine at
Lions, until being drafted in late-1968. After only a couple of
months in the jungles of Viet Nam, near the DMZ, with only his purple
Lions jacket tucked along for luck, a rocket-propelled grenade shattered
his tank; Williams lucked out, but three companions were killed
instantly. He was somehow rescued and patched back
together with more than 12-hundred stitches.
All he wanted in life, at that point, was to retain a pulse - and
witness the sights, sounds and smells of Lions one more time. After
many operations and months of painful recovery, he was returned
to his home near Long Beach and soon thereafter loaded into an awaiting
car and driven to a piece of property officially listed at the corner
of 223rd and Alameda. As he caught a glimpse of the starting line
sign and those immense grandstands, a smile no doubt returned to
his face, as he officially came "home".
Lions was like that to a lot of other people, from the hardest
of the hardcore racers and even to the casual spectators. Times
were different back then, and what this video will convey is the
sense of history and significance, with a tinge of reverence, and
a large dose of visual smoke and thunder.
It was life at it's best; a quarter-mile at a time. Perhaps the
grandest ever in the theater of drag racing.
And Lions was the front row seat.
Don Gillespie would love to hear your input and if you have
anything you would like to add to his documentary, his email address
is [email protected]