Where did they go?
Once the Promised Land for drag racing, Southern California is nearly a ghost town...

By Steve Ramirez; Photos by Steve Ramirez, Don Gillespie

RELATED STORY: The County

It was the era of Jan and Dean, the Beach Boys, Mel's Drive-Ins and Hot Rods.

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 the sport.

 

They called it the glory years of the straight-line set. If you were a drag racer, the place to be was Southern California, which featured an estimated two dozen drag strips between 1950 and the early 1980s.
It was a hot-rod haven. On any given weekend, racers and fans could be at Lions Dragstrip in Long Beach, Calif. one night, at Irwindale Raceway the next and finish it off at the creme de la creme - Orange County International Raceway.

Now fast forward to today, and the view is quite different. Lions is a storage facility for ocean-bound shipping, Irwindale is a Miller Brewing Co. brewery and OCIR - the one-time drag racing utopia - is a technology business complex.


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Shot from Barranca Parkway in Irvine and overlooks the approximate location of OCIR from behind the starting line. Where once there was the track and tower, now sits some office buildings.

 

What happened?

How could Southern California, considered the birthplace of drag racing, become a dragstrip graveyard?

The answer is quite simple.

"The racing wasn't the main reason for those sites to be there in the first place," said Howard Osmer, a noted motor sports author whose book "Where They Raced: Lap 2" details the accounts of past auto racing  venues in Southern California, including the legendary drag strips from the area's past. "It was a case of the property being vacant and that the drag racers were allowed to run their races there. You had some purpose-built places later (Lions, Irwindale and OCIR), and those lasted for a longer time, because they were privately run and operated. But in time, those did give way to land-value pressures."


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The center of this vacant lot was approximately where the OCIR sand pit was located.

 

Another important factor was that initially drag racing was never intended to be a spectator sport. Wally Parks founded the National Hot Rod Association as a way to curve illegal street racing by forming car clubs and organizing races on dry lake beds and abandoned air strips.

"This is were drag racing got started, here in Southern California," Osmer said. "Part of the thing was that the guys where doing their street racing, and they kept getting harassed by the (police). But the cops weren't the bad guys. In fact, they started arranging some legitimate events, and when they did that, then other people started to realize they could hold these races and make it a spectator event. That's where the development of legitimate drag racing came into play."

The first being in 1950 when C.J. "Pappy" Hart, Creighton Hunter and Frank Stillwell received the OK from Orange County and Santa Ana city officials to set up races on an unused runway at Orange County Airport, and Santa Ana Dragstrip, now John Wayne Airport, was born.

Soon other drag strips cropped up in Fontana, Carlsbad and other communities throughout Southern California. But the crown jewels were Pomona Raceway at the Los Angeles County Fairgrounds, Lions Dragstrip in Long Beach, Irwindale Raceway in the San Gabriel Valley and OCIR in Irvine.

These tracks gave Southern California four of the top racing venues, at least at the time, among the best in the country. The facilities combined local racing with some first-rate spectacular match-race shows that featured the brightest drag racing stars of the era, competitors like "Big Daddy" Don Garlits, Shirley "Cha-Cha" Muldowney, Don "The Snake" Prudhomme, Tom "The Mongoose" McEwen, "Junge" Jim Liberman, John Lombardo, and others.


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Shot from the 210 freeway that overlooks the Miller Brewery in Irwindale where Irwindale Raceway once sat.

 

Yes, by the late 1960s, Southern Californian was a drag racing nirvana.

Then the roof caved in. And the main culprit was a population boom that quickly spread beyond the Los Angeles city limits. By the 1970s, homes and business complexes replaced the once wide-open spaces. And the drag strips, were doomed. Only Pomona Raceway survived, mainly because its site was on the grounds of one of the largest and most-recognized county fairs in the country.

"It's a shame," said Steve Gibbs, the former track general manager at Iwindale Raceway and NHRA competition director who is now retired and a member of the NHRA Wally Parks Motorsports Museum board. "There used to be a lot of tracks around here. But it was just real estate value. It was valuable land, and you just couldn't justify tying it up with a dragstrip."

Lions, which carried a 30-day revokable license for the length of it's lease, was the first of the big three to bite the dust. The Los Angeles Harbor Commission, acting on noise complaints from nearby residents, revoked the track's permit after 18 years. Later was it revealed that the commission revoked the track's license, not due to noise complaints, but because it wanted to use the land as part of its harbor expansion project.

Shot from First St. in Irwindale of the Miller Brewery entrance.

 

Irwindale Raceway's demise was similar. The city of Irwindale used its eminent domain powers and leased the property to the Miller Brewery Company in 1976. The city charged the beer company giant just a dollar a year to build a brewery.

OCIR, tabbed the sport's first super track when it opened in 1967, lasted barely 16 years, finally succumbing in 1983 to the land-value pressures that doomed its sister tracks.

"The city of Irwindale was able to strike a deal with Miller to bring in the brewery," Gibbs said. "From a financial point, it was a great deal."
Nearly 25 years later, very few facilities have replaced the triple crown trio, and money is credited as one of the main reasons for the dearth of tracks in Southern California.


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Pomona's Fairplex stands as one of the So-Cal tracks still in existence and some even question whether that is something that will be long range.

 

"The thing was that even if you had a dragstrip that was ran and operated well, it's only open two or three nights a week," Osmer said. "So you had five nights a week were it just sits there and nothing is happening. The property's not being utilized in a proper way. It's an inefficient land use."

The increase cost of fuel racing also has to be considered for the demise of the Southern California tracks. During their day, while these tracks offered a good venue for street racers, the facilities made the bulk of their revenues with the Top Fuel and Funny Car shows, which generally drew large crowds. But as costs went up, teams dwindled. The motherlode had dried up.

"In the early days, there was no series, no 23 races," Gibbs said. "It was every track for themselves and there were a lot of teams in Southern California. You could have a show where 30-40 cars would show up for the weekend.

"But as it became more of a professional series, it was becoming hard to stock these tracks. It's just evolution, I guess."
But recently, Southern California has seen a slight resurgence.
Irwindale Speedway, a NASCAR-sanctioned oval track that opened in 1999, built an eighth-mile dragstrip on its property in 2001 and features a street-legals show every Thursday night. It also hosts monthly Summit Racing Bracket Series events.

A new Irwindale Dragway exists as part of the oval track facility.

 

Fontana's California Speedway, which hosts two Nextel Cup events each year in February and September, followed suit and put in Auto Club Dragway - a quartermile strip in one of its many parking lots. The track, which recently moved the strip to  another part of the facility earlier this year, runs a variety of different racing programs between the two NASCAR dates. In June, it played host to a NHRA Division 7 Lucas Oil Series race.

For San Diego participants, there's Barona Dragstrip in El Cajon, which since 2003 has held street legal events on it's eighth-mile strip.
But Auto Club Raceway at Pomona, formerly Pomona Raceway, is still the only facility that can house a national event, hosting both the Winternationals and the Auto Club NHRA Finals. The famed track became a permanent facility by 1992 with a 14,600-square foot tower and a permanent grandstand.

The track may soon get some competition, if you believe Andy Marocco, president of All-American Racing.

Marocco has plans to build a $10-million facility near Banning Municipal Airport, which is about one hour east of Pomona.

His Drag City project, which has survived a variety of hurdles over the past nine years, broke ground in late July on what he calls the "first professional dragstrip built in Southern California in nearly 40 years."

"The reality is, that in our opinion, no permanent drag strips (have been built in Southern California since OCIR)," Marocco said. "I don't think you can (call) facilities that have been built in parking lots as permanent drag strips. The thing we've been saying from day one is to build a dragstrip where we can run professional classes in the future. By that, I mean Top Fuel. We want to become a national event track.

Don Gillespie's photois a painful reminder of how a once aniticipated facility never developed into what it was supposed to be.

 

"So when people say there are drag strips out here (in Southern California), well let's just clarify that. They are not the drag strips like they are back East. Southern California used to be the hot bed, so why are racers settling for tracks that don't have professional standards to them?

"We say we are going to build a professional-standard track, and we can run street legal cars all the way to the pro classes. Can Fontana do that? Can Barona? Can Irwindale? No. There's only one track in Southern California that can do that - Pomona. And we'll be the second."

The facility, which has been in the planning stage since 1998, is expected to be built on a 60-acre property that could be expanded to 100 acres. It is expected to be completed by 2007 with a goal of having a professional racing program by the spring. Morocco said he is in negotiations to get the track sanctioned by the NHRA.

"There is a reason to have a street legal track in all these areas," Marocco said. "Barona helps the San Diego crowd; Irwindale helps the (Los Angeles) crowd and Fontana helps the Inland Empire. (They do) serve a purpose. But drag racers for some reason have deemed those venues as acceptable.

"It's a shame that NHRA does not push for permanent drag strips in Southern California. This is the birthplace of drag racing."

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