12-12-06-whenlions.jpg 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.

The Making of Don Gillespie's Lions Drag Strip Tribute Video






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.
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?

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 its 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.



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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.
After spending 30-plus years as a drag racing photojournalist and  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 four 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.

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 a Pandora's box of drag racing lore was opened.

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.
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.

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.




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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 later.
But let's backtrack one moment, because how the track came about is quite important. In 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, however, as illegal street racing and highway incidents and deaths climbed in alarming proportions by the late-1940s, long before freeways were built.

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 its sole paid employee.

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.
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 facility kingpin.

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).

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 racing day.

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Perhaps no one made more runs, drove more exotic and temperamental 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" Prudhomme.
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 incremental 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 News.

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 voting 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 others.

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.

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 occasions
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 which utilized 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.

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.

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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 shortly thereafter.
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 pressed next to the back engine's magnetos, while looking rearward toward the starting line through his legs!

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 many feet of recently installed plywood fencing, he was found sitting on the track with nothing but a shell of the 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.

With pits jammed full of racecars on a given Saturday, the infamous Lions "watering hole" proved an interesting place to visit after dragster qualifying.
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!

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 fields!

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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".
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 what 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 Keith 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 alive.

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 of 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 tumbling just past the staring line, minus a portion of his right foot above the arch. In addition, a spectator tragically lost an arm in the incident.


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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.
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 machines. 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 made the front-engine "slingshot" obsolete within a year.

Amazingly, after its 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 its 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 stars.

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 Dragstrip".

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".

If you think that's an isolated case, there's a whole bunch more to be found on the video. More than 52 individuals were interviewed on-camera and the video features 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. There's even an 8-mm film which surfaced within the past two years of the infamous Garlits front-engine accident that you must see to believe.

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.
A separate trip to Colorado 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.

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 this video conveys 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.


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