It's Friday in Pomona as the 2008 season dwindles away to its last few days, and, hopefully, like that old coffee commercial, it's going to be good until the last drop. As noted previously, qualifying is a show unto itself for the championship contenders in Funny Car and Pro Stock Motorcycle, where a few qualifying points here and there will make a huge difference in the number of rounds the leaders need to go to clinch their titles or the number of rounds further than them that their pursuers will have to traverse.
I've received a number of requests in the last few weeks to talk about the history of the track here in Pomona, which has been in business since 1950 and, to my knowledge, is the only major racetrack nestled so closely to housing in a major urban center. When racing first started here back when Harry Truman was the president, there wasn't a whole lot surrounding the facility, but now it's bordered to the north, south, and east by housing. The fact that it continues to survive is a yearly blessing counted by SoCal NHRA race fans who get to visit the grand old dame twice a year for the season-opening and -closing events.
Anyway, rather than write a from-scratch history of the track, I'm going to reprint here an article that ran just last year in National DRAGSTER, written by Associate Editor John Jodauga for our popular Readers Choice issue.
When NHRA first began racing in Pomona in the 1950s, there wasn't much of a facility -- just some small bleachers and a small timing tower.
By the early 1960s, the now-familiar Winternationals banner was in place on the starting line; note the timing tower in the background.
By the late 1960s, fuill grandstands were in place. They were not permanent yet but constructed each year before the season opener.
(Above) Top Fuelers can be seen being paraded down the track in this 1969 photo, taken from the new three-story tower (below) that was erected on the west side of the track.
This has to be the most interesting drag racing seating arrangement ever; Pomona used to have grandstands behind the starting line on both sides of the track. While the view of the racing might not have been great, fans got to see the teams prepare the cars to run. Note the massive amount of room behind the starting line, which now is limited to maybe 50 feet due to the track-spanning tower now in place.
Modern-day Pomona, with the grandstand-topping suites and three-story timing and VIP tower behind the starting line.
With perhaps only O’Reilly Raceway Park at Indianapolis, home of the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals, no other dragstrip in the country can match the tradition of Auto Club Raceway at Pomona, which tops the seniority list of active quarter-mile facilities in the U.S. Not only has the Pomona track played host to the NHRA Winternationals since its inception in 1961, it has also staged the NHRA Finals since 1984 and has supported both events through the years with capacity crowds.
The track, located on the parking grounds of Fairplex at Pomona, has kept pace with the newest supertracks in the country, an accomplishment most recently exemplified by Tony Schumacher’s national e.t. record (4.428) set at [2006's] season-ending event. Additionally, the facility is one of the few dragstrips located in a major metropolitan area that has not been overtaken by property-development projects or been affected by environmental concerns.
The track opened its doors in 1950 as the result of the collective efforts between the Pomona Police Department and the local Choppers Car Club to provide a place for drag racing enthusiasts to race safely and in an organized fashion off the streets.
Chuck Griffith, who had been president of the Choppers club since 1948, said, “We knew many of the Pomona police officers on a first-name basis because we saw them around town all the time, and they were also very much interested in performance cars. Among the most helpful were Chief Ralph Parker and Sgt. Bud Coons. Bud actually took the time to attend several of our car-club meetings.
“We were looking for a place to drag race locally because even though we could run at the Russetta Timing Association events in the desert, it was just single cars running for a time, and that was not as much fun as racing side by side. We were able to drag race at Highland Airport in Fontana, Calif., but it was usually too windy for us.”
When the opportunity came to begin competing on the parking lot of the Los Angeles County Fairgrounds, both the Choppers and the Pomona police jumped at the chance.
Said Griffith, “The original parking-lot surface was tar with gravel sprinkled over it. Club members swept away the gravel, and even though the tar would later begin to break up, it was still better than what we had in Fontana.”
The fledgling National Hot Rod Association, which had just been founded in 1951, soon became involved.
Said Griffith, “Wally Parks came a lot to our early events, and it wasn’t long before we began discussions, which led to the running of the Southern California Championship Drags in 1953, NHRA’s first sanctioned event. Park and Coons were all for it because they encouraged anything that would keep the kids from racing on the streets.”
As an operational procedure before the event, the Choppers club was incorporated and became the Pomona Valley Timing Association (PVTA) to gain an official status for operating the Pomona meets, and among its first duties was having the track paved to provide a first-rate racing surface.
The event exceeded everyone’s expectations in racer participation and spectator attendance, but there were still other challenges. Complaints about noise from local residents, always a thorn on the side of drag racing facilities, became a factor that could not be ignored.
Said Griffith, “The PVTA responded with a public-relations campaign by placing ‘Speed Kills’ posters in public places around the track, and we also gained the support of local churches by making donations to them. The nearby business establishments quickly realized how much we helped the local economy, especially when we ran our annual big event, which a few years later evolved into the first Winternationals. It was through efforts like that that we’ve been able to survive through the years.”
Said Stan Adams, [then] track operational manager, “Because we race in Pomona only twice a year, a lot of extra effort goes into track preparation. We begin getting ready a month before each event, scraping and surfacing the track to get rid of any bumps or trouble spots, and we do everything possible to ensure that the racing surface is as good as any other track in the country.”
Alan Johnson, who tuned Schumacher’s U.S. Army dragster to the 4.428 record, said, “One of the big factors is that we race at Pomona at the beginning and end of each year, so you usually get a good track. Also, there’s a bit of a downhill slope for the strip, but that doesn’t help at all if the starting line doesn’t have enough traction to take the initial hit of your car. I’d rank the Pomona racing surface as one of the top two or three in the country. When you take into account how long this place has been around, some of the numbers we put up in Pomona are pretty amazing.”
Although POWERade championship battles will rule the headlines, the savvy Pomona fans know that there is so much other drama bubbling under the surface that does not relate to the championships, including potential wins that would make for more pleasant winters.
Can Top Fuel rookie Antron Brown, who has already exceeded everyone’s expectations this year, earn back second place in the standings, or can Hillary Will, eager to grab the eye of a potential sponsor for next season, hang on to the number-two spot? Will the event be the swan song between Larry Dixon and longtime team owner and mentor Don Prudhomme? Can Brandon Bernstein send Tim and Kim Richards off to retirement with another Wally for their shelf? Can “Hot Rod” Fuller and crew chief Rob Flynn — the latter of whom will replace the Richardses next year with Bernstein — get a final win together? After a disappointing 12th-place finish last year, can Schumacher’s teammate, Cory McClenathan, come from fourth to earn his fifth second-place finish, or will he slip all the way back to seventh?
In Funny Car, Gary Scelzi fans are probably pining for a last victory for the former Top Fuel and Funny Car champ before he slips off to a hopefully temporary retirement. And who among the rabid SoCal fans wouldn’t love to see a comeback victory for John Force, who a year ago at this event barely hobbled out onto the starting line following his near-career-ending crash in Dallas? Or how about hometown hero Jeff Arend winning one for Scott Kalitta and the Kalitta team?
A couple of long winning streaks also are on the line. In Pro Stock Motorcycle, Angelle Sampey needs a win to continue her remarkable streak of earning a national event win in each of the last 12 years, and Top Fuel competitor Doug Kalitta is on the verge of having his 10-year streak snapped. Scelzi has a five-year skein in jeopardy, as does Bernstein.
Anyway, gotta get back to work. By the time I see you guys next week, we'll know who the champs are, who got the job done and who didn't. Enjoy race weekend.
I don't know that there's a more wonderful feeling for an NHRA fan than the anticipation during race week when the NHRA POWERade Drag Racing Series is coming to your hometown. Man, you get to see all the cool cars and sleep in your own bed to boot! No luggage to pack and check, you can keep your shoes on the whole way there, no rental car lines … man, it's the life.
It doesn't hurt that the race that's coming here is going to decide two season championships and will be crammed with a lot of side drama – last races for Gary Scelzi and Tim and Kim Richards, Tony Schumacher's bid for yet another season record, etc. – so the countdown is on! I'm going to get a chance to meet some regular Insider readers at the event, which is always fun, and catch up with some old pals. The only bummer, of course, is that it's the last race of the season.
Tomorrow, Senior Editor Kevin McKenna and yours truly along with shutterbug Richard Wong will be covering the NHRA Softball Classic live from Arrowhead Credit Union Park. I'll be posting a rolling blog after each half inning, filled with play-by-play, quotes, and photos. It should be fun.
Before we head out, though, I want to clear out the ol' mailbag, which has been filling up with regularity.
Q: Great piece on the history of OCIR. I was fascinated with the photos of the Funny Cars on the backs of the ramp trucks. We've all towed a race car on an open trailer, but what was it like for the Pro teams to do it crisscrossing the country? I'm sure bad weather, bugs, thieves, etc. were always a threat. Was there enough of a crew to do major cleanup after traveling thousands of miles? -- Scot Doyal, Austin, Texas
A: I may not always have the answers, but I know where to get them, Scot. "Berserko Bob" Doerrer lived it as he traveled with "Jungle Jim" Liberman, and BB was kind enough to supply your answer.
"Good question, Scot. Weather was the biggest problem. Most teams had a custom-made cover to protect the engine and the exposed headers, but the car still rode out in the open. A few tried full car covers, but they got trashed by the wind after just a few weeks. I remember driving across country in 'Jungle's' ramp truck when we hit a monstrous thunderstorm. To protect the car, we pulled under an overpass to ride it out and camped out for the night. Back then, Funny Cars didn't have side windows, but 'Jungle' built a pair of temporary windows that were clamped in place while traveling, and it made a big difference in keeping the interior clean.
"The driver and two or three crew guys traveled on the road, and the chore everyone hated when they arrived at the track was cleaning the body. Bob Gerdes of Circus Custom Paint, who painted a lot of the Funny Cars back then, came up with a super-slippery clear coat that he applied to every car he painted. On top of that, we applied a heavy coat of Simoniz paste wax before we hit the road, and it made the cleanup a lot easier. The car was so slick that decals wouldn't stick to it! Most of the time, we'd pull somebody out of the crowd, give him (or her) a T-shirt and cleaning supplies and let them have at it.
"Thieves were another issue. For a while, entire rigs were being stolen out of hotel parking lots (ask Don Schumacher), and we all took turns sleeping in the truck's sleeper when we were parked to protect the rig. I don't know who was the first to modify a ramp truck to enclose the car -- I believe it was Tommy Ivo -- but a few years later, the box truck and crew-cab duallie with a gooseneck Chaparral trailer became the norm, replacing the venerable ramp truck."
Thanks, BB. Pictured here is the vehicle that Berserko was referencing, Ivo's glass-sided wonder.
Q: Hi, Phil. In NHRA's Photos of the Week, in the attached pictures, there is one man with muttonchop sideburns who is standing behind the starting line. Sometimes he's at OCIR, other times he's at Irwindale. I don't think he's a crewmember for a specific car because he's standing there when various cars are running. In this first photo (Raymond Beadle, Irwindale, 1977), he's wearing white pants and standing right behind the starter. He's also in the background of this picture (Russell Long, Irwindale, 1977). He's not holding a camera, so he's not a photographer. I'm thinking he must be some NHRA official or maybe a writer for ND. Anyway, as I see these photos rotate across my screen, I am often wondering, 'Who the heck is that guy, and how is it that he's always lucky enough to be standing there?' I was wondering if the face looks familiar to you. -- Andy Perreault, Maple Valley, Wash.
A: Good eye, Andy. He's a familiar face to us longtime SoCal race fans. That's longtime assistant starter Richard Schwartz, a mainstay at "the County" and "the Dale" and always there to back up Larry Sutton (the black-hatted guy in the Beadle pic). I did an interview with Sutton two weeks ago that I will share here very soon and asked him about Richard.
"The guy would give you his last piece of anything; if you needed him, he'd drop whatever he was doing and come help you," he said. "He was an incredible man, and we miss him."
Richard died probably 10 years ago of a brain aneurysm but is fondly remembered by those who worked with him.
"Richard's nickname (his own doing) was 'OFR' -- old fat Richard," recalled Pat "Ma" Green, who worked with him at both Irwindale and OCIR. "He was an absolute delight. After OCIR closed, he finally found the love of his life and also an instant family of three kids. It was perfect. I really loved Richard. Just a beautiful person who left us much too soon. I still miss him."
Speaking of Photo of the Week, Chris Barker, who works for Alan Johnson Performance Engineering, cleared up a few of my assumptions from my last Q&A column about the Alan and Blaine Johnson Alcohol Dragster featured in a recent Photo of the Week.
"I just discovered the pic of AJ at the '87 Winters and just about fell out of my chair. I came to work here later that same year and was the second employee at Johnson Racing (after Blaine). We had met in the early '80s while I was working at a local machine shop that was occasionally sponsoring the Johnsons with some machine work on their sand drag car and also later as they transitioned into NHRA asphalt drag racing in 1982. Alan and Blaine were college students at the time, still working on the family dairy farm and at the same time building and racing the family dragster.
"This car was built by Alan and Blaine in a wood-framed tin-covered tractor barn on the family dairy farm. To this day, AJPE is still located on the family farm where the Johnson family was raised, just minus the 500 or so dairy cows! I believe that car was built specifically just for the asphalt. While they did have an earlier car that had won many races on the sand racing against Scelzi, Faria, Schedler, etc., it was not this car. That earlier sand drag car was also built by Alan and Blaine in the barn here on the farm, but I don't think this red car ever ran on the sand. AJ drove just about all of the time on the sand and also drove on the asphalt up till late '87 when Blaine stepped into the driver's seat. Yes, it was powered by a Rodeck 481 BBC, with solid Dart BBC cast heads ported by AJ, and a fabricated blower manifold, also by built by AJ.
"Jim Rizzoli started his TAD racing career after purchasing this car from the Johnsons, who meanwhile had ordered a new car from some young unknown chassis guy named Brad Hadman. Hadman had come highly recommended by Walt and Pat Austin, who owned a Hadman-built TAFC. I believe it was the first or one of the first TADs that Brad built on his own after leaving Al Swindahl's shop. The Hadman car was the first TAD that the Johnson Racing family purchased, as Alan and Blaine had always built their own cars and engines themselves, and there were also a few other chassis that were built and sold to help pay for their own racing habit. Over the years, they received tuning help and moral support from experienced drag racers like Ora Vasquez and many others along the way, which kept them going and pointed in the right direction early on. I guess, as they say, the rest is history."
Thanks for the cleanup, Chris.
Q: I just have to say that although Tony Schumacher has had an outstanding year, I really do not think it is fair to give him the same record/title as Joe Amato; after all, Joe ran the quarter-mile for all of his victories, not 1,000 feet. Yes, Tony has only lost one race since the switch to 1,000 feet, but if you watch closely, that new finish line contributed greatly to some of his victories, including Las Vegas. If he had run the full distance, Clay Millican would most likely have beaten him when he lit it up near the 1,000-foot mark. Larry Dixon may very well have driven around him in the semifinals at Las Vegas as well. It just seems to me that you wouldn't give someone a title for winning the most 200-meter-run races for only running 175 meters. Isn't this kind of the same thing? – Barb from Indiana
A: It's not really the same thing, at least in my opinion, Barb. Anytime you start trying to compare two different eras of the same class, it's a slippery slope. The point is not the different distances but the fact that, like Amato, all of Schumacher's competitors were racing him to the same distance with the same set of rules, and his team just did a better job. When you consider all of the other things that have changed since Amato's glory days – nitro percentages, minimum weights, tires, etc. – it's clear that their two cars are fairly dissimilar, too. Who's also not to say that Amato didn't win some races because we ran to 1,320 instead of 1,000 feet back then; maybe it was his faster top-end charge that won him a lot of races in which he was behind at 1,000 feet.
This same discussion comes up whenever you try to compare Don Garlits to Amato. Amato has a lot more wins than "Big Daddy," but it doesn't make him a better Top Fuel racer. Amato won a lot of races in the era of double-digit races, and Garlits did most of his damage when the calendar had fewer than 10. For the record, they all get a piece of my "best Top Fuel" pie. Garlits, who built, tuned, and drove his own cars, is definitely the best Top Fuel racer. Amato, hands down, was the best Top Fuel operator/owner. Schumacher's team is, without question, the best one ever assembled in the history of the class.
Q: So what's going on with Whit Bazemore these days? I actually had forgotten about him until I heard that Del Worsham got his new ride. That made me think about who was available, and Whit's name popped into my mind. -- Tim Boone, Huntersville, N.C.
A: I spoke to Whit just this morning at his home in Bend, Ore. He's still riding bikes and has a new hobby, trading stocks, and he and wife Michelle welcomed their second child, daughter Oona (named after the daughter of playwright Eugene O'Neill who later married Charlie Chaplin), in February, so he's also in full-time daddy mode with her and 3-year-old Dashiell. He hasn't even watched much of the racing on TV. "I watched sporadically until midsummer and probably have watched about 10 minutes of Funny Car qualifying since then," he said. "I have so much other stuff going on, and I keep up with it on the Internet and through my friends."
Although he would definitely entertain a return to the sport, he has nothing really in the fire, which actually kind of suits him fine.
"If I had to take a year off, this was a good one to do it," he said. "It was good timing. I miss the sport because I made so many good friends in the sport and with some of the fans. I certainly don’t miss the travel now because of my family, and being a racer requires you to be a bit selfish. It takes so much to do it, but, on the other hand, I don't think it ever leaves you. If the right situation comes along, I'd love to race; if it doesn't, I'm fine with that, too.
"I've talked to Don Schumacher a little bit, and if there's an opportunity I'd be very interested," he added. "Of course, with the way the economy is, it's awfully difficult now. I've talked to a couple of companies on a very preliminary basis, so who knows. Top Fuel or Funny Car, it doesn't really matter; for me, it's more about the people than the car."
Q: During the Las Vegas coverage on TV, I believe it was Mike Dunn who said that Tommy Johnson Jr. was looking for a ride. There were no details given. There is no mention of this on the Web site. Since this has been made public, I think that his fans would appreciate some explanation if it is known. -- Dane Carney
A: When I spoke to team owner Kenny Bernstein a couple of weeks ago to get his remembrances of OCIR's Last Drag Race, the Bud King told me that he had told TJ that as of Sept. 1 he was free to look for other rides. Although Bernstein still was trying to put together deals to keep his Funny Car operation on the tour, he said that he felt that he owed it to Johnson to give him the opportunity to find a new ride after the tough and disappointing season they had together.
I caught up with TJ this morning as he was packing to come west, and he confirmed that he's definitely available and eagerly looking for a new ride, and the former Top Fuel driver doesn’t care if the engine is in front of him or behind.
"It doesn’t really matter to me; the only reason I switched to Funny Cars in the first place was because that was where the ride was," said Johnson, who moved from Top Fuel to Funny Car in 1999 to drive Joe Gibbs' Interstate Batteries Pontiac. "I have two or three things that I'm working on, but I'm ready to go if someone has the right deal. It's just been a miserable year, a year when nothing went right, and there have been plenty of times I've been aggravated with it. We've had a lot of self-inflicted mistakes -- some bad tuning decisions, mistakes in the pits, things like that -- but I tell myself that the people who really understand it know that it's not the driver's fault. Mike Kloeber has come in and done a good job the last couple of races, but it's too little too late.
"I hate this part of being a driver," he said of the uncertainty. "I was with Don Prudhomme for seven great years, so I don't like being unemployed."
TJ also confirmed that he has spoken to Alan Johnson about the still-officially-unfilled seat in his new Al-Anabi dragster. "We've definitely talked, even before he made his official announcement at Indy," said Johnson. "That would be my first choice, obviously. I think if you asked any driver which car he'd like to drive, it would be that one."
Q: Phil, I just wanted to let you know that Microsoft’s Live Maps works just fine for your ghost tracks also. You don’t even need to tweak under the hood to make it work. Just plug in the number, and away you go. http://maps.live.com. -- Tom Scott
A: Thanks, Tom. I've been checking it out recently – it goes by the brand name of Virtual Earth -- and indeed it's an impressive program and has some features that Google Earth doesn't, such as the Bird's-eye view as shown in the photo of Beeline Dragway in last Friday's column.
The good news for readers is threefold. First, it's free. Second, as Tom mentioned, you don’t have to reconfigure it to accept the coordinates I supply (though it's a quick and easy deal in Google Earth); you just plug them right into the search box. Third, it runs inside your browser, not as a stand-alone product like Google Earth.
The third item is also a negative for me because though Google Earth is not dependent on an Internet connection, Microsoft's program is. The program can take some time to load; images were sometimes slow to download, and trying to "fly" around a neighborhood while in Bird's-eye view forces the program to constantly redraw it in both satellite and then Bird's-eye view.
Check out the image at right and then the two below. The one at right is your typical overhead satellite view. In 3-D mode (below left), you get a graphic approximation of the buildings it's attempting to show – in this case, your columnist's place of employment – but switching to Bird's-eye view (below right) really does the trick with an actual photo of the building.
I haven’t really spent a lot of time with the program to give it a fair shake, but I can definitely see its usefulness, and if Bird's-eye coverage is expanded, it may become a better way to look at some old ghost-track sites, especially ones with buildings still standing.
Okay, race fans, that's it for today. I'll be back Thursday from Pomona. The Finals are here!
Like haunted houses full of the spooky apparitions for which they are named, it seems that there's no exorcising the demand for ghost tracks at casa DRAGSTER Insider, so here we go again. If you don't already have it, download a copy of Google Earth so that you can play around. If you're not familiar with the free program, go to my Oct. 17 entry to see what it can do and how best to use it. It makes this whole ghost-track thing much more fun.
Okay, and away we go.
Marie Taney sent these two shots of Dover Drag Strip, which Chet Anderson and Joe Archiere built on 144 acres in Wingdale, N.Y. The track opened in the summer of 1961 and closed in 1976 and was one of a handful of East Coast strips that could draw big names such as Art Malone, who's pictured here making a run in his dragster.
"I am told Dover Drag Strip is a gravel pit now, but back in my early teens, it was a great place to spend a Sunday and not get into trouble," she recalled. "It was $1 to enter and $3 for a pit pass. Afterwards, the racers would go to Josey's Tavern on the Ten Mile River just down the road in Wingdale. I had forgotten all about the place until last summer I was visiting a friend in LA, and he suggested the NHRA museum in Pomona. It brought back a flood of memories reading my brother's Car Craft and Hot Rod magazines."
A couple of really good sites are dedicated to Dover. There's a ton of info here at a site run by former track announcer and PR director Dean "Dino" Lawrence. According to the site, the track was sanctioned by NHRA for just one year, but a "precarious drop off the left side of the shutdown area and inadequate guardrails wouldn’t meet NHRA insurance standards." There's also this page on another site that has a great gallery of old cars competing at the track.
Here are the coordinates for the starting line, supplied by our friends at the TerraTracks Global Authority: 41.645960, -73.582969. Enter them in your Google Earth FlyTo box. Not much to see anymore, maybe just some of the old shutdown area.
Staying with the Empire State, we turn our attention to Westhampton Dragstrip, which opened in 1953 as a dirt dragstrip on eastern Long Island and was paved two years later. The track survived for more than 50 years under a variety of names, including Westhampton Raceway (1953-1971), Suffolk County Raceway (1971-1972), Hampton Raceway (1980s), Long Island Dragway (1991-1996), and finally Long Island Motorsports Park (1996-2004). Gary Goetz remembers going to Westhampton as a kid in 1957 or 1958 with his brother when it resembled nothing more than a sandlot with little grass, an open timing shack six feet off the ground, and a flagman. He recalled watching the Highwaymen in a chopped '39 Chevy altered and Forean Kustoms in a chopped altered Crosby run the quarter. "Hiding in the trunk and sneaking in, being able to stand at the end of the quarter as close to the cars as your common sense allowed … the simplicity, the memories that can't be duplicated," he added wistfully.
Westhampton became a housing development called Westhampton Pines. I found an aerial photo of the track before it disappeared using Microsoft TerraServer images, which can be seen below left. If you use Google Earth and enter 40.827466, -72.684776, you can see how it looks today. I'm pretty sure that's the starting line that is still pretty visible, and if you have your Roads button (in the bottom left corner of Google Earth) checked, you can see that at least there's a street that runs into the development off Old Country Road called Drag Street. Nice!
Alan Ridenoure used to race at Warner Robins in Warner Robins, Ga., when he was a kid but says that the site of the strip is now a high school and that the starting line is the eastern end zone of the football stadium. Looking at this Google Earth image (which was shot from space Oct. 23, 2006, more than two years ago), I see the school but not the stadium. I remember Warner-Robins because in the weekly reports we received here at ND, it always looked as if there were a median of grass between the two lanes, and looking at these images, you can clearly see two lanes separated by something. I'm not sure if the track ran west-east, but the TerraTracks Global Authority lists the starting line here: 32.550154, -83.681147. It almost looks as if Bear County Boulevard was built and bisected the track just a tenth of a mile from the starting line and that the track (which was an eighth-mile facility) continues on as an unnamed street beyond that. Weird.
There's a surprising lack of good information about the track on the Web, even though I know the track has not been gone long. The track held an NHRA Division 2 event for years, and looking back through old issues of National DRAGSTER, I see that it dropped off the roll of member tracks in 1996, but I'm not sure if that's when it died or if it changed sanctions.
Also from the Peach State, Richard McFalls sent a link to a great site that he built dedicated to Double H Drag Strip, which opened Nov. 17, 1963, in Blue Ridge, Ga., and ran through 1966, hosting Super Stockers and A/FXers. You can find it here. "I knew of it only through occasional newspaper articles but became more interested in its history last year," he wrote. "I made inquiries and hit the jackpot with some of my contacts, which led to the creation earlier this year of the Web site."
The site has a lot of old photos and some shots of the track as it currently sits; it is now an airstrip for a fly-in residential community. The site also has a Google Earth image of the track (no coordinates), but after a couple of minutes of exploring my map for similar features, I found it here: 34.854499, -84.383469. That's how it looks in the lower right picture, and from ground level at lower left are two of the great shots from the track site. The white building at the end of the track -- which other than extensions at both ends, remains unchanged after 40 years -- is a hangar.
There are a ton of old newspaper articles on the site -- Double H Drag Strip co-founder Bill Hembree wrote a weekly article for the local newspaper, the McCaysville, Ga., Citizen --- great old photos, and links to some cool videos. I particularly like the movie at right, in which a guy strapped his video camera to the front bumper of his car and drove down the old track in September 2007. Neat! (But I'm not too sure I'd like to try to land an airplane there.)
And on to yet another great Georgia facility of the past: Augusta Int'l Raceway, which featured not just a quarter-mile dragstrip but also a three-mile banked road course, half-mile paved oval, eighth-mile "micro track," motocross track, and kart track. The facility in Hephzibah, Ga., about 15 miles southwest of Augusta, was used from 1963 to 1969. The land is now part of Diamond Lakes Regional Park, where there is a large granite monument to the raceway. Here are the Google Earth coordinates for the dragstrip starting line: 33.357868, -82.092237. The Augusta International Raceway Preservation Society has a Web site (www.historicmustang.com/speedway.html) with lots of old photos and maps.
Okay, jump into your Google flying machine, and let's head to Mississippi. Mark Follweiler remembers well his first trip to the drags, at age 7. "My first trip to the races was 1967. My dad had passed away the year before, and my mom thought it would be a good idea for me to see the drags. We lived about five miles from the old Biloxi dragstrip, so one Sunday afternoon she could hear them running, and we got in the car and headed to the track. I remember sitting on the roof of our '64 impala wagon watching these wonderful machines go down the strip! Needless to say, I have been a lifelong drag racer/fan. My family and I race locally and travel to three to four national events a year. You can still see the two strips of the old Biloxi track from Highway 67. The property was never used for anything."
There is a ton of great stuff about Biloxi Dragway all over the Web, including movies, such as the one at right, a five-minute production that features some pretty great 3-D graphics to re-create the old track and takes you on a "flight" around the grounds. It's a nice piece of work, obviously done with a sandbox-style SDK program common in video-game map creation. You can view the same movie even bigger here.
At www.biloxidragway.com, you can find a great photo gallery of cars from throughout the years at the track, which operated as either an NHRA or AHRA strip from Sept. 1, 1957, through the end of 1967, when the land owner refused to renew the lease. The picture at below left was taken by our old pal Bret Kepner on a cold and rainy (and very muddy) day and shows the track cutting its way through a swath of trees. The photo at below right is a Google Earth image of the same (location: 40.827466, -72.684776).
Moving north of the border, Ron Hier sent this cool remembrance of Windsor Dragway, which opened Aug. 25, 1968, just 15 minutes from downtown Detroit. Hier had a brush with greatness with the Chi-Town Hustler team of Austin Coil and driver Pat Minick in the summer of 1970. "I met Austin and Pat at the Windsor tunnel by accident," he wrote. "I yelled to them, 'See you at the strip.' Austin yelled back, 'Wait a minute. Can we follow you there? We don't know where it is. This is our first time to this strip.' After he cleared customs, Austin and Pat followed my wife and I to the strip. When we got within sight of it, Austin beeped his horn and asked me to pull over and asked if they could use my car as their towing vehicle; that way, they could leave their truck in the pits. I told him that I would be honored. He said, 'Follow me in, and I will tell the people that you are with us.' So not only did I get to tow and pick up the Chi-Town, we got in for free! Austin gave me money around lunchtime, and I played gofer and got the four of us hot dogs, chips, and pop. He gave me their time slips from the races. This year, my daughter and I went to Norwalk for the Night of Fire. I caught up with Austin and had him sign the pic of the Chi-Town from 38 years ago!"
The track, located at 42.25729720, -82.875647, is still pretty visible and easily accessible off Manning Road between the MacDonald-Cartier Freeway and Baseline Road.
Gregg Lether and his wife recently headed out into the Arizona desert in search of old Beeline Dragway, which hosted AHRA national events but was more famously known as the site of the NHRA Winter Classic, an annual tune-up for the NHRA Winternationals that was attended by all of the big NHRA hitters. It was about 20 minutes from Phoenix, close to Scottsdale. With a long and wide strip, three-story heated timing tower, and more, it was a great venue for its day when it was built in 1963 and lasted into the mid-1970s.
"Man oh man Phil, where do I start with the emotions and feelings that I felt just being there," he wrote. "Although I was never able to go there during the track's heyday, I did look at some pictures of the track I found online before we went out. Just being there and imagining all the cars, drivers, and crew, I felt like I had gone back in time. It was really an amazing and emotional experience. I could almost see the Pay-N-Pak floppy with Hall and Ruth there. That was the first car I ever saw and never lost the passion for the sport."
Below are early photos from the track, followed by some of Lether's "now" shots and an undated aerial of the forlorn site as viewed in the Birds Eye view in Microsoft's Live Search Maps program (a fine alternative to Google Earth, though not all locations have Birds Eye). To make a beeline to Beeline, FlyTo 33.507320, -111.766725.
Tracy Arakaki, an executive producer for an independent motorsports show in Hawaii, sent these images of Hawaii Raceway Park, which closed just two years ago. The track is on the island of Oahu and located just up the coast from Honolulu.
"The track was perfectly up and running," he wrote. "The former landlord who held the master lease sold the option to purchase for $5 million, then for the past five years tried to get a tax credit of $50 million to acquire a parcel owned by the state to build another track on an active airport runway, which we know will never happen. A movement was formed to condemn the property through the City Council, then the former landlords who were now the managers tore up all the asphalt and burned down the tower (right) just in case the condemnation succeeded to mess things up.
"Lots of history at HRP. Roland Leong with driver Johnny West still has the track record at 5-teens, and the Desert Rat Funny Car crashed, and the front end was used as a clock and presented to someone at some awards banquet on the mainland."
Take your own all-expenses-paid trip to Hawaii here: 21.314380, -158.098116. Aloha.
Speaking of aloha, that's it for the week. I hope you enjoyed another spooky trip down the quarter-miles of old. We have a busy week ahead of us with the NHRA Softball Classic Wednesday (I'll have live coverage from the ballpark!) and the Finals beginning Thursday. It's almost hard to believe the season is over -- after we send next week's National DRAGSTER Wednesday, only three issues remain -- and the long, cold winter will begin. Hang around here, though, and I'll try to keep at least your memories warm.
Apparently, OCIR Week is that special kind of week that contains more than seven days. My Inbox has been flooded the last several days with heartfelt thanks and heartwarming memories from those who had the opportunity to race or spectate at Orange County Int’l Raceway. Though I'm sure that all racers and fans would feel the same way about the loss of the local quarter-mile on which they cut their teeth, for some reason, OCIR fans have always been a little more vocal. I'd hesitate to call them the most vocal because I know that those who attended Lions still consider it a semireligious experience, but there's no disputing the love still heaped on OCIR 25 years after her demise. Thus, consider today an extension of OCIR Week … this time from your side, with your words and photos.
Quite a few of you told me that you learned things you never knew about the old gal and wanted to know where I got my information. There are several very good Web sites with information on the track's history, and I was lucky to find in our files two pristine copies of the original (and very thick) press kit handed out at the press conference Nov. 10, 1966 – I wonder what those would be worth at a memorabilia show. I also drew from our own thorough coverage of the track in those final years as well as an interview we did with Mike Jones in 1995 for a Where Are They Now? feature in National DRAGSTER. Add to that good relationships with former OCIR personnel such as Charlie Allen, Larry Sutton, Pat Green, and Howard Hull (whose remembrances are below), and I almost had too much info.
But on to your memories …
Having too much info can be a bad thing because you have to weigh what to include and what not to so that your column does not become a never-ending tale, but I was glad that I included the bracket winners who raced long into the early hours of Sunday. Perhaps the single most gratifying piece of correspondence I received was from a guy you had probably never heard of: Randy Gillis. Gillis was the Bracket 3 winner that night and wrote to thank me for including his name in the story. I told him that the pleasure was all mine because – at least for me – that's part of the motivation of including those details. Sure, you want to have the info in there for history's sake, but whenever I mention some obscure name, the small hope is always there that the person will actually read his or her name or be told about it and know that his or her glory lives on, even in some small fashion.
"OCIR was my home for all 21 years," wrote Gillis. "Any day the track was open, I was there racing. That track was magical. I had every race car I owned there that night in various brackets and was lucky enough to win Bracket 3 with the one I drove. I still bracket race the same '66 GT350 Shelby I ran at OCIR. The most memorable thing about OCIR was the family nature of the track. If [longtime starter] Jerry Stroner threw you out for a starting-line leak or you didn't pass tech the first time, you understood it was only to keep you safe. In the same light, if someone needed a rocker arm or any kind of part, you could borrow it no problem. After the burnout, it was one on one until the finish line, then it was back to being family. I'm getting sappy, but those were some of the best years of my life. You could talk to [track managers] Kenny Green or Steve Evans or [owner] Charlie Allen if you had a problem. I'm fortunate to keep in touch with many OCIR alumni, and they still feel like family." He signed his note, "Randy Gillis, Bracket 3 Champ 10-30-83 @ 2:30 a.m."
Randy Gillis won Bracket 3 at OCIR's Last Drag Race with this Shelby GT350 he still races; back then, the the car was blue with white stripes.
The '40 Willys pickup of Tietz & McCullough was a familiar bracket vehicle to anyone who went to OCIR in the '70s and '80s, and Billy McCullough also took the time to remember OCIR. "I can remember racing 'the County' on Saturday night and then going to Irwindale on Sundays; those were the days. I couldn't help but think of all the times we raced there and I waved up to Ester Padron (Albert's wife) and how she would write 'You Turkey' on my time slip when I would red-light. I remember how after Irwindale closed we went down and became part of the family at OCIR with the likes of the Marcums, Carl Smith, Rick Abood, and many more. Those were great memories; thanks for bringing them back!"
Reagan Williams, whose family owned the crowd-pleasing American Rik-shaw Datsun truck, remembered, "I learned how to drive a stick-shift car in the $1-a-lap Subarus that someone put there on the motocross track. I raced my first car there, a brown '62 Chevy that I had bought for $100 with a transmission that slipped badly in 2nd gear. The photo of the OC tower with broken-out windows almost brought me to tears. My brother has the giant blue OCIR sign that was displayed for years on the side of the 5 freeway. He has it on display every day in his shop while he works on today's Funny Cars at Victory Race Cars in Hesperia, Calif. The memories of our youth can't be bought with money. They are still there to cherish when I read stories like yours."
I can't tell you how many times I watched the Rik-shaw overcome a half-track handicap to chase down some hapless bracket foe in the lights.
Charlie Arford shared an e-mail to his family and friends in which he encouraged them to read my OCIR series. Arford couldn’t make the last race as he and his wife were expecting their first and only child, Cory, at any moment.
He wrote, "If I came upon a genie in a bottle and had three wishes, the first wish would be to hold my late wife in my arms and dance with her one more time. My second wish would be for my bank account to always have money in it so no matter what the amount of the check was or every time I use my ATM card, there would always be money to cover that expense. The third wish would be to race at OCIR one more time. Reading these articles and looking at the pictures knowing that I was somewhere in the crowd and for that one single moment in time frozen forever on film, life was so good and that it couldn’t get any better, I could have died right there on the spot, and I would have felt as though my life was complete.
"I think I sat in my backyard all afternoon and well into the evening listening to the faint sounds of burnouts and full pulls being made, which conjured up images from my past races and visits to OCIR. All I could do that day was just sit, listen, and imagine what it must have been like to be there on that final day of her life. I’m going to stop now because I have tears rolling down my face, and that doesn’t look good here at work."
He wasn't the only one moved to tears. Wrote Charles Weeks, "I’m sitting at my desk crying, thinking of all the good times my dad and I had at OCIR. We all loved Lions, Irwindale, Pomona, and Ontario, too, but 'the County' was home. My dad passed last month. I miss them both."
(Above) Quick, what's wrong with this picture? Stephen Justice sent along this mind-bending cover image from the 1968 OCIR PDA souvenir program on which the designer took liberal artistic license and (below) also sent this photo of the OCIR starting line. "I didn't know much about photography in those days," he told me, "but the pic is special to me because it shows a place I spent a lot of time in the early 1980s, the starting-line photo area, scene of much bench racing and BS'ing."
One recurring theme was how kids used to be dropped off at the track by their parents to spend a day alone taking in the sights and sounds. Those were simpler times, of course.
George Adams, who today is Woodburn Dragstrip’s (Ore.) track photographer and races in Top Dragster, remembered, "I was one of the many who had a chance to grow up there. From 1967 to 1971, I would go as often as I could, and in saving my allowance, I could go twice a month. We lived in Santa Ana, and [because I was] too young to drive, my mom would drive me in the morning and pick me up at night. I went alone much of the time, and even though she had never been to a drag race, she knew I was safe. I got to meet many of the legends of the sport, some who were taken from us way too soon. I got to see the big Funny Car meets, 64 Top Fuel cars, and the list goes on and on. As you know, this was a time when there were no ropes around the cars, and more often than not, a hero driver would take the time to talk to a kid and create a lifelong memory. I have always felt extremely lucky to have grown up at that time and to have 'the County' as a part of me. These days, I sometimes think about that kid hanging on the fence at the fireup road, watching those beautiful cars come to life, and think what a lucky guy I am."
Leonard Hammond has similar memories. "My first drag race was at Lions, and it was a special place for me," he wrote. "I only went to Irwindale a couple of times and really didn’t care for it, but OCIR was my favorite track. Back in the '70s, I lived in the Compton area, and when OCIR had a big race such as the PDA, East/West Funny Cars, or the 64, my pops would take me down there and pick me up later. I was just 13 or 14 at the time; times have changed because I would never drop my kids off that far from the house. I still follow the sport by watching ESPN and the two events in SoCal. The Pomona track is nice, but OCIR was special."
Wrote Cliff Short, "I spent many weekends at 'the County' in the early '70s, all the way till the end. As a teenager in the '70s, I went almost every weekend. I got to know many of the regular bracket racers, who taught me a lot about building, tuning, and, yes, even racing the cars. My two biggest heroes of the bracket wars were the White brothers, Steve and Terry. I was fortunate enough when I got into high school to get to race a couple of different vehicles at OCIR. I may not have been running nitro, but I sure felt the thrill of going down that famed 1,320! Just knowing that all the big names of the sport laid down rubber that I was racing on gave me goosebumps (even now as I write this)! Whether it was OCIR, Lions, Irwindale, or another track, it kept me, and a lot of other kids, out of trouble. It was my anti-drug! Oh, by the way, I have the sign that read 'Pit Pass $3.00' from OCIR!"
Howard Lloyd, who lives in New Jersey, was stationed in Imperial Beach, Calif., in the late 1960s and early 1970s and made OCIR, Lions, Irwindale, and Carlsbad his regular weekend stops. "My biggest passion was for OCIR," he wrote. "Being from New Jersey, just a look at the place would just set you back on your heels. It was simply amazing to me; there was nothing like it on the East Coast. Over the years, I have two treasures that I have kept, and each is from OCIR. I have the trophy that I won there in my '68 Dodge Charger and the weekly booklet that was handed out with my name listed in it. But most of all, I have such great memories of my times there and all the great racers and race cars that I saw. I had the chance over the past several years to meet and talk with the late, great Pat Foster as my wife, Lin, and myself are friends of Don Trasin, the owner of the beautifully restored (by Pat Foster) Jade Grenade and 'Mongoose' Corvette Funny Car. The tales that Pat told me about OCIR and the California tracks amazed me. I mentioned to Pat that I had been in Southern California in those years, and he said to me, 'Ah! Valhalla'; it wasn't until I had the chance to look the word up that I understood just what Pat meant; no better statement could have described those times."
Kevin Aardahl (bet he was always first in roll call at school!) grew up in Pasadena and made regular treks down to OCIR with a couple of friends in his dad's '69 Datsun 510 for the infamous Fox Hunts during the track's rowdy late 1970s. "Back then, OCIR was practically on the edge of the earth as far as we knew it," he remembered. "Anyway, my one buddy said he was going to sneak in through the fence at the end of the track by way of the orange or avocado groves. My other friend and I paid for tickets and waited in a long line of rowdy people to get in the track. They were searching everybody, and the line was real long. A bunch of folks scaled the tall chain-link fence and started swinging back and forth. In a short amount of time, the entire fence fell forward, and everyone ran in. We showed the guy our tickets at the now fallen gate; he looked at us, held up his hands, said sorry, and we went on to find a seat (along with a hundred or so that didn't pay). We eventually caught up to our buddy that made it in free via the fields and a hole in the fence. As the night progressed, we got a taste of the rowdy OC bikini-clad gals. The night was finally called when a few girls went down along the north side of the track, lifted their tops and/or dropped their shorts. I live in Rancho Santa Margarita now and drive through that area from time to time. When I drive by the old Sand Canyon entrance, I always point it out to my kids."
DRAGSTER Insider regular reader Mark Watkins sent along this shot from his scrapbook of the OCIR hot-pit cooldown area. "The best place to gawk at the fast guys," he remembered. "Our D/G '57 Chevy is in the background and my dad, Bob Watkins, in the striped shirt."
Vic Deverian knows the feeling. "My dad would take me there for a big Saturday night race starting when I was around 13 (1973)," he said. "It was a sad day when they closed that strip. To this day, when I'm on the 5 south, I'll glance over where the strip used to be."
Bill Gathings wrote, "I was at the last race at OCIR. Despite the reassurances over the PA during the night that 'at least two or three sites were being looked at for a new track and that the tower would be saved and reused,' etc., we just knew somehow that this was the end of an era in the Southland. I remember the pits were full, a number of cars were up for sale, and the whole thing being run like they were in slow motion, as if they wanted to end as late as possible. A long, sad night."
Steven Mason sent this intriguing photo of actor Greg Morris from the Mission: Impossible TV show in the stands at OCIR in the summer of 1972. "I guess he was a drag racing fan, too," said Mason. Or maybe he was just there to watch the engines self-destruct in five seconds …
Lee Littlefield, wife of Funny Car racer Mert and mother of our own Associate Editor Brad (who, she notes, was born two months after the Last Drag Race, so he was there, too), remembers most fondly the people she met who became lifetime friends. "OCIR was so close, we could sleep in our own bed at night, but mostly it was the friends we made. Vicki Gasparrelli, Carol Anderson, Cindy Allen, Dianne Dunn, and Geri Amato stand out in my mind. Great women. I told Brad my Joe Pisano story; Joe was not the grumpy man that everyone thought he was … he was a big teddy bear in my eyes."
Jeff Thomas also counts himself as lucky to have been at the final event. "Your story brought back many wonderful memories and tears, as I was fortunate to be there that night," he wrote. "I came up from Palm Springs and was one of the diehards who stayed until there was 'no more.' It was truly a very long drive home; it felt like I had lost a lifelong friend."
Not everyone was so lucky. Jeff Kempton, who lives in Nova Scotia, about as far away from OCIR as you can get and still be on the same continent, had planned to travel to SoCal for the Last Drag Race but never made it. "Living here on the diagonal opposite corner of the continent, I normally didn't have the opportunity to go to OCIR, but I came close once," he wrote. "Eleven of us Nova Scotians bought airfare to California specifically to attend the Last Drag Race and were eagerly looking forward to seeing the fabled track before she closed her doors. Unfortunately, the customs officials were embroiled in a contract dispute at the time, and the newscasters were reporting that some Canadian flights had been denied entry as customs was unavailable to receive them. Due to the uncertainty, I regretfully decided to cancel out, but the half dozen of my friends that persevered (and found that customs was not a problem as feared) have a lot of fond memories of that last race."
The great thing about sharing tales isn't necessarily the details of what car it was or who was driving or what the date was but the memories themselves to which we can all relate. Gerrett Wikoff, who used to bracket race his '65 VW Bug at OCIR and Irwindale, wrote, "My all-time favorite Top Fuel drag race occurred at OCIR. I don't recall who was running, but he blew up in the lights in the semi's but got the win light. They thrashed away - borrowing parts, blowers, pistons, you name it - wrenching at light speed, and barely made the final call. The other car started, went into the bleach box and burned out with a big smoky burnout and was backing up … but his competition? The starter was a no-go. The car would not fire. Guys were running around like crazy as the running car staged -- first one stage light, then the second. The starter, raising his hands to push the go button, looked over at the dead dragster as a pickup truck careened up to it and did an old-school push-start! The car lit the pipes, hauled ass down the staging lanes, and hung a fast U-turn into the bleach box, nailed the nitro for a short hop up into the staging beams. Staged. Bam! Down come the lights, he nails the gas and beats the other rail to the stripe and wins the meet!"
Hull, a frequent contributor to the Insider, started parking cars at OCIR as a teen in the 1960s and worked his way into selling Cokes in the stands so he could watch the races better and eventually ended up working with Lynn Rose and Charlie Allen toward the end in 1983. Hull also worked at OCIR under Bill Doner and went to Doner's other facilities in Seattle, Portland, and Fremont. Here's his story from the inside …
“Let's go see the raceway! That was my introduction to what would become the beginning of a love affair with drag racing. My mom and dad, along with Larry Vaughan, drove out to east Irvine and saw the racetrack under construction. The track was still dirt, and the tower was just a skeleton of steel beams. We drove around the property and got the tour from Larry, who lived across the street from us in Costa Mesa.
"The first drag race I ever saw was the inaugural race at Orange County. The only racing I knew of at the time was Indy car racing that I had seen on TV, so when the Top Fuel cars came rolling down the return road in front of the grandstands and the engines started their cackling and the flames coming from the exhaust pipes, you can imagine my excitement.
"It was a wild night of weird sounds, smells, and sights as we watched the cars race down the track. I remember watching the cars launch from the Christmas Tree with each set of bulbs with the half-second intervals; the handicapping was really fun as the lights would blink down at different rates. I remember one race quite clearly when they sent a station wagon against a rail dragster, which really sent the crowd cheering when the rail reeled in the station wagon and his win light came on at the end of the track.
"It was several years later in the early 1970s that I was allowed to go to work at OCIR on the major races. I would do whatever I could to keep out of trouble and be helpful. My first paying job was hawking Cokes in the stands in the afternoon. I would get in early with Larry and get the track set, and around 1 p.m., I would start hawking Cokes in the stands until around 7 p.m., when it got too crazy. Cokes were 25 cents back then, and I could make a good $15 to $20 in the afternoon and then go and watch the races in the evening. During this time, I was meeting racers such as 'the Mongoose' and 'the Snake,' Gary Cochran, Gary Gabelich (who went on to set the Bonneville record in the Blue Flame), John Collins, James Warren, Tony Nancy, Rich Siroonian, Billy Meyer, the Beebe brothers, Don Schumacher, and more.
"The track had a series of races that were called the All Star Race Series. We held an All Star race on New Year's Eve, and Don Prudhomme won that race driving his new rear-engine dragster. Earlier that afternoon, his wing left the car at the finish line and flew up into the air and landed by me. I thought that I had gotten the coolest souvenir! That lasted about five minutes till I was told that he wanted it back! That’s okay; he did give me my Mattel Hot Wheels 'Snake' and 'Mongoose' cars.
"The rear wings were cool to see on top of the fuelers. I remember one of the Marine aviators stationed at neighboring El Toro Air Station discussing the fact that the drivers need to flip the wing over to get the thing to work (lift over the longer surface). It was funny watching the look on their faces when I drew the example on a piece of paper for them to see what he was trying to explain to them as a 13-year-old.
"OCIR was a great place to grow up for the most part. When the Top Fuelers, Funny Cars, and fuel altereds ran, I would stand along the fence watching them come flying down the track at me with the flames coming out the headers. The loudspeaker would be right above us, and you would hear the launch first over the speaker, and then with the delay due to the distance, the sound would catch up.
"The track had a road course as part of the return road back into the pits, which was used for karting and other training. The Academy of Defensive Driving used the track during the week to teach law enforcement a variety of driving skills. It had one of the first comprehensive alcohol driving programs that were being developed in the early '70s. I was fortunate to be able to take a variety of those courses from about 15 years old on up a couple of times a year. One of the more valuable life lessons that I learned as a young man has saved my bacon more than once in an emergency situation.
Longtime SoCal drag photog Joel Gelfand dug out this shot of Don Prudhomme, right, and crew thrashing in the pits at OCIR in 1982.
"It wasn’t until the mid-1970s when Bill Doner took over the track that it really became fun, for several reasons. One, I could drive to work in my 1972 Buick Skylark, and, two, I got to really know the racers better from the management side, too. Raymond Beadle, Lil' John Lombardo, Johnny Loper. I remember Kenny Bernstein learning to drive his Chelsea King Funny Car at the expense of OCIR’s guardrails. As he learned to steer it, he bounced a few times. I would go out and replace what was bent and twisted beyond repair. After a very successful afternoon of qualifying for one of our evening races, he walked into Doner’s office and announced: “OCIR 12, Bernstein 1.”
"John Force? Now that was fun. Here was a guy who really loved what he was doing and was a real firebrand back then. Many times I would be at the top-end turnout with the crash crew when he came in either dripping oil, on fire, parts hanging on by a string, Okay, many times all of the above. Yet, as he developed as a racer and learned how to run the car, it was fun. Steve Plueger was the crew chief, and we had some fun with John. There were times where Doner wouldn’t want John to run as he was always leaking on the damn track. The debate would go on and on, and, in the end, Doner decided he could continue to race there. Besides, when John would be running, the fans would all run to watch to see if he was either going to blow up or catch on fire or both!
"Doner was the P.T. Barnum of drag racing, and I really learned a great deal from him about the promotion side of racing. We would have the 'Grand Kinko' races, as he would call them. Local Funny Cars, wheelstanders, jet cars, rocket cars, and fireworks. Once a month, we would have a big race. The summer evenings were the best as I could climb to the top of the timing tower and watch the cars streaming in, and to the east was El Toro Marine Air Station. I could watch the planes take off and land as the sun slowly set into the hills to the west, and we would start up the event with the national anthem and then hit the starter motors and go racing."
Okay, race fans, that officially wraps up OCIR Week And A Half. Thanks for all your remembrances, photos, and inspiration. I'll see you later this week.