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Pomona, now and then

14 Nov 2008
Phil Burgess, NHRA National Dragster Editor
DRAGSTER Insider

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.

Enjoy.


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, full 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 HighlandAirport 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.”