Racers love competing at the Kragen O'Reilly NHRA Winternationals presented by Valvoline for a lot of reasons. Eastern-based competitors love to head to SoCal for sun and fun. And the facility is conveniently accessible from several major freeways, including Interstate 10, the nation's main east-west artery. The racetrack itself is consistently tight, smooth, and quick. The pits are almost all paved.
But for decades, there has been another, lesser-publicized reason that racers enjoy their twice-annual trek to Pomona, and it resides on Fairplex Drive, just outside the gates behind the tower complex. The El Merendero Mexican restaurant has been a favorite of drivers from all classes for years, not just because of its savory burritos, carne asada, and nachos but because of its convenient location. Back in the days before Pro teams had chow at their own hospitality trailers in the pits, it wasn't uncommon to see the stars of the sport trekking over there and returning minutes later with boxes piled high with spicy goodness. Back then, the street was named E Street, and, with my Bruce Springsteen leanings, I used to think of heading over there as "the E Street Shuffle." The task of fetching your south-of-the-border goodies was a lot easier then because you could exit the facility through a manned gate, but now you have to exit out onto Arrow Highway and head a block west, but it's still worth the trip.
Uncle Everett and Aunt Elly
Uncle Everett working the grill.
I bring up all of this now not to ramp up business for the joint, but because it has an interesting connection to the National DRAGSTER staff. You see, long before the Merendero family began wrapping tortillas there, it was a hamburger stand called Elly's Quick-Snak, and it was owned by Everett Pace, the uncle of National DRAGSTER Photo Editor Teresa Long.
Beginning in 1964, Everett, the brother of T.L.'s mother, leased the new building from the owners of neighboring Lopez Liquor and named the place after his wife, Elinor.
"They did a great business back then because the Pomona drags used to run every Sunday in those days," Teresa told me after talking to her aunt Elly, who still resides in La Verne and just turned 80 (Everett passed away in 2006). "When the Winternationals was in town, they were really busy, employing more than 20 workers to help out with large orders. People would order 50 tacos at a time, and they wanted them in a hurry."
Their three sons helped, along with both grandmothers, preparing malts, shakes, and food. There was even a pool table and a jukebox for extra entertainment. "It was just like Happy Days," remembered Elinor.
After the Paces' five-year lease expired, the Lopez family (brothers Dave and Dan) opted not to renew the lease, planning to take over the restaurant themselves, but they eventually sold it to the Merendero family. Until the last few years, the place still looked virtually the same as these 1960s photos – "Same counter, same fireplace," T.L. pointed out. "And every time I went in there, I would tell my friends, 'My aunt and uncle used to own this place' " -- but just recently, an ornate front was put onto the restaurant.
It's still a great piece of Pomona lore, and I'd bet that any afternoon that you dropped in there around Winternationals or Finals time, you could do some pretty good star watching. Tell them Teresa sent ya.
But, hey, it's our secret, OK?
Response to Robert Nielsen's SoCal doorslammer smorgasbord was, as I suspected, hot and heavy. I think a lot of us nitro-jaded journos forget how popular and memorable some of these door cars were at local tracks, but y'all helped bring me back the warm 'n' fuzzies.
Insider regular Cliff Morgan, a Lions denizen from way back, wrote, "I saw a lot of those cars, especially at Lions. I used to like the really fast E.T. cars at Lions, and they put on a good show between rounds of the Pro cars. A really fast E.T. car could run 9.90s, and that was crazy fast back then. Glendale Speed Center used to have a Chevy Nova that ran 9.90s and did bumper-scraping wheelies at Lions.
"Also wanted to comment on Ted Wells' '54 Ford. I used to see it run at Fernando with the 352 motor, and the car was called Excedrin Headache #1320. This is like 1969 or so, and Excedrin used to have a series of TV commercials with a number assigned to each commercial. Example, you got a headache from traffic, so that was Excedrin Headache #1, etc., etc. That's where Wells got the name for that Ford because it was hard to make that motor run. My first car was a 1958 Ford four-door with that engine. I ran it at Fernando, and it went 16.80s at 86 mph on street tires. I saw Wells run a lot at Fernando. I also liked Tom Nicklin's Outcast Falcon. I saw that car at Lions a lot. I was trying to find a decent photo of the Vintage GTO, a late-'40s Pontiac with a Chevy rat motor in it, that ran Lions, and I was gonna send that in with the photos you published. I bet Robert Nielsen remembers that car. It was red and ran low 10s in Bracket 1, which was Lions' quick bracket. The slowest bracket at Lions was Bracket 6, and I ran that a few times with my Ford Falcon six-banger (low 20s ... once I was The Slowest Car At Lions -- argh). Also ran that bracket with a '71 Pinto, my first new car. Anyhoo, I really liked the photos. Those cars are as much a part of drag racing as the flops and fuelers."
A lot of love also was cast toward Wells' Ford as a number of readers, including Jeff Zimmer and Jeff Bolton, correctly remembered that the car was featured in the Adam-12 episode shot at Lions Drag Strip in the early 1970s.
"It was a show about the dangers of street racing," recalled Bolton. "At the end of the show, Kent McCord raced the car (in the show, it was 'his' car) against Gary Crosby, who was running a friend’s '67 or '68 Camaro. It was a grudge race. Crosby knew he could take that tank easily. It didn’t work out that way. I think the Ford ran an 11.11; it was a cool episode."
You can see the whole episode here on Hulu. The racing and some great looks at Lions (aka "Benson's Drag Strip") begin at about the 20-minute mark.
Steve Neal also dropped me an interesting note about Wells, whom he had confused with recently departed NHRA mainstay Dick Wells. "For the last few weeks and indeed for probably the last several years, whenever I heard the name Dick Wells, I had often thought that he being an old-time West Coast hot rodder, that he was also the guy that I remember reading about in an old car magazine that hand-fabricated a center section for a 9-inch Ford rear," he remembered. "My being a Ford enthusiast who had suffered a similar fate in my '61 Hi Po 390 Galaxie may have been the reason that this stuck in my mind for so long, but then seeing the car in your column, I almost fell out of my lounge chair with laptop to the floor.
"I remember the reference to the 352 engine, too. I didn't know about the 396 'destoker' though, but I did immediately recall that I and a partner at one time raced a B/Dragster with a similar 'destroked' FE Ford. As I recall, we used a 361 FE Ford truck crankshaft (steel) with a heavily machined front snout and a set of pistons that came right out of the Ford parts bin. My partner at the time was the parts and service manager for a small Ford dealer in Connecticut. If memory serves, these pistons were sold without wrist pin holes so that you could bore them for the proper compression height with the shorter stroke. We also later had a similar problem with the lack of appropriate intake manifold when we changed to the tunnel port heads for the FE with Hilborn injection. The medium riser heads had a manifold made for Weber carbs that worked with the injection, but for the tunnel port heads, we had to use a hand-built deal. We actually purchased one from another old Yankee racer by the name of Ed Prout (A/A FE Ford). Wish I had some pictures of some of those old cars from my Connecticut Dragway days. Now I am just rambling, but that '54 Ford sure got the memories flowing! Love it!"
I also heard from David Nicklin, nephew of Tom Nicklin, whose outcast Falcon was featured in the article. "The Outcast cars were my uncle's, and it is nice to see the Falcon again as all the photos from his collection are lost," he wrote. "I still have some from the Funny Car and the altered. If you have any other shots of the Outcast cars, I would like as many as I can for my collection. I hope someday to bring the name back to life with a car of my own."
I forwarded his e-mail to Nielsen, who sent him the image at right and will send him more images once he digs them out of his archives. Another successful Insider Connection!
The photo of the Outcast and of Nielsen's own Falcon inspired even more mail.
"Thanks for the pics, Phil," wrote Gary Crumrine. "It returns us to what we consider to be the golden years of drag racing. That '63 Falcon is just plain neat. When I attend a race these days, I spend very little time actually watching the racing. I am scouring the pits talking to door-car owners who are just plain good people. I’ve had a guy unload his '41 Willys so he could show me some of his handiwork. He had gone out early and was preparing for a long trip home, but he really wanted me to see his car, and my son and I really got a great look at a very nice car. All steel, by the way. I have run into guys like that all over the country. They are the backbone of the sport. I just wish we could do more for them, for without them, the NHRA would not exist."
"The Falcon photos reminded me of that bracket car named Just Falcon Around that ran at Lions," added Mark Wallace. "Great name!" Indeed.
OK, kids, that's it for the weekend. Lucky me, I'll be neck deep in nostalgia all weekend at the Winternationals. If you’re there and see me, stop and say hey. If you can’t make it, we'll miss you. The weather looks to be great, and after recent rains (including Tuesday), the foothills behind the track are picture-postcard white with snow. It's gonna be some weekend!