When you live in Southern California, you take for granted some sights not usually seen elsewhere. Movie stars in your local restaurants. Palm trees. Top-down convertibles in December. In-N-Out burgers. And, of course, NHRA Drag Racing in early February.
Yet even though this year marks its 52nd running – and my 33rd straight – SoCal’s drag faithful never take the Winternationals for granted. We’re pleased and blessed that each NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series season not only starts here, but also ends here as well, and in just two days, I’ll be ringside for the 2012 season opener, happy and excited as hell.
It’s been more than 60 years since the Choppers, one of the most influential Southern California car clubs of the 1950s, began racing on a dragstrip at what then was the L.A. County Fairgrounds, and NHRA fans are still reaping the benefits of that move twice a year. Pomona Police Chief Ralph Parker (for whom the famed dragstrip would be christened Parker Avenue) and Pomona Motorcycle Officer Bud Coons (who would be an integral part of NHRA’s groundbreaking Safety Safari effort) – helped pave the way for the group, which would become incorporated as the Pomona Valley Timing Association, to hold races and led to the staging of the first NHRA-sanctioned event at Pomona Raceway in April 1953.
Other famous SoCal venues have come and gone – Lions, OCIR, Irwindale, San Fernando, San Gabe – but Pomona is a survivor. Known today as Auto Club Raceway at Pomona, the famed dragstrip still sits on the western-most edge of the equally renamed L.A. Fairplex and remains hallowed ground and the site of more history than almost any track not in Indianapolis. The old girl has changed a lot since the early 1950s, as these great photos from the National DRAGSTER files well document.
|(Above) This is how the Pomona track looked in 1953. I’m not certain if this photo is from that famed first NHRA event, but my guess is that it is. Note the lack of guardrails – a row of hay bales in their stead – and the familiar pumping house and trees that were a part of the Pomona scenery for years. (Left) The staging lanes, circa 1957, filled with bitchin' vintage hot rods, turning the corner, eager for their shot at the Pomona dragstrip. The railroad tracks are still there.|
The starting line at the inaugural Winternationals in 1961. The banner over the starting line proclaimed the support of the Uptown Pomona Lions Club. As much as many things have changed in the area surrounding the facility, the old house in the background still remains.
The late great Jack Chrisman in Mickey Thompson’s twin raced by the Winternationals sign hung on the E Street (now Fairplex Drive) fence at the 1962 event. Note the use of the now-iconic snowflake.
Beginning in 1963, some of drag racing greatest names, like Don Prudhomme (above) and Don Garlits and James Warren (below), roared down the Pomona strip from beneath this famous banner that spanned the starting line. The banner was removed in 1994 because it blocked sight lines from the tower built behind the starting line.
Man, I love this photo. The Pomona staging lanes, packed with fuelers and floppers, including the beautiful Keeling & Clayton California Charger slingshot. This is either 1970 or 1971; my bet is the former.
Before grandstands lined both sides of the track, this unique behind-the-starting-line view afforded the only seating on the track's west side. I sat in these stands one year -- they were there until the middle 1990s -- and what they lacked in a good view of the actual race was made up for in seeing the teams preparing their mounts.
|(Left) In 1979, Chief Parker's long support of the drags in Pomona was immortalized with the installation of this street sign, proclaiming the famed track as Parker Avenue. (Right) After NHRA founder Wally Parks' death in 2007, his name was added to create this intersection, with the road leading back to the pits declared Wally Parks Boulevard.|
One of my all-time favorite Pomona photos, also from 1979, with the snowcapped foothills in the background. This photo, which graces the Table of Contents of this week's issue of National DRAGSTER, is what the Winternationals is all about. With rain forecast for today (and only today!), we could have a snowy backdrop.
|After the 1993 Winternationals, the venerable three-story Pomona tower was bulldozed. The building used to hold the announce deck (second floor) and pressroom (third floor), but all functions were moved to the newly created tower seen under construction. The small tower to the left of this photo used to stand watch over the Ontario Motor Speedway quarter-mile and for a while was used in Pomona; it's now a security outlook in the Pomona parking lot.|
(Above) The track as it looked in 2002. (Below) Skybox suites were added above the pitside stands in 2006. They made their debut at that year's Automobile Club of Southern California NHRA Finals.
Twice each year, our little corner of the drag racing world becomes a mini city. Welcome to sunny California!