Pomona. For NHRA racers and race fans around the world, the name means one of two things: either the exciting start to another season of NHRA racing or the dramatic conclusion of a year of racing. From 1961 through to today – skipping last year’s pandemic-impacted schedule – Pomona is the site of the fabled Winternationals, throwing open the door on not just the season but the official debut of teams and sponsors and drivers.
It's a magical place, not too far below the aura of Indianapolis Raceway Park, and for Californians like me, it’s the heart of our NHRA experience. The city is named after the ancient Roman goddess of fruit, and with the Lucas Oil NHRA Winternationals presented by ProtectTheHarvest.com ready to fire up next Thursday, I took a spin through the NHRA National Dragster photo archive to pluck some gems from our bountiful harvest of Pomona images. There’s no real theme here, just a bunch of photos that resonated with me.
Here's an aerial view of the Pomona track from the early 1950s, showing the track’s position, which has been unchanged in the nearly 70 years since, running down the west side of the Los Angeles County Fairgrounds (known today as Fairplex). In the top right, you can see Brackett Field (more on that later).
The downtrack view from the NHRA’s first sanctioned event, the Southern California Championship Drags in April 1953. Note the minimal grandstands as well as the old pump house and trees that were a top-end staple in Pomona for years.
Racing action from that April 1953 event.
Staging lanes, circa 1957, filled with all manner of doorcars (but no dragsters yet).
Downtrack view of the track in 1957.
Before racing for big prize money was a thing, it was all about the trophies. This is 1960, months before the first Winternationals.
Before the iconic Winternationals banner hung over the starting line, there was this much more simple version.
That fabled sign made its debut at the 1963 race. That’s eventual race winner Don Garlits in the winged Swamp Rat V in the near lane.
A year before he’d claim his first of 49 career wins at the 1965 Winternationals, Don Prudhomme blasted off in the famed Greer-Black-Prudhomme dragster at the 1964 race.
NHRA founder and president Wally Parks sweated the details. Here he oversees the painting of a Winternationals sign in the early 1960s.
Blown gassers were a big sell in the SoCal market. “Big John” Mazmanian’s Willys squares off against K.S. Pittman.
The legendary “Bounty Hunter,” Connie Kalitta, won his first Top Fuel crown at the 1967 Winternationals.
Who remembers sitting in these seats (raises hand)? NHRA opened this unique behind-the-line viewing for fans in the late 1960s.
The staging lanes at the 1971 Winternationals. Eagle-eyed readers will quickly note the beautiful Keeling & Clayton California Charger in the foreground. I believe that’s Gordon Mineo’s as-yet-unpainted Camaro Funny Car at left.
Albert Hammond used to sing that “It Never Rains in Southern Calif” (but, man, it pours). And it did pour at the 1978 event as evidenced by this unique entry on the starting line.
It also snowed at the 1978 event, leading to this iconic Jon Asher photo of fellow Car Craft magazine staffer Al Kirschenbaum.
Thirty-three years later, the 2011 event received a light dusting of hail, and yours truly and photographer Marc Gewertz traipsed out to the starting line to try to recreate that photo. You can barely see the smattering of hail on the track. Not quite the same, eh?
Speaking of snow, this is the most memorable Winternationals photo I can think of, with snow way down low on the foothills behind the track. Every couple of years we get a photo op like that, but it’s never as good (and don’t count on it this year).
Those ancient-looking guardrails in the previous two photos make us remember that it wasn’t always guardwalls like we have today (added in Pomona in 1985), and they didn’t do Kenny Bernstein’s new Budweiser King Arrow many favors in 1980.
That year’s Top Fuel final featured fierce rivals Shirley Muldowney and Connie Kalitta. Muldowney beat Kalitta here (as she did to win the NHRA U.S. Nationals in 1982) with Kalitta winning their only other final-round battle at the 1982 Le Grandnational.
Right after the 1993 race, the fabled right-lane timing tower was demolished, with a crew led by Bobby Baldwin, the late father (and Top Fuel racer) of rising star Krista Baldwin.
The new tower began to spring to life later that same year.
Racers will instantly recognize this doorway, the portal that transports them from the staging lanes to the racetrack.
As mentioned previously, Brackett Field is adjacent to the track, as private planes are commonly seen flying over the shutdown area en route to touchdown. It’s not quite the amazing air show we see each year in Las Vegas from nearby Nellis Air Base, but it does have its place in Pomona lore.
Speaking of flying in Pomona, here’s a collection of flying race cars on the Pomona track, starting with Larry Reyes in Roland Leong’s Hawaiian at the 1969 event.
Who could forget Dennis Geisler’s overbackwards flip in his rear-engined Hindsight Funny Car at the 1975 Winternationals?
Shelby Jester and the Shag Monza Pro Stocker took a top-end tumble at the 1977 race.
The Miner Bros. Top Alcohol Funny Car had just one of four tires still on the ground after this hard launch at the 1980 race.
Eddie Hill had the mother of all blowovers at the 1989 event when his front wing broke at speed.
Two years later, Russ Collins also got airborne in Bill Miller’s dragster.
Sometimes the racetrack is not the most hospitable place. Just ask two-time Funny Car world champ and NHRA on FOX commentator Tony Pedregon, who rode out this wild fireball at the 2008 event.
Or Brittany Force, whose championship defense got off to a rough start in round one at the 2018 event.
The grandstand-topping skybox suites were added in 2006.
Two fuelers blasting into the twilight at Pomona send shivers down my spine. That’s Chief Starter Rick Stewart – a 2022 International Drag Racing Hall of Fame inductee – at the switch.
In front of Stewart in that photo and forever cemented onto the starting line and our hearts is this plaque dedicated to NHRA’s longtime starter Buster Couch following his retirement after the 1995 season. We lost Buster in January 2002.
We also don’t have to look too far to remember Wally Parks and Pomona Police Chief Ralph Parker, the latter of whom helped assured we’d race at the track for years to come.
Pomona, a true Winter Wonderland, we salute you. See you guys at the Winternationals?
Phil Burgess can be reached at [email protected]
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