And the Night the Music
At the intersection of 223rd
and Alameda in the South Bay of Los Angeles, the ocean breeze
is subsumed by smog and the sounds of industry. It is where
the twang and tremolo of Fender guitars and crashing surf washed
out Dennis Wilsons drum kit. It is where, in 1954, Mickey
Thompson created Lions Drag Strip.
I built and ran Lions Drag
Strip for eight years, the brawny and resourceful Thompson
explained to Hot Rod magazines Gray Baskerville, years
after the track closed. You dont know how hard I
worked. I was a pressman at the Los Angeles Times, had my own
garage, and constructed a dragstrip in my spare time. I dug
the postholes by hand, scrounged up the pipe I used for fence
posts, nailed together the timing tower, and sold pit passes.
I was really excited when 10,000 people showed up for opening
Its original success was a portent
of the tracks influence on society itself. Although Lions
Drag Strip was a commercial enterprise, its prosperity benefited
those in need, and it contributed to the common good. Its motto,
Drive the Highways, Race at Lions, wasnt pure
puffery, and the Lions Club dispersed many hundreds of thousands
of dollars of the tracks proceeds to its favorite charities.
Along the way, it became an explosive symbol of Southern California
creative spirit, and on magical Saturday nights, the unkempt
youth culture would gather shoulder-to-shoulder at Lions to watch
bulbous, blown big-block gassers bouncing in tandem, followed
by thundering AA/Funny Cars drowning out the calliope music piped
through tinny PA speakers before pair after pair of fire-spewing
Top Fuel dragsters disappeared in distant smoke.
Almost 20 years after it began,
the track was forced to close. The whole shebang ended suddenly
on December 2, 1972, not as the beatific be-in, but as Bacchanalian
decadence, if not a debacle. Some purists remember that bitter,
frigid December witching hour as not just the last drag race,
but as the night the music died. On the 40th anniversary of
the tracks closing, Curator Greg Sharp opened up the NHRA
Museum in Pomona to a symposium to debate Lions significance,
as well as discuss the details of the dragstrips dubious,
if not ignominious, final act.
Everybody called it Long
Beach or Wilmington, Sharp told his assembly of gearheads.
The dragstrip, itself, was in the city of Los Angeles.
It was on a little finger of land that belonged to the Harbor
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The museum was packed. A throng of gray-bearded bleacher rats
bent over in plastic folding chairs gathered before a celebrity
panel filled with septuagenarian engine-builders, media types,
gasser guys, and retired fuel racers, including the Last Drag
Races Funny Car finalists, Don the Snake Prudhomme
and his partner-cum-nemesis Tom the Mongoose McEwen,
who were separated on the stage by the man who supplied their
engines at the Last Drag Race, Ed Pink.
Do you remember those days?
an effervescent, salt-and-pepper-haired Don Prudhomme asked,
rhetorically. The fog would roll in, and you couldnt
see the other end of the track. You used to blame
it on oil, a lean and languid Ed Pink said quietly.
That too! It was the fog
and the oil, Prudhomme replied.
At the very end of the
track, there was a red light on the fence, McEwen said.
At one time a notorious playboy, The Mongoose now has a build
more like a Roman Senator and, like a statesman, enjoyed sharing
his knowledge and empirical insight throughout the discussion.
At night when it got foggy, all you could see was the
little red light. If the front tire started bouncing, it meant
you were in the gravel, so you needed to move over toward the
center line. It got so youd drive to half-track,
so you could see the finish line, wiry, ex-Top Fuel shoe
Gary Mr. C Cochran added.
That was the dragster drivers
perspective. To the paying customer, the fog from the Pacific
created an amber, star-filtered haze, and when it mixed in with
all of the tire smoke that often meant the railbirds couldnt
see the race as much as hear it. But the spectators werent
the only folks listening critically.
From the day it opened
in 1955, we had complaints about the noise, McEwen explained.
They were able to beat
that down because of the taxes we paid. Temporarily, anyway.
As the horsepower increased and the NHRA rescinded its ban on
nitromethane, the action got louder. Mickey Thompson eventually
relinquished control of Lions, and in 1965, C.J. Pappy
Hart, the man who opened the first-ever recognized commercial
dragstrip in 1950 (Santa Ana), assumed the reins. He proved
a worthwhile successor. Paternal, thorough, and shrewd, C.J.
enjoined upon community relations with the neighbors as a survival
We gave passes at Lions,
and I bought meals for the Gold Star Mothers when theyd
have their meetings, Hart told drag-racing journalist Dave
Wallace in 1980, in reference to a group of militant military
mothers living in adjacent housing tracts. Dont
let that resentment build up.
To keep the natives content,
Hart paid for their monthly group lunch, Wallace, who is
now editor of Hot Rod Deluxe, elaborated in an email. He
also allowed any car operated by someone bearing a Wilmington
address on his/her drivers license in free, always, no
questions asked, no matter how many people were crammed into
it at the front gate.
Besides keeping the peace, Hart
also had a knack for boffo promotion. Following McEwens
lead, in 1965, Hart staged the first match race between The Snake
and The Mongoose. Prudhomme won. More importantly, a long-lasting,
lucrative, multi-million dollar marketing rivalry was born.
Despite the tracks popularity,
C.J. gave up running the Beach, when the Lions Club
Board of Directors decided to install a buzzing motorcycle track
on the premises. Mickey Thompson got involved again, albeit
briefly. Then, flamboyant track promoter Steve Evans took control.
Apparently, Harts ethos fell on deaf ears with the new
Evans was running his motocross
there two or three nights a week, Sharp told the symposium
crowd. The people who lived over on the other side were
complaining about it. The Lions Club and the Harbor Department
couldnt stand the heat anymore. At that point, it
is just a question of finishing the paperwork and firing up the
bulldozersand throwing a party.
So Steve Evans did. Twenty thousand
nitro-lovers showed up to watch 400 race cars compete to claim
the last paychecks issued from Lions Drag Strip.
Among the throng was the editor of this magazine. In our research,
we asked him what he recalled of that night. The answer was
succinct. All I remember is being cold
the influence, he said.
Others memories are more
on point, particularly among those gathered at Pomona. Greg
Sharp handed a microphone to a fan in the crowd, who remembered
the Last Drag Races radio ads this way, Steves
[radio] spots said come and get a piece of history,'
the man said. The radio spots encouraged them to take
the place apart. Eventual Last Drag Race Top Fuel winner
Carl Olson told Draglist.com about how treacherous the event
[There were] so many spectators
that the Sheriff made Steve Evans close the gates at around 6
pm, he wrote. No problem for those locked out, though;
they just pushed over the chain-link fences and swarmed in like
ants. Security initially tried to stem the tide, but quickly
threw up their hands and walked away.
Carls partner, Mike Kuhl,
was on the museum panel, dressed in jeans, a T-shirt, and a baseball
cap. He vouched for Olsons earlier remembrance. It
was pure chaos, he said. The guardsabout an
hour before it was over withthey left. People were unbolting
the guardrails about an hour before we run.
People were running out
and taking pieces of the racetrack, McEwen affirmed. Apparently,
there became a collectibles market for signs and even chunks
Prudhommes recall is a
little hazier, I dont remember it very well,
he said. I remember a bunch of people jumping the fence,
trying to get the guardrails and the signage, and so on. I wish
I wouldve thought of it.
As the night wore on, and we
kept going rounds, the place got more and more out of control,
Olson penned. The entire length of the return road was
lined with cars and trucks, and the party was on. Everyone in
the place was in a strange mood
somewhere between having
the time of their lives and attending a funeral.
Kuhl said running the dragster
through eliminations that night was like burying the dead. The
car was hurt. We shook the car apart pretty bad the whole weekend.
Brand-new car, two weeks old, and the firewall was busted all
over the place. Carl asked me what we should do. I said the
worst that can happen is that the motor will jump out of it,
and if it does, the motor is behind you, so who cares? I fixed
it with bailing wire.
The ragged, dangerous condition
of the Kuhl & Olson mount mirrored the state of the entire
facility, which continued to degenerate as Prudhomme and McEwen
prepared to race for the ultimate Lions Funny Car trophy.
They did stop the race
more than once, the fan with the microphone told the museum
crowd. There were people sitting on the rails in the lights.
It got so bad, he said, A lot of racers didnt wait
for their check. They just left because [the racers] werent
going to be there at the end.
In their last match at Lions,
McEwen was the winner. His quarter-mile elapsed time of 6.35
seconds at 225 mph beat Prudhommes uncharacteristically
Even though he triumphed over
his lifelong rival in one of most historic races ever, McEwen
remembers it as bittersweet. It was sad, he said.
His opponent was less sentimental.
I wasnt that emotional about it because we got beat,
Prudhomme deadpanned. So I didnt give a shit if
the place closed or not. But it would close as soon as
Jeb Allen and Carl Olson could complete their historic zero-dark-thirty
joust for the last winner in Top Fuel at Lionswhich almost
When we went to the line
for the final, the scene was absolutely surreal, Olson
reported. By now, all attempts to control the crowd had
There were people where only
the guardrail should have been, and I really didnt want
to pick any of them off, so I stayed as close to the centerline
as possible. I ran over several beer and wine bottles on the
track, and I can vividly remember the crunching sensation as
I hit em.
History records that Olson won
Top Fuel Eliminator at Lions Last Drag Race in 6.20 seconds,
coupled with a top-end speed of 233 mph. His opponent, Jeb Allen,
lost with a 6.45 time at 227. That was the quick part.
It took us an hour to get
back up to the starting line because of the mass of people,
Kuhl said. It was pure pandemonium.
Between the marijuana smoke,
the outhouses being torched, and the bonfires, the whole place
looked like the Watts riots, Olson wrote.
Kuhl made a point of saying that
the Kuhl & Olson machine wasnt the last Top Fueler
to make a pass at the Beach. Since Olson won the event, technically
the final dragster to go down Lions Drag Strip was that of the
runner-up, Jeb Allen.
As the museums symposium
wound down, Prudhomme tried to put that long night 40 years earlier
in perspective: I have fucking nightmares from that place
closing, he said. I wake up sometimes in a cold
sweat from thinking about it.
Thats because all
he remembers is me beating him, McEwen countered. The
two times I beat him in a lifetime. The two times out of hundreds.
Then, The Mongoose got serious.
He found the reason for this occasion unnecessary. When
they started running those motorcycles on Friday nights, we could
no longer fight them off, he said. But, when them
guys came in and started running three days a week with the noise,
they could no longer help us. Otherwise, it might still be running
But, Sharp had concluded that
the Harbor Department would have claimed the place eventually,
regardless of noise issues. They needed it for development
for the container terminal, which it eventually became,
he said. But, it lied there empty for a long time with
just pipe piled up on it.
So, they killed it, but then
they didnt know what to do with the corpse! Lions Drag
Strips undoing was that America changed in the 70s,
and too much was no longer enough for some people. Hip capitalism
was passé, and the new ethos became making as much money
as you canand who gives a damn about the neighbors and
what they think? No more free lunches, maam. Like Mike
Kuhl was to his Top Fuel engine: Just flog it until it dies.
Youll either win or leave a trail of absolute carnage.
Or both. Who cares? Its behind you! Yes,
1960s drag racing, if not the 1960s in totum, died that bleary-eyed
night in December, 1972. Cold and stoned.
When asked about the traction
at Lions Drag Strip, TV Tommy Ivo mused, Like
all things nostalgic, it just keeps getting better and better.