It was October 9, 1955 -- opening
day at Lions Drag Strip in Wilmington, California. Mickey Thompson
was the track manager and only paid employee. He and and his
all-volunteer staff had no idea what to expect. They were prepared
to handle up to 2500 people and possibly 50 cars. But over 10,000
people came swarming through the dusty field and down to the
track that day. The crowd had no patience with the incredibly
long lines at the ticket booth. They simply dismantled what little
fence there was and made their way down to the logs that served
as seats. Of the 400 cars that showed up that day, over 25 percent
had to be turned away, due to bald tires and generally unsafe
condition. The P.A. system broke down. The portable toilets overflowed.
The food supply ran out. The water, which had to be trucked in,
ran out. The dust was unreal. The crowd piled right onto the
track to watch the action. Pandemonium prevailed. In other words,
opening day at Lions was an unqualified success.
Opening day at the track was
the culmination of a year-long struggle to bring legalized drag
racing to the Los Angeles area. That struggle had begun shortly
after a Long Beach judge named Fred Miller became outraged at
the increasing number of street racers appearing before his court.
Judge Miller decided that something had to be done about the
situation and committed his influence to the creation of a legal
Miller arranged a meeting between
Mickey Thompson and Eddie Baker, a member of a Long Beach area
chapter of the Lions Club. They in turn got together with representatives
of nine Los Angeles Harbor area Lions Club chapters and hashed
out an agreement whereby the associated Lions Club chapters would
raise the needed $45,000 capital to build a drag strip. The L.A.
Harbor Commission then agreed to lease an unused railroad switching
yard down by the harbor to the Lions Club on a 30-day revokable
basis. The new drag strip would be called Lions Associated Drag
Strip (hence the old LADS term), and all profits from it would
be donated through the Lions to charities helping the blind.
Shortly after the agreement was
reached, Mickey was out plowing up the old railroad yard and
building the strip. But a snag soon developed. Seems the $45,000
raised by the Lions wasn't going to be enough. They were going
to need more like $90,000. To solve the problem, the staff went
ahead with the project, not telling anybody that they had long
since run out of money. After all, who's going to question your
credit when you've got the Lions Club, the Harbor Commission
and a municipal judge backing you? Of course the track eventually
became quite a financial success and all of the creditors were
paid off within a two-year period of time.
That financial success was based
upon the popularity of Saturday night "Date Night"
racing at Lions. Master showman Mickey Thompson had lights installed
in 1957 and attendance immediately doubled. Soon the Top Eliminator
prize had gone from a $25 bond to a $1000 bond. Mickey no longer
had to wait a week for his $75 paycheck and a complete paid staff
had been hired.
Under Mickey's leadership the
place continued to innovate. In addition to the introduction
of night racing, Lions had some other "firsts." Like
replacing the flag-waving starter with the now-standard "Christmas
Tree" starting light system. That original tree had only
three lights in its sequence: one amber light for staging, one
amber light for warning and one green/red for start/foul.
By the late Fifties Lions had
become a legend. Being located right at sea level and within
smelling distance of the ocean meant that the air at the strip
was about as dense as air gets. The racers called it "rare
air" since it was so different from that of any other strip.
In addition to the dense air, the track had fantastic traction.
Due to the air, the traction and the competition, Lions was universally
recognized as the world's fastest and quickest drag strip. And
But most of all, the guys competing
at Lions made the place the legend it was. Guys like Tom McEwen,
who grew up in Long Beach, got their starts there. "Big
John" Mazmanian and Stone, Woods & Cook fought it out
for Gas class honors every Saturday night. Joe Mondello and Sush
Matsubara were regulars, as was "TV Tommy" Ivo. Current
Top Fuel stars Carl Olson and Jeb Allen practically grew up at
the place. Allen coming there first at the tender age of seven.
Add to these the names of Gary Gabelich, Greer, Black & Prudhomme,
Stellings & Hampshire, Gene Mooneyham, Art and Jack Chrisman,
Don Moody, Frank Pedregon and Lou Baney and you get some idea
of what Saturday night at Lions was like.
Mickey continued to run the track
through its glory days until 1965, when he quit to devote himself
full-time to his own business career. C.J. "Pappy"
Hart moved in to replace him. Under Pappy's reign, the track
continued to grow. In addition to a Top Fuel two-out-of-three
match race, Hart presented an eight-car field in Top Fuel, Top
Gas, Fuel Altered, Competition and Gas every Saturday night.
It got to be so heavy that one day 72 Top Fuel dragsters showed
up to fight for that night's eight starting positions.
Under Hart, Junior Fuel, bracket
and grudge racing were all invented. And under Hart that famous
Lions traction improved. It improved with a series of coatings
alternately called "Interdigitated Interlock," "Octo-Vise,"
and "Secura-bond." All those terms were invented by
then publicity director Ralph Guldahl Jr., who admits that the
best surface of all was the one stolen from the old San Gabriel
strip when it closed down in 1963. They had actually gone to
closing day at San Gabriel and brought a piece of the asphalt
home with them to have it analyzed and reproduced.
But in the late Sixties Lions
entered into a decline. Funny Cars had just come into being and
Hart really didn't know what to make of these newfangled things.
He put on a couple of fairly successful winter Funny Car shows
but then drove the whole thing into the ground by presenting
the same mediocre field of local Funnys every weekend throughout
the year. In addition to Hart's lack of success with the Funnys,
he had his problems with both the Lions Club board of directors
and the Harbor Commission. Hart wanted to run more of the Top
Fuel shows that Lions had been noted for, but both the Lions
board and the Harbor Commission were opposed, citing increased
population in the area as their reason for limiting the action
at the strip. In 1971 Hart had reached the end of his chain and
called it quits, retiring from a long career as a racing promoter.
Enter Steve Evans, Lions' third
track manager. When Evans took over, he discovered a drag strip
in serious need of guidance. He had the place completely renovated
and then got NHRA to sanction the Grand Premiere early in 1972.
The Grand Premiere turned out to be one of the most successful
events in the history of the track. Eager to run for recognized
records at the world's fastest and quickest strip, the turnout
of racers was fantastic for this non-National event. Four new
NHRA National Records were set at this one meet.
With big events back on the schedule
and the customary large turnouts for grudge and bracket racing,
1972 turned out to be one of the most successful years in the
history of the track. Seventy thousand dollars was turned over
to the Lions' charity fund at year's end. This was in addition
to a total of over $300,000 already donated from the drag strip's
previous 17 years of operation. Lions Drag Strip had once again
become a household word in Southern California, if not the whole
Then the axe fell. Using noise
complaints from nearby residents as an excuse, the Harbor Commission
took that 30-day revokable permit under which the track had been
operating for 18 years and revoked it. The commission acted so
swiftly that there was no time to organize and fight it. A small
grass-roots committee went to City Hall to protest to the Harbor
Commission, but the dirty deed had been done and they were powerless
to stop it. It was later revealed that the real reason for canceling
the strip's lease had a lot more to do with expansion at the
octopus of a harbor than with the noise complaints of the few
residents in the area. The world's quickest and fastest drag
strip will soon be replaced by a warehouse for Japanese watches.
It was December 2, 1972 -- closing
night at Lions Drag Strip in Wilmington, California. Track Manager
Steve Evans and his staff didn't know exactly what to expect.
They were prepared to handle a capacity crowd of 10,000 people.
But over 20,000 showed up by 6 p.m., when track officials were
forced to close the gates due to the size of the gathering. Thousands
were turned away but thousands more wouldn't be denied by the
closing of the gates. They simply tore down some eight-foot cyclone
fencing and made their way down to the strip. Woodstock Nation
was on the rise again -- this time to pay their respects at this,
"The Last Drag Race," the final event ever at Lions
Fans and racers both had driven
in from some distance. Gary Beck came down from Canada. Jerry
Ruth and Herm Petersen had come in from the Northwest. This was
their last chance at the $5000 prize being offered by Cragar
for the first five-second run at Lions. But the gods wouldn't
be good to the fans and racers that night. The dense ocean fog
that usually rolled in to the strip at night was being held off
by a mild Santa Ana wind blowing warm and lean air in from the
desert. We weren't going to see that five-second run, even though
Don Moody was qualified at 6.04, Carl Olson at 6.09 and the next
four Top Fuelers were in the teens.
We watched round one of Top Fuel
from the finish line, where the crowd had already jumped the
fence to catch a better view of the action. Jeb Allen took Denver
Schutz in the first race. Gary Beck then beat Don Moody, blowing
a motor in the lights and showering the fearless fans at the
guardrail with sparks and metal chips. Those fearless fans hit
the dirt when Beck blew, but they bounced back up in time to
see Dennis Baca come screaming through the lights at 6.14 on
a single run. Lean air or not, these guys were really pumping
for that five-second run and the $5000 prize. They wanted Lions
to "Go Out Big!"
The crowd really started getting
out of hand by the end of round one of Top Fuel. They had brought
their own fireworks and put on a display of Roman candles and
cherry bombs to keep the action rolling between races. They also
set fire to every tumbleweed on the premises. The fires would
rage 50 feet into the air and then die down to a slow fizzle.
Before the first round of Funny Car got under way, hundreds of
spectators had jumped the fences and lined the track. The security
cops made a half-hearted effort to restrain them, but the cops
were either afriad of creating an ugly confrontation or were
just as caught up in the air of this event as everyone else.
In any case, they just let the people stay where they wanted
to stay and do what they wanted to do.
Meanwhile, right at the starting
line, two photographers were passing a fifth of 100-proof Wild
Turkey. But those at the start had nothing over those in the
stands. The pungent odor of marijuana hung heavy over the track,
overpowering even the nitro fumes belching from the staged Funny
Halfway through that first round
of Funny Car action, Steve Evans paged a spectator over the P.A.
system: "Roger Chandler, meet your wife behind the timing
tower. It's a medical emergency. Your wife is having a baby.
The labor pains are coming every three or four minutes."
The typical nonstop Lions show
of racing continued through it all. In addition to Top Fuel and
Funny Car, they had Injected Funny, Pro Stock, Competition, Modified,
Super Stock and Stock Eliminators to run. "Wild Bill"
Shrewsberry had canceled a booking somewhere in the Midwest to
bring his wheelstander down to Lions for a free exhibition.
We took a breather from the action
to get a hot dog, which meant standing in line for 30 minutes.
Just like opening day, 18 years before, the food supply was running
out. And good luck if you had to make a phone call or hit the
head; the lines were hundred-people long.
Out in the pits was an incredible
display of machinery. The sportsmen ranks had been filled from
as far away as New England for this last bash at Lions. In attendance
were the Schley Brothers, Van Prothero, Fred Badberg, Darrell
Vittone, Barnes & Berona, Adams & Enriquez and the Blair's
Speed Shop Anglia. The twin-Jimmy engined dragster of Sissell
& Dick was also on hand. This would the last drag race for
the Sissell & Dick machine, as twin-engined dragsters have
been outlawed by NHRA.
Round two of Top Fuel was run.
Jeb Allen won again. Then Carl Olson ran a 6.19, followed by
successive 6.15's by Don Moody (in on the break rule) and Mike
Snively. Since Moody and Snively had both run in the fives at
the Supernationals just two weeks before this race, it looked
like that five-second shot might materialize.
In the second round of Funny
Car, Tom McEwen emerged victorious over Omar Carruthers. Jim
Dunn trailered Sush Matsubara, Don Prudhomme put away Dave Condit
and Billy Meyer knocked off the redlighting Bill Leavitt.
It was past midnight when they
ran the semis. Don Moody almost turned the $5000 trick by running
a 6.02 in defeating Jeb Allen. Unfortunately, Moody was denied
a last chance at a five-second run when he blew his motor in
the lights. Jeb Allen would come back in under the break rule
in the final round to face Carl Olson, victorious over Mike Snively
in the semis.
In Funny Car it was McEwen at
6.40 over Jim Dunn. And then something really weird happened.
None of us had ever seen anything like it before. Billy Meyer's
crew hadn't replaced a clutch in time to make the staging lane
for the semis. Carruthers was brought in to face Prudhomme. They
had both done their burnouts and were staged when Meyer, who
had finally gotten that clutch fixed, fired up his Funny and
pulled up right behind Carruthers, all 1500 horses bellowing
away. He and his crew were frantically trying to wave Carruthers
over when the light turned green, but track officials said "no
go" to the kid from Waco, Texas, and Prudhomme went on to
beat Carruthers, setting up a rather fitting McEwen vs. Prudhomme
Funny Car final for The Last Drag Race.
While the cars were cooling off
in preparation for the final rounds, a group of old-timers came
to the start to pose for pictures. They included Mickey Thompson,
Lou Baney, Jack Ewell, Sid Waterman and Ed Pink. Missing at that
gathering of old-timers were Boyd Pennington, Leonard Harris,
Pete Petrie, "TV Joe the Jet" Jackson, Harrel Amyx
and Mickey Brown, among others. They had all died battling the
lights at Lions.
The living old-timers and the
ghosts of the dead cleared the track about 2 a.m., and the final
rounds of The Last Drag Race were finally run. All the competitors
in the finals were Lions regulars. Dave Benisek took his Buick
to victory over Matt Espinosa's Pinto in Stock. The Zoelle Brothers
defeated DeFrank & Cohen in Super Stock. Ed Sigmon took the
Anderson Brothers in Modified.
And here they had to halt the
racing for the first time of the evening. At the halfway point
down the track, some fans had jumped the fence along the return
road and were tearing down the guardrail. Steve Evans implored
them to wait just a few more minutes, until the finals were completed,
and then tear down the railing. They stopped and hopped back
over the fence. The Last Drag Race continued.
Sissell & Dick faced Jim
Scott in the Competition final, with Scott the winner. Ken Veney
beat Wilfred Boutilier for Injected Funny honors. Bill Bagshaw
took Larry Breaux in Pro Stock.
Then the Funnys came up to the
line. It was McEwen facing Prudhomme, two racers who got their
starts at Lions. Only a Mazmanian vs. Stone, Woods & Cook
final would have been as fitting. As the cars pulled off the
line, the crowd closed in behind them. A loud cheer went up from
the stands when McEwen took it with a quickest-ever in his Funny
And then it was Top Eliminator
at Lions for the last time. This was it. The air hung still.
The crowd was silent for the first time that whole evening. Carl
Olson and Jeb Allen were sitting in their cars atop the electric
rollers, awaiting the signal from the starter to fire up and
begin THE LAST DRAG RACE.
The signal came. The two cars
fired up. They did their burnouts down Lions' sticky track for
the last time. As they staged, the crowd closed in right behind
the thundering Fuelers. For the last time the Lions Christmas
tree lit amber, amber, green. The two rails screamed down the
track head-to-head all the way, with Olson's 6.20 victorious.
Then the signs came down. First
to go was the "Last Drag Race" banner at the starting
line. Twenty guys fought for it, but two emerged from the fray
and carried it off. Then came the 30-foot-long blue-on-yellow
"Lions Drag Strip" sign. It had to be broken down into
three pieces and carted off by three different pairs of fans.
And then a mad struggle for the lane markers. Meanwhile, up in
the timing tower, staffers were grabbing such relics of past
glory as the "Authorized Personnel Only" sign on the
timing booth door. Some fool was even trying to pry the Coca-Cola
sign off the snack booth. And an attempt was made at prying up
the starting line. It failed. That was one tough mother of a
It took over an hour for the
huge crowd to slowly file out of Lions for the very last time.
Only the winning racers remained behind. They were waiting for
The Last Payout.
written by Steve Alexander
from Hot Rod magazine
page 68-73 - February, 1973
© Petersen Publishing Co. Ltd. 1973
These four shots are just sad.
Don Gillespie took them the week after "The Last Drag Race".
The top shot is from the return road (Losers Roost) and shows
the fence damage from the huge crowd at the race. The shot below
is from the same area after the chain link fence was taken down
completely. The tower and bridge in the background.
This is from the other side of
the return road looking at the tower and the bridge that went
from the spectators side to the pit side. So many memories.
*Thousands more LDR photos
My brother and I gave the half
of the starting line A sign that John snagged to Garlits for
his museum in 2001. It hung in my garage for years, then went
off to John's until it went to Big.