The Last Drag Race

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 drag strip.

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 it was.

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 country.

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 Drag Strip.

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 Cars.

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 of 6.39.

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 starting line.

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 inside


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.




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