Drag racing legend C.J. "Pappy" Hart passes away
By: Phil Burgess, NHRA.com

C.J. "Pappy" Hart C.J. "Pappy" Hart, who helped create the first commercial drag strip in America, passed away June 25, a few weeks after suffering a stroke. He was 93.

Hart, who along with Creighton Hunter established the Santa Ana Drag Strip on an unused runway at the Orange County Airport, and held races Sundays from 1950 to 1959, was known to legions of drag racing fans as the one of the grand old men of the sport. In his later years, Hart was a member of the NHRA Safety Safari, traveling the country and greeting well wishers at every stop.

Hunter sold his interest in the strip to Hart in the first month of operation, and Hart, who owned a gas station in Santa Ana at the time, went on to run the strip with his wife, Peggy, who competed – and won – regularly at the track in her '33 Willy's coupe. Peggy Hart died in 1980.

"There's been drag racing since cars were invented," Hart said in a 2001 interview in National DRAGSTER, "but I guess they say I invented drag racing because I was the first one to have a commercial strip. There was one in [Goleta, Calif.], but they charged no fee at the time. I saw a need to get people to stop racing on the streets; that was dangerous."

The fee to race or watch was 50 cents, and Hart decided on a quarter-mile length adapted from thoroughbred racing. In addition to installing an electronic timing system (cobbled together from an old Victrola), Hart's track also created some of the sport's earliest rules, regulating axle ratios as well as year, make, and displacements of engines, and safety regulations such as roll bars.

When Santa Ana closed in 1959, Hart helped stage races at a Taft airport facility and later at Riverside Raceway.

In 1965, the Lions Club Board of Directors hired Hart to succeed Mickey Thompson as manager of fabled Lions Dragstrip, which he managed for many years. Hart later served as a consultant to many tracks, offering advice on everything from racing surfaces to pit areas.

After his wife's death, Hart missed the sport and was convinced by then NHRA Competition Director Steve Gibbs to join the Safety Safari. For many years he hauled the jet track dryer from stop to stop and help keep his fellow Safari workers refreshed by bringing them beverages and ice.
Earlier this year, Hart was a member of an elite panel that discussed early drasgtrip operations at an event at the Wally Parks NHRA Motorsports Museum.

In 1991, Hart was inducted into the International Drag Racing Hall of Fame and in 2001 the city of Santa Ana honored Hart, proclaiming April 29 C.J. "Pappy" Hart Day.

"Throughout his adult life, C.J. Hart was a car guy's car guy," said NHRA founder Wally Parks. "Likewise, he was a pioneer's pioneer in the development of organized drag racing as a community service activity.

"He was everybody's friend, and while we often debated issues involving the sport, his knowledgeable influence on its early rules and procedures was widespread and respected.

"C.J. was a member of the team, from day one – always concerned about welfare of the racers. In later years, serving as an active and dedicated member of the NHRA Safety Safari crew, he became aware of the legions of friends he had accumulated in all parts of the country. That he was truly an icon of the sport cannot be questioned and his affable presence will be missed.

"We salute his memory as we pay tribute to his contributions in building a solid foundation for drag racing as one of today's most highly respected fields of motorsport."

Pappy requested that if you would like to make a contribution, that he would be honored if you remember: Drag Racing Association of Women (DRAW)
4 Hance Drive
Charleston, IL  61920

You had to drag this pioneer off the track
Hart, father of drag racing, opened Santa Ana track in 1950.

The Orange County Register

If you'd asked C.J. "Pappy" Hart if he was the father of drag racing, chances are he would have just shrugged and said, "Oh, me and a couple of guys just liked running our cars, that's all."

He was a modest man and did nothing for personal credit. But in drag-racing circles, Pappy is considered the father of the sport - the one responsible for creating one of the few motorsports that originated in the United States.

When he came to Santa Ana in 1944, he found a bunch of outlaw kids drag racing dangerously in the streets and wanted a safe place for them - and for himself and his wife, Peggy - to test their speed.

There wasn't much in Orange County then - just a lot of trees and bean fields and the occasional house. And a small airport with runways that weren't even used.

Pappy, Creighton Hunter and Frank Stillwell got permission from county and city officials to set up races on an unused runway at Orange County Airport.

Pappy established the quarter-mile distance (patterned after quarter-horse racing), developed the classes of competition to separate the capabilities of the cars and offered the first drag-racing awards.

The Santa Ana Drags opened June 19, 1950. Entry fee was 50 cents.

Pappy, who was 92 when he died June 25, was born Cloyce Hart in Findlay, Ohio.

He married Mary Margaret "Peggy" Riley in 1934 and worked at a gas station, then at Ford Motor Co., before moving his family to Santa Ana.

Pappy went to work for a Ford garage, then opened a gas station. Two years later, he and a friend opened their own garage at First Street and Harbor Boulevard, where they souped up race cars.

What we now call drag racing was once called hot-rodding. It was illegal, but it was done wherever racers thought or hoped they wouldn't get caught.

When Santa Ana Drags opened, it was an immediate success, with about 50 cars competing. Roll bars and crash helmets weren't even considered.

Among the star racers was Pappy's wife, Peggy, the only woman racer and one of the fastest women in the nation.
She set her own records and often challenged the winners at the end - and beat them.

Pappy was a Ford man through and through, and souped them up with Cadillac engines. Every time Ford came out with a new model Mercury, Pappy had to have it.

In 1959, airport expansion ran the track off the field. Pappy went to work at Riverside Raceway, then went to Taft to open a drag strip. Later, from 1963 to 1970, he worked at Lions Drag Strip in Wilmington, then went on to the Orange County Raceway.

After retiring, he became part of the National Hot Rod Association's Safety Safari team that pulls drivers out of crashed race cars and extin guishes fires.

Both Pappy and Peggy are in several drag racing halls of fame.

Pappy was a thin, sinewy man, slightly stooped from the time a horse-drawn carriage ran over him when he was a kid. He was always well dressed and with a cigar between his fingers or his lips.

A man of great integrity and generosity, he gave many young racers financial support.

He was fiercely patriotic, and when announcing a race, he always started by playing a record of "The Star Spangled Banner." If he saw anyone moving during the anthem, he yanked the needle off the rec ord and announced loudly, "OK, young man, down by the Lions sign. If you can't (stand) still for the national anthem, we'll all wait until you do."

He and Peggy never lost their love for speed.

Looking like a stodgy old man in his Mercury Comet that looked stock but had been fine-tuned by Pappy, he'd leave smart-aleck kids in the dust when the light turned green and the kids thought they could jump ahead of him.

And in Texas, he was ticketed for going 85 mph - in his motor home.

Pappy wasn't a religious man, but life was never the same for him after Peggy died in 1980. Shortly before he died, he told a friend, "I've waited 24 years. I'm going to see Peggy."

Drag Racing Pioneer Operated Strip in Santa Ana
By Shav Glick, LA Times Staff Writer

June 30, 2004 C.J. "Pappy" Hart, a drag-racing pioneer who helped popularize the sport by conducting races in the 1950s on unused runways at Orange County — now John Wayne — Airport, died Saturday after suffering a stroke. He was 93.

Hart managed a number of drag strips in Southern California, but is remembered best for operating, with his wife, Peggy, the Santa Ana Dragstrip on Sundays from 1950 to 1959. It shut down when the expanding airport required the space.

When partners Hart and Creighton Hunter opened the Santa Ana strip, it was the first to collect fees from spectators and race entrants. Airport authorities agreed to rent Hart and Hunter the runway for 10% of the gate. Admission was 50 cents, later increased to $1, and racers paid $1 to compete. Attendance for the opener was about 500, with about 50 cars competing. The track averaged about 2,500 spectators for Sunday races, but Hart said that attendance for the final day was more than 4,000.

Hart said he decided to organize professional races at Santa Ana after he and Hunter had conducted clandestine races on an abandoned Navy airfield, now Mile Square Park in Fountain Valley. When they were chased off by Marines, Hart decided there ought to be a place where cars could race legally.

Shortly after the first races were held at Santa Ana, Hart bought out Hunter's interest and made the strip a family operation.

Later, Hart operated Lions Drag Strip in Wilmington for many years, ran drag races at the Taft Airport and at Riverside International Raceway, and served as a consultant to a number of tracks. He also was a participant in the National Hot Rod Assn.'s Safety Safari, a group that canvassed drag strips across the country to establish common rules and safety standards.

"C.J. Hart was a car guy's car guy," said Wally Parks, founder of the NHRA.

"Likewise, he was a pioneer's pioneer in the development of organized drag racing as a community-service activity. He was everybody's friend, and while we often debated issues involving the sport, his knowledgeable influence on its early rules and procedures were widespread and respected."

Peggy Hart, a racer as well as a promoter, died in 1980.

Hart was inducted into the International Drag Racing Hall of Fame in 1991 and the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America in 1999. In 2001, the city of Santa Ana proclaimed April 29 C.J. "Pappy" Hart Day.

C.J. Hart, took drag racing from lake beds to success
New York Times

July 4, 2004 PLACENTIA, Calif. - C.J. Hart, who had the idea of charging hot rodders a buck and spectators 50 cents, a quarter more if they wanted to watch mechanics work, thereby spawning the first U.S. commercial drag strip, died June 25 here at the home of his son, Gerald. He was 93.

The cause was complications from a stroke, Gerald said.

Hart, whose Midwestern youth included scorching car races on deserted roads, found himself in Southern California after World War II, just as drag racing was becoming a somewhat organized sport on dry lake beds. His novel contribution, with the help of two partners, was to charge admission to watch or participate in races on a runway at the Orange County Airport (now John Wayne Airport) in Santa Ana.

The National Hot Rod Association, as well as the Encyclopaedia Britannica, say that the first race there, on June 19, 1950, is considered the first commercial competition in a sport in which billions of dollars are now spent as 35,000 licensed competitors race on at least 140 tracks. Fortune 500 companies now back drag racing, and a poll last year by ESPN, the sports cable television network, showed that the popularity of drag racing trailed only NASCAR among motor sports.

Today's cars can reach more than 330 mph in less than five seconds over a quarter-mile.

"There's been drag racing since cars were invented," Hart, who was known as Pappy, said in an interview with National Dragster in 2001, "but I guess they say I invented drag racing because I was the first one to have a commercial strip."

He added that he wanted to get people to stop endangering themselves by racing on the streets, a comment seemingly at odds with his widely reported arrest at age 87 for driving 85 in a 55-mph zone.

For 18 years, Hart, who lived in Elsinore, Calif., drove equipment from drag strip to drag strip, as well as acting as a safety officer for the hot rod association. His son said he routinely drove his motor home 90 mph.

In April, he appeared on a panel of hot rod luminaries at the NHRA Motorsports Museum in Pomona, Calif. The moderator suggested that he must have been "the brightest guy in the world to start the first drag strip."

Hart replied: "That's right. I'm smart."

The moderator: "If you're so smart, why aren't you driving a Rolls?"

"Because I'm a Ford man."

Drag-racing icon from Findlay dies at 93

PLACENTIA, Calif. - C.J. Hart, a Findlay native who helped create the country's first commercial drag strip, died at 93.

Hart, known as "Pappy," died at the home of son Gerald on June 25, Gerald Hart said yesterday. He had a stroke in May.

Hart and two partners helped to popularize the sport by running the first commercial drag race June 19, 1950, on a runway at the Orange County Airport, according to the National Hot Rod Association.

They set the quarter-mile distance and made a deal with airport operators to rent out space on Sundays.
Spectators paid 50 cents. Hart eventually bought out partners Frank Stillwell and Creighton Hunter and the races were held at what is now John Wayne Airport until 1959.

Hart's wife, Peggy, who died in 1980, competed regularly.

"There's been drag racing since cars were invented," Hart told National Dragster magazine in 2001. "But I guess they say I invented drag racing because I was the first one to have a commercial strip. . . . I saw a need to get people to stop racing on the streets; that was dangerous."

Born Cloyce Roller Hart in Findlay, Hart's mother died days after his birth and he was raised by neighbors. He ran away from home as a teenager to work in the circus and later worked for Ford Motor Co., making engines. Hart moved to Santa Ana, Calif., in 1944.

After 1959, Hart operated other drag strips in Southern California and worked as an NHRA safety officer. Hart, who lived in Lake Elsinore, was inducted into the International Drag Racing Hall of Fame in 1991 and the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America in 1999.

His eyesight was failing and he had been unable to drive in recent years, but Hart was still fond of high speeds in his 80s.

Funeral services were held Thursday in Santa Ana, with participants firing up a loud dragster at the burial.

"They called it an eight-cylinder salute," Gerald Hart said.

Drag-racing pioneer C.J. Hart remembered

DRIVE: The Lake Elsinore resident opened the first commercial drag strip in Orange County.

By LYLE SPENCER / The Press-Enterprise

LAKE ELSINORE - An innovator who lived for the roar of engines and crowds, C.J. Hart was a businessman with a heart.

"He knew I would race anything to make few bucks," Temecula resident Dale Armstrong said of Hart, a drag-racing pioneer who was 93 when he died June 25. " 'Pappy' - that's what everyone called him - always took good care of me. I was treated better at his track than any other."

Hart was inducted into the International Drag Racing Hall of Fame in 1991 and the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America in 1999.

Life never was a drag for "Pappy" Hart, a Lake Elsinore fixture credited with opening the first commercial drag-racing operation at Orange County (now John Wayne) Airport in 1950. Hart later helped create the roller system for starting cars and began the practice of spraying resin on tracks for grip.

"He was there at the start, in the middle of everything in drag racing," said Armstrong, who raced for Hart from 1964 to 1979 at Lions Drag Strip in Wilmington. "He was really a progressive guy, always thinking about the racers first."

Hart briefly retired after his wife, Peggy, a popular racer in the 1950s, died in 1980. Brought back to the sport in a consulting position by friend and former rival, Steve Gibbs, Hart worked for the National Hot Rod Association until he was 86.

"We're all sad he's gone," said Gibbs, vice president of competition for 35 years for the NHRA and former manager of Irwindale Raceway. "But he made it to 93, and he was active until a few years ago. He'd work, too, lugging a bag of ice for office workers, doing whatever he could to help.

"He used his motor home to drive around the circuit towing a device that dries tracks. He'd say, 'If I don't earn my keep, I don't deserve to be here.' He loved being around the racing community, around young people."

Gibbs was aware of Hart's generosity with drivers.

"A lot of times," Gibbs recalled in a phone interview, " a racer would be down and out, and C.J. would slip him 25 bucks. It meant a lot in those days."

Half a century ago, at Orange County Airport, Hart and two partners rented space on Sundays, sending dragsters screeching away at a quarter-mile distance for spectators paying 50 cents.

"In those early days, drag strips were more of a service to the community than a commercial venture," Gibbs said. "C.J.'s first claim to fame was, by all accounts, starting the first (commercial) drag strip in the country, in Santa Ana."

Hart bought out his partners, ran the airport track until 1959, then ushered in an exciting era in drag racing at Lions

His wife, Peggy, raced competitively and gave C.J. a son, Jerry, and daughter, Joanie.

"At that time," Gibbs said, "it was mainly roadsters and coupes. Peggy was going as fast as any of them, and beating a lot of guys. She was a trendsetter, a pioneer. C.J. and Peggy helped shape the sport and pave the way for Don Prudhomme, Tom McEwen and the big-name racers who got started at Lions or Santa Ana."

"Pappy" didn't compete but was a familiar figure to fans at Lions in his straw hat and two-wheel motorbike, zipping around addressing track emergencies.

"After he'd checked out whatever was going on, C.J. would come back to the starting line, do a U-turn and a little spin-off - and the crowd would cheer this little character," said Armstrong, who stopped competing in 1982 to become a crew chief and now restores classic cars.

"In the infancy of funny-car racing, I had a home-built funny car that was what you'd probably call a piece of junk compared to what Don Prudhomme and those guys were driving. But Pappy treated me just as well as those guys. He was my favorite track operator."

And he never expected special treatment, according to Gibbs.

"Very late in his life," Gibbs said, "I'd get a call from C.J., asking for a phone number. I'd go get it, and by the time I'd get back to the phone, he'd be gone. He'd drive all the way from Lake Elsinore to Pomona.

"He knew age was catching up with him, but he fought it off as long as he could. He made a lot of people happy."

Gone Racin'…To say goodbye to C.J. Hart
By Richard Parks

It is inevitable in racing, that we must bid farewell to our friends and heroes. July 1, 2004, we paid our respects to one of the greats of auto racing, C.J. Hart. His full name was Cloyce Hart, and he took the name Joe in an attempt to hide from an angry father. C.J. became his name and he was a paradox for us. A kind and fatherly type of man, he could also set standards and refuse to cross the line. Born in 1911, he ran away to join the circus, came west with his bride, best friend and fellow car racer, Mary Margaret "Peggy" Hart. They formed a team that could not be broken, even by Peggy's untimely death in 1980. C.J. was affectionately called Pappy, and for good reason, for most of the racers were at least a decade his junior. Hart worked in a gas station, then left to form a garage with a friend in Santa Ana. The depression in the 1930's was hard. Hard on men and hard on their families, but C.J. and Peggy found a way to raise a family and still do what they loved to do, and that was race cars.

Hart was eager to stop illegal street racing among the young men after World War II, and get the kids off the streets. He and two friends, Creighton Hunter and Frank Stillwell got permission from the authorities to open a dragstrip on an old abandoned airstrip that has since become John Wayne Airport in Orange County, California. Pappy literally had to invent the rules for drag racing. His track was not the first, because a club had formed a race at Goleta in 1949, but Hart was the first to charge admission and to consistently award prizes and trophies and to codify the rules. He decided on a quarter mile distance after watching the quarter horses run at horse tracks. A quarter mile distance also allowed plenty of room for stopping the cars. Running a drag strip turned into a lifetime avocation and Hart created a venue, and a system that was copied by people from all over the country. People came out to the West Coast to observe this new racing phenomena, and then went home to start up timing associations, as they were called, in nearly every part of the country.

Distinctly American, this sport has grown and prospered. Sanctioning bodies formed to carry on what Hart had started and over time the rules were modified and became the sport of Drag Racing as we know it today. Pappy went on to run drag strips at Lions in Long Beach, Famoso Raceway, north of Bakersfield, and worked at many other tracks in Southern California. Upon retirement, he went to work for Steve Gibbs and NHRA with their Safety Safari Team, which is the group responsible for the safety of the drivers on the track. He may have retired again, but it is hard to tell, because Pappy was always at a race, a reunion or a drag racing event. It is also impossible to tell all the stories about Pappy. Drag racing and the people in his life were everything to him.

He always had a cigar in his hand and a wispy smile on his face, just barely visible. He could chide and admonish someone who had broken the rules with such warmth and humor, that no one ever took offense. He was terse. His advice was short and to the point. When someone was losing a fight, he blurted out the sage help, "don't get up, dummy." When he caught someone breaking the rules, he would say "Cheater, don't do it again." Years later he would see the same guy and greet him with the words, "hello, cheater." Once he was cajoled and nagged into taking a trip to Hawaii. He gave in, and went with the group, but upon landing in Honolulu, and taking one look around, went immediately back into the terminal and boarded another plane to come home. When asked about his trip to Hawaii, he exclaimed that if they tried to put one more lei around his neck he would strangle them. C.J.
was a no nonsense kind of guy. He knew what he wanted and he kept focused on that goal.

It had been 24 years since he lost his best friend and wife, Peggy. She was every bit the competitor that Pappy was. She was his right arm and confidant. She was a tenacious race car driver and drove on the drag strip and at the dry lakes. Peggy did not like to be beaten. Pappy gave her the best car that he could, and Peggy drove it to victory after victory. C.J. always said that he was just biding his time until the Good Lord came to take him away to be with his darling wife. Pappy was 93 and said that he had a full and good life. He liked to joke with his friend, Wally Parks, close in age and equal in zeal for the sport of drag racing, that one or the other of them could remember Adam. They traded age jokes all the time. Pappy was an honored guest at all the reunions; the CHRR in Famoso, CRA, Car Racers Reunion, Bean Bandits, Gas-Up Party and many more. He was inducted into several Hall of Fames, and no doubt will be added to more as the years go by. His greatness came not only from his idea to create a sport that would get kids off the street, but his leadership with those kids, who would follow him anywhere. His famous quote was always, "But you got in free."

A person's funeral is often the measure of the man himself. Those in attendance were some of the very young people that looked up to him, and then went on to glories of their own. I saw Dale Pulde, Linda Vaughn, Gloria and Cindy Gibbs, Wally Parks, Sam Jackson, Dick Wells, Jerry Archambeault, Bob Muravez, or as we came to know him, "Floyd Lippincott Jr," Reverend Ken Owens, Reverend Scrub Hansen, Jack Underwood, Ron Henderson, Orah Mae Millar (Pete's widow), and her family, Doug Kruse, Louie Senter, Bob Leggio, Mousie Marcellus, Creighton and Betty Hunter, John Ewald, Dave Wallace Jr, Tommy Ivo, Donny Johansen, Hila Paulsen Sweet, Andy and Ron Marocco, Neil Britt, John McClenathan from the Bean Bandits, Big John Hunt, and many more. We will miss Pappy but he set us straight when he said, very simply, "I'm ready, it's been a great ride, and I have no regrets."

Tribute to CJ and Peggy Hart

Pappy's Funeral - A celebration of life

Video Interview with CJ in 2003


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