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Remembering Lions Drag Strip Last Drag Race

…And the Night the Music Died

By Cole Coonce, Photography by Cole Coonce

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 Wilson's 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 magazine's Gray Baskerville, years after the track closed. "You don't 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 day."

Its original success was a portent of the track's 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," wasn't pure puffery, and the Lions Club dispersed many hundreds of thousands of dollars of the track's 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 track's 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 dragstrip's 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 Department."

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 Race's 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 couldn't 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 you'd 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 driver's 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 couldn't see the race as much as hear it. But the spectators weren't the only folks listening critically.

By Cole Coonce
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