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Remembering Lions Drag Strip Last Drag Race

…And the Night the Music Died

By Cole Coonce, Photography by Cole Coonce

"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 As the horsepower increased and the NHRA rescinded its ban on nitromethane, the action got louder.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 mechanism.

"We gave passes at Lions, and I bought meals for the Gold Star Mothers when they'd 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. "Don't 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 driver's 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 McEwen's 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 track's 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, Hart's ethos fell on deaf ears with the new management.

"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 couldn't stand the heat anymore."

At that point, it is just a question of finishing the paperwork and firing up the bulldozers—and 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…and under 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 Race's radio ads this way, "Steve's [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 about how treacherous the event became.

"[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."

Carl's partner, Mike Kuhl, was on the museum panel, dressed in jeans, a T-shirt, and a baseball cap. He vouched for Olson's earlier remembrance. "It was pure chaos," he said. "The guards—about an hour before it was over with—they 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 of asphalt.

Prudhomme's recall is a little hazier, "I don't 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 would've thought of it."

By Cole Coonce
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