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Remembering Lions Drag Strip Last Drag Race

…And the Night the Music Died

By Cole Coonce, Photography by Cole Coonce

"As the night wore on, and we kept going rounds, the place got more and more out of control," Olson penned. "The entire length of the return road was lined with cars and trucks, and the party was on. Everyone in the place was in a strange mood...somewhere between having the time of their lives and attending a funeral."

Kuhl said running the dragster through eliminations that night was like burying the dead. "The car was hurt. We shook the car apart pretty bad the whole weekend. Brand-new car, two weeks old, and the firewall was busted all over the place. Carl asked me what we should do. I said the worst that can happen is that the motor will jump out of it, and if it does, the motor is behind you, so who cares? I fixed it with bailing wire."

The ragged, dangerous condition of the Kuhl & Olson mount mirrored the state of the entire facility, which continued to degenerate as Prudhomme and McEwen prepared to race for the ultimate Lions Funny Car trophy.

"They did stop the race more than once," the fan with the microphone told the museum crowd. "There were people sitting on the rails in the lights." It got so bad, he said, "A lot of racers didn’t wait for their check. They just left because [the racers] weren’t going to be there at the end."

In their last match at Lions, McEwen was the winner. His quarter-mile elapsed time of 6.35 seconds at 225 mph beat Prudhomme’s uncharacteristically off-the-throttle 6.97.

Even though he triumphed over his lifelong rival in one of most historic races ever, McEwen remembers it as bittersweet. "It was sad," he said.

His opponent was less sentimental. "I wasn’t that emotional about it because we got beat," Prudhomme deadpanned. "So I didn’t give a shit if the place closed or not."

But it would close as soon as Jeb Allen and Carl Olson could complete their historic zero-dark-thirty joust for the last winner in Top Fuel at Lions—which almost didn’t happen.

"When we went to the line for the final, the scene was absolutely surreal," Olson reported. "By now, all attempts to control the crowd had been abandoned. There were people where only the guardrail should have been, and I really didn’t want to pick any of them off, so I stayed as close to the centerline as possible. I ran over several beer and wine bottles on the track, and I can vividly remember the crunching sensation as I hit ’em."

History records that Olson won Top Fuel Eliminator at Lions Last Drag Race in 6.20 seconds, coupled with a top-end speed of 233 mph. His opponent, Jeb Allen, lost with a 6.45 time at 227. That was the quick part.

"It took us an hour to get back up to the starting line because of the mass of people," Kuhl said. "It was pure pandemonium."

"Between the marijuana smoke, the outhouses being torched, and the bonfires, the whole place looked like the Watts riots," Olson wrote.

Kuhl made a point of saying that the Kuhl & Olson machine wasn’t the last Top Fueler to make a pass at the Beach. Since Olson won the event, technically the final dragster to go down Lions Drag Strip was that of the runner-up, Jeb Allen.

As the museum’s symposium wound down, Prudhomme tried to put that long night 40 years earlier in perspective: "I have fucking nightmares from that place closing," he said. "I wake up sometimes in a cold sweat from thinking about it."

"That’s because all he remembers is me beating him," McEwen countered. "The two times I beat him in a lifetime. The two times out of hundreds."

Then, The Mongoose got serious. He found the reason for this occasion unnecessary. "When they started running those motorcycles on Friday nights, we could no longer fight them off," he said. "But, when them guys came in and started running three days a week with the noise, they could no longer help us. Otherwise, it might still be running today."

But, Sharp had concluded that the Harbor Department would have claimed the place eventually, regardless of noise issues. "They needed it for development for the container terminal, which it eventually became," he said. "But, it lied there empty for a long time with just pipe piled up on it."

So, they killed it, but then they didn’t know what to do with the corpse! Lions Drag Strip’s undoing was that America changed in the ’70s, and too much was no longer enough for some people. Hip capitalism was passé, and the new ethos became making as much money as you can—and who gives a damn about the neighbors and what they think? No more free lunches, ma’am. Like Mike Kuhl was to his Top Fuel engine: Just flog it until it dies. You’ll either win or leave a trail of absolute carnage. Or both. "Who cares? It’s behind you!" Yes, 1960s drag racing, if not the 1960s in totum, died that bleary-eyed night in December, 1972. Cold and stoned.

When asked about the traction at Lions Drag Strip, "TV Tommy" Ivo mused, "Like all things nostalgic, it just keeps getting better and better."

By Cole Coonce
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