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."
Roland "the Hawaiian" Leong drove a fueler once at Lions—and crashed. Subsequently, he was
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."
Jeb Allen, driving the Praying Mantis T/F, was the last car to ever traverse the Lions qua
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.
Roland Leong and Tom McEwen shared a laugh at what could be considered a wake for not just
"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.
"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."
Ed Pink (center) supplied the engines for the two Funny Car finalists, McEwen and Prudhomm
"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.
Tom McEwen bested Don Prudhomme just two times in their history; one of them was at the La
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 Draglist.com 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."
"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."
The fanaticism the track inspired was quite apparent by the apparel shown off by audience
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.
At the Last Drag Race symposium, hosted at the NHRA Museum, Mike Kuhl, Roland Leong, Tom M
"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."