Costa Mesa Historical Society March 17, 2013
Costa Mesa, CA
March 17, ‘13
Story by Richard Parks
Photographs by Roger Rohrdanz
Terry Shaw approached Roger and me at a recent Santa Ana Drag Strip and Main Street Malt Shop reunion and asked if we would speak at a meeting of the Costa Mesa Historical Society on St Patrick’s Day, March 17, 2013. I told Terry that we would be delighted to come and the topic assigned to us was “Hot Rodding in Orange County.” Roger and I showed up that day and we were really surprised to see what a nice building the Costa Mesa Historical Society has to hold their meetings and to keep alive the history of their city. The collection of memorabilia and photographs went back to the 1800’s and they even had displays of Indian metates and other artifacts. We spent some time looking at the captioned photographs and exhibits and talking to the members and officials of this group and they taught us a great deal. Costa Mesa was incorporated in 1953, but it has been a viable settlement and populated area for at least a century or more.
The reason that Roger and I attended and spoke was two-fold; to explain what hot rodding is all about and secondly, to support local historical societies. These local groups are often small in relation to the population of a town. The Costa Mesa Historical Society has 140 members in a town with about 110,000 people, but the work of historic preservation that this group does is very valuable. Historical societies save and preserve the history and heritage of an area and they exist all around our nation and in foreign lands. They offer us a view of their region and they are glad to see the public come and view the work that they have done. Historical societies also put on events in conjunction with the local civic authorities. What they do is vital to preserving a sense of community.
Another issue of importance is the value to the community by the numerous historical societies in the United States. They keep genealogical records, logs and journals of our pioneering ancestors, artifacts and memorabilia that relate to how our cities and counties were formed. These historical societies are like mini-museums and need to be utilized more by the citizens in their areas. We should take our children and grandchildren and visit these unique historical and cultural sites. We can learn a great deal about our history and we can encourage our children to learn to love their town’s history. We owe a great deal of gratitude to these men and women who volunteer to keep these societies going and to save our history and share it with us.
Roger stayed safe and secure in the back of the room with his camera at the ready while I spoke to about 50 members and guests of the Society. I began by explaining what a hot rodder is; someone who improves on what others have created or invents new ways of improving an object. A person can be a hot rodder and not even have a hot rod; if he has the spirit of creativity. Hot rodders have always existed and they always will exist, for the desire to improve and create is what motivates and drives hot rodders forward. Famous or well-known hot rodders who have worked, lived or have been a part of Costa Mesa and Orange County included; C. J. Hart, Wally Parks, Ed Adams, Craig Breedlove, Stu Hilborn, Ray Brock, Danny Oakes, Chuck Daigh, Art Chrisman, Mickey Thompson, Hila Sweet, Chuck Hulse, Tom McEwen, Ralph Foster, Jack Underwood, Dick Kraft, Jack Hart, Diane Vandenberg, Gene Ellis, Otto Ryssman and many more. Race tracks and drag strips included; Huntington Beach oval track, Orange County International Raceway, Santa Ana Airport Drag Strip and other long gone venue sites. Famous areas where hot rodders raced, often illegally, included; Newport Boulevard, Westminster Avenue, Mile Square Park and other long and straight roads in and around Huntington Beach and Fountain Valley.
Orange County is rich in hot rodding history. For a long time Orange County has been overlooked as the major areas of hot rodding were located in the larger Los Angeles County areas. Ed Adams, of Fullerton, was a founder and president of the Southern California Timing Association and had raced at the dry lakes in the Mojave Desert as far back as the early 1930’s. He presided over the SCTA when it was first formed in November of 1937, until the organization was disbanded a year after Pearl Harbor was attacked on December 7, 1941. Adams had a major effect on hot rodding until other leaders arose to lead the SCTA. Wally Parks, though not a resident of Orange County, nevertheless had a major impact on the county when he formed the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) in 1951 and later sanctioned Orange County International Raceway to hold a national event at this facility. It brought recognition to the county as thousands of racers and fans flocked to the drag strip located not far from where the 405 and 5 freeways joined. Parks and the SCTA even held a car and motorcycle race at the Blimp Base in Tustin.
Jack Hart and C. J. Hart are not related, but their impact on hot rodding, curtailment of illegal street racing and the new sport of drag racing was immense. Both owned service stations and both were concerned about safety. C. J. Hart, his wife Peggy Hart, Creighton Hunter and a man by the last name of Stillwell formed the Santa Ana Airport Drag Strip as a way to get young kids from racing on the streets. There were other drag strips that were first, Goleta comes to mind, but none of them had the impact that Santa Ana had. After that first drag race, with the rules and regulations still being formed, young people took the design and format created by C. J. Hart and spread the concept far and wide. Jack Hart inspired a number of hot rodders, including Diane Vandenberg, who raced her car at the Santa Ana drag strip. Jack would later serve as the General Manager and vice-president of the NHRA and was instrumental in that organizations success.
Craig Breedlove was a firefighter for the city of Costa Mesa and for a time the fastest man to run a car in the world. Mickey Thompson founded several sports companies and for a time worked as a pressman for the Los Angeles Times in their facility located on the border of Costa Mesa and Santa Ana. Hila Sweet, Danny Oakes, Chuck Hulse, Ralph Foster, Chuck Daigh and Gene Ellis were oval track racers. Hila won 58 women’s jalopy races in a row and promoters put her in match races with famous racers like Parnelli Jones. Oakes was a great midget racer and even greater chief mechanic at the Indianapolis 500 race. Hulse, Foster, Daigh and Ellis were also great oval track racers and mechanics. Stu Hilborn has a fuel injection business in Orange County and was a dry lakes racer. Dick Kraft, Otto Ryssman and Art Chrisman had illustrious careers in drag racing in the early days of the sport. Kraft and Ryssman were nearly unbeatable in their day and Chrisman comes from a legendary family of racers and hot rodders. Art’s son, Mike, still goes drag racing. Ray Brock was an editor of racing magazines and raced at many events, including land speed and off-road racing. Jack Underwood is a Dry Lakes Racing Hall of Fame member. The list of local Orange country hot rodders and racers goes on and on. Tom McEwen drove funny cars at the drags and a movie is being made of his life. I want to thank Terry Shaw and the Costa Mesa Historical Society for allowing Roger and I to come and share our own hot rodding history with them.
Visit the Costa Mesa Historical Society at www.costamesahistory.org.
Gone Racin’ is at RNPARKS1@JUNO.COM.