Roger and I attended another reunion for the Santa Ana Airport drag strip and Main Street Malt Shop hosted by Leslie Long and catered by Gene Mitchell. The date of this event was October 1, 2011 and that’s important because Leslie and Gene hold these reunions twice a year in April and October when the weather is nearly perfect for an outdoor meeting. The reunions are completely free and there is no need to RSVP. Even the parking is free next to the park on the paved riverbed of Santiago Creek. I always think, “what if there is a rainstorm, won’t we be washed away?” But it hardly ever rains in California and even if it did we would probably walk the 50 feet from the park picnic tables and go home. This reunion, like all the reunions that we have attended at this park, has been simply ideal. Even when a slight heat wave comes there is plenty of shade from the trees or the pop-up tents that Gene puts up for our comfort. He also brings comfortable chairs for those who do not want to sit at the concrete picnic tables. Gene Mitchell loves coming to these events and helps Leslie Long with vital support. Gene caters all the food; sandwiches, soft drinks, chips, dips, veggie trays and cookies. He does this out of his own pocket and has never asked anyone to pitch in. Gene owns Gene’s Automotive Shop over in Anaheim and has a website that tells us more about his business. Leslie Long raced at the Santa Ana Airport drag strip way back in the early 1950’s and has become the official historian of that fabled track. Long also keeps records on the early racing history of El Mirage and other Southern California dry lakes land speed racing.
Leslie began helping Bill and Marie Jenks with the reunion and then took it over when ill health forced the Jenks to retire from hosting the reunion. Originally it was the Jenks and other Santa Ana residents who created this reunion. It honors two very special places in the hearts of young people who lived in and around Santa Ana and who raced at the Santa Ana Airport drag strip. The Main Street Malt Shop was a favorite hang-out for young people during the 1940’s and ‘50’s. Every city had a few places where young people would hang out. The Main Street Malt Shop was where the Jenks and their friends met, especially after competing at the drags. The Santa Ana Airport drag strip was a special place for young people and the first professional and organized drag strip in the world. Goleta had come first and there are many who remember racing at Pomona and Fontana even earlier. In fact there were dozens of places that had some fame prior to the opening of Santa Ana by C. J. and Peggy Hart in June of 1950. Some of these earlier drag strips had some semblance of authority and organization. Often the police were involved, especially along Highway 39 or Beach Boulevard in northern Orange County. Then the young kids would put up road block barriers and the kids and even the police would take bets on who had the fastest car.
But the concept of owner/promoter/professional drag strips with specific rules must be attributed to C. J. Hart. Creighton Hunter and Frank Stillwell assisted Hart and are sometimes listed as co-owners or co-promoters. Hunter’s family had a small oil and gasoline company and Stillwell was a businessman. Hart owned a garage and worked on cars. The impetus of the drag strip was an idea that Hart had to get young people onto a safe and secure racing track and to stop illegal street racing. This wasn’t an original idea; the Southern California Timing Association (SCTA) had been discussing plans along these lines since the late 1930’s and had formulated plans to curtail such street racing. Community organized drag racing had started in Goleta, just north of Santa Barbara in 1949 and some Southern California racers had gone there to compete. But the races at Goleta were not set up as professional racing sites. They were organized and there were rules, but they thought of themselves as an amateur group that was intended to lessen illegal street racing and give young people a safe outlet. There was little thought to record keeping, a championship series or prize money for winning racers.
I’m not even sure that C. J. Hart even thought of drag racing in terms of a profession. He was a successful garage owner and perhaps drag racing might bring a few customers his way, but to be truthful, it was probably more bother that it was financially rewarding to him in the beginning. Hart went to his county’s and city’s elected officials and got permission to use a road along the seldom used airport runway as a Sunday drag strip. He had an idea what he wanted to accomplish; to find a place where young people could drag race their cars and thus lessen illegal street racing. If anyone was publicly caught street racing, Hart could simply ban them from the track, so he had a lot of power. C. J. was a firm, but kindly man. He was a man of the era; the time of the Great Depression and WWII. If he made up his mind then he followed through and if he told you to do something, he expected that you would do it. But I can’t ever recall that he did something in anger. His drag strip had rules, but they were rudimentary and Hart evolved his idea and improved on it over time. He had a typical staging lane, flag starter, drag course and shut off area, pits, places for spectators, concession stands, parking spots, security, rudimentary inspection and ticket booth. A time traveler could leave the 21st century and travel back to June, 1950 and see a drag race that for all practical purposes would look almost identical to the drag races that we see in operation today around the world.
That’s why we credit Hart as being the originator of modern drag racing as we know it today. As an example, we know that baseball was played in the 1830’s through the 1860’s, but the records and the status of the Major Leagues of the sport begin in the 1870’s with the National League, followed by the America league that was formed just a few years after 1900. They were playing baseball as we know it for seventy years before sports writers began to tell us that there was a pre-modern and modern era for the sport of baseball. So it was with drag racing. We know that drag racing started more than fifty years before C. J. Hart introduced his innovations. We have a date of 1904 in England and we know that individual racing between car owners in a straight line for a short burst of speed must have occurred even earlier than that. If you take the premise, as I do, that drag racing is simply a shorter version of land speed racing in a more urban area, then drag racing goes way back into the 1890’s. All the prior drag racing venue sites came and went; often there was only one organized race by a group. The SCTA, Russetta Timing Association, Western Timing Association, Bell Timing Association, Mojave Timing Association, Muroc Timing Association and many others had been putting on time trial racing for decades before Hart. C. J. and his wife Peggy knew of land speed racing and had talked to land speed racers and visited the dry lakes where the racing took place.
Hart saw and understood how efficient these amateur racing and timing associations were and some of his ideas came directly from them. But he also had his own unique ideas how to make drag racing better and in effect, different from land speed racing. He definitely would increase the action, sending two cars down a single track within a minute or less from a previous race. He would set up his course in a semi-urban area and attract young people and spectators who had never seen a desert dry lakes race course or even want to make the long trip to participate. Hart was more entrepreneurial and profit driven than anyone else before his time. He could also make a quick decision and tailor the rules to fit the situation. His ideas caught on like wildfire and the action and order impressed not only the young kids, but older city and county officials as well. The first race was a success and every Sunday after that the crowds of spectators and racers just exploded in size. The result was like a “wave” that you see at baseball and football games where spectators rise in unison. A wave or tsunami is known to travel at a huge speed and so did the results of that first drag race. Young people got on the phone and called their friends all over the country and all over the world and the next race made even more of an impact. Within weeks of that first race there were young people trying to set up their own “Timing Associations” in Arizona, then Kansas, and Iowa and Kentucky and Ohio and then along the Atlantic seaboard.
I don’t know how long Hart’s garage business stayed open, but I do know that the demands on his time to run a new professional sport simply overwhelmed him. Within a year the new National Hot Rod Association was formed by Wally Parks, with help from many others including SCTA past president Ak Miller and SCTA member Marvin Lee. Bob Gottlieb and Robert E. ‘Pete’ Petersen gave legal and technical support. At first the NHRA concerned themselves with other interests, such as encouraging high school car clubs to form. But eventually the youth of America forced the NHRA into changing direction and sanctioning the new sport of drag racing. Everywhere the sport of drag racing grew exponentially and order needed to be established. Hart was an excellent track owner and manager, but being the administrative head of a new and vibrant sport fell to the likes of Wally Parks (NHRA), Jim Tice (AHRA) and Larry Carrier (IHRA). C. J. Hart would remain a respected member of drag racing as a track promoter, operator, NHRA employee and all around Ambassador for the sport. For many years he came to the Santa Ana Drags reunion that was organized by Creighton Hunter at the Elks Club in Santa Ana and to the Santa Ana Airport drag strip and Main Street Malt Shop reunion organized by Bill and Marie Jenks.
The October 2011 reunion drew a list of old time racers, manufacturers and prominent early racers and also some new and young people. It’s nice to have some of the original drag racers present, but we also need a dose of young people to keep these reunions going strong into the future. Those in attendance were; Otto Ryssman, Leslie Long, John and Nancy Albert, Roger Rohrdanz, Gene Mitchell, Chris Unger, Johnny Ryan, Bob Marderosian, Dennis Webb, Betty Belcourt, Gerald Hart, Rich Childress, Terry Shaw, Larry Davis, Bernie Couch, Jim Murphy, Gene Corona, Ron and Susan Whitney, Rose Hartelt, Richard Parks, Fred Albrecht, Barry Bowyer, Ray Salman, Megan Mitchell, Stan Betz, Ed Iskenderian, Jack Lufkin, Bob Santoro, Dennis LeForge, Ken Freund and Louie Senter. It was a small gathering as reunions go, but as a comfortable picnic in a beautiful tree filled park on a nice and warm October day, it was all that it should have been. We missed old regulars in Gene Ellis, Melvin Dodd and Doug Hartelt, but we know age is creeping up on us and soon we will not have these wonderful people with us any longer. Many others, like Jim Miller and Mike Waters were at Bonneville for the SCTA/BNI October meet and couldn’t come to the reunion.
Those attending had interesting stories to tell. Leslie Long raced at the old Airport drag strip and vividly remembers what it looked like and where it was located. Otto Ryssman was an early drag racer and was the man to beat at the races. If it hadn’t been for an engine explosion that blew parts over the fence, he might still be an owner of a race team today. A visitor from back east had heard about the drag races and he wanted to see them. As he stood at the fence a piece of shrapnel from the race car took his life and a lawsuit forced Ryssman out of racing. Eventually the lawsuit by the man’s family was dropped, but one of the greatest early drag racer left the sport. John Albert was also an early racer and left to raise a family. Chris Unger owns the ’40 coupe that Mike Bambers ran at Santa Ana in 1958 and ’59. Johnny Ryan was the partner of Nellie Taylor in the Taylor and Ryan engine building garage in Whittier, California. A huge number of records were set in boat, land speed, early drags and other forms of motor racing. Ryan and Taylor both served in WWII and experienced horrific wartime conditions. The flathead engine was their specialty. Dennis Webb is the son of Marvin Webb. Both father and son built and restored some beautiful race cars and the shop founded by Marvin is still in use in Anaheim. Dennis has continued the family business of building and restoring race cars and antique automobiles.
Betty Belcourt was married to jet car driver Dick Rosberg and has many interesting stories of the heyday of jet car racing in drags and land speed time trials. Gerald (Jerry) Hart is the son of C. J. Hart and remembers working for his father and mother as a young boy at the Santa Ana Airport drag strip and later at Lion’s drag strip. Larry Davis ran at Santa Ana in 1956. Bernie Couch participated at the dry lakes from 1946 to 1950. Rose Hartelt is the wife of Doug Hartelt who set many records at El Mirage in land speed racing and then went into drag racing. Doug is in a nursing home and couldn’t make it to this reunion. Megan Mitchell helped her father, Gene Mitchell, set up all the food and construct the tents for our use. Stan Betz is the nephew of Dick Kraft, who raced at Santa Ana from the very first. Kraft and Marvin Webb built “The Bug,” a roadster stripped down to frame, transmission, rear end, engine and little else. Kraft looked like a soap box derby racer without the box. “The Bug” didn’t even have a radiator, but large pipes that circulated the water. I once asked Dick how far he could drive this stripped down car and he said about forty miles or more. Far enough for an early drag car at least. “The Bug” was probably the ugliest car, if it could even be called that, but it was revolutionary. Kraft found a way to lighten the car by removing every non-essential, even the seat. He was nearly unbeatable and “The Bug” showed the way for other drag racers as they experimented with weight, aerodynamics and a lengthened frame. Today’s dragsters came from cars like Kraft’s car. Betz was famous in his own right for mixing and selling paint colors for hot rods, race cars and street rods. I never saw Betz go to a computer or even a color chart; he had the colors in his head and he knew the color charts intimately. He mixed the paint in the sunlight and his talent was so good that years later someone would mention a paint that they bought from Betz and he could reproduce the exact color.
Ed Iskenderian is known by decades of racers and street rodders as the Camfather, a title that Pete “The CARtoonist” Millar hung around his neck. Ed is forever a tinkerer and is always searching for ideas. He once admitted that his first cams weren’t as good as the cams made by Pierre Bertrand, Clay Smith or Ed Winfield, but he kept at it until he perfected the art and became one of the all-time great masters of cam grinding. His family now runs the business, but Ed is still interested in new ideas and advancing the science of cam grinding. If he finds out that you are an engineer or designer he will pick your brain until he has all the useful information that he needs. He is also a great collector, though some call his treasures merely junk. Most hot rodders on the other hand find his one acre lot and his five acre lot a veritable treasure trove. Ed knows every article that he has bought or salvaged and stored on his property; all inventoried in his head. To call Ed a character is wrong, for there are many “characters” in auto racing. Ed really is above that label; in fact the proper term is “unique.” He’s one of a kind and he’s still going strong, driving everywhere in that Cadillac of his. Jack Lufkin owns and runs the Ak Miller garage and used car dealership and was a close friend and associate of the irrepressible Miller since the early 1950’s. Lufkin is also one of the smartest hot rodders and racers around. He got out of the Air Force around the time of the Korean War and went west from his home in Gloucester, Massachusetts. He wanted to see Ak Miller and meet his hero. Jack became the semi-adopted son that Miller never had and the two of them were inseparable.
Lufkin, Miller and Leonard Carr formed a threesome that ruled the dry lakes and Bonneville record books for decades. It would take a shoebox to hold all the timing tags and a huge accountant’s spreadsheet to record all the records that the Miller/Lufkin/Carr team has set over the years. Ever ready to help others they offered my brother one of their engines to put in his Camaro and with their help and advice my brother entered the Bonneville, El Mirage and Muroc 200 MPH Club in the late 1990’s. I first met Ken Freund at Gale Banks Gearhead Bash Party nearly a decade ago. Freund was the editor of a motorcycle magazine at the time and a really nice guy, always willing to help and support racing, whether it was two, three or four wheels. Ken is now a free-lance reporter and editor. Louie Senter came to the reunion after Roger Rohrdanz and I had left, but we all know him from the late ‘40’s and his Ansen Speed Shop. Like Isky, Senter was also a marketing pioneer and both of them were founding members of SEMA. That organization was formed to support the car culture, racing, hot rodding and other automotive interests from the intrusion of politicians seeking to outlaw our sports. Senter has seen and done it all and was a major supporter and sponsor for many racing teams. Roger Rohrdanz, the photographer at the reunion, is well-known among drag racers, especially those who race in the nostalgia series. Roger has been involved in drag racing since way back in the 1950’s and has attended Bonneville as a crewman. There you have it, a wonderful day with wonderful early drag racers. The next reunion, if we’re all still around, will most likely be in April of 2012. Mark it on your calendar and look for the notices in www.landspeedracing.com.
Gone Racin’ is at RNPARKS1@JUNO.COM.