Los Angeles Historic Drag Strip Reopens... Sort of

Words and Photos by Paul Garson

Like hulking artifacts from a lost civilization, canyons of steel shipping containers and rivers of railway tracks pass silently by as you thread your way through an area of Los Angeles adjacent to Long Beach known as the Wilmington District. You could say that buried under those artifacts is another civilization, one that was based on acceleration and terminal velocity. Sadly, it has been long since paved over with “Progress.”

Once upon a time, specifically from October 1955 - December 1972, the ground shook not just from the freight trains rumbling to and fro, but from hi-octane fed cars burning up the quarter mile on a famous all-American raceway called Lions Drag Strip, which had been built on an abandoned train marshalling yard. While indeed it often sounded like a pride of lions was on the loose, the track was so named because of its sponsors, the equally famous Lions Clubs International, which had collaborated with an L.A. judge in seeking a safe place for kids to vent their need for speed. Following the mantra “build it and they will come,” some 10,000 young hotrod fans showed up for the first day of racing, with some 300 cars taking up the challenge.

Fortunately for all, Lions was expertly managed by the one and only Mickey Thompson, a name synonymous with motorsports. He also brought high-energy showmanship, and in 1957 added night time lights to the raceway, something not seen before, therefore further increasing attendance. And it was all certified by the American Hot Rod Association (AHRA), in the process quickly earning it a reputation as one of the country’s top venues.

A typical race weekend would see 250 pro racers battling for cash winnings on Saturday night, the following Sunday sun rising on another 400+ street stockers vying for amateur class trophies and bragging rights. Then on Wednesday nights, you showed up for the “grudge matches,” where previously made challenges would be settled legally on the strip rather than the street. Lions welcomed all kinds of cars: hotrods, Pro Stock, Top Fuelers, even jet cars and later the new “Funny Cars,” as well as motorcycles, and all strictly checked for safety and race class requirements.

If you, like millions of Americans, were glued to the TV back on May 27, 1965 watching The Munsters TV series, you would have had a close look at Lions during the segment called “Hot Rod Herman,” where Herman gets behind the wheel of his unusual “Drag-u-la” dragster. You can still rewatch that episode thanks to streaming sites or library DVD loan. Another manifestation of Lions was the appearance of the renowned TV announcer Larry “The Mouth” Huffman, who called the motorsports media shots during the late ‘60s/early ‘70s.

Like any open area in a major city, especially one like L.A., land was at a premium and its value per sq. ft. shot past gold; plus, as the population encroached, the Lions dragsters became an endangered species. This was supposedly a result of “noise complaints” from the local authorities (aka non-gearheads), so they put the squeeze on the track operators, eventually leading to the track’s closure - but not before some final good-bye races on December 2, 1972, after which fans took part in a free-for-all, as in, “take a souvenir piece of Lions home with you;” basically, they dismantled the place and scooped up all the banners, signs, lane markers, you name it. Then the track was ploughed over, as the Los Angeles Harbor Department wanted the space to store the hundreds of thousands of storage containers that shipped in and out of the busy port.

More recently, there’s been a revival of sorts. Rick Lorenzen, owner of the Price Transfer shipping container processing company, happens to be an avid racer and a major fan of the history of Lions, so he has put together an awesome collection of cars currently being turned into a Lions themed showcase/quasi museum. Toward that goal, he recently put together a review of his collection at his company’s location near the original site of the raceway. He sent out invitations to the event, and once again they gathered from all over to make it one of the greatest showcasings of vintage dragsters - and certainly one of the loudest. You left not only with a ringing in your ears, but a new appreciation for the ‘50s-‘60s era of dragracing… and why many agree that it was indeed the Best of Times.

A Motto to Live By - “Drive the Highways, Race at Lions”
Back in its heyday, the dragstrip drew legions of both amateur and professional racers from the SoCal area as well as from across the country for both its weekly “run what you brungs” and its frequent regional and nationally recognized events.  One young hotshoe attending the events during the ‘60s was Don Nowell, who campaigned his 1937 Chevy “gasser,” the daily driver street car he modified for the dragstrip.

“It was all about building your own car to the best of your abilities and to see if you could make it better all the time,” he recalled. “We didn’t have a lot of money, but we had a lot of motor-vation. And we built things with our own hands and saw the results. The drag racing rivalry was all in good nature and we helped each other; no big high-dollar, high-pressure corporate sponsors, just for the sheer enjoyment.”

At one point, to meet the stringent “weight to cubic inch” requirements of his B Class race category, Don bolted a 250 lb. bus battery into the rear of his car. Don laughed, remembering that, “The motor did double duty, both as the required extra weight, and I also never ran out of juice to start the car thanks to that big lump of amperage.” Don would go to earn a pile of trophies as well as build high performance race engines for top NASCAR stars and boat racers alike.

Are We Having Fun Yet?
Don Nowell in his early 20s getting ready to launch at Lions. He handled most of the car’s mods himself, including the “diet plan,” removing anything unnecessary to eating up the quarter mile. Note his take on a bucket seat.

Smokin’ the Tires
Don’s Gasser gets a grip at Lion thanks to his favorite tires, Goodyear T.A. radials. A school buddy offered to hand letter Don’s name on the car, and the car soon gained its own level of popularity.

All Thrills/No Frills
Don prided himself on building a truly clean machine without any unnecessary bling, leaving the gold to his trophies. He would go on to establish a B/Gas record of 121.80 mph.

Engine in the Lap Inflight at Lions circa 1963
Sharing the track with Don and the other street machines were exotic “rails,” aka “slingshotters,” aka “diggers,” sporting massive front-mounted nitro fed motors with the pilot hanging off behind the rear tires. Now and then the 250 mph race motors did grenade, sending shrapnel flying. Case in point, when in 1970 legendary racer Don Garlits aboard his Swamp Rat suffered serious injuries, as did a spectator. The silver lining resulted when Don shifted his race motor behind the driver, which quickly became the Top Fuel standard. No one ever claimed drag racing was ever safe, and sadly the statistics at Lions over the years bore that out with at least 18 fatal mishaps.

Double the Trouble – Twin Supercharged 350 cubic inch Chevies
The word iconic is used too often, but it does apply to Santa Monica, CA based John and Bev Peters’ “show and go” Top Gas Dragster, named “Freight Train” for obvious reasons. Between 1960-70 John put together four of them, and in ’67 his last version took honors as the first to clock 200 mph, as well as numerous other major wins. But then, in ’71, the NHRA discontinued the Top Gas class and most racers converted or recycled their TG’s. Not John - he kept his as is. It turned out to be a good call, as Freight Train was called back to the spotlight in 1995 for the NHRA Motorsports Museum, then on to numerous other appearances, including center stage at this recent Lions museum review.

Have Dual Parachutes…Will Stop…Eventually.
“Freight Train” takes up more than one parking spot, placed just below the event’s announcer stand and the massive speakers (almost as loud as the car). Packed into the rear safety bar just behind the driver, the pair of Simpson ‘chutes are needed to slow the forward moment of the 200 mph dragster once it smokes the quarter mile.

Tap the Keg?
Spirits of another kind feed “Winged Express,” another famous Memory Lane dragster on display, in this case built by Alvin “Mousie” Marcellus and piloted by his best buddy, the late great Wild Willie Borsch. Competing in the ‘60s and up until 1971, the no- restored 1923 Ford T AA/Fuel Altered was powered by a blown Chrysler good enough for 200 mph. The record breaker was much loved by the fans for Borsch’s wild exploits, including launching the car literally three times into the air at Lions, landing and still winning the race. He often drove with one hand on the wheel and also suffered from narcolepsy, literally falling asleep at the wheel, but that didn’t stop him from claiming countless victories. “Winged Express” was displayed among the tables set up for the many guests that showed up for the open house shindig.

‘60s Blue Bombshell – The “Swindler”
The ’41 Willys A/Gas Supercharged dragster was once voted the fan’s Favorite Race Car after a poll was taken in 2008. Original team members consisted of pilot Doug “Cookie” Cook, Leonard and Tim Woods and Fred Stone. The team soared to stellar heights during 1961-67, and the car earned a major position in the history of dragracing. Seen on the wall behind the Gasser is a painting of the Lions Drag Strip action by motorsport master artist Kenny Youngblood, which will be produced as a life-sized wall mural for the main exhibition room now in the works.

Open Wide
A Mustang body wearing Funny Car named “Dark Horse” also wears the famous Stone Woods & Cook logo.

Interview in Progress
Rick Lorenzen, Price Transfer’s head honcho and the person who created the homage to the Lions Drag Strip, takes a Q&A from journalists.

Rick’s Rides
One shiny, one muted, a pair of Price Transfer dragsters owned and run by Rick Lorenzen shares the checkboard corner of one of several display areas. The 1940 Willys is powered by a Mike Kuhl built 1200 HP 392 cu. in. Chrysler Hemi. Note the “Christmas Light” dragstrip timing tree in the background.

Moon Eyes Match Up
You could say all eyes are drawn to the Dean Moons A/D dragster and its bodacious hauler.  The circa 1961 racer runs a Chevy mill with trick crank-driven supercharger, while its hauler is based on an early ‘70s Chevy ramp truck. The racer has even traveled to England because of its popularity, won Middle Eliminator at the Winter Nationals and took its class win at Indy. The original car was retired first to Don Garlits Museum of Drag Racing in Florida, and then a replica was built for the NHRA museum.

Seeing Red
C&C Speed and Custom C Gasser’ 30s Chevy sports a pair of “nuclear powerplant” velocity stacks.

“Sidewinder” – Thinking Way Out of the Box
Joe Malliard’s Chrysler powered dragster got its name thanks to Joe mounting the motor at a 90-degree angle from standard. Initially, many thought the radical deviation would revolutionize quarter-mile competitions thanks to the increase in torque/traction. You no longer even needed a drive shaft, so you got a smaller, lighter, faster car in the bargain, and no big blower blocking your vision. Unfortunately a side effect was easily broken axles and controllability problems… as if the cars handled squirrelly.  While many gave up on the “sidewinder” idea, others persevered and came up with a wild array of racers, cars and motorcycles as well.

Rooms within Rooms
Visitors are blown away by how expansive the Price Transport/Lions Drag Strip display area really is… including its own movie theater, arcade, diner and “parking lot,” filled with a dazzling display of classics all in mint showroom condition.

Time Machine Dream Cars
On display a 1962 Chrysler 300H, a ‘20s Model T and a ’57 Cadillac Biarritz Convertible, all reflecting a grander time in American automobile history.

Never Enough Willys
You can tell by the large selection of various Willys models, including this meticulously restored 1940 green woody station wagon, that Rick Lorenzen is a major fan. The Price facility has its own in-house full-scale restoration shop.

“Truer than Blue 41”
The Price Automobilia Group facility, located in Rancho Dominguez, CA, designed and built this custom ’42 vintage truck, stuffing in a 450 HP 454 cu. in. Shaver engine. Like they say, just the right vehicle to keep on Truckin’.

Pretty in Periwinkle
Sitting nose to nose with the True Blue truckster is a car of a very different color, so to speak. Another of Rick’s Willys customs, its body and chassis fabbed by Outlaw Performance, it gets its kicks thanks to a monster 540 cu. in. Chevy big block.

Stars and Stripes Forever
Look closely and you can read the names of U.S. service personnel incorporated in the paint scheme of this Jeepster displayed at the event, in this case by the Honoring Our Fallen organization, which provides lifetime family support to the nation’s fallen military and first responders.

The Longer and the Short of It
Outside the Price Transport building, the vast parking area was a sea of vintage racers, classics and customs. Careful not to trip over one of the “railers” when working your way over to the In-n-Out burger mobile kitchen, free eats part of the $35 event entry fee.

The In-N-Out of It
It was a matter of all you could eat… you just had to stand in a line that seemed to stretch to Indy, but it was well worth it.

Tognotti Pipe Organ
A dramatic design of upswept pipes and sequentially staggered velocity stacks highlight another dragstrip legend, the car built by the Sacramento based Don Tognotti Speed Shops. Don is also well-known for his show-winning street rods, including his “King T” car which was awarded America’s Most Beautiful Roadster at the 1964 Oakland Roadster Show. More than 50 years later, Tognotti’s Speed Shops are still in the go-fast business.

Leading the Way – The First Lady of Drag Racing
Among the many famous “rails” taking part in the event was one raced by Shirley “Cha Cha” Muldowney, a leading figure in motorsports for more than 40 years. In 1965, she became the first woman to be licensed by the NHRA to race Top Gas, and then in 1971 she moved on to racing Funny Cars, winning her very first race in that class.

The Final Stretch of Slingshot Racers
Shirley survived four fiery accidents in the nitro-methane powered monsters also known as “fiberglass infernos.” After a bad one, she stepped up to Top Fuel in 1973 with her own car and team, posting the top speed of 241.58 at the 1974 U.S. Nationals. In 1975 she achieved another “first” - the first women to crack the 5 second quarter mile barrier. She would earn three NHRA World Championships before, in 1984, a blown tire brought her close to death with major injuries. After of months of grueling therapy she climbed back behind the wheel, competing in various events in the U.S. and internationally into the 2000s, at one race clocking a 4.64 second/320.20 mph run. Shirley finally took a break, retiring in 2003… but then in 2013, at 72, she set a new goal: establishing a world land speed record. She is currently occupied building street rods and actively supporting animal charities.

To the Stars “Magicar”
Ernie Chavez brought the oldie golden dragster Astro Enterprises to the Price Lions event. The car was originally built in 1964 by drag racing early innovator and chassis builder Kent Fuller. The car would take part in 26 races and clock a best 7.62 E.T. at 204.08 mph with ace pilot “Jumpin’ Jeep” Hampshire manning the controls. And about that gold color - the car was covered entirely in gold leaf when first built.

Thanks for the Push
A classy ‘50s Cadillac gives a sleek vintage dragster a starting push to the line-up for the “cacklefest” wherein, the mass of Top Fuelers lit up their monster engines, producing a 10.5 on the Richter dragster scale. Drivers wore protective gear and breathing masks to prevent damage from the nitro-methane fuel. We standers-by could hold our breath and stuff our fingers into our ears… yessir, it was a hoot and a half, and much enjoyed by the crowd.

Repro’d to Perfection
Seen here is the “cloned” Newhouse Automotive Special A/Fuel Modified Roadster, a true blast from the past. Originally owned and raced by Gary Gagle, it was sponsored by Ernest Newhouse of Newhouse Automotive. Campaigned in the early ‘60s, it later became Joel Gruzen’s labor of love to “revive” his favorite mid-60s car so he built it in the backyard of his L.A. home. The car features a ’23 T roadster body and a supercharged 299 cu. in. Chrysler powerplant. Very interesting to note that Ernest Newhouse originally earned his first money to build cars by writing a ‘50s best-selling do-it-yourself car handbook.

Recycling is a Good Thing…but not enough alcohol content to feed the Top Fuelers

Reath Automotive Funny Car
Joe Reath opened his dream vision of a Speed Shop located in Long Beach in 1965, soon becoming a flame to the moths of racers as he stocked the best components and offered a top flight machine shop; plus his parking lot, right off the freeway, made a perfect gathering spot for car meetings. They came from all over the U.S. as well as Australia, England, Sweden and elsewhere. Some 30 years later, the shop made the move to Signal Hill, the doors staying open until 2006. Joe was honored for his many achievements and contribution to the sport at the First Lions Drag Strip Reunion in 1998.

And I got a peek under the hood before saying fare-thee-well to the Price Transfer Lions Drag Strip Party… watch for the public opening in the near future.