Story by Richard Parks
Photographic consultant Roger Rohrdanz
The Santa Ana Drags and Main Street Malt Shop reunion was held on April 14, 2012 at Santiago Creek Park in the city of Santa Ana, right on the border with the city of Orange. This is an event that is free to the public and organized by Leslie Long, who took over the responsibility of the reunion from Bill and Marie Jenks. As far back in time as Leslie can remember the local hot rodders and their girlfriends would meet at the Main Street Malt Shop, which was their favorite area hang-out. In June of 1950 the Santa Ana Airport drag strip opened and now there was another reason to hang out at the drag strip and afterwards to celebrate a victory or assuage a defeat the young people would meet at the malt shop. After the malt shop closed the hot rodders would get together at a park in the vicinity and hold a picnic and this became an annual and often a semi-annual event. Today Leslie organizes a picnic and reunion to remember those old days. He tries to schedule the reunion for the months of April and October, about the time when car racing and shows aren’t as numerous and the weather is better. This day, on the 14th, we missed the rain the night before and witnessed a beautiful and sunny day with clouds passing by and the temperatures in the mid 60’s.
Leslie arrived early and I came by around 10 AM, the time the reunion was to begin. Gene Mitchell was the next to arrive with his employees Sergio and Paul Rios and they set up some tables, pop-up tents and brought in food and drinks, free of charge. Gene lives in Fountain Valley and has an auto repair garage in Anaheim. He is close friends with Leslie and wants to support this reunion with food and assistance. Sergio and Paul were busy putting the tents, tables and bringing in the food from the truck. The brothers are also VW fans and racers and told me of their interest in making the little engines produce lots of horsepower. Next to arrive on the scene were Johnny Ryan and Bob Marderosian. Bob is from back east where he grew up as a young hot rodder. Ryan worked for Nellie Taylor in the Taylor Engine shop building flathead engines that the early drag racers used at Santa Ana to set records and win races. He often came to Santa Ana to help crew on cars using the engines built in the shop. I often refer to the shop as the Taylor and Ryan Engine shop because Nellie and Johnny were good friends and went into business together. Nellie was the promoter of the shop and Ryan the main engine builder. It wasn’t always that way as before World War II the friends shared equally in the racing and engine building demands.
Nellie was badly wounded during the Battle of the Bulge in eastern France in December of 1944 and lay in the snow where he developed the onset of his physical problems that would eventually take his life years later. Ryan was on a re-commissioned passenger ship crossing the Dover Straits at the same time as the German counter-offensive. A submarine fired a torpedo into the liner and the terrified captain, rather than beach the vessel, took the ship out to deep water where it sank and caused the death of thousands of troops bound for the battle. Johnny survived by leaping off the sinking liner onto the deck of a destroyer passing by. After the war Ryan and Taylor reopened their shop with Johnny doing the heavy work and Nellie running the shop and getting the orders for more engines. Often Ryan would physically pick up Taylor and carry him to the car in order to travel to races and other car events. Another hot rodder who was seriously injured by frost bite during the Battle of the Bulge was Ak Miller. The war took a great toll on our hot rodding generation. Nevertheless, Taylor and Ryan rejoined the Gopher car club and continued to race and build great engines.
Steve Lee was the next to arrive; he had raced at Santa Ana in a ’32 Ford coupe around 1957-58 with his friend and partner Fred Pigg. Susan Berardini Foshee, the daughter of Pat Berardini was the next to arrive and shortly after that her father Pat, who came with Patricia Delamar. Pat and Patricia had known each other from elementary school, but had gone in separate ways until they lost their spouses and found each other after all these years. The Berardini Brothers, Pat and Tony, had one of the most beautiful and fast ’32 roadsters around and they raced often at Santa Ana. The roadster was chosen as one of the top 75 Ford ‘32’s ever built and customized on the 75th anniversary of the Deuce back in 2007 at the Grand National Roadster Show in Pomona, California. Susan has helped her father save and archive his hot rodding and racing history. It is this second generation of interested sons and daughters who are vital in keeping our knowledge alive as the first generation is leaving us. Another son who is following in his father’s footsteps is Terry Shaw, who is finding and publishing the history of his father, Bob Shaw, who passed on in 2002.
Wayne Harper brought Hank Becker and their good natured kidding as to who was the younger and who was the older is exactly the sort of humor that hot rodders are famous for. Becker raced at all of the early drag strips; Santa Ana, Colton, Fontana and continued to run as newer race tracks like Orange County International Raceway (OCIR) were built. He remembers racing back in 1949 before there were any official drag strips opened. Becker had a roadster which he ran in the B class when the categories were a lot different than they are now. His car had a Norton crank and a flathead engine, which was the preferable power plant back then. Harper first began racing at Fremont and then moved to Southern California where he raced a top alcohol dragster at Lions and OCIR, and also ran in pro gas. Dick Davis and his son Mike arrived next. Dick is an early member of the Renegades car club of Long Beach, famous for putting on the first three Motorama car shows that really defined what a car show should be like and copied by other promoters who came after them. The club would have continued to put on more Motoramas until they fell afoul of the IRS which harassed the club into cancelling the car shows. That’s the government for you, rarely helpful and always in the way of productive effort. Dick ran at Santa Ana in 1953 and ’54 in his 1932 Chevy Sedan. His son Mike says that he drag raced “not legally” and of course most of us did that.
Ron Whitney and Bob Baxter brought Rose Hartelt to the reunion. Ron is Rose’s son-in-law and married her daughter, Susan Hartelt. Ron was a fan of drag racing and often went to Paradise Mesa, a drag strip pioneered and run by the famous Bean Bandits car club of San Diego, whose president was the legendary Joaquin Arnett. Baxter first came to the Santa Ana drag strip in 1953 as a spectator and returned the next year to race his ’29 Ford roadster with a flathead engine. He bought the car for $50. His next race car was a Chevy with a six cylinder motor. Bob’s son, Scott Baxter is a member of the Road Runners car club in the Southern California Timing Association (SCTA) and races a 41 BSA bike at the dry lakes. Rose Hartelt, of course, is the wife of Doug Hartelt, who couldn’t attend this year’s reunion due to his health. Doug Hartelt, Calvin Rice, Melvin Dodd and others made a very potent drag racing team in the early 1950’s. In fact, as soon as the sport took off in June of 1950 with Santa Ana as the first professionally organized drag strip, Hartelt and Dodd moved away from dry lakes land speed racing and became one of the greatest of the early drag racers.
Hartelt and Dodd, with Calvin Rice driving, won the first National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) drag racing championship in Top Eliminator at Great Bend, Kansas in 1955. Larry Shinoda won in A-roadster and Dave Marquez in B-roadster. Then Shinoda and Marquez took the same titles in 1956. Melvin Dodd came with his wife Yvonne. Mel remembers the first event at Santa Ana in 1950. He and Hartelt developed the first ‘slingshot’ dragster design, copied by so many other early drag racers. Jimmy Murphy came from Orange to see his friends. I see ‘Murph’ at just about all of the reunions and everyone knows him, but he isn’t the type to talk about what he did in the past. I know that he raced bikes, cars, drags and oval tracks and crewed on a lot of well-known teams by what everyone in racing tells me, but until I help him write his biography I won’t be able to tell you just what a great hot rodder and racer Jim Murphy really is. That’s why it is so important for all of us to write down our life’s story and leave it behind for the next generation. We will lose so much if we don’t start now. The week of the reunion we lost John and Bernie Partridge and Bob Oppermann, terrible losses, but made worse by a lack of their histories. Murphy raced a ’23 Ford T with a V-8 60 midget engine and a ’32 Ford coupe at Santa Ana in the 1950’s.
Jim Cripps comes to the reunion to remember all of his friends from that era including Creighton Hunter. C. J. and Peggy Hart, Frank Stillwell and Creighton Hunter were responsible for the creation of the Santa Ana Airport Drag Strip in June of 1950 that revolutionized how the sport of drag racing would evolve. Up to that point drag racing had existed as an illegal street racing sport that often resulted in injuries and death. The public officials had tried to stamp it out by branding it as illegal and jailing participants or taking away their cars when they were caught by the police. Nothing that they did though made a dent in illegal street racing until C. J. Hart and his friends created that first drag strip and caught the imagination of the public. It wasn’t a novel idea and it had been tried before. The police, parents and young people in the Santa Barbara area put on some drag races in Goleta at the airport there in 1949 and many kids from Southern California went up there to race, including Ed Osepian, who told me that he won the race, or at least one of the races. The SCTA put on a race at the Blimp base in Tustin in 1950 and had run short land speed races out at the dry lakes in the Mojave Desert in the 1930’s and ‘40’s. Young people, sometimes with police support, put up barricades and conducted semi-official drag races during the Depression and after World War II. Some of these events were huge and gambling played a major role in their formation. Still, it wasn’t until Santa Ana came into existence that drag racing evolved into a professional sport.
John and Nancy Albert are original members of the reunion. They were high school sweethearts who remember first going to the Main Street Malt Shop in 1948 with their friends and raced at the Santa Ana Drags in 1950 when the drag strip first opened. John raced his ’34 Ford two-door coupe with a flathead motor. Richard Childers was also an original racer at Santa Ana in 1950 and ran his ’40 Ford Deluxe coupe. Lakers car club members Phil Grisotti, Ed Clancy and Jim Snyder also came to the reunion. Phil’s father raced at Santa Ana from 1954 through 1959 in a ’54 Dodge with a 287 cubic inch Hemi motor. Ed ran at Santa Ana the first year that the drag strip opened racing his ’38 Ford coupe equipped with a Dempsey Wilson cam. Snyder and Clancy now race in the Southern California Timing Association (SCTA) on the dry lakes of Southern California. Another SCTA member present was Jim Miller, who is a dry lakes, land speed and Bonneville researcher, writer, photographer and Historian. He is also the President of the Society of Land Speed Racing Historians and a member of the Sidewinders car club. Larry Cerny and Vince Redmond came to the reunion. Larry’s father, George Cerny raced at Santa Ana in the 1950’s in a ‘50 Oldsmobile.
Ken Freund is a journalist and he came to meet the men and women who raced at the Santa Ana drag strip in the 1950’s. Ken did his own racing at Island Dragway, in Englishtown, New Jersey. Another journalist in attendance was Tim Bernsau, who writes and photographs for Street Rodder magazine. Ken, Roger Rohrdanz, Tim and I talked about the decline of print magazines and newspapers and the rise of the electronic media, including websites, blogs and e-zines. Two more Renegade car club members from Long Beach came to the reunion; Don Davis and Bob Seiger. Don and his brother Dick Davis raced at Santa Ana in 1954, with Dick doing the driving. Seiger joined the Renegades way back in the ‘50’s and was also driving at Santa Ana around 1951 and ’52 in his ’36 five window coupe. We all had a great time and reminisced about the past. We missed seeing old favorites like Otto Ryssman and Gene Ellis and hope to see them in September or October 2012 for the next picnic and reunion. A great big thank you to Leslie Long for organizing the reunion and for Gene Mitchell who brought the food, tents and chairs and made us all feel like honored guests.
Gone Racin’ is at RNPARKS1@JUNO.COM.
Back Row (L-R) Leslie Long(w/hat), Jim Miller, Ken Freund, Bob Baxter, Ron Whitney (partially hidden), Bob Marderosian, Wayne Harper (w/glasses), Hank Becker, Dick Davis (w/glasses), unknown, Don Davis (w/glasses), Gene Mitchell, Jim Snyder (red hat), Ed Clancy, unknown.
Front Row (L-R) Richard Parks, Susan Forhee (Berardini), Terry Shaw, Nancy Albert, John Albert, Rose Hartell, Melven Dodd, John Ryan, Steve Lee, Patricia Delamar, Pat Beradini, Bob Seiger, Jim Murphy, Larry Cerny, Phil Grisotti.