Gone Racin' - Santa Ana Drag Reunion 2017, Sort Of

Gone Racin' - Santa Ana Drag Reunion 2017, Sort Of
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Story by Richard Parks; photographs by Roger Rohrdanz and Jim Miller

Roger Rohrdanz and I set out for our favorite park (Santiago Creek Park) on the border of Santa Ana and the City of Orange to attend the Santa Ana Drags and Main Street Malt Shop reunion, as we have done for years. This reunion has been on-going for nearly 80 years and was a favorite picnic for three generations of hot rodders and young malt shop lovers. During the 1940’s the Park was a special hangout for young people and it evolved later to host picnics after the drag races over at the Santa Ana Airport. In the ‘60’s, Bill and Marie Jenkins, with the help of Leslie Long, held Main Street Malt shop picnics at Santiago Creek Park, and when the Santa Ana Drags Reunion was disbanded, they combined the two reunions into one. After the Jenkins could no longer organize the reunions, Leslie Long took over with the able help of Gene Mitchell, who volunteered to bring tents, chairs, tables and food at his own expense. Try as we might, Gene would accept no donations for the expenses that he incurred; he’s just a true hot rodder at heart. Roger Rohrdanz and I came along to help where we could; Roger became the reunion’s photographer and promoting the event became my job. We scheduled our October 2017 reunion for October 28th and expected a large turnout.

We arrived early and something seemed amiss; there were tents set up but they did not look like Mitchell’s. In addition, there were two hundred people scurrying around and a like number of dogs, and we had never had dogs at our event before. The spacious park was festooned with tables, chairs, balloons and other creations and signs posted everywhere to tell people to leave. Certainly Mitchell had gone to a great deal of trouble in getting this ready for us and inviting a lot of dogs. I saw Gene and went up to ask him why all the fuss. He told me that the dog group had taken over the Park. The Park was spacious and there are only 40 of us; certainly a small group of old drag racers can take the far side and use up no more than a small portion of the area? Gene had approached a huge bulldog of a man, who was the president of their group, and asked if we could just take a corner; the bullish bulldog of a man let out a rather inappropriate bellow, not unlike the sounds that such deep throated dogs actually make. He thrust his fist out, let fly with colorful language in my direction and ordered me out of the park and the parking lot, making sure that everyone heard him. A few of the dog owners jeered, but most of the group averted their eyes. Rather than anger the dog owners, who weren’t at all placid like their dogs, we left. Gene said he would look down the street for another park to hold our event.

But it isn’t so easy to find a park that’s both available and flat and free from roots, broken concrete walkways and other impediments that cause older people to fall and injure themselves. We were also ordered out of the parking lot, which was the only one available, and we had very few options. Gene left to search out another park area and I greeted our Reunion attendees as they showed up. There was no other site available and so Roger, Gene and I cancelled our reunion and we stayed behind to tell others who had traveled great distances that the reunion had been cancelled. Not all the dog owners agreed with the angry, irascible, excitable and intimidating bulldog of a man running the dog marathon; two ladies approached us from the dog group and apologized for the loutish behavior and uncouth conduct of their fellow dog lovers. There was little they could do but sympathize with our plight and try and convince us that dog owners were not bull-headed, angry and aggressive people, just as dogs themselves are not that way. Having never owned a bull-like dog before I could only assume that the two ladies were correct, but who knows?

A greater number than normal showed up for the Santa Ana Drags Reunion, including a contingent of Road Runners car club members, there to accept the 1939 SCTA High Points Trophy that had been in my father’s files for 78 years and a certificate from the FIA, dated 1990 and intended for John Baechtel for setting an international speed record at the Bonneville Salt Flats. None of the hot rodders were intimidated in the least by the garrulous, obnoxious big man with the bullish voice and the on-looking jeerers who by this time had seen the hot rodders show up and had retreated to their tents. But it does no one any good to create chaos and animosity; maybe someday I too might fall in love with those cuddly, chubby, short-legged bullish dogs and want one, and who wants bullish dog owners as friends if they hate you over some party date snafu. So I advised our group to leave peaceably, which for drag racers and hot rodders is a hallmark of our courteous ways. Those in attendance, as best as I can recall from memory, were Jim Travis, Wayne Harper, Tim Love, Doug Wilson, Jim Marrone, Mike English (NHRA announcer), Jim Murphy,  Dick Finkle, Mike and John Uribe (of the Bean Bandits), Ken Freund, Jim Miller, Pat Houlihan, Jerry Hart and Betty Belcourt.

I explained to our attendees that we should leave peaceably and we will reschedule for another day. But it is harder to get hot rodders to leave than by just telling them they ought to for peace sakes, when they had been treated so cur-like.

Independently, they held their own reunion right there in the parking lot until someone mentioned that friends of Stan Betz were having a celebration of life for the Master Paint Mixer over in the City of Orange, and maybe we could meet over there. Gene Mitchell left for the Betz party with all the food that he had brought for our event, and gradually the majority of our reunion attendees left and went over there. The puggish dog leader kept his cell phone to his ear, ready to make the phone call to the local gendarmes, who were ready to pounce on peaceful drag racers and so we left.

This isn’t the first time drag racers and hot rodders have been given the heave ho from an event, and it won’t be our last either. The nice thing is that our cancelled event helped swell the turn-out for a very nice man whom we will all miss, the nephew of Dick Kraft, one of Santa Ana drag strip’s more colorful racers. Our cancelled event actually had a reason for failing, as now the Betz celebration would have more people to celebrate his life and Mitchell’s food would add to the event. Of course we didn’t like being treated like flea bitten dogs by surly dog owners, and some people might harbor bad feelings about the other group, but if I didn’t have the Santa Ana Drags event to attend that weekend I would have gone to the Stan Betz party instead. Other obligations kept Roger and me from attending. We certainly apologize to anyone who didn’t get the word about the cancelled Santa Ana Drags Reunion and showed up late to have to confront the horde of doggish owners and their howling leader. Before we left the parking lot I presented the trophy and the FIA certificate to the Road Runners club, of which, by the way, my father had been a co-founder back in 1937. Doug Wilson told me that the Betz party turned out fantastic, with many more people than anticipated and double the food. Mitchell set up his tables and chairs and brought extra food and that made the Stan Betz Celebration of Life even more memorable. Jim Miller also told me that the Betz party was first rate. Stan Betz had been going to the Santa Ana Drag Strip since it opened in 1950 and was a famous paint mixer. Many paint masters use machines that can detect every shade of color, but Stan was exceptional and did his mixing by eyesight, in the alley behind his shop in direct sunlight. He could mix paint by memory when people told him the name of the colors they used decades before. He was a master at his craft and we will miss him.

The members of the Road Runners who came to the aborted Reunion included Jerry Cornelison (secretary and historian), Willie Martin (who owns the garage where the club meets), Mike Ferguson (president), John Carroll (vice-president), Tracie Carroll (treasurer and SCTA secretary), Jack Masson (‘60’s drag racer), Gary McGavin (former SCCA racer) and Wendell Burns (Bonneville Racing News reporter).

Gone Racin’ is at RNPARKS1@JUNO.COM. 

The following comments are from Jerry Cornelison.

“A Special Saturday for the Road Runners: Saturday, October 28, 2017, began as another beautiful Southern California Day. The Road Runners had been invited by Richard Parks to attend the Santa Ana Drags Reunion at Santiago Creek Trail Park in Santa Ana. The purpose of this visit was to be presented the 1939 SCTA High Points Club Championship trophy won by the Road Runners. This 1939 Trophy was the first ever presented by SCTA and had been in the collection of Road Runners founder, Wally Parks. Richard Parks wanted the Trophy to go back home to the Road Runners. This presentation was really special since we Road Runners are celebrating our 80th Anniversary year. The Trophy will be on view at the Road Runners ‘Club House,’ the Ed Martin Garage in Riverside. Our day did require some ‘work in the pits’ in order to end successfully. Several Road Runners members met at Ed Martin Garage at 9:45am to caravan to Santa Ana. Several more members met us at the site. We all arrived at the Park at 10am.

There was a glitch! The original event had been rescheduled with the City of Santa Ana. Apparently a verbal approval was given but not recorded. A large group, a dog group, or something like that, had reserved the park. The dog group were not willing to share a small corner of the park with a bunch of old hot rodders. Being a flexible group… you know, do what you need to do to run the next pass… a decision was made to relocate to the Cambra Speed Shop in Orange. Cambra was holding a Celebration of Life event for custom car Guru, Stan Betz. We ended up with a large, combined group.  We got to meet a lot of fellow ‘Car Folks,’ share some nice fellowship and see a bunch of cool cars. Turned out to be a really great day!

Road Runners attending this special event were: Mike Ferguson, President; John Carroll, Vice President; Tracie Carroll, Treasurer; Jerry Cornelison, Secretary and Club Historian; Members Willie Martin, Jack Masson, Gary McGavin and Wendell Burns. (Wendell is also a reporter and photographer for the Bonneville Racing News.)”