LAistory: Lions Drag Strip
Lions Drag Strip was opened in October of 1955 in an abandoned trainyard in Wilmington. The racetrack was one judge’s attempt to cut down on criminal street racing by giving the wayward youth a place to race legally. Teaming up with the local Lion's Club to obtain financing, and leasing land from the Harbor Commission, the city opened Lions Associated Drag Strip. The strip was also referred to as "LADS" by locals, and as "The Beach" by racers.
Ten thousand kids showed up on the first day, tearing the fence down and claiming the race track as their playground. Nearly three hundred cars fought for supremacy.
The strip was known for excellent traction and proximity to the ocean gave it what many racers believed to be "rarified air". For eighteen years, it was considered one of the finest and fastest tracks in the country, and manager Mickey Thompson turned it into one of the most successful.
The raddest racecar photo. Ever. Don Gillespie RULES.
If NASCAR racing is a marriage, drag racing is a one-night stand. It is all about acceleration, trying to get the best time on a quarter mile of track. The winner of each head-to-head battle moves on to the next round.
Upwards of 250 all-out competition cars vie for the the money on Saturday night (where professionals go fast); then 400 or more stockers compete for trophies on Sunday, satisfying that urge to race which was the original reason for building the strip. Wednesday night grudge racing, a recent addition to Lions scheduling, settles those drive-in challenges on the strip, not on the Street. Lions is at times a pulsing, eardrum-bursting place. (1965) -The Story behind Lions
As long as cars passed a safety inspection, they were free to compete at Lions. Is that a Pinto in these old Super 8s? Perhaps a Gremlin would have been more sensible.
Todd Hutcheson describes the dragsters dramatically:
The show had it all. Hot Rods, Pro Stock, Fuel Altered; drag bikes, jet cars and Funny Cars. But the number #1 draw was always the Top Fuel Dragsters. These machines defied the laws of physics. Or perhaps they defined science and raw power. A mix of exotic fuels, a long chassis, weight transfer, injectors and a parachute. At the heart was an over sized engine. A power plant of enormous energy. Untamed horsepower. It took exceptional skill to control and pilot this engine for a quarter mile, from a dead stop to 250 miles an hour in about five seconds. A parachute and nerves of a bomb squad was what [it] took to stop it from launching into space. I am sure that every time one of these long beauties sputtered to a stop at the other end, a heart felt “thank you Lord…” was muttered under their breath.
Some of the innovations at Lions are believed to have revolutionized drag racing. According to racing expert and documentary film-maker Don Gillespie, Saugus was the first racetrack to install lights for night racing. But Lions was a close second, as Steve Alexander describes in Hot Rod magazine:
That financial success was based upon the popularity of Saturday night "Date Night" racing at Lions. Master showman Mickey Thompson had lights installed in 1957 and attendance immediately doubled. Soon the Top Eliminator prize had gone from a $25 bond to a $1000 bond. Mickey no longer had to wait a week for his $75 paycheck and a complete paid staff had been hired.
Under Mickey's leadership the place continued to innovate. In addition to the introduction of night racing, Lions had some other "firsts." Like replacing the flag-waving starter with the now-standard "Christmas Tree" starting light system. That original tree had only three lights in its sequence: one amber light for staging, one amber light for warning and one green/red for start/foul.
This is a shot of the starting light system at The Brotherhood Raceway Park.
Lions was also the site of a fateful race in 1970 in which an exploding transmission cut the foot of legendary top fuel driver Don Garlits in half and severed the arm of a spectator. As a result of the accident, Garlits completely redesigned the racecar, placing the engine in a safer position behind the driver, rather than between his legs, and debuted his new invention at the track a year after the accident. His design proved so popular – and unbeatable – it became the top fuel standard within a year. According to Wikipedia:
In 1970, Garlits, driving Swamp Rat XIII, a mainstream front engine, rear cockpit drag rail, had a catastrophic failure. The two speed transmission that Don was developing exploded and took a piece of Garlits' right foot. While he was in the hospital a Florida native Don Lafferty finished out the rest of the season. He returned to Pomona in 1971 with Swamp Rat XIV, a brand new rear engine, front cockpit drag rail. Rear-engine dragsters like Swamp Rat XIV have since become mainstream in drag racing.
This is an illustration of Don Garlits' rear-engine Swamp Rat by K. Scott Teeters
There were more than a few grisly accidents at Lions, although some are only vaguely hinted at in random quotes like "...roller starters replaced unsafe push starts due to a frightening dragster accident in the mid-1960s (Gillespie)" and "He lost his life in a nasty crash at Long Beach, California's Lions Drag Strip later that same summer (Flickr comment)". Even Lions expert and documentary film-maker Don Gillespie can't give an exact tally of the lives claimed by the drag strip as newspapers often kept fatalities "hush hush".
All of this innovation, lack of adequate safety and the sheer numbers of cars that congregated at Lions (because it's proximity to the ocean meant incredible air and power-producing capabilities), came at a price. In fact, by the time Lions reached the mid-1960s, it had claimed more lives than in all previous years of the Indianapolis 500. When it closed, more than 18 are known to have perished there, some famous and others anonymous.
Joe "Jet" Jackson, receiving a push start in this photo, was one of many racers to lose their lives at Lions.
Lions was one of the few racetracks near Hollywood, making it a prime location for filming. Lions is featured heavily in the Munsters episode Hot Rod Herman. The best footage available can be seen in this video, in spite of the audio track being replaced with Rob Zombie.
Back in the mid-1950s, when organized drag racing was pulling itself up by the bootstraps, there was a counter culture in the LA Illegal street racing was becoming a big, BIG problem. I was asked to speak to a forum produced by the LAPD. The street racers were loosely organized, but they did have some neat jackets and t-shirts. They were called the Brotherhood of Street Racers and were lead by their "Wally Parks" -- a moose of a guy called "Big Willie" Robinson and his wife Tomiko. We tried to get the BSR guys to come to LADS (as it was known then - Lions Associated Drag Strip). The vast majority of their cars could not pass tech inspection but they did draw as many as 500 cars at their races... usually in the industrial area of East LA.
There was one guy who did start coming to LADS to race. He was called "Charley the Painter." He drove a highly modified Dodge pickup that had a couple of haphazard ladders and paint cans (all thoroughly secured) hanging in the back. He received a ticket once for street racing and came to court. Now most of the other street racers were young guys wearing greased back hair and tee shirts but Charley was probably in his early to mid-'60s and wearing his painter's overalls, his usual racing uniform. The judge expressed surprise that Charley was in court for street racing. Charley's laid back response was "After I hit second gear, there wasn't any race." I think he was fined $14 or something, but won $20 for winning the street race.
Lions also hosted motorcycle racing, and held the Lions All-Western Motorcycle Championship. One motorcycle racer, Willie Hardin, remembers:
[Motorcycles] ran on different days. There was even a period of time they ran stocks on Wednesday nights. Most times Saturdays were the big fuel and gas classes and then Sundays they would run stock and other classes. I was there most Sundays when they let the bikes run. The guy behind the offical in the striped shirt in the photo was Jack Murphy. He co-ordinated the bike classes and matchups. I have a photo of me on my 1966 Yamaha 80 at Lions. It ran about the same times as the old VW beetles.
Hardin tells us about the day this photo of him was taken, "Just after I started at U.S. Suzuki in 1969, I bought a 1969 T350 to ride to work and other places. On weekends, a co-worker and I would go to Lions Dragstrip in Long Beach. Times were in the low 14's and about 101 mph in the quarter mile."
Mickey Thompson retired from Lions in 1965 and the late 60s were not banner years for the track, with old-school manager C.J. "Pappy" Hart unsure of how to handle the advent of funny cars and increasing noise complaints from expanding suburbs.
In 1972, with new manager Steve Evans renovating the track and hosting a successful season opener -- the NHRA-sanctioned Grand Premiere, Lions seemed to be making a comeback. But it was not to be. Harbor expansion and the encroachment of housing developments rang the death knell for the historic drag strip. The Harbor Commission was exercising the 30-day revocable clause in the lease. The track closed in December of 1972 after 18 years and over 18 fatalities - more than one a year.
On the last day of racing, the entry fee was three dollars. The gates opened at 8am and the crowd didn't leave until after 1:30am. The mayhem of Lions' final night is described by Steve Alexander:
Then the signs came down. First to go was the "Last Drag Race" banner at the starting line. Twenty guys fought for it, but two emerged from the fray and carried it off. Then came the 30-foot-long blue-on-yellow "Lions Drag Strip" sign. It had to be broken down into three pieces and carted off by three different pairs of fans. And then a mad struggle for the lane markers. Meanwhile, up in the timing tower, staffers were grabbing such relics of past glory as the "Authorized Personnel Only" sign on the timing booth door. Some fool was even trying to pry the Coca-Cola sign off the snack booth. And an attempt was made at prying up the starting line. It failed. That was one tough mother of a starting line.
It took over an hour for the huge crowd to slowly file out of Lions for the very last time. Only the winning racers remained behind. They were waiting for The Last Payout.
Carl Olson remembers Lions wistfully:
In retrospect, I'd have to say that the Last Drag Race at Lions remains one of my very fondest memories, if more than just a little bit bittersweet. I'll never forget the sounds, sights and smells of that place. The "rare air" that would flow in from the harbor after the sun went down. The odors of the oil refinery, shooting range and landfill (all of which bordered the facility) were quite obnoxious, but boy how I miss them now. The good times (of which there were many) and the bad times (of which there were too many) came flooding back. I'd watched my first drag racing hero, Leonard Harris, perish before my very eyes there a few years earlier, and saw far too many other good men lose their lives or become horribly injured before modern safety equipment and systems had evolved.
Still, whenever I think of Lions, I get a very warm and fuzzy feeling. I'll never forget that magic place, or the dozens of friends I made there over the years. Every once in a while, I drive by the site on the San Diego Freeway, and the memories come flooding back. To me, Lions was drag racing's Camelot. I've been to and raced at a lot of tracks around the world, but none had the magic that Lions did. Sad to say, but there will never be another place like Lions Drag Strip. It's just not possible in this day and age, and never will be again.
Location: Alameda between 223rd/Wardlow and Sepulveda/Willow. Map today:
Bob Thompson contributed to this post.
Alexander, Steve, "The Last Drag Race" Hot Rod Magazine, February, 1973.
Gillespie, Don. "Lions - The Greatest Drag Strip?" Competition Plus, March 25, 2004
Greene, Bob "Motorcycle racing at Lions Drag Strip" Hot Rod's Bike Works, March, 1964.
Hendon, Mark. "The Last Drag Race, 34 Years Later" Draglist.com
Hutcheson, Todd, "A Gathering of Long Trailers" www.Draglist.com July 10, 2008
Olson, Carl "Recollections of the Last Drag Race"
Unknown "The Story Behind Lions Drag Strip"
Don Gillespie, interview
Greg Thompson, interview
Ed Born www.dragsterillustrated.com, interview
LAistory is our series that takes us on a journey to what came before to help us understand where we are today. So far we've been to Val Verde, Thelma Todd's Roadside Cafe, a house in Beverly Hills, Echo Park's Bonnie Brae House, Marineland of the Pacific, and Grand Central Air Terminal, Wrigley Field, the moment LA got its name, the wreck of the Dominator, 1925 "Hollywood Subway." and the Pink Lady of Malibu.
"Drive the highways...Race at Lions"