Early Drag Racing in Orange County
by Joe Labarrere
The beautiful racing facility that stands adjacent to the Los Angeles County Fairgrounds, although it seems to us local, native Californians that it has “always” been there, actually had its humble beginnings because of the headaches caused to the local constabulary. Lots of police manpower was expended in rousting the racers and issuing citations to the young studs, who brought their “need for speed” to public streets on a weekly basis.
All too often the young (anyone under 80) conclude that the present always was as it is. “T’ain’t so!” to use a phrase from a long-ago serial radio show. Great changes have come about and continue at a rapid pace. I was reminded of this evolutionary – and at times, “revolutionary” – aspect of human spirit on a recent visit to my parents, who are both closing in on 90 and reside in LaVerne.
On my way home to “Lotus Land,” as I fondly refer to Orange County, I passed through the quaint downtown of LaVerne, quite near my college alma mater and not far from the 10 freeway. I spotted the National Hot Rod Association’s world famous racing facility, “The Drags,” as we called it as students at Damien High School. With the setting sun, I suddenly found things coming to mind that I hadn’t thought about in years.
In the early 1950′s, “ad hoc” car races became the bane of the existence of both the Pomona Police Department and the CHPs. No sooner had they broken up one, when another would spring up somewhere else in what was then the semi-rural Pomona Valley. One particularly lively crew even went so far as to organize events with other aspiring Mario Andrettis from distant Temple City. Leaders of both groups were cousins and managed a daring escape through the woods and backyards as the police arrived on the scene. That one night’s activities led not only to a number of citations, but also the birth of the Pomona Valley Timing Association as intelligent law officials decided it was time to formalize the races.
The Los Angeles County Fair Association was persuaded to allow a distant portion of the west parking lot to be paved with asphalt to just beyond a quarter of a mile in length. Telephone poles served as parking stops as racing enthusiasts and families mixed. No buildings were erected then, just a couple of booths.
The first announcers were volunteers but soon a hired regular was behind the mike, a Navy recruiter from a neighboring town, who just happened to be the older brother of the previously mentioned cousin/escapees from the Pomona/Temple City match up. In those early days, owners financed their own cars and raced just for the love of the sport. A few small trophies were awarded but the main incentive was to get a bit more horsepower out of your engine and possibly a few more miles per hour. Some organized groups came from as far away as San Diego to participate.
The pit area was lively and didn’t require any sort of a pass. A crowd always gathered to watch one well-known local mix nitro-based fuel in the back of his pickup truck. As one of the young men watching, I enjoyed hearing him chuckle as he’d talk about whether the color was just right or totally wrong.
Any vehicle could be raced if it passed a cursory inspection: every auto was required to have four inflated tires, working brakes and a steering wheel. That’s all that was required and you were ready to go! Two lines formed of vehicles waiting to race, paired as closely as possible by engine size and output although a driver had the option to race anyone who would accept his challenge. Sometimes the competition got a bit intense. I recall one Sunday when a driver had the Top Time of the Day and was awarded his trophy, small in size for such an achievement. Instead of taking his prize and going home, he chose to accept the challenge of one of the organized groups. He lost the race by only a few feet, but was then awarded the Sportsmanship Trophy which stood fully three times bigger than his first!
By today’s standards, these rewards were inconsequential but many a volunteer crew would sweat into the night to ready an engine or make a crucial repair or adjustment. They did what they did just for the sheer joy of the sport.
Almost all the old drag strips are gone now, many now are the site of homes and offices. But if the wind is just right or the smell of exhaust has just the right taint, the ghosts of the old cars and their crews will be all about us.
About the author:
Joe Labarrere, native Californian, is a retired high school teacher of history and government. His uncles were among those “young studs” with their “need for speed.” He spends his leisure time volunteering, reading and particularly enjoys substitute teaching in parochial elementary schools. He resides in Brea.
Photos used in this blog are courtesy of the NHRA.
For more information on the history of the Auto Club Raceway in Pomona go to: