It was easy to get there. But unlike the advertisements claimed, it wasn't in Long Beach. It was in neighboring Wilmington. From Belmont Shore you followed Ocean Boulevard to downtown, crossed the Los Angeles River and took the Long Beach Freeway north for three miles. There you connected with the brand new I-405 west (in 1961, the San Diego Freeway ended there) and drove about a mile to the Alameda Street exit south to Wardlow Road, called 223rd Street if you were coming from LA. Looking east you saw rows of tall electric power-line towers and west the large petroleum refineries with plumes of fire and smoke that gave the air such a pungent smell…then you came upon the big grandstand and the starting line sign, and on a Saturday or Sunday rows of cars, trucks, and trailers waiting to get in.
It could be said that Lions Drag Strip was created by court order. For it was a municipal judge in Long Beach who became so outraged at the growing parade of ticketed street racers appearing before him that he took matters into his own hands to facilitate the creation of a legal drag strip. It was a sign of the times when, after the war, jalopies were cheap, speed equipment was available, new cars came with hot V-8 motors, skilled machinists and mechanics were plentiful, and kids had more money to spend…and California’s abandoned airport runways, dry lake beds, and flood control channels had long given way to public streets and highways as the place to stage a “contest of speed.”
The judge met with Mickey Thompson, a well-known local builder of dragsters and speed parts, along with a member of a Long Beach area chapter of the Lions Club, who in turn persuaded nine other LA chapters to form an association to raise money to build a drag strip. Then the LA Harbor Commission was encouraged to lease them a vacant railroad switching yard in the Wilmington District of LA near the harbor. The new track would be known as the Lions Association Drag Strip (LADS) with all profits donated through Lions to charities for the blind…and Thompson agreed to manage it.
Sunday, October 9, 1955, was opening day and he, the strip’s only paid employee, and his team of volunteers were prepared to handle about twenty-five hundred people and maybe fifty cars. What they got was over ten thousand people and upwards of five hundred cars…then chaos, as the crowds not willing to wait in long lines pushed over the fences and essentially encircled the track…dust was everywhere, toilets overflowed, food and water were exhausted, the PA system failed, and most of the cars couldn’t pass their safety inspections. Still successful beyond anyone’s dreams; the idea had worked and the demand…and the revenue...would do nothing but grow in the years ahead.
When my two buddies who traveled to California with me returned home to Virginia, I moved in with Jack who rented the apartment above us. He was a native Southern Californian, had just graduated from USC and was a pharmacist at Long Beach Community Hospital. He knew I was a gearhead so on the second Sunday after we started rooming together he wanted me to take my souped-up 1954 Ford to LADS. The car was a Cadet Blue two-door sedan that looked stock (OHV V-8) but it ran a 1957 Mercury Turnpike Cruiser engine that was decked and ported with the ’54 air cleaner modified to fit perfectly, like a top hat, on the ’57 carburetor. The tech inspections at the drag strip in Bedford back home never noticed the deception, so it beat everything in its class. After several “impossible” wins the tech guys wanted to look the car over again but found nothing (they never saw the 4-barrel). Now we’d see how good they were at “the beach."
After we got our tickets Jack parked his new anthracite-colored Beetle and hopped in with me to drive over to the pits to register for a run. In the beginning, LADS had no race classes or divisions…if your car passed a safety inspection you ran against whoever was next. That had changed but the stock car class ignored model year so I could be matched with older or newer cars, any make, within a specified horsepower range. I was first matched with a 1957 Olds 98 J-2…a big boat of a car and he didn’t see anything but my rear bumper. Then came a 1950 Olds 88 fastback…much lighter and quicker…but he got aced too, followed by a 1960 Corvette that also couldn’t make it. Then the pit guys wanted to take another look under the hood and that’s where my race ended. Unlike the boys back home these mechanics knew a Holley 4-barrel when they saw one.
The next time we went to LADS I was in my new Vette and it had just been driven over to the airport to get a tank full of aviation gas. That really didn’t give me much of an edge because everybody was burning some form of booster (in the old days we used mothballs back when they contained naphthalene). But maybe the last-minute visit to the Cherry & 101 Garage for a dyno tune would do the trick.”
The Vette was first matched with a white 1961 Corvette fuelie. Two stunning cars, each with red interior, inched side by side down the funnel to the starting line. The amber light for staging popped on as the officials worked us into position…then the amber warning light was lit and in the next instant the ’61 was off with wheels spinning but instead of getting the green start we got the red foul light. The public address system roared, the grandstand moaned and the driver was halfway down the track before he realized what had happened. He had to turn around and drive back past the heckling fans to get repositioned for another go. The Vette had never moved so obvious was the false start. The next try was clean and it felt just like the old days in Bedford (we had a flagman rather than lights) except with lots more power…the Vette taking the lead from the start and widening the gap at the finish. The crowd liked it and so did I. Next the Vette was paired with a triple black, big brake 1962 fuelie. This one was closer but the Vette kept her lead all the way on the stickiest track I’d ever been on, turning in a speed of 103 mph with a lapsed time of thirteen seconds. The crowd went wild. My dirt track racing at Shrader Field and the drag strip experiences back home combined with the well-tuned Vette had carried the day. Wherever the old 1954 Ford was she had to be smiling.
Afterward Jack and I drove over to T Lords at 5864 E 2nd Street in Naples to attend a very special weekly event. It was called the “Dollar Drown” and for one dollar your hand would be ink-stamped and for the next two hours, if you got there on time, you could drink all the frosties you wanted…talking with girls and being served by scantily clad cocktail waitresses weaving through the crowd with their trays of pitchers and glasses. Included would be all the beans and franks you could eat placed on the side bar and re-supplied continuously.
She proudly stood guard outside waiting to take us home safely. The Vette knew we were celebrating and would need her protection more than ever. She was also developing a taste for high-octane herself.
It was in the early morning hours of December 3, 1972…after nearly twenty thousand fans from all over the country had cheered the Funny Cars and Top Eliminators to victory, and then tore down fences and hauled away anything that could possibly be considered a souvenir…that Lions Drag Strip officially closed. Ironically it had been its most successful year ever with over seventy thousand dollars turned over to charity. But after eighteen seasons the Harbor Commission, using noise complaints voiced by residents of nearby expanding communities as justification, revoked the raceway’s permit with a thirty-day notice leaving no time to mount an appeal. The real reason for the action, some suggested, was that the harbor needed the land for its own explosive growth.
The world’s quickest and fastest drag strip…that had enjoyed so many “firsts” like night racing and the Christmas tree light starting system and had made legends of so many cars and drivers…was replaced by warehouses used to store foreign shipping containers filled with demand goods from overseas. Progress had once again prevailed, as it always does in the end, but like so many places chronicled in these adventures the memories live on...and thus so the enjoyment of being there yourself for a moment or two.
On March 16, 1988, Mickey Thompson and his wife, Trudy, were killed execution style by two gunmen at their home in Bradbury, California, in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains. It would take almost nineteen years for justice to be rendered when, in 2007, a former business partner was found guilty of two counts of murder and sentenced to life without parole. The actual shooters were never identified.