During World War II, the Navy and Army Air Force built many emergency airfields throughout Southern California where pilot training went on year-round. These fields offered the newbie pilots a safe place to land an aircraft if they were having problems. One of these emergency airfields in San Diego became one of the first organized dragstrips in the nation.

Sweetwater Dam NOLF (Navy Outlying Field) was located four miles east of the 32nd Street Naval Base on San Diego Bay. It had a single paved east/west runway with a small parking pad on the southeastern end near Paradise Road. There were no buildings, just an airstrip for emergency landings. The west end featured a sharp drop-off. Following the war, the Navy, much like the Air Force, walked away from these little airstrips. This was also a time when street racing was becoming an issue with the public and moving racing to a confined area was seen as a positive move and found a lot of local support. In the late 1940s, Sweetwater Dam NOLF was used for unauthorized racing and after a couple accidents was quickly closed.

Around that time, Carlsbad, California's Oilers Club ran a few organized drag racing events on a local mud flat with mixed results. The Oilers, along with a couple other San Diego–area clubs, saw the opportunity that this abandoned airfield offered and quickly organized to make it a fully functional dragstrip with the support of San Diego's city officials and local police. The first officially sanctioned race at Sweetwater Dam NOLF was held on March 11, 1951. The day's events included 115 qualifying runs and 136 races. The fastest run that day, timed by Otto Crocker's accurate clocks, was 107.27 from a standing start.

The Oilers and 13 other local clubs (the number of member clubs eventually exceeded 25) worked together to form the San Diego Timing Association (SDTA), using the template originally created by the SCTA (Southern California Timing Association), where clubs managed the events. SDTA members could race as much as they wanted as long as they paid their 50 cents a month dues. The rule structure was similar to the SCTA's too, where cars were classified by body type and cubic-inch displacement. The group didn't find Sweetwater Dam NOLF a suitable name for their dragstrip and they renamed it Paradise Mesa Drag Strip. It soon became a mecca for San Diego drag racers. This was also the first dragstrip in the nation to have cars starting from a standing start and often four wide. While these guys loved racing at the lakes, they had twice the drive of their L.A. brothers to get to the lakes, as this was a time before L.A.'s vast freeway system. So having a place to safely race in their backyard was a blessing. Drags were scheduled twice a month around SCTA events. They also found that running at the drags gave them an extra opportunity to better tune their cars for the lakes.

In 1952, the SDTA published its first official nine-page rule book stapled together on standard paper. This was the first time the word "dragster" was used to denote what had previously been called a lakester. In 1953, the rule book was expanded to 25 pages in a professionally printed booklet. The NHRA's organizers also used the same basic rules for its drag racing classes and events. Throughout the 1950s dragstrips blossomed across Southern California, and in 1959 Paradise Mesa Drag Strip closed. Today, not a trace of the strip remains, as urban expansion has completely covered the area with homes.