Leslie Long was one of the earliest Southern California hot rodders (before hot rodders were willing to embrace the term) and was a regular at the dry lakes in the days before World War II. Recent conversations with Leslie were the basis for the article "The Guys Who Invented Hot Rods," which ran in this magazine in May 2009.
Like many of the lakes racers, Leslie was also involved in the early days of drag racing right after the War, in particular at Santa Ana, the world's first commercial dragstrip. He's also on a personal mission to chronicle the decade of drag racing that took place there, collecting race results, along with photos, from the strip's 10-year history.
At the time, Leslie was more interested in racing than in chronicling or photographing, and is in the process of collecting photos from others. He also remembers the decade of racing at Santa Ana with clarity and is dedicated to setting the record straight about how it was. More conversations and more history.
This slingshot, the Nelson...
This slingshot, the Nelson and Martin Master Dragliner, won its class at the Nationals in 1957 and returned to Santa Ana in September to win Top Time and Top Eliminator, running 127.12. By 1957, Chevy OHVs were running in dragsters such as this one, and the slingshot style, with the driver sitting rearward of the slicks (to improve traction), had caught on.
To say when drag racing began or who invented it involves a lot of speculation about an activity that, in all likelihood, has been around since the creation of the second automobile. In the April 1950 issue of Hot Rod magazine, Editor Wally Parks (one year before establishing the NHRA) wrote an article describing "controlled drag races" as an alternative to lakes racing. His description of the sport might seem foreign to today's fans. For example, "number of entrants in each heat race depends on the width of the course," Parks explained.
In the spring of 1949, a year before Parks' Hot Rod article appeared, rodders had gathered in Goleta, California, for a match race that some call the first official drag race. And in his story, Parks made reference to a location in Santa Ana, where they were running two abreast, with one flagman at the starting line and another at the finish line a quarter mile away. Since his article predates the beginning of racing at the Santa Ana airport in June 1950, Wally is most likely referring to an airfield called Mile Square. Leslie Long describes that location (which is now a golf course) as a practice air strip with three runways, connected to form a triangle. It was used by the military to train pilots to land on aircraft carriers and by hot rodders for racing. That second function came to an abrupt halt when armed Marines showed up and kicked out the racers.
Frank Iacono's '34 coupe won...
Frank Iacono's '34 coupe won on this day in February 1953 with a 109.89 top speed. Later in the year, he went 117 in the Chevy-engined Ford.
Soon after, the SCTA (Southern California Timing Association-the group of clubs that organized racing on the dry lakes) held a drag race at a nearby blimp base. According to Leslie, Chuck Potvin (the racer and speed equipment manufacturer) tried, unsuccessfully, to convince the SCTA to continue with drag racing. "Nobody's interested in drag racing," they told him.
In 1950, CJ Hart, Creighton Hunter, and Frank Stillwell met with city officials to get permission to use the Orange County airport in Santa Ana for organized drag racing.
"There was nothing there," Leslie recalls. "Before Orange County put in the runways and opened it up as a commercial airport, it was a field. There wasn't even a road. When the war started, the army took it over. It became Santa Ana Army Airbase and was used it to train P-38 Lightning pilots."
On July 2, 1950, drag racing officially began at Santa Ana, as many people know. Fewer people know that the first drags there actually took place a month earlier.
"CJ Hart ran two races that nobody knows about," Leslie said. "In fact, people have told me they didn't happen, and even Creighton Hunter told me I was crazy. But I was there and Melvin Dodd was at both of them. They were only for the racers. Word got out among the racers that they were taking place."
The Berardini brothers, Pat...
The Berardini brothers, Pat and Tony, ran the Berardini Muffler Shop and raced at Santa Ana in this well known 404 roadster, driven by Pat. It ran a 296ci Mercury, built by Howard Johansen; the 404 name is taken from the Isky Flathead cam used. This photo was taken in June 1954, the day Pat ran 107.89. We've seen it used as an example of early flames.
In 1958, Leslie Long owned...
In 1958, Leslie Long owned this supercharged Chevy slingshot, built by Melvin Dodd and driven by Jack Hart. Hart ran the fastest time (134.36 mph) and quickest e.t. (10.60 seconds) of the meet on December 14.
Tony Berardini drove this...
Tony Berardini drove this '29 roadster 103.69 mph on September 28, 1952, the day of its first win in the open gas category.