Drag Racing Origins - The Guys Who Invented Drag Racing
The Story Of Santa Ana, The Birthplace Of Organized Drags
From the August, 2009 issue of Rod & Custom
By Leslie Long, Tim Bernsau
Photography by Leslie Long
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.
Alan Crain won Light Coupe...
Alan Crain won Light Coupe and Sedan in September 1952 with this '34 coupe. Leslie recorded that the car was "always so far ahead of other cars in his class that one Sunday he even won his class trophy with a rod sticking out the side of the block."
Those two June races, like the races in Goleta, at Mile Square, and other locations (including the streets) were grassroots activities. What changed on July 2 was that the weekly races at Orange County were scheduled, organized, and publicized. Racers paid fifty cents to run. It was, in a word, official.
"There were hundreds of spectators at those races. In the later days there was a small grandstand but in the early days, spectators lined up along the strip, sitting on the front of their cars or standing. There were telephone poles on the ground along the strip to keep the spectator cars away from the racing-and although they were supposed to stand behind them, people would sit on those. And a lot of people would just sit in their cars. Main Malt, a malt shop in Santa Ana, set up a little booth at the drag races to sell food.
"By the time the first races started, some of the airport roads had been closed off. The drag strip was not actually a runway, but a road that they had parked airplanes on. Creighton Hunter and many others called this the 'west runway,' but you don't land P-38s on a quarter-mile runway-I'll guarantee it.
Here's Sonny Balcain's slingshot...
Here's Sonny Balcain's slingshot rail, competing in D Roadster, although there isn't much "roadster" to a lot of these bodyless early rails. Balcain went 136.98 mph in November 1955, and was one of several racers running inline GMCs-Nick Arias, who founded Arias pistons, being another.
"For at least the first three years it was all rolling starts-and it was more than a quarter mile. The racers started right back against the fence, and it was actually even a little bit downhill back there. CJ would stand out in front. The cars would accelerate together, CJ would drop the flag, and they'd have a race.
"The strip was wide-200, maybe 300 feet. It looked great to the spectators, but once you crossed the finish line, you'd better be ready to slow down. It turned into a very narrow road that only went for about 500 feet and curved to the right, with a drop off on the left. If you couldn't get stopped, you dropped off the end of the curve, and you were in the tall weeds waiting for somebody to come get you. I plowed through them a lot of times.
"In the early days, it was all about top speed. They didn't have e.t. lights. They had electronic timers at the finish line-a photo cell on each side to time miles per hour. Some racers didn't understand how they could lose a race even though they had a faster car. I was 'the college student' so guys would come up to me and ask me, 'Look, I just went two miles an hour faster than that guy and he beat me. How could that be?' I'd explain that it's not about top speed, it's about elapsed time. The race is won or lost right off the line. And later on, they finally put in e.t. lights."
Did they have Funny Cars in...
Did they have Funny Cars in 1950? What's your opinion? Otto Ryssman built and drove this altered wheelbase sedan, and won on this day, October 15, 1950. According to Leslie, Otto, along with Melvin Dodds and Calvin Rice "were the people who started drag racing. These are the people who, through the first couple years of drag racing, you'll find their names more than any other names."
By the mid-Fifties, Hunter and Stillwell were no longer involved at Santa Ana, but CJ continued until the last race on June 12, 1959. By that time, Santa Ana was no longer unusual. Drag racing had become an organized sport all over the United States, with rules and standardized classes and national events, thanks to sanctioning organizations (most notably, Wally Parks' NHRA) and the growing number of magazines devoted to hot rodding.
Today, drag racing is bigger, quicker, faster, more expensive, more commercial, and more popular than anybody 60 years ago could have imagined. Computer-equipped dragsters running at multi-million-dollar arenas are clocking top speeds that are double the numbers Charlie Potvin and Leslie Long argued about in 1955. But if it wasn't for CJ Hart, Frank Stillwell, Creighton Hunter, and hundreds of hot rodders trying to beat each other to the end of a quarter-mile straight line at an out-of-commission airfield, who knows where it would be today.
How Did Drag Racing Become A Quarter Mile? We've always heard it had something to do with horse racing-or the distance of city blocks. Could it be that 1,320 feet became the official distance of a drag race by random accident?
This trio, shot in 1950, includes...
This trio, shot in 1950, includes H.E. Nicholson's Mercury Flathead powered T roadster on the left, the Blair Speed Shop roadster, and the'34 coupe (also Merc powered) raced by Joe Maillard and Clark Cagle.
That's Calvin Rice at the...
That's Calvin Rice at the wheel of the Model T on Deuce 'rails owned by Kenny Howard. The Howard & Rice roadster won the Street Roadster prize on December 31, 1950.
The "guys who invented drag...
The "guys who invented drag racing" included some gals. Quite a few women raced at Santa Ana, Leslie remembers, but most of them raced stock cars. The two most prominent women running purpose-built drag cars were Peggy Hart (wife of C.J. Hart) and Diane Vandenberg. Diane drove this '32 coupe, frequently listed as the Hart Texaco car, which Jack Hart helped build. Leslie helped Diane with the car during the last couple of years she raced.
Here's another look at Kenny...
Here's another look at Kenny Howard's Flathead T roadster. Many of these cars served double duty as evidence of the windsheild and headlights installed here.
In defense of the horse racing theory, one of the best R&C articles ever was Gray Baskerville's June 2001 story, "The Legend of the Car that Raced the Horse: Why the Drags are 1,320 Feet." According to that story, hot rodding pioneer Ak Miller would have told you that "the standing quarter mile became SOP thanks to an unusual race staged between a quarter-horse and Pete Henderson's Deuce highboy" in 1944.
We've even read interviews with CJ Hart, in which he acknowledges the influence of quarter-horse racing. But Leslie Long's recollections from Santa Ana suggest a more random reason. "When they finally started to have standing starts at Santa Ana, the cars had to move away from the fence (where they had previously lined up for rolling starts). The distance that was left was a quarter mile. So it was really an accident there-it just happened to be the length of the runway."
At this race in December 1951,...
At this race in December 1951, the D Class win went to Art Chrisman in this Merc Flathead roadster, which had clutch trouble before the fastest-time races.
Leslie's version is backed up by an interview with Wally Parks from Westways magazine, published by the Southern California Auto Club (which also sponsors the Wally Parks NHRA Motorsports Museum). In that interview, Parks said specifically that the quarter mile was not from horse racing, but from test runs and races at airport runways. That distance allowed room for the cars to accelerate and decelerate without running out of pavement. Publicity in Hot Rod (edited by Parks) and other magazines helped establish the quarter mile as the standard for drag racing.
Ollie Morris and Harold Dawson...
Ollie Morris and Harold Dawson raced this roadster. "Harold [right] was one of the first people to start running weird, different fuels in his car," Leslie remembers. "I don't know all the fuels he did run, but he tried all kinds of fuel. He did real well. One time, he set it up to suck pure oxygen into the carburetor. When Don Little drove Harold's car, he would say he was afraid to get into the car!"
Mickey Thompson's might have...
Mickey Thompson's might have been first, but Leslie identifies Calvin Rice's slingshot, built by Melvin Dodd, as the first successful car of this type. The idea was to put more weight behind the rear wheels to keep them from spinning. Doug Hartelt (first to build a supercharged Chrysler) built the engine. This is from May 1957, two years after Rice won the first NHRA Nationals in Great Bend, Kansas, (and finished in Perryville, Arizona). A famous photo shows Rice at the starting line in Kansas with the Hemi, but Calvin swapped in a Flathead during the event. Rain postponed that race, and when it resumed, many weeks later in Perryville, Arizona, Rice won with the Ford engine.
More than 15 years before...
More than 15 years before Don Garlits made history by positioning himself forward of the engine, rear-engined dragsters were racing at Santa Ana. One was the Rice's Auto Parts dragster, powered by a four-banger as well as a V-8, and driven by Bill Sanders.