Remembering Lions Drag Strip; Another Way to Pave Paradise

Take a long, hard look at this. It doesn’t look like much, does it? Just a satellite view of row upon row of thousands of shipping containers waiting for transport either in our out of the Port of Long Beach lined up in a massive paved lot near the Long Beach Freeway. But if you could look at this exact same spot four decades ago, you would have seen the most happenin’ race venue around, Lions Associated Drag Strip.

From 1955 to 1972, Lions was home to some of the best drag racing in the nation. Planted in the heart of the Southern California hot rodding movement and a scant dozen feet above sea level, there was no better place at no better time than Lions during its short 17 years.

Southern California was the place to be during the early 1950s. Returning from the Korean War, GIs were taken in by the warm, temperate weather, pretty girls waiting to be “discovered” in Hollywood, and the youthful atmosphere of tens of thousands of WWII veterans starting up families and careers after returning Stateside from the Pacific Theater.

With a pocket full of money and not a whole lot else going on, thrill seeking hot rodders took to the streets with chopped, lightened and hopped-up rides that terrorized the denizens of Los Angeles and Orange Counties. Causing more harm than good, these hooligans were a pest that needed to be dealt with.

Hence, Lions was born out of necessity.

Created through a concerted effort of nine local Lions Club chapters in the area, Los Angeles police officer Gordon Browning and a judge hellbent on stamping out the surge in illegal street racing happening throughout the Los Angeles Harbor area, Lions opened its gates just shy of three months after Walt Disney invited the world to his new theme park Disneyland only a short drive away in Anaheim.

The demand for a professional venue was so overt that on Lions’ opening day, October 9, 1955, a crowd of 25,000 (only 10,000 had been expected) showed up, bringing 400 cars to race. Of those, about 25-percent were turned away as “unsafe.” This standard encouraged kids to bring their cars “up to snuff” in order to compete at Lions’ facility.

Image: jalopyjournal.com

A local racing hero by the name of Mickey Thompson was hired as the strip’s first and only employee. The mantle of general manager would be passed years later to the venue’s most well-remembered chief, CJ “Pappy” Hart, but it was Thompson, always the innovator, who brought Lions up to a national level by making it the first track to utilize an electronic starting system instead of a flagman, and later, as one of the first to place electronic monitoring equipment at specific intervals along the track for incremental time recording, as well as incorporating concrete starting line pads and roller starters replaced unsafe push starts.

Not all the racing took place on the strip. Keith Black's shop was only a short distance away and was known as a "regular" at Lions.

The pioneering wasn’t restricted to the track’s infrastructure, either. Lions was instrumental in developing bracket and grudge matches, as well as welcoming groundbreaking machines like side-by-side and longitudinal-mount multiple motor dragsters, not to mention any rails touting quad-engines (i.e. “Showboat”), engines on both ends, A/FX’ers and the original Funny Cars.

Lions not only played host to official events, such as those of the American Hot Rod Association, the NHRA, and United States Professional Dragster Championships, but was the unofficial official center for unofficial racing as well. It became the leading venue for drag racing’s best, quickest and fastest, and became – in part – the sport’s cultural center.

Only blocks away from the Drag News publishing headquarters, Lions was always a feature in the newspaper. Legendary engine builder Keith Black’s original shop was down the street, and he and Thompson – who operated a speed shop of his own – used Lions as their private testing bed.

The "Watering Hole" for racers.

Dodge racing front-man, Dick Landy clicked off several record-making quarter-mile passes, as well as develop the first altered-wheel-base “A/FX’ers” and even trial test the first 16-plug 426 HEMI there.

Lions also became the track of choice for iconic machines like the “Stutt Bee,” the “Chi-Town Hustler” (from Chicago, naturally), the “Little Red Wagon” and course, the “Green Mamba” powered by an actual F-4 Phantom jet engine.

In fact, Lions’ benefits drew the best racers from all over the world, spontaneously generating a spiral of race innovations and thrilling top-level competition unlike anything anywhere else, even today.

So many of racing’s legends were made famous there including Fritz Voigt, Art Chrisman, Gene Adams, Don Garlits, Tom McEwen, Chris Karamesines, Connie Swingle, Roy “Goob” Tuller, Roland Leong, George Bolthoff, Don Moody, Frank Pedregon and Lou Baney, Ed Lenarth, Gene Mooneyham, Art and Jack Chrisman, Bill Schultz, Paula Murphy, Don and John Ewald, Gerry Glenn, Joe Koenig, Joe Reath, Ed Iskenderian, Chet Herbert, “Big John” Mazmanian and Stone, Woods & Cook; Joe Mondello and Sush Matsubara, “TV Tommy” Ivo; Top Fuel stars Carl Olson and Jeb Allen, also Gary Gabelich, Greer, Black & Prudhomme, Leonard Harris, Lou Senter, Gene Adams and chassis builder Ronnie Scrima, plus Mickey Brown, the first man to break 150mph on gasoline: Joe “The Jet” Jackson.

You may not recognize all of these names, despite their innovation, speed, and contribution to the sport. That might be because they died there. Lion’s was unfortunately the scene for more racing deaths than the Indianapolis 500, when averaged over its lifetime: about one per year.

As the old real estate maxim cries, “Location, location, location,” so much of Lions fame was due to this very thing.

Image: justacarguy.blogspot.com

Southern California is an odd paradox. Despite its temperate weather year-round, its unusually dry. It was only through extensive irrigation efforts that the Los Angeles basin received water, and it was only through these means that Southern California became an agricultural center. At this particular time, the area was growing rapidly from its roots as a mere sleepy seaside resort known for its dual Ferris wheels, thanks – in part – with a large influx of migrant workers from all over, earning the nickname “Iowa by the Sea.”

That, and because of a massive military and aerospace presence, Southern California was literally bursting at the seams. It was, for all intents and purposes, a modern-day boom town.

This guaranteed Lions a steady population of attendees and racers, but what benefited Lions above all was its altitude. Fixed just inside of the Port of Long Beach, Lions was merely feet above sea level, providing the drag strip a limitless supply of thick, dense air racers call “Rare Air.”

Yet, the seaside location did cause some distress, as the Pacific Coast is also known for conjuring up a “marine layer,” a thick low lying miasma that is so impenetrable to the human eye, that it made night racing, particularly through the cooler months, almost impossible.

Its track surface was also unusually sticky, allegedly from their special track coatings which their publicity director called either “Octo-Vise,” or “Secura-bond,” and which may have been a term stolen from a prior drag strip, but was later attributed to the same phenomenon as when you visit a beach town and every surface seems sticky from the salty wind!

Because of its location and immense popularity, Lions quickly became an American institution, referenced for decades by American culture, from “The Munsters” to, most recently, the “Mad Men” series. It was also the subject of a five-part documentary titled Lions – The Greatest Drag Strip.

The aftermath of the closure left Lions in shambles; a sad reminder of a piece of hot rodding history.

Despite Lion’s popularity and significance, or possibly because of it, complaints of noise from the neighborhood that sprouted up around it gradually overwhelmed city officials, and ultimately condemned Lions due to noise. Despite being a lucrative business and keeping hot rodders off the streets, Lions was forced to close its doors December 2, 1972.

Staging area for racers. Image: standard1320.com

Stories of Lions’ last night retell such drama and racing daring that it reads like fiction. Racers aimed to make a 5-second run in order to “Go out with a ‘Bang!’” continued making passes deep into the early morning hours as unofficial pyrotechnics suddenly appeared lighting up the night, while burning tumbleweeds rolled by, and fans forwent personal safety and started crowding the staging lanes, burnout box and the length of the track!

Attendees crowded the parking lot, the adjoining streets and every square inch of the pits in order to celebrate the track’s closing.

Now, the property is shared among a railyard, a storage facility for transport trailers, and Carson Auto Recycling, a salvage yard off of South Alameda Street, living little to remind onlookers of what once existed there…

But at least the neighbors are happy; their Paradise won.

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