The Soul of Southern California Drag Racing
By Tom West
I have to say that I always felt something unique in the energy at Long Beach. Can't define it, but I have always enjoyed the three major strips in SoCal, eliminating The Pond (was never there), Fontana (went twice... one of the best and one of the worst weekends of drag racing I have ever seen), Riverside, Ontario, and some of the others. The weekly shows were the Big Three: Irwindale, Lions, and Orange County. Remember that this is from a photographer's point of view, so I am sure that the racers felt something different.
Irwindale, my "home" track, was really cool to shoot at. Great light, a lot of cars, and it was wonderful to be standing almost in front of those dragsters when they ran the hot track right inside the guard rails. There was the backdrop of the San Bernardino Mountains, when the smog didn't hide them, and the sound that they reverberated back into the valley. Throw in the smell of those In-N-Outs right next to the starting line, and you had a complete sensory experience that was tough to match. The facility was continually being improved by a series of managers, and the shows could be tremendous, even on an off night with the normal show.
Orange County was the showplace. It was almost palatial compared to everything but Ontario back then. This was the Dee-Lux place to shoot the drags... with well manicured, almost golf course-like grass areas next to the track for the photogs, and other very advanced features. This was more of the promotional track as the Funny Cars came in, so it became special in setting the lead for most of the other tracks to follow, and you knew it when you went down there.
Long Beach was sort of the Sedona of Drag Racing. There was just a special energy. The backgrounds were pretty ugly with all the industrial stuff and the power lines all over the place, but the fans were right on top of the cars, and they picked up the excitement like it was catching. For some reason, I always thought of Lions as being the soul of Southern California drag racing. It was the only "Last Race" that I attended, and driving home that night gave me a very different outlook on life somehow. It was like someone had released a physical hold on me as I realized that drag racing was not going to be the complete focus of my life and that I could move on now. About three months later I had accepted a job offer and left for New York on the first weekend in March of '73... and you know which weekend that was. It meant that even Bakersfield, after first going in 1966, could not hold me here any longer.
I don't know if there was any physical description that could explain the character of those three So Cal tracks, but there was something more comfortable about Lions that made it like a drag racing home than the others.
Thanks for listening ... well, reading.