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Santa Ana Airport Drag Strip and Main Street Malt Shop Reunion 18 April 2015

Santa Ana Airport Drag Strip and Main Street Malt Shop Reunion 18 April 2015
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Gone Racin’…Santa Ana Airport Drag Strip and Main Street Malt Shop Reunion, 18 April 2015

     The Santa Ana Airport Drag Strip and Main Street Malt Shop reunions took place on April 18, 2015 at Santiago Creek Park, in Orange, California.  The park is situated at the western end of Hart Park at Lawson Way and East Memory Lane on the border of Orange and Santa Ana and has been used as a get together for over seventy years by local hotrodders and their friends.  At first it was just a cool hangout that gradually turned into a picnic and is now the semi-annual site for an event honoring the old Santa Ana Airport drag strip.  But there are still attendees who remember meeting at the old Main Street Malt Shop, a favorite of Santa Anans from way back in the 1930’s and that’s why we honor both events at the same time.  The weather is almost always bright and sunny and there is plenty of shade and concrete picnic tables.  Leslie Long is the organizer and also the chief historian for both the Santa Ana Airport drag strip and for land speed racing at El Mirage dry lake out near Victorville, in the high desert.  Helping Leslie is Gene Mitchell, who brings fold up chairs, pop-up tents and caters the food, drinks and desserts, all at his own expense.  Leslie and Gene make this a very memorable time and since there is no charge for using Santiago Creek Park, a very easy to go to event.
     Twice a year on the first Saturday in April and then again in October we gather for the reunion.  Leslie keeps this a twice a year event because conflicts with other activities keep people from attending and holding it twice a year allows for most of the attendees a chance to make it to the reunions.   Some of the attendees at this reunion were: Terry Shaw, Doug Wilson, Amy Iskenderian, Troy Green Jr., Gene Mitchell, Eldon Harris, Gene Ellis, Leslie Long, Ed Iskenderian, Mike Uribe, Rich Childers, Jim Moran, Bob Baxter, Phil Turgasen, Ray Morton, John Durham, Harlan Orrin, Craig Durham, Jim Murphy, Jim Partridge, Ed Osepian, Doug Westfall, Dave Cook, John Uribe, Wayne Harper, Dick Finkle, Roger Rohrdanz, Alan Zusman, Jerry Hart, Betty Belcourt, Norm Stevenson, Ron Whitney, Tom Armstrong and Ron Winship. 
     C. J. and Peggy Hart started the drag strip on a runway road next to the old Santa Ana Airport on July 2, 1950 with help from Creighton Hunter and Frank Stillwell.  Creighton’s father knew some of the County of Orange politicians and Stillwell had insurance contacts and handled the books.  Eventually the other partners left and C. J. and Peggy took over full control of the drag strip and ran it like a business.  The drag strip closed at the end of 1959 when the County ended the lease in order to expand the airport for commercial use.  There were other drag strips that predated Santa Ana all over the country, but they were usually unauthorized, illegal, one-time events that didn’t lead to the new sport of drag racing.  Goleta organized a race in 1949 near the airport and held a race.  Don Edwards and Ed Osepian told me that they were there.  A few stories were written about it.  There were no paid admissions collected or organized rules.  It was very typical for the times.
     There were also drag races that were held on county roads for gambling purposes.  A common race during the 1930’s was traveling horsemen who would bet hot rodders that their quarter horses could beat “your old heap.”  Even the highway patrol and local police got involved in those contests, blocking off sections of the highway then betting on the outcome of the horse versus machine races.  Most often the horses won in those short races.  Ak and Zeke Miller told me they participated in such a race on highway 39 with Ak actually winning against the quarter horse.  “Ak studied those thoroughbreds and knew their times, then used a two speed shift.  He thought he knew all that he needed to beat a horse by a second.  But he didn’t know a thing about quarter horses.  We bet all our wages and nearly lost it all, but Ak won by a nose…literally by a nose,” Zeke said.  Sometimes the police would hold a contest for the young hot rodders.  But all drag racing up to July 2, 1950 was poorly organized, impromptu and unregulated.
     That all changed at Santa Ana.  Hart, who owned a garage, was also familiar with the organized land speed racing at Muroc, El Mirage and other Southern California dry lakes.  He also knew about the rules in the local oval track racing circuits.  He was motivated by several desires, one of them to help increase his earnings and the other to offer a safe venue site for local area kids to race their cars and avoid accidents and the police.  I knew Hart and he was a man of principal who believed in his capabilities.  But he was a man who struggled through the Great Depression and knew what hard times were like.  The way he saw it there was a need, he had the idea and the drive and though he couldn’t quite see where it would all lead to, it had the possibility of making a few dollars on the side.  Hart also had a loyal following of young people who liked the idea and offered to help. 
     He got a contract to use the runway, set up insurance and organized the track set-up.  He formulated some rules; there would be a running start, a flagman, roughly a quarter mile and a way to time the miles per hour.  He didn’t have a way yet to determine elapsed times, but it was obvious who won each race, the one that got their first either by quick reflexes or a faster car.  Hart set up a perimeter and collected admission as people drove in.  If he spotted people hiding in the rear trunk of a car he would have the driver pull up to the starting line and make the people get out of the trunk in full sight of the throng of hooting fans.  The rules, inspection of cars and other qualifications that we have come to expect at drag races were rudimentary, but they were effective.  Hart learned as he held the races and he interacted with the drivers and spectators.  He put on a spectacle and it was entertainment although I think that it came natural to him.  He was not an impresario like Andy Granatelli or Mickey Thompson.  Hart was a reasoned, quiet, thoughtful man who was in the right place at the right time.  He did have a charisma about him, but it was always muted and he kept his emotions in control.
     Right from day one the public went crazy for the new sport of drag racing.  There had been a groundswell of excitement for dragging cars and almost all of it had been illegal, dangerous and subject to police harassment and incarceration.  All the pent-up demand and youthful rebellion poured out at the first race.  The phone lines lit up all over the country as excited youth poured out the elation they felt being there for that first race.  People from all over the country came out to Santa Ana and watched and learned and then went back to their home towns and created their own “timing associations.”  LIFE Magazine gave Santa Ana drags a front cover shot of a leaping flagman.  Hart was a celebrity.  Overshadowed by all of this was the Southern California Timing Association’s (SCTA) organized drag race held at the Tustin Air Station.  That event was far more organized and included bikes from the AMA and many racers with land speed racing prestige, experience and name recognition.  They were older men, many who had served in World War II and raced on the dry lakes in the 1930’s.  They were also dinosaurs in a new age when you no longer had to drive long distances to race your car out in the desert.  You could now drive down to a local urban drag strip, race your car and get home in time for the dance with your girl.
     It could be said that the success of the Santa Ana drag strip and hundreds more around the country in the next 12 months inspired Wally Parks at HOT ROD Magazine to come up with a sanctioning body to give standardized rules for the new sport of drag racing.  Parks had the idea of expanding the SCTA concept of safe and sanctioned land speed racing on shorter courses, perhaps even before the country went to war in late 1941.  He also knew that police, highway patrolmen, politicians and other officials were upset with the fatalities mounting on the streets of America by rambunctious and rebellious teenagers and their untamed hot rods.  Parks had made inroads with people all over the country with his editorials and his constant ability to make contacts with those who could effect change.  Hart’s success at Santa Ana meant that waiting for others to get back to him only amounted to seeing more deaths on the highways of America.  In March 1951 Parks acted alone and set forth his ideas for the National Hot Rod Association and it met with instant acceptance by young people.  There is no way to calculate just how many lives C. J. Hart and Wally Parks saved by pushing through with plans to organize drag racing and get it off the streets and on to sanctioned and safe venue sites.
     That’s why racing historians start the Modern Era of drag racing as of July 2, 1950 and not at Goleta in 1949, or at other places and earlier times.  The British recognize this as well, which is why one of their main drag strips is called Santa Pod, the Santa recognizing the name Santa Ana, and the birthplace of drag racing.  And what a glorious place Santa Ana was during that fast paced decade of the 1950’s.  Just a little short of ten years saw an archaic system of rules and car styles change into what we know and accept today.  Invention and creativeness were off the board.  Something new was exhibited and raced at every track at every race.  Styles changed overnight and speeds gradually pushed up and out to times never thought possible.  What started as a wild stab turned into an industry.  Hart never made the fortune that others did in this new business, and neither did Parks.  But the love and admiration towards men like Hart, Parks, Hunter and other early pioneers is evident even today.  They are held in mythic terms; almost deified and yet they were simple, focused men who had a dream and were dumbfounded when that dream turned into the success that drag racing became.

Gone Racin’ is at [email protected].   View the rest of the images by Roger here.