Update 7/12/17: Since the publication of this story in 2012, the Irwindale Speedway has re-opened under new management
Drag racers were hit by a double-whammy in February when the last two Los Angeles area tracks - Irwindale Drag Strip and Fontana’s Auto Club Dragway - shut down within a week and a half of each other.
Drag racing was born in Southern California – and now, there’s no place close by to run a hot rod.
At the Barona Drag Strip in San Diego County, cars painted colors right out of a gumball machine line up in lanes, revving to go. Two at a time, they nudge up to the starting line at the eighth-mile track, spinning their tires to get warmed up.
The “Christmas tree” – the bank of traffic lights between the cars – flash yellow, then green.
A lot of the drivers at the Barona Drag Strip raced at Fontana or Irwindale, both east of Los Angeles. A judge killed the engines at the Fontana drag strip because neighbors complained about noise. Irwindale closed because the operators went bankrupt. That was Jay Huck’s home track ... just a short drive from his home.
"It sucks," Huck said. "It’s like this car I built, that I can’t really drive too much on the street, it’s worthless unless I trailer it out here. It took me over a year to build that motor from tax return to tax return. I got it dialed in now. What am I going to do with it? Just leave it sit there and look at it?"
So Huck trailered his hot rod and made the three-hour trek down to Barona, the next closest drag strip.
The strip is on Indian land, far away from any houses.
Ryan Rabe hangs out with his racing buddies at his white ‘57 Chevy in the Barona pits.
"We’re used to traveling just to Fontana," he said. "It’s in our backyard. Thursday nights, if we need to shake down the cars before we do a big race, it gives us a place to go. Now, to travel 240 miles all the way to Vegas or another 200 miles to Bakersfield, it makes it a little hard."
Barona track chaplain Joe Tricoli knows those tracks. He’s been around racing all his life. He said it costs a lot to buy the gas to haul a trailer with hot rod out to a drag strip - and then you have to buy racing fuel, too.
"It’s not cheap," Tricoli said, "so when you put those two things together, it’s one of those things that kind of you have to look at, 'All right, well, what are we really going to do this weekend,' you know? 'Are we really going to go – if we’re involved in a series, yes, we need to participate. Are we going to put this on the credit card,' you know? 'How much more are we going to put on the credit card?'"
Professional drag racing began in 1950 on an air strip in Orange County, California. A year later, the late Wally Parks founded the National Hot Rod Association, which held its first race in Pomona, east of Los Angeles. That’s where NHRA’s biggest event is: the Winternationals. That’s also the home of the Wally Parks NHRA Motorsports Museum. Museum curator Greg Sharp said with Irwindale and Fontana closed, now amateur hot rodders can’t drag race anywhere near where the first legal drag strip was born.
"The irony is amazing, you know. It all began here. Much of the industry began here – the speed equipment industry and after-market. That all began here, for a lot of reasons – the weather and during the war there were aircraft plants and shipyards where guys learned technology. So it is ironic that where it all began is the hardest place it is to find a race," said Sharp.
Sharp also said drag strip closures have been happening for the past couple of decades all over the US. Late last year, Kansas City International Raceway closed – to be turned into a park. Other areas have lost drag strips, too, including the Emerald Coast Dragway out of Pensacola, Florida, and the Abilene Drag Strip in Texas. But Sharp said the number of closures is most prevalent in Southern California, where informal drag racing initially started on dry lake beds in the desert.
"When hot rodding was developing, every place in the country didn’t have a dry lake obviously, because of the geography. But they did have surplus World War II landing strips. A lot of those became drag strips. And they were – by nature, they were in a remote location and there wasn’t a lot of noise complaints. But what typically happens is the population encroaches."
...And that population drives out the drag strips. Neighbors want quiet. The growth drives up land values… which drives out drag strips.
Drag racer Kevin Watson came to check out the Barona track after Irwindale, the drag strip closest to his house, closed.
"I probably won’t race as much, to tell you the truth," he said. "And this is what I really enjoy. This makes me happy. This is why I get up and go to work every day. I mean, to do this on the weekends. I don’t street race. I don’t do any of that crap. I used to street race. I don’t do it anymore. It’s not worth it. They cracked down on that. But if they keep taking away the tracks, you know what? All of us are probably going to go back to street racing."
Since Irwindale and Fontana closed, there have been at least two deadly street racing crashes in the area. But since drag racing hit its peak in the early 1960s, lots of Southen California drag strips have closed. Jim Wood raced on some of those old tracks.
"Before when they closed, you know, we had 12 or 14 tracks, so you lose one, you still had 12. But when you only have five or six, seven – I think division seven might have nine tracks in California, Arizona and Nevada – so when you lose one, that’s a big deal. That’s a really big deal," said Wood.
Motorcyle racer Bob Chagnon sits by his souped-up orange Harley, ready to go. He says it’s frustrating to see drag strips close when people still want to race in Southern California.
"The most cars are here. The most people to back it are here. But in the same sense as that, there are the most people to push against it. There are more people here to say no than there are people to say yes to this sport. And that’s what’s going on."
The racers hope that some of those tracks might someday reopen. But it may be that the sport of drag racing is driving away from Southern California.
This segment aired on March 31, 2012.