Track’s motto was ‘Drive the highways, race at Lions’
For all of us older boys, the anticipation of reminiscing about the glory days and the birth of modern drag racing at California’s Lions Drag Strip in 1955 was profound. It brought us back this past week for the grand opening of the Lions Drag Strip Museum.
From 1955, when the strip opened under track manager Mickey Thompson, who came up with the Saturday night/date-night schedule, to 1972, Lions Drag Strip, located near Long Beach, was the “place to be” if you were into hot rods and drag racing cars and, as Greg Sharp, curator of the NHRA Motorsports Museum, put it, “Growing up in nearby San Pedro, Lions was a magical place for me and many others. It’s where heroes and history were made.”
When the Wally Parks NHRA Motorsports Museum had its 40th anniversary of the “Last Drag Race” at Lions on December 1, 2012, some of the esteemed Lion legends gathered reminisced about that “magic” at “the Beach,” a nickname given to Lions of its nearness to SoCal beaches.
Someone recalled that, “There was something about the strange fog that rolled over the strip in the evening, you had to drive to half-track to see the finish line.”
When asked at the time, “What made Lions magic?” “TV Tommy” Ivo said, “Drive his Model T to the track, run the day, and drive home,”
Don “the Snake” Prudhomme said, “It was like playing at ‘Yankee Stadium,’ it was the coolest place ever.”
Jim Dunn said, “Because so many cars ran, there was a lot of rubber on the track.”
Bones Balogh believed, “It was the good air and it was home track to so many racers.”
Don Gillespie chimed in, “The tamales with chili and the place was like family.”
Mike Kuhl of Kuhl & Olsen won Top Fuel at the Last Lions drag race, and added, “It was a good track at sea level.”
Rick Lorenzen spent his youth and grew up in Wilmington, California, not far from Lions Drag Strip and, as one might expect, he grew up with an interest in car culture and fast cars. Modified Willys automobiles were his passion in the day and now, years later, he has amassed a superb 35-plus collection of Willys, including his first 1941 Willy’s Coupe that he bought for $65.
Rick’s Garage is his “time capsule” collection of over 100 vintage muscle cars, hot rods and classic vehicles that are presented in life-like nostalgic storefront dioramas portraying memories of the Lorenzen family including a reproduction of the family gas station and a working 1950’s diner.
Although the initial opening of his Lions Museum was in 2107 with photos, movies, hot rods, drag race cars and a huge cackle fest in the parking lot of Lorenzen’s Price Transfer trucking warehouse facility, a grand opening celebrated the expansion into a true museum including new photos of drag racing action, movies, displays, historic drag racing cars that set records in the day, and Lions artifacts cherished through the ages. Lorenzen’s friend and longtime Lions fan Dave Mandella helped create the expanded display.
The recent opening ceremonies were led by former Nitro Funny Car driver Mike Dunn with an amiable welcome from Lorenzen. Drag racing memories were rekindled with a lively guest panel that included hot rod legends Ed “Isky” Iskenderian, Steve Chrisman, Ivo, Danny Thompson, Carl Olson and Larry Sutton.
It was almost like Lorenzen built a time machine, because as I entered the museum, I gazed upon an unbelievable 4,000-square foot diorama reproduction of the Lions Drag Strip starting-line bridge with drag cars staged as part of a 15,000-square-foot exhibit that portrayed a 5,388 square foot of wall painted murals depicting spectator fans in bleachers by Kenny Youngblood, Yvonne Meclalis and Keith Mooreland.
A memorial wall honoring the 12 men killed in competition at Lions was assembled by museum volunteer Mike McCarthy.
As I devoured the Lions nostalgia, I thought the only thing missing for nitro junkies was the “smell of nitro in the air,” but Steve Gibbs of Nitro Revival took care of that by presenting an exciting Rolling Thunder and Line of Fire with about 30 nitro-burning machines in the facility’s back lot.
Some of the fire-breathing slingshots and drag cars that played the “nitro music” included Ivo’s gas dragster, Soapy Sales’ AA/FD, the Warren, Coburn & Miller AA/FD, the Burkholder Bros. AA/FA, Boyd Pennington’s Smog Rat AA/FR. the Green Monster A/D, Tony Nancy’s AA/FD, the Kuhl & Olsen AA/FD, the Magicar AA/FD, and many more.
Someone described the experience at the Lions Drag Strip Museum as “Fantasy Island on Nitro.”