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PEOPLE FLYING into or out of Orange County, California, John Wayne Airport (SNA) may not realize it, but they’re sharing real estate with 1950s’ hot rodders. What’s more, hot rod enthusiasts of the era made national radio and TV on the Dragnet cop drama and even the cover of Life magazine.
Sixty-five years ago, Santa Ana’s Orange County Airport had perhaps two commercial flights a day and rarely any on Sunday. Hot rodders were invited onto the tarmac to drag race on the unused runway from dawn to dusk on Sundays.
Celebrating this 65th anniversary, the Santa Ana Drags made the October 1, 2015, issue of The Orange County Register. The article “Santa Ana Drags: 65 Years Later, Drag Strip Still Revs Up the Hot-Rod Hearts of Fans” gives full details. What follows are a few of my favorite photos and tales, along with tidbits gleaned from other sources.
It was very much run-wha-cha-brung at Santa Ana Drags, everything from stock street machines to belly tankers to out-and-out dragsters. Spectators paid 50¢ to get in; competitors, $1 (perhaps $4.50 and $9 in today’s money).
There was a lot of family camaraderie, with wives running the hot dog stands and a few of them racing too.
With the founding of the National Hot Rod Association in 1951, the sport of drag racing gained national legitimacy. Today, NHRA has claims of being the largest motorsport sanctioning body in the world.
In 1957, Life magazine ran a cover story on popularity of the sport. Prominently featured were the Santa Ana Drags and the Lions Drag Strip in the Wilmington district of Los Angeles, near Long Beach. A Lions slogan of the times: “Drive the highways…Race at Lions.”
Hot rods provided the subject of a Jack Webb Dragnet cop drama. Beginning on radio in 1949 and transitioning to TV three years later, Dragnet often had episodes recast for each medium. The radio version of “The Big Rod” was broadcast on March 16, 1954, followed by its TV version on December 30 of that year.
In “The Big Rod,” Sgt. Joe Friday and his sidekick Frank Smith are confronted with a hit-and-run killing of a woman and her unborn child. Implicated is a hot rod, “twin-pipes, pretty well beat up, white sidewalls,” with a car club emblem ending in the word “wheels.”
Aiding Friday and Smith is Wally Parks, founder of NHRA. Parks, portraying himself in the episodes, cites NHRA records narrowing down the club plate to a local bunch. Friday and Smith grill the club president who convinces them that “there isn’t a yoyo in the bunch.”
In fact [spoiler alert!], club members are instrumental in finding the punk using the stolen plate. He gets manslaughter time in the state penitentiary, San Quentin.
A clip of the TV episode shows Wally Parks and has the club president describing his hot rod; “multiple carbs, an 8 1/2:1 compression ratio….” Also available are the full radio version and TV counterpart. Given their 1954 vintage, these have aged very well.
For another vintage look at California hot rodding, check out Road Runners, a 1952 flick with portions shot at Santa Ana Drags and El Mirage dry lake. There are elements of Reefer Madness in this one, but it’s good fun nonetheless. And, it ends without time in “Q.” ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2015