SANTA ANA

By 1950 Orange County, California fast became the Mecca for would-be drag racers because of the number of airports available. Both the blimp base at Tustin, not Santa Ana, and Hester Field (Mile Square) had been tried but it would be Orange County Airport near Santa Ana that would become the focus of attention.

Frank Stillwell, a local motorcycle dealer, and the owner of a local used car lot, C.J. Hart, gained permission from county officials to try some racing at the airport. The CHP commissioner Clifford E. Peterson also gave his blessing and plans were made for the first race on June 19, 1950. According to Wally Parks’ book Drag Racing Yesterday and Today, “ A wide assortment of coupes, roadsters, former lakes cars, and motorcycles were at the airport gates waiting patiently but anxiously when Stillwell and Hart arrived to open up for that first meet.”

 

Apart from the few races at Goleta (Santa Barbara) there really had never been any organized drags before and so various formats were tried with rolling, multiple car starts until the two car, standing start format was eventually adopted.  

“Standing starts took a heavy toll of clutches and transmissions,” commented Parks, “but typical hot rod ingenuity soon solved the parts problem.” An industry was born.   

That first event was a huge success and more races were scheduled for the following Sundays. “With each succeeding week, continued Parks, “The Santa Ana drags took on a more permanent appearance.” A makeshift timing tower was built atop an old hearse for announcer Don Tuttle who also filmed the action. Moveable concession stands were brought in and a five-row grandstand was erected. However, everything had to be put away at the end of each day so that the runway could be used.

Typically, a couple hundred race cars and motorcycles turned out. Most were stock but gradually, as the sport developed, guys began to either modify their lakes racers or modify their street cars for the rigors of drag racing. Art and Lloyd Chrisman, for example, fixed up their old #25 lakes modified for dragging. According to Post, “The fastest run in 1950 was 120 mph, clocked by a gutted ’34 Ford Roadster raced by the Nicholson Brothers, Harold and Don, from Pasadena.” However, the bikes were just a bit faster—for the time being.

Soon, however, guys like Dick Kraft and Howard Johansen and others began stripping down their Model T Fords to the bare rails searching for better power to weight ratios and more speed. The “rail job” was born.

Santa Ana also gave birth to high-tech timing equipment, which really hooked the racers who wanted to know not only their terminal speed but eventually their elapsed times. Time trials took place in the morning with eliminations after lunch. There was no prize money, just a trophy that the winner could sell back to “Pappy” Hart for $7. Santa Ana ceased operations in 1957 when the airport, now John Wayne International, became too busy to accommodate the drag racers.