All of the pictures on this page were  taken by Roger Phillips,
I am very grateful to him for the opportunity of reproducing them here.


When Roger Phillips first began searching through his old drag racing slides and negatives (writes Andy Barrack) word soon came back that he’d found a collection of pictures he’d taken at Lions in 1971. “Would we like to have them?” he asked, adding “. . . some of them are rather thin” (photographer’s-speak for under-exposed).  Knowing these photos would never have been seen before (they were never used by Custom Car magazine), knowing their historical importance (the name Lions is to drag racing what Ebbets Field is to baseball), and knowing this would be a first for The Acceleration Archive, we almost pulled Roger’s arm out of its socket in our exuberance to get the photos to the nearest scanner.
Now if you are at this website you shouldn’t need telling about Lions, but if you do then we can’t recommend a better way to brush up on your drag racing history than to buy Don Gillespie’s Lions DVD trilogy.
Created by Mickey Thompson, built at Wilmington, California and opened in 1955, it wasn’t just a strip of many firsts (… the first purpose built drag strip… the first to use a Christmas Tree…) Lions in its 18 years existence spanned the origins of drag racing from its illegal street racing roots of the '40s and '50s through to the organised and recognisable drag racing we know today.  But compared to today Lions now represents a bygone era, a time when you and a few pals could build a dragster and race at the top of the sport, a time when Southern California was the epicentre of the all things quarter mile, a time when four days of racing was Indy once a year whereas Lions was every weekend (not forgetting Wednesdays too).
When these photos were taken on November 13th 1971, little did anyone know that Lions had just one more year to go.  The Last Drag Race (so significant that those words are always written in capitals and everyone knows the time and the place) has now passed into drag racing legend, so it is interesting to be able to be able to look back at a time when Saturday night at Lions was just a regular event with no hoopla, no sense of forebodement… just good times, barrel loads of nitro and end to end racing.
We shall take a look at the photos in chronological order, ie from the afternoon qualifying sessions, through to dusk and onto the night time eliminations.

Making an afternoon pass was Tom Hoover’s White Bear Dodge sponsored by Jerry Perkl’s Dodge dealership up at White Bear Lake, Minnesota.  Hoover had switched from racing Top Fuel at the start of the '70s and would race several funnies before adopting the Showtime moniker with which he became synonymous among both English and American fans.  Hoover was well equipped with Keith Black power and a Woody Gilmore chassis but did not make the field at this Lions meet.
More successful in qualifying was Frank Bradley in Top Fuel.  His slingshot was a ’67 Jim Davis chassis which Bradley had renovated and upgraded to good effect, running in the 6.4’s just prior to this meet.
To show it wasn’t only fuelers and funnies at Lions there was the usual plethora of bracket racers, but of course just as sportsman racers decry today, they were not the main draw and the driver of this ’56 Chevy called ‘Nugget’ – and ‘1971 AHRA Record Holder’, as proudly written on the door - shall have to go unidentified.

1971 was the year of The Big Change in Top Fuel design when the class, led by Garlits’ example, went from slingshots to the rear engine configuration. Kuhl and Olson made that change back in July but the transition was not without its own learning curve and K&O, like some others, tried running without a rear wing.  Kuhl & Olson didn’t qualify at Lions yet their set up wasn’t entirely unsuccessful - three months later Olson won the ’72 Winternationals with the exact same car - but by the end of ’72 a rear wing was de rigueur in Top Fuel and performance and safety in drag racing made another leap forward.
Dennis Baca was already fully equipped in that department but his efforts in qualifying left him sidelined for eliminations, allowing Gary Cochran back in as first alternate.  ‘Mr C’ had turned professional racer at the start of 1971 and had proved his mettle with a successful season, especially on the AHRA circuit - including raining on Big Daddy’s parade by beating Swamp Rat #14 on its debut at Lions back in January . . . Gary Cochran has kindly been in touch to put names to the faces of his crew as seen above “From left to right, that’s Jim White of Fountain Valley in the blue shirt, in the Gary Cochran tee shirt is the late Ron Price of Bellflower, I’m in the Filler firesuit pants, my late second cousin Jim Cochrun of Indianapolis (the Indiana side of the family spelt their name with a ‘u’ – don’t ask me why!) is stood next to the trailer in his cool tennis shoes and Bill Peer is working on the tail gate.”

With that high angled body Joe Winter’s flopper has all the signs of being a fuel altered shrouded in a funny car shell, but in fact it was simply a new Mustang body on his previously Cuda-cloaked car, that evidently didn’t fit too well.  In contrast the Braskett & Burgin funny was low and sleek, and with its Lil John Buttera chassis, Chevy Vega body decorated in Tom Hanna tin and Kirby & Youngblood paint, and 426 engine built by Dave Braskett, the flopper was Funny Car vintage 1971 personified.  Two months after this meet Joe Winter and Braskett & Burgin would collide at Lions when Gary Burgin pulled a wheelie, crossed the centre line and ended being shunted upside down over the barriers by Winter.  Both drivers escaped unscathed but while Burgin went on to greater things Winter hung up his helmet and disappeared from the scene.
Looking like he’s heading for a similar fate, James Warren gets some of that famous Lions air – and traction - in his new rear engine dragster.  Warren & Coburn would get their Rain For Rent rail tamed and ready for eliminations come sundown.

After crashing and burning their previous Funny in Canada a few months earlier whilst match racing Tom Hoover, the King Camaro team of Dan Geare, Fred Totten and Dean LaPole were back at Lions with a new car.  Eschewing the usual KB/Pink/Buttera/Gilmore options the King Camaro used a Mike Lieby chassis with 454 Chevy engine built by Geare.  Not only was he using a rat motor but Geare had built his own injector system, added two plugs to each cylinder, reshaped the combustion chambers and invented an early sensor system on the headers.  Such innovation and the noise it created has made it a legend in Funny Car folklore.
But even the modest $10,000 it cost to build the King Camaro was high budget compared to the Dunn & Reath Barracuda.  Three and a half grand is what Jim Dunn claimed it took to build his car.  On his fireman’s wage and with help from Joe Reath of Long Beach’s Reath Automotive, Dunn took a no frills approach with a 392 Hemi, no two speed transmission, and no chrome or fancy anodized parts.  And such keep-things-simple philosophy, tied with engineering nous and consistency made this car a threat wherever it ran.
Of course instead of building your own car, you could always buy second-hand; previously the Smothers Bros/Beachboys fueler, this slingshot was now the Childs & Abbot fueler with Denny Fitt driving.

Knowing famed Lions Chief Starter, Larry Sutton, also found time to race when not officiating on the startline, it was natural to assume this was he in his ‘Joint Venture’ dragster, but we were able to get in touch with Larry and he has pointed out this was after his stint in the car, and it would be Dave Hage behind the wheel in this shot.  When Lions closed Larry went on to work at Irwindale and OCIR and race - when startline duties allowed - a new Joint Venture, this time rear engined and running in Pro Comp.

Okay, the sun has gone down, the floodlights are on and the hotdog stand is waiting for business. As the early arrivals in the stands stuff their hands in the pockets to keep warm Gary Densham and Johnny ‘Gringo’ Wright in “Time Machine II” were out trying to qualify.  Judging from the long sequence of photos Roger Phillips shot of Densham, the Pinto was giving some cause for concern amongst his crew and Lions officials.  Maybe it was new car teething problems?  Whatever the trouble neither he nor Wright made the eliminations.
Then again, neither did . . .

Dave Bowman in California
Stud . . .

Charlie Proite in Telstar . . .

or Eddie Paulding in Whine Maker

The early California Stud (the rear engine Vega follow-up being more famous) was actually Gas Rhonda’s old Mustang.  And while Eddie Pauling was already onto Whine Maker #4 by 1971, he’d actually done a volte-face compared to Bowman having already tried the rear engine option (Whine Maker #2) and was back in a conventional funny.

Other non-qualifiers on this Lions November night ’71 included . . .

Lil John Lombardo . . .

Gene Snow in Rumbunctious . .

Rick Ramsey in California Charger . . .

. . . and Jeff Courtie.
Jeff Courtie - born in Liverpool, England - has been most accommodating in the researching of this article, and has his own words on Lions, “Yes Lions was special, that's where I ran my first funny car, the Mustang 1969-70 version seen here, and where I licensed it in early 1971. As I only licensed in ‘71 and Lions closed in 1972 I don't have as many memories as others, but I ran a lot of Saturday night races there during those two years.”  Jeff has provided us with the story of building his first Funny Car, and an inspiring read it is.  Click here to read Jeff's story.
As for Lil John Lombardo, he probably shouldn’t have been at Lions at all as after being injured when his Camaro was destroyed in a fire while racing at OCIR back in March (Lombardo spent some weeks in the Orange County Burn Center) he was meant to be recuperating till the end of the ’71 season.  But he and Steve Plueger had designed their new Vega while Lil John was in hospital and evidently couldn’t wait till the ‘72 season to debut their new car.  Also making its debut this night at Lions, was the brand new California Charger of Keeling & Clayton.  Guiding the funnies back was clearly a hands-on approach in ’71 as demonstrated by Lil John crew guy Tom Koning, but with five guys helping Rick Ramsey back to the startline one has to assume the K&C Pinto had actually broke or lost fire.
These photos might be amongst those that Roger deemed 'too thin' to be of use, but what they do show is the sheer number racers in Southern California during the drag racing’s golden age . . .  and these are only half the funnies that were at Lions that night.  27 Funny Cars vied for the eight car eliminator.  Just think about those numbers for a moment.
And if you thought those funny numbers were impressive, how about THIRTY FOUR Top Fuel dragsters entered for their 8 car eliminator?  Again let’s look at some of the non-qualifiers . . .

Glassman, Alford & Potter with George Schrieber driving. Butters & Gerdard with Mike Clancy driving and Mason and Kay with Don Ewald driving . . .
Don Ewald of We Did It For Love fame has been very helpful with identifying some of these dragsters and he was especially pleased when shown the last shot.  “Bingo!  Never seen this before!  This is the Mason, Kay and Ewald car, which I drove for a while when I couldn’t afford to run my own Bank of Americar fueler.  Rob Mason and Jack Kay worked for the phone company and for some insane reason they decided to buy a TF car.   Keep in mind, neither had ever even laid hands on a fuel car.  When they got everything into their garage it was like "what now?”  A mutual friend told them to call me.  I knew how to build and tune a fuel 392 and as an added bonus I drove.  That was in 1970.  From that point on I could write a book as we became good friends.  I got their RCS car race ready and drove it while my car was financially wounded.  Well, it turned out their car was not nearly as good as my Buttera car so I talked them into putting their engine in my car killing two birds at once.  I ended up putting my engine back in it and they sold the car.  We kept their engine as a spare.  We raced together off and on until the RED deal came upon us.  That's when a guy named Bob Bommerito came around with the second RED Tuttle built (early 71) so we put my engine in that and I drove it until he got his own engine.  All the while, we (Rob, Jack and myself) had ordered a new RCS car.  We ran that for a while under the Community Property name until Jack and I bought out Rob and it became Kay & Ewald."
Having got that story from Don, we took the opportunity to get his thoughts on Lions and drag racing then and now . . .
“I first attended Lions as a spectator in ’61 which was easy since I was living in Long Beach at the time.  My first race car was a B/Gas Anglia in ’64.  Being my home track Lions was always my favorite but I had more wins at Irwindale.  When I started racing top fuel dragsters there could be 80 cars at the big shows.  We were all innovators, there was no such thing as “cookie cutter” cars or high dollar teams.  No political correctness.  In the 60's and 70's we had 7 strips within two hours of LA.  You could usually run two of them in a weekend.  In my opinion, today’s Big Show drag racing just sucks.  Give me a great nostalgia meet like the CHRR or March Meet anytime."

When you see a photo of a sit-up-straight T-bodied dragster competing in Top Fuel you just know there has to be another story here to tell.  Thankfully Troy Cagle recognised the rail straight away and sent us another fascinating tale.
Click here for Troy’s story.

Even with the best will in the world, and assistance from the experts, some Top Fuel cars at the 17th Anniversary meet remain unidentified.  As author Don Montgomery observed, with no name and no number only friends and relatives would have known who these dragsters were, and this in part is why Funny Cars became the more popular class in the early '70s.  The incoming rear engine Top Fuel design did allow more space for names and sponsors (as Garlits was quick to point out) but the funnies had got a march on the fuelers in this respect and with their extravagant paint jobs, flamboyant names and long smokey burnouts, the floppers were out-doing the fuelers in terms of showmanship and spectator appeal.

Talking of floppers and fuelers, these photos showing Gary Cochran racing Smokey Joe Lee, and Tom McEwen racing the Gas House Gang had us both mystified and intrigued.  No mention of these match races were made in the reports of the day, but Larry Sutton came to the rescue with the following information “Lions’ manager CJ Hart would do ‘weird’ things; it was a case of “I’ll give you a 100 bucks to race so-and-so to help the show and the fans”.  These one-off deals would also help the racers as Don Ewald confirms, “I got several of them, pocketing an extra $25 in Jr Fuel and $100 in Top Fuel.  It was rare and it was usually for guys who didn’t qualify or who went out early, but CJ was cool like that.”  It should be pointed out that Steve Evans had taken over as manager from CJ Hart by the time of the 17th Anniversary meet, but whoever was in charge, Lions’ reputation for looking after the racers and fans alike was in good hands.

As Troy Cagle has mentioned, November 13th 1971 was the competition debut of 17 year old Jeb Allen.  Yes Jeb was born the same year Lions opened.  With father Guy Allen looking on, Jeb clocked a 6.59 in qualifying which put him in eighth position; an impressive start to an impressive drag racing career for the kid from Bellflower High School.
Memphis born Bobby Rowe already had an impressive CV by the time he became Roland Leong’s latest driver.  As was typical for a touring pro, Lions was just another strip, another race for the Hawaiian.  The previous night they had been at Irwindale’s inaugural 1/8th Mile Championship where they were runner up to Ace McCulloch, and the day after Lions they were at Carlsbad where Rowe reached the semis before being holeshot by Tom Hoover.  Rowe and Leong probably even found time for another match race or two before moving to Ontario for the Supernationals the following weekend; such was life back then for a busy funny car team.

Even in 1971 they had nostalgia racers!  Ike Iacono’s Tune Up & Brake Center dragster was Hot Rod cover car back in 1959.
It is nice to see Joe Andersen’s Custom Paint Shop emblazoned on John Snyder’s Willys pickup, as it draws the link between the origins of drag racing and the hot rodding and custom scene. Andersen’s Gardena shop turned out many show-stopping paint jobs on kustoms and lowriders, as well as dragsters, between the '50s and 70’s.
Exhibiting an archetypal early 70’s paint job (painter unknown) Carl Smith’s All Star Tire Anglia was just one of scores of bracket racers seen every weekend at Lions.

Qualifying over, it was time for some pre-race ceremonies (vinyl-booted, hot-pants-wearing, cape-bedecked race queens sat on top of a stars‘n’striped AMC Gremlin X?  How 1971 is that!!)   Talking to Roger Phillips and Custom Car’s original drag racing reporter Mike Lintern about Lions, their memories are now faded but the one thing they both remember vividly was the pre-eliminations ceremony.  “The dragsters were on the rollers, the crowd stood hands on heart while the national anthem was played, then as soon as the music stopped, the first two cars burst into life and the racing began.  It was very impressive, very well orchestrated.” recalls Roger.  “Yes, give the Yanks credit, they certainly knew how to put on a show.” added Mike.

So finally we can move onto the eliminations.

In Top Fuel John Wiebe was #1 qualifier with a 6.46 and beat Frank Bradley with a 6.56/221 vs 6.84/225. Unfortunately we have no photo for this opening race.

In a battle of the new rear engine dragsters, James Warren then beat Dwight Salisbury 6.50/223 to a 6.69/227.

With flashbulbs a poppin’, alas Jeb Allen’s youthful inexperience was waylaid by veteran Larry Dixon’s steely reactions and the Praying Mantis was a victim to a massive Astrolo Special holeshot - 6.72/230 beating a wasted 6.59/218.

Glad of a second bite of the cherry, Gary Cochran’s 6.65/204 trounced John Mitchell’s 6.78/210 and sent the Howard Cam Special home early.

The semi-finals saw two close races, in more sense than one.  Wiebe beat James Warren, 6.54/223 to a 6.60/222.  And then Gary Cochran got out on Dixon but drifted close to the centre line leaving Dixon the choice between backing off, or getting cosy with the guardrail.  Dixon took the last option and used a long way round 6.74/226 to beat a shutting off 6.78/184.

We have no photo of the final but it was a one-sided affair as Dixon was immediately in trouble and John Wiebe basically took a solo, 6.75/226 to a cruise-thru 10.99.  It is interesting to note that Wiebe did not unveil the much anticipated Donovan 417 motor at Lions - although news of its impending debut was rife - and instead relied upon his trusty 392 to win the event.  The first purpose-built drag racing engine would have to wait another week before making its landmark appearance at the Supernationals.  Drag racing - if you’ll excuse the catachresis [incorrect use of words - Ed] - was about to turn another corner.

So on to the Funny Car eliminations.
First up was Bobby Rowe in the Hawaiian Charger versus Gene Conway’s Vette.  Rowe beat Conway with a 6.64/194 to a shutting off 8.42/100 but then suffered a small fire and was unable to repair in time for the semis.

Hawaiian born Stan Shiroma in the Zeller Bros’ Midnight Skulker then beat Jim Dunn, 6.87/215 to an early shut off 7.03/162.  The Zellar Bros, along with other names mentioned here - Burgin, Lombardo and Densham - all came up through the ranks of the gas roadsters before racing funny cars.  The '60s gassers were a veritable breeding ground for the funny car racers of the '70s.

Michigan-born but California-based Bill Leavitt beat Ron O’Donnell, Quickie Too’s 1958 392 Chrysler-motored Mustang running 6.81/208 to beat a 6.72/217 for the 1970 426 powered Damn Yankee.

Jake Johnston faired a lot better than his boss as Jake was #1 qualifier with a 6.62/218mph, while Gene Snow didn’t even make the show.  The ‘other’ Gene Snow car used a 6.61/217 to beat Tom McEwen’s 6.87/215.  The Mongoose then had a bad fire, burning off the chutes and using up the shut down area to bring the car to a halt.  There would be a lot of hard work to repair the Hot Wheels Duster in time for Ontario.

In the final four, Jake Johnston ended Stan Shiroma’s night, 6.81/205 to a 7.07/189.

And Ron O’Donnell, subbing for Rowe, ended up with a re-match against Bill Leavitt and this time won, 6.69/211 to a shutting off 8.48/106, putting the first round loser into the final against Johnston.

But O’Donnell’s good fortune ended in the final as Johnston reeled off another six-six (6.62/218) to a losing 6.82/196.
Johnston was on a roll and would move to San Diego the next day, where he’d beat Tom Hoover in the final, at the Carlsbad Raceway eight car funny show.
So ended another Saturday night at Lions.  With no racing the following weekend due to the Supernationals at Ontario Motor Speedway, Lions would be back in action on Saturday, December 4th.  This was the Grande Finale Championship at which Bill Leavitt beat Jake Johnston and set the Funny Car world on its ear with a 6.48, an amazing feat for an early hemi-powered flopper.  Maybe some day someone else can find the photos and tell us that story.

As always full credit and appreciation to Roger Phillips for the photographs and Alan Currans for putting the page together and hosting it.
And special thanks to Jeff Courtie, Don Ewald, Gary Cochran, Larry Sutton, Troy Cagle and Lil John Lombardo Jr for their help and contributions.

Andy Barrack
November 2011

All material on this site is copyright
and should not be reproduced without permission

Return to the Site Map

First posted 4 November 2011

Navigate through the
Roger Phillips Collection