Drag racers look for alternatives after 2 Southern California drag strips close down

Barona drag strip is one of the last places for street legal racing in Southern California.
Barona drag strip is one of the last places for street legal racing in Southern California.
Mae Ryan/KPCC

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Drag racers were hit by a double-whammy last month when the last two local 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, but now, there is no place close by to run a hot rod.

Some drag racers are coping by heading to the Barona Drag Strip in San Diego County, more than 100 miles away.

On a Saturday at Barona, 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 eight-mile track, spinning their tires to get warmed up.

The “Christmas tree,” the bank of traffic lights between the cars, flashes yellow, then green. Two cars take off in a roar, leaving behind a cloud of white smoke.

A lot of the drivers at the Barona Drag Strip raced at Fontana or Irwindale. 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 Bellflower home.

"It sucks. 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," Huck said between races at Barona. "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 track is on Indian land, far away from any houses.

Ryan Rabe of Riverside hangs out with his racing buddies at his white ‘57 Chevy in the Barona pits.

"We’re used to traveling just to Fontana," Rabe says. "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 chaplain Joe Tricoli knows those tracks. He’s been around racing all his life. He says it costs a lot to buy the gas to haul a trailer with a hot rod out to a drag strip, and then you have to buy racing fuel, too.

"It’s not cheap, 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?'" Tricoli says. "'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? How much more are we going to put on the credit card?'"

Professional drag racing began 62 years ago, thanks to the late Wally Parks, the founder of the National Hot Rod Association. NHRA’s biggest event is the Winternationals in Pomona. That’s also where the Wally Parks NHRA Motorsports Museum is.

Museum curator Greg Sharp says, 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," Sharp says. "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."

Kevin Watson of Westminster came far to find a race. He hit the Barona track after Irwindale closed.

"I probably won’t race as much, to tell you the truth, and this is what I really enjoy. This makes me happy. This is why I get up and go to work every day — to do this on the weekends," Watson says. "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’ve been at least two deadly street racing crashes in the Inland Empire.

But lots of local strips have closed since the early 1960s. California's population exploded. The land became valuable. The neighbors wanted quiet. Tracks closed, including the Orange County International Raceway in Irvine, Lions Drag Strip in Wilmington and Riverside International Raceway in Riverside.

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," Wood says. "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."

Down the way in the Barona pits, motorcycle racer Bob Chagnon of Temecula 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," Chagnon says. "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."

Old-time racers point out that drag strips have closed in Southern California before, only to open up again later in another location. They hope that'll be the case this time around with the drag strips at Irwindale or Fontana.