First of all, let me thank all of you who responded so positively to our last column on Jim McNiel and his Mercury. I was inundated with gmails, and I truly wish I could respond to each. They were heartfelt, and you could tell that one came from my heart, as well. Thank you. You have undoubtedly learned by now that the car was purchased by Beau Boeckmann, president of Galpin Ford in Van Nuys, CA, and it joins his growing and surprising Galpin Auto Sports collection, of which you will learn more soon.
Now for something new and different. This came to me from my early drag race photo contributor “Potvin Doug” Peterson. He called it The Last Drag Race at Inyokern. And since he was competing with his Dragmaster-style Hemi digger, these photos are compliments of (and copyrighted by) Robert Briggs and Bob Brown. The date of this event was Apr. 9, 2005–yes, almost 17 years ago. And the kicker is that nobody knew it was Inyokern’s last drag race.
In fact, it was billled as the First Annual Standard 1320 Invitational Drag Race, organized and run by Ron Miller of the Standard 1320 Email Group, an internet site well-known by most drag racers. They didn’t find out until a day later that the FAA was shutting the track down.
But let me start by backing up a little bit. You know how I am. In 2003 I did an ambitious article called The Lost Drag Strips of Southern California. What I did was drive to the sites of about 20 former tracks, from San Diego to Santa Maria, to see what had been built on each site. I was very surprised to find that in most cases it was nothing. In fact in several places the paved tracks were still there, a couple even with old timing stands. That story was meant for The Rodder’s Journal, but that’s when Coonan fired me (can’t explain here). So it ran in two abbreviated parts in the Sept. and Oct. ’03 issues of Hot Rod. I started by noting that at that time there were only six regularly operating drag strips in all California, three in SoCal: Carlsbad, Palmdale, and Bakersfield. Now Carlsbad and Palmdale are gone…and Inyokern. But let me repeat what I wrote in ’03, after I described what I found at other locations:
“But the killer, the clincher, is Inyokern. Most people in California have never heard of the place. It’s a blip on the map on highway 395 a little more than 100 miles north of San Barnardino. And it has a drag strip–a working, operating track that hasn’t changed one iota since it started running sometime in the ’50s [Oct. 24 1954]. Still run by the Dust Devils club–spearheaded by NHRA big-wig Bernie Partridge–it operates today from December to June. Located at the Inyokern airport (you can get commercial flights in), it may have once been a taxi-way, but it sits over on one side and appears purpose-built, and well-maintained. But the whole rest of the operation is dirt. There’s one very small bleacher, no timing stand; two outhouses; and one old Cadillac ambulance that looks like it hasn’t run in years.
How in the world did a dragstrip get here, and manage to survive all these years? In the early days Partridge was an NHRA regional director, and he got the NHRA to stage regional points meets there. So any cars competing for the points championship had to go up there and race. They actually had some pretty big meets with name cars and drivers, for several years. But if you want a ’50s drag race experience today, go to Inyokern. It’s a time warp.
That’s of course why the 1320 group staged their event there, with their ’50s-’60s-era drag cars including many front-engine rails, several flathead-powered.
The long digger with the white frame is the late John Bradley’s (aka Mr. Flathead) “3-rail car.” He was running his four nitro breadpan carbs that day.
And this is our correspondent Doug Peterson (below). Actually, that’s his daughter Lori who’s the designated driver of the Chrysler Hemi rail, which was running injected alcohol then.
Doug has since fitted the car with a front-mount Potvin-drive 6-71 blower with 2-port Hilborn, and they run it today wherever they can.
This is a look at the Inyokern starting line, circa 2005. I’m surprised to see a Christmas tree, which must have been portable because it wasn’t there when I visited the bare track in ’03. The Airstream trailer was the “timing stand”. In this view you’re looking toward the airport runways, which are hardly visible. Highway 395 is about five miles farther. That’s Peterson lined up with “Ardun Doug” King.
And here’s the view looking the other direction across the track–basically nothing out there (in fact, it’s the China Lake Naval Weapons Center test range).
Flathead Ford V8s with Ardun Hemi heads are rare enough, but here’s a close view of Doug King’s in action and at rest–one of the healthiest Arduns you’ll see. All on three main bearings, no less.
Another flathead rail well-known from Vintage Drags days at (also now gone) Fremont was Tony Lloyd’s. I think he’s run an Ardun as well, but this day daughter Kathy was exhibiting plenty of power–and driving skills–with an injected flatty.
Another flatmotor rail taking part was Ron Sterbenk’s. Peterson says this was the well-known Cow Palace Shell Top Fuel car back in the day.
In researching the Inyokern strip, I found a rightfully incensed article that was published in the L.A. Times on Oct. 10, 2005, just after this last meet. Look it up to read the whole thing (it’s worth it), but I’ll have to briefly paraphrase here. It starts by telling how the local sheriff, “Mac” McKernan, “back during Eisenhower’s first term, helped kids form a non-profit group [the Dust Devils car club], and arranged for them to drag race legally and safely on a taxi-way of this town’s little-used airport.” The article states that this track was “purportedly the world’s oldest continuously operating drag strip” at that time. Further, the racers (i.e., the club) paid rent to the airport to use the strip ($1000 per day), and donated other funds, such as entry fees, to local charities such as the Boy Scouts. It further stated that the airport is so little used–three widely spaced flights per day to LAX, and few private planes–that its terminal remained locked in between. In fact, the day I visited in ’03, the terminal was locked and I couldn’t find anybody to tell me where the drag strip was. So I drove around until I found it.
The article went on to say, “The Transportation Security Administration [TSA] didn’t object. But airport security has new meaning today [since 9/11], so after half a century of looking the other way, the FAA has threatened the airport’s certification and federal funding if ‘non-aviation activity’ such as drag racing doesn’t stop.” Apparently a single FAA agent came to the track to make an annual inspection the week of this drag race, saw the track, and decided it had to close the next week. He was the first agent to enforce the rule, but there was apparently no way to appeal. His decision was final, and has obviously upheld ever since. The indignant Times writer pointed out that filming for TV and movies, another source of income for this airport, as well as many others, an obvious “non-aviation activity,” has never been similarly halted. The airport manager stated that it was running on such a shoestring as it was, it might not be able to stay open without the drags racing income.
I would point out that many of the first drag strips, starting with Goleta, Santa Ana, and Saugus, not to mention Great Bend, Caddo Mills, and many others, were located at airports, where there were lots of long, paved strips of asphalt or concrete.
But back to Inyokern’s last hurrah:
It wasn’t all front-motor dragsters, by any means. Here Don Prieto knows his flathead-powered A roadster is little match for the nitro-fueled Hemi Speed Sport Special.
This must have been shortly after the irrepressible and seemingly ageless Red Greth finished restoring the first version of his Speed Sport car from Tucson, then running eight 97s on a Crower U-Fab. More recently Red showed me how he fitted each carb with a Hilborn nozzle, to convert them to throttle bodies for a complete fuel injection set-up. Amazing guy.
So let’s go out in a blaze of tire smoke and glory. That’s the highly talented Howard Haight pedaling the classic Herbert & Shubert smallblock Chevy Fueler, owned by “Big Yohn” Ron Johnson. Amen to that.
I’ll close by saying that on one of my solo Covid day trips during the past year I was cruising through Inyokern, so I detoured to the airport just to see what was left of the track. The whole airport was locked up, and so was the separate gate that led directly to the old track. I looked over the gate, and there it was, empty, in perfect condition, just like it was more than 15 years ago, when these cars were the last to run on it. We need a stronger word than Amen for that.