{This is the text of a magazine article submission that Andrew wrote in 1992 and, other than the penultimate paragraph which was probably omitted, is I think pretty much what went into print. If appropriate photos can be dug up I'll add them in. Just a thought; how much would you be prepared to pay now to have had the chance of this experience?}

A Limey at Lions: Memories of 1969

Copyright (c) Andrew J. Howes MA 1992, 2005

Lions drag strip, Wilmington, California, July 1969. Amongst the thousands of fans, one Englishman. I had arrived a 21 year old student with but fifty pounds in my pockets in California with one ambition. It was not to surf, nor to see Disneyland. My goal was to watch some dragging.

A first sight of Hot Rod Magazine had set me on the trail of the world's fastest race cars some seven years before, in August 1962 to be precise. One day I had spent all my pocket money on the first copy of HRM I had ever seen. My mind had been completely blown by the wild photos of Rodger Ward's Indy roadster, Banjo Matthew's Nascar sedan and Eddie Hill's incredible side-by-side twin Pontiac short wheelbase rail. I was hooked. Dragging came to Britain a few years later, with two tours by a number of stateside stars. A car-oriented uncle was persuaded to take me and my buddy to see them. This was a friend who had been coached by me from those early, treasured copies of "Drag News" that I had ordered all the way from California.

On temporary airfield strips the great names of the era raced for the first time outside North America. Danny Ongias' rail ran 200mph; Don Garlits met "TV" Tommy Ivo, making tiresmoke for a quarter mile at around 190mph. Dante Duce borrowed Tony Nancy's beautiful ".22 Jr." rail one windy day, only to crash and roll it. Nancy commented "That's a pretty good way to waste a good car".

K. S. Pittman's stunning Willys A/GS blasted up the runway alongside "Ohio George" Montgomery; Dave Strickler's big white Dodge Super Stocker knocked heads with the Ronnie Sox machine. On a day of rain, fuel dragsters made demonstration singles at over 170mph on a totally waterlogged course. In the pits, two young English fans were getting Konnie Kalitta's autograph and admiring his immaculate lo-o-o-ng red slingshot.

Sure, I was hooked. But I wanted to see for myself those famous sites described so excitingly by ace writer Ralph Guldahl Jr. in the american racing press. And at last, in the long summer vacation of 1969, I had reached Southern California, home in those days of big weekly meets at Lions, Irwindale and Orange County - now, alas, defunct all three. A student ticket costing a mere £71 ($168 then) would fly me to San Francisco, with a return flight eleven weeks later from New York. A few days work scraping off varnish in a marina, and a few as a waiter in a classy "English" restaurant favoured by one Richard Nixon put some needed greenbacks in my possession. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were walking on the moon, I felt like them as I headed for Lions.

This was it at last. A Saturday evening at Lions Drag Strip, and Gordon Mineo's gleaming white funny car was emerging from under the wooden control cabin on stilts that bridged the staging lanes. By the big yellow "Lions Drag Strip" sign the car and its opponent were fired up, whilst stationary, on rollers placed before the start line. Twenty yards down the course I was hanging on the fence. Eyes wide, I was just taking in the glorious sight, smell and sound of two ground-pounding funnies from a few yards' distance.

Putting aside all traditional English reserve, I touted a big Union Jack flag across my shoulders on visiting the pit area. This certainly helped me to get introduced to the competitors. They were very welcoming, pleased to chat to someone from 7000 miles away who was so interested in their favourite sport. At the decal sales kiosk the kind-hearted salesman was conned into donating to me four glowing "Drive the Highways: Race at Lions" window stickers. The famous manager of Lions for many years, C.J. "Pappy" Hart graciously allowed me to step inside the wooden control cabin itself.

On another visit to Lions I saw top fuelers, and remember photographing the John Collins and Larry Dixon teams, who posed for me around their blue and red slingshots. There were also AA/Fuel Altereds. Watching them blare through the traps at at 200 mph, I noticed my companion, an experienced fuel mechanic, ducking his head as they passed. Evidently he had seen a lot of motors "grenade" on the top end in his time.

Then there was OCIR. Here was a bit of luck. A young Californian I knew had a brother who was a newspaper writer; he obtained for me a complimentary ticket. OCIR was not slightly tacky in its appearance like Lions; it looked new, clean, spacious and gleaming.

Here I was befriended in a most hospitable way by the racers. The Warren-Coburn-Miller crew of the legendary "Ridge Route Terrors" top fueler took me under their wing with generous helpings of food, including some fine home-cooked chicken. I met the taciturn James Warren himself. Actually all he said to me was "So you're from Britain, huh?"

In those days the fuel cars ran for $1000 to win in an 8-car field, with $500 to the runner-up and $100 a round. Most memorable sights were the eight blue nitro flames bursting upwards as the pencil-thin slingshots roared past the Christmas tree, and Charlie Allen's fireworks show under the car as his blue Dodge Dart A/GS broke in spectacular fashion.

Among those who helped out this impoverished fan was Top Fuel ace Kelly Brown. I was taken to a coffee-shop after a Lions race, a hang-out of drag racers, where I was able to enjoy a bench-racing session. Among those present was the late Bob Downey, famous for having recorded a 236 mph top end charge. He spoke of the feel of driving behind a Ford SOHC mill compared to a Chrysler 392 or 426. At the end of the evening Kelly Brown drove me home over 30 miles to where I was staying, in a cheap unfurnished apartment.

En route he told me about his starting line procedure - "You leave as the last yellow light starts to fade.. you can detect it starting to fade if you look hard enough." He also confided to me his ambition to race Indy cars, "doing the right things when a dragster engine lets go in front of you at 200 mph shows you could handle the situation if someone spins in front of you at 200 mph at the Brickyard". This gentlemanly competitor and champion never fully realised his ambition, his nearest approach to it being to drive an Indy car in a TV commercial.

And so, on to the NHRA U. S. National Drags. After two trips to Lions and two to OCIR, I decided to make the trek across America to Indianapolis Raceway Park for the 15th annual event. With a mix of hitchhiking (960 miles in a small Opel from San Bernadino to Amarillo), and reduced-price air flights, thanks to my "under-22" student card, I did the journey in four days. After one night in a run-down Indianapolis hotel, where a room with a broken air-conditioner just about suited my budget, I made my way to IRP just in time to see the last four days of the 1969 Nationals.

Here again I was helped by various kind Americans. One magazine seller gave me complimentary tickets, intended for his partner who had reported sick; this meant free admission for me on three of the four remaining days. The famous cam manufacturer Ed Iskanderian gave me no less than three of his T-shirts on hearing how far I had travelled to reach drag racing's premier event. Finally, some out-of-state fans allowed me to sleep in their trailer in the campsite opposite the main gate.

It must be admitted that the nocturnal activities of the drive-in cinema-cum-campsite were fairly exuberant. A group of deputies rounded-up under-age drinkers; there was a little streaking, and a crowd scene where auto drivers on the road were expected to drop the clutch {pre-load the converter more likely} and squeal the tyres, or motorcyclists to pop a wheelie. A lone gendarme arrived; a whiff of tear-gas and one arrest was enough to check the good-natured roistering.

On the strip there was plenty of legitimate action. Tom Chestang ran 231 mph but failed to qualify. Don Garlits accidentally jogged the kill button and put himself out in the first round. On a single, going for top speed, John Edmunds ka-balooeyed his motor.

Sadly a huge fire at full speed took the life of the famed racer John "Zookeeper" Mulligan.

Eventually, Kelly Brown was T/F runner-up to Don Prudhomme, his 6.68 not matching the "Snake's" 6.51. Danny Ongais wheeled Mickey Thompson's Mustang to a Funny Car win over the gorgeous crimson Cuda of "Big John" Mazmanian in Rich Siroonian's hands.

In the pits I spoke to "Big Daddy" Don Garlits, telling him I had seen him at the British Dragfest series and - mundanely enough- asking him about possible cheap motel accomodation. I heard Tom "Mongoose" McEwen's tales of a successful funny car tour, despite having one of his mechanics in the calaboose for three weeks.

Despite the fun I was having, I had to recognise that my food budget was down to merely $2 a day; so, after the Nationals, I stayed with a distant relative in Long Island until it was time for my return flight to the U.K.

{ To tell the truth, I have only been to the drags a few times in Europe since then, despite frequently subscribing to "National Dragster" and making many drag racing models. Nothing else can really match the atmosphere of Lions, or Orange County International Raceway, or of the great U. S. Nationals. It has never felt the same to me, after I had seen the best there is. }

What memories I took home with me! And this is my chance to thank properly Kelly Brown, the Ridge Route Terrors team, Gordon Mineo's mechanics and numerous other racers who welcomed this impecunious foreign fan. I will never forget the most thrilling trip of my life, my drag racing safari of eleven warm friendly weeks, my summer of 1969.