Four enthusiastic Southern California hot-rodders, in a red Dodge station wagon pulling a camper-style Viking trailer, set out 50 years ago on a 17-week odyssey to spread the gospel of organized drag racing -- National Hot Rod Assn. style -- to the street racers of America who had gone car crazy after World War II.
“Speed we take for granted. Safety is our goal,” was their slogan.
The NHRA, with its national championships and icons such as John Force, Don Prudhomme and Kenny Bernstein, appears today to be primarily a sanctioning body for straight-line speed. But in its formative days founder Wally Parks and his staff were more concerned with getting illegal racing off the streets and onto legal drag strips.
Pomona police sergeant Bud Coons, Bud Evans, Eric Rickman and Chic Cannon were given the task of teaching the NHRA’s ideas to car club members who were looking for information on how to conduct races. In 1954 they visited 16 U.S. cities, traveling more than 20,000 miles, and put on makeshift races with the supplies they carried in their trailer.
“Once we got started, Hot Rod magazine put the word out, and the response was unbelievable,” Evans said. “Guys would want to know how wide to make a track, how long it should be, things like that. It all sounds elemental today, but back then it was so new very few people had any idea how to go about racing the way we know it now.
“We carried thousands of feet of wire, amplifiers for a speaker system, timing clocks and lights, everything needed to conduct a race. We’d pull into a gasoline station and they’d ask, ‘You guys got a race car in that trailer, let’s take a look at it.’ And we’d tell them, ‘No, we just put races on.’ ”
They called themselves the Drag Safari, a name later changed to Safety Safari.
“We were like the Johnny Appleseed of the hot-rod industry,” Evans said.
Today the NHRA conducts national races in 20 locations, nine more in its sports compact series and has 140 sanctioned tracks -- all with roots in the Safety Safari.
“We were all gung-ho guys for speed, but even we were surprised at the enthusiasm we found. In some towns, 15 or 20 cars filled with club members would greet us five or 10 miles out of town and escort us in,” Rickman said. “They’d have set up a luncheon, usually with the mayor and the chief of police, and Coons would tell our story, how we were there to help get kids from racing in the streets. The response was so great that we extended our trip for a couple of weeks because we had so many requests.
“For 50 cents, they could buy a ticket from their local car club and get their car inspected and after making the necessary safety modifications, for a buck they could enter the stock class. Some days we’d have a couple hundred cars lined up.”
The tour started in Colton, where racing was held on the abandoned Morrow Field airstrip. From there it went to places such as Oklahoma City, Jacksonville, Fla.; Great Bend, Kan.; Boise, Idaho, and Pennellville, N.Y.
When they got to Pennellville they were in for a surprise -- the track was dirt. It rained and the stop was almost a big waste. But suddenly it stopped raining, their guys packed the track and a few hours later they were racing. As soon as it was over, they talked about putting in an asphalt strip.
The trip also was enlightening for the intrepid barnstormers.
“It was culture shock for us,” Rickman said. “We’d never seen heat like the Midwest, and when we got to New York we had hurricanes. We looked for the biggest building we could find and hid the trailer behind it.
“Then we got down South and couldn’t believe it when we saw segregated rest rooms and water fountains for whites only. The first morning we went to breakfast and I ordered ham and eggs and they came with some white stuff on the side. I said, ‘What in the hell is that?’ and the girl drawled, ‘Them’s grits.’ I tell you, life was different from what California boys were accustomed.”
Rickman, the tour photographer and chronicler, lives in Hacienda Heights and enjoys going to the big races in Pomona. Evans still lives in Colton, where he started racing as a teenager and later announced races on the Morrow Field abandoned airstrip.
“I learned early on the hazards of street racing, and I don’t mean accidents,” Evans said. “I got so many tickets as a kid in Colton that I had to wash three police cars and two motorcycles every Saturday and clean out the jail every Sunday to stay out of jail. I’d done 103.21 mph in my roadster on El Mirage dry lane, so I could outrun 99% of the cop cars, but they caught up with me. After I got my driver’s license back, I got interested in going to the strip at Morrow Field. And I drove with Troy Ruttman in the Ash Can Derby in San Bernardino.”
Coons, who took a leave of absence from the Pomona Police Department, was instrumental in persuading local police officials that they had a stake in getting speedsters off the street. He is retired and living in Havasu City, Ariz. Cannon was the technical inspector and liaison with car clubs.
Three of them will be reunited, along with the Dodge Red Ram station wagon and the original trailer, at the Specialty Equipment Market Assn. induction banquet July 30 at the Ritz Carlton in Pasadena. And they will be feted over Labor Day weekend at the 50th anniversary of the U.S. Nationals at Indianapolis Raceway Park. Cannon will miss the festivities because of illness in his family.
“I guess we’ll ride up and down the strip and wave to the fans,” Rickman said. “Most of them weren’t even alive when we went on our tour.”
The wagon and trailer will find a home at the Wally Parks NHRA Motorsports Museum in Pomona, where museum manager Sam Jackson said they would occupy a prominent place among the classic racers.
“It will be an icon for us,” Jackson said. “The station wagon has been completely refurbished, but the trailer is the original. It’s interesting that it was built by Viking Trailers on property now occupied by the Disneyland Matterhorn.”
The Safari has changed too. It has become part of the NHRA traveling circus with 10 trucks and a nine-man crew that still sets up and inspects timing and electronic equipment before each national event. Then they become safety caretakers of the racers, cleaning the track after oil spills and helping drivers involved in accidents.
Greg Pursley and his Chevrolet Monte Carlo have won eight super late model races in the NASCAR Dodge Weekly Series at Irwindale Speedway, putting him in contention for regional and national short track championships. The Canyon Country veteran will be after No. 9 on Saturday night on the half-mile paved oval.
After winning last week’s USAC midget race at Perris Auto Speedway, Danny Stratton of Fontana will attempt to repeat his success Saturday at Ventura Raceway, where racing starts at 5 p.m..... Willow Springs Raceway will host the Stunt Man 150 on Saturday night. To add to the excitement, the race for Hollywood stunt men will be on a wet track.
While its sprint car contingent is making its annual tour of the Midwest, Perris Auto Speedway is presenting a potpourri of events -- super stocks, cruisers, hornets and trucks -- for its Saturday night crowd. The USAC/CRA series will not return until Aug. 21.
Morgan Lucas, a top alcohol dragster driver from Sun Valley, Calif., has been selected by car owner Joe Amato to replace the late Darrell Russell in his top fuel dragster in NHRA competition. Lucas is expected to make his first start Aug. 15 at the Lucas Oil Nationals in Brainerd, Minn.
Russell was killed in a racing accident June 27 outside St. Louis.
Opening of the AMA supercross season is still six months away, but it is never too early to get seats for the Anaheim events. Dates for next season at Angel Stadium are Jan. 8, Jan. 22 and Feb. 5. San Diego will have a date at Qualcomm Stadium on Feb. 19.
Steve Lewis, whose cars have won nine of the last 11 U.S. Auto Club national midget car championships, will be among four individuals inducted into the National Midget Auto Racing Hall of Fame on Aug. 29 in Sun Prairie, Wis. Joining the Laguna Beach entrepreneur will be drivers Hank Butcher, Roy Sherman and Johnny Coy.
This Week’s Races
NASCAR NEXTEL CUP
* When: Today, qualifying (TNT, noon); Sunday, race (TNT, 11 a.m.).
* Where: New Hampshire International Speedway (oval, 1.058 miles, 12 degrees banking in turns), Loudon.
* Race distance: 317.4 miles, 300 laps.
* 2003 winner: Jimmie Johnson.
* Next race: Pennsylvania 500, Aug. 1, Long Pond.
* When: Today, qualifying (Speed Channel, 10:30 a.m.); Saturday, race (TNT, 10 a.m.).
* Where: New Hampshire International Speedway.
* Race distance: 211.6 miles, 200 laps.
* 2003 winner: David Green.
* Next race: New England 200, July 24, Loudon, N.H.
CHAMP CAR WORLD SERIES
Molson Indy Vancouver
* When: Today, qualifying, 2 p.m.; Saturday, qualifying, 1:45 p.m.; Sunday, race, 1 p.m. (Spike, 4 p.m.).
* Where: Concord Pacific Place Street Circuit (temporary road course, 1.781 miles, 12 turns), Canada.
* Race distance: 151.385 miles, 85 laps.
* 2003 winner: Paul Tracy.
* Next race: Aug. 8, Road America, Elkhart, Wis.
German Grand Prix
* When: Saturday, qualifying (Speed Channel, 5 a.m.); Sunday, race (Speed Channel, 4:30 a.m.).
* Where: Hockenheimring (road course, 2.842 miles), Hockenheim.
* Race distance: 190.414 miles, 67 laps.
* 2003 winner: Juan Pablo Montoya.
* Next race: Hungarian Grand Prix, Aug. 15, Budapest.
INDY RACING LEAGUE
Menards A.J. Foyt Indy 225
* When: Saturday, qualifying, 11 a.m.; Sunday, race (Channel 7, 12:30 p.m.).
* Where: The Milwaukee Mile (oval, 1 mile, 9 degrees banking in turns).
* Race distance: 225 miles, 225 laps.
* 2003 winner: Inaugural event.
* Next race: Michigan Indy 400, Aug. 1, Brooklyn.
CarQuest Auto Parts Nationals
* When: Today, qualifying, 3:30 p.m.; Saturday, qualifying, 10 a.m. (ESPN2, 4 p.m.); Sunday, eliminations, 11 a.m. (ESPN2, 5 p.m.).
* Where: Pacific Raceways; Kent, Wash.
* 2003 winners: John Force (funny car), Larry Dixon (top fuel), Greg Anderson (pro stock).
* Next event: FRAM Autolite Nationals, Aug. 1, Sonoma, Calif.