Two by two, the hot rods lined up on the wide-open road running alongside the Los Angeles River.
When the starter’s arms dropped, tires squealed and V-8 engines roared as the teenage drivers floored their accelerators and sped into the night, ushering in what would soon become a national drag-racing craze.
It was the 1950s and the high-schoolers in Burbank would meet at what was then a newly opened restaurant on Riverside Drive called Bob’s Big Boy to show off their jalopies and brag about horsepower and speed. When challenged about either, car owners would often settle things with a race on the little-used highway that everyone called “the River Road.”
Bordered on one side by a hillside and the sprawling Warner Bros. Pictures studio on the far side of the river, the half-mile stretch offered two lanes in each direction that were straight as an arrow and perfect for drag racing.
“At Bob’s you’d choose somebody off and then head over to the River Road,” remembers Tommy Ivo, a onetime child actor who became such a passionate drag racer that he calculates he owned 36 cars over the years.
“We’d race and get out of there in a hurry,” Ivo said. “If somebody called the L.A. cops on us, we’d scoot back across the river to Burbank before they could catch us.”
Ivo remembers the night that he first raced a 1955 Buick Century V-8 that he’d purchased new. “I started backing up with the door open and caught the door on a pole and ripped it off,” he said, laughing. “It was a wonderful time, a great time.”
Now 78, Ivo still lives in the Burbank home he said he purchased when he was just a teenager with money he earned in nearly 200 movies and TV series from the 1940s through the ‘60s.
His fellow drag racers called him “TV Tommy.”
“That movie paid for this house,” said Ivo, pointing to a framed movie theater poster for 1952’s “The Treasure of Lost Canyon.” It starred Ivo as a young orphan who is trained as a thief and then rescued by kindly William Powell.
“There was no freeway back then. The River Road ran from Barham to Victory. We’d buy a car for $25 when all we wanted was a transmission and then we’d go out to the River Road and kill the car.”
Ivo said there was no gambling during the races: “It wasn’t a money deal. We didn’t race for pink slips. It was a matter of pride. You’d race and go back to Bob’s Big Boy.”
In 1952, the Burbank teens organized a car club, the Road Kings, which today has about 100 members. During the 1960s about 40 Road Kings were racing professionally: Don “The Snake” Prudhomme, Kenny Stafford, Tom Jandt, Tony Nancy, Bob Muravez and, of course, Ivo.
As Los Angeles streets became more congested, some drag racers used the Los Angeles River bed itself for clandestine races. Life magazine published a photo essay about the non-sanctioned racing in 1957.
Retired Disney Imagineer Ted Sebern was a member of the rival Road Knights car club. He remembers racing his 1947 Ford woody wagon on the river bottom.
“Police would come down to drink coffee and watch us. They figured at least we weren’t on the streets,” said Sebern, now 73 and living in Cambria, Calif.
“One night a sergeant came up and said he hated to do this, but the city fathers didn’t want anybody to get hurt. He told us they were going to get coffee and doughnuts and come back in 20 minutes to raid us.”
Sebern said he gave up drag racing after a Hoover High School senior crashed his 1932 Ford into a pole and died. “It happened in the early ‘60s where the 134 Freeway heads to North Hollywood. He was the first person to be killed that I knew.”
The first drag strip in the U.S. opened in 1950 in Santa Ana at the site of what is now John Wayne Airport. It operated until 1959.
A quarter-mile drag strip was opened on the grounds of Los Angeles County’s Fairplex in Pomona in 1952 and today is known as the Auto Club Raceway.
The San Fernando Drag Strip became one of the busiest in the Los Angeles area when it opened in 1955 next to a San Fernando airport. Known to racers as “the Pond,” it existed until 1970. The Lions track opened in Wilmington in 1955 and operated until 1972.
These days nine of Ivo’s 36 cars are in museums — a 1932 Ford coupe is on display at the National Hot Rod Assn. museum in Pomona. At his Burbank home, Ivo has turned his dragster workshop into a museum crammed with trophies, photos and scale models of his racing machines.
Many of the Road Kings still drive their hot rods to informal Friday night gatherings at Burbank’s Bob’s Big Boy and to club-organized car shows. One scheduled Sunday at Burbank’s Johnny Carson Park is expected to attract some 600 cars, according to organizers.
Old-time drag racers say street racing in Los Angeles is now a lost sport — traffic is too heavy, the restored classic cars too valuable and the laws, which now allow police to confiscate cars, too tough.
Prudhomme, 73, retired as a racing team owner in 2010 after winning six NHRA world championships and 112 race victories. Ivo likewise now only competes in “nostalgia races,” as he puts it.
“I back over trash cans and drive over curbs now,” Ivo joked. “I don’t belong in a race car anymore.”