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RETRO REVISITED: Long Beach’s Best Dragstrip

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The opening of Lions Drag Strip in October of 1955 was a welcome addition to the large number of drag race crazed fans of the sport. Up to that point their need for speed and the thrill of racing side-by-side with a fellow hot rodder was relegated to any long, dimly lit street, late at night, far from a populated area. They now could take this passion to a facility set up just to accommodate drag racers only, with lots of lights and people…and they won’t get busted! What a deal.

On every weekend, us Long Beach guys could drive the five miles or so and line up with someone in the other lane and get our fill of what drove us – dead serious drag racing. The experience would carryover and last all day Monday, and onTuesday we were thinking, “Well, it’s only five days ‘til Saturday when we can do it all again.” It was just great, but a few thoughts would creep into our collective minds right about then.

What about Wednesday? Wonder who is planning on showing up at Cherry Avenue looking for a little action? Can I really do without the rush of real, honest-to-goodness, illegal street racing?

Lions, we love you, but, sorry, you aren’t enough. Besides, how could we do without the danger of it all, not to mention all the trouble we went through to mark off the quarter mile or so there on Cherry Avenue between Del Amo Boulevard and Carson Boulevard. It was the perfect spot, albeit a little ominous. Off the right lane was the Sunnyside Mausoleum and the left lane view was the All Souls Cemetery. One of the nicknames was “Death Row” but we didn’t use that a lot. All the cliques made the rounds – “a race venue to die for”, “Deadman’s straight”, and my personal favorite, “bare bones racing”.  

It didn’t matter – it was long and dark, and no side streets came into play until way past the finish stripe painted across the street one quarter mile down. Not precisely 1320 feet, but close enough. In addition, the two lanes we used for racing were separated by a large grass median, creating a huge gap from the two lanes heading the other direction on the other side. It’s as if it was designed just for street racing! We tried explaining that to an officer or two, but they would have just kept on writing. 

Ideal it was, legal it wasn’t. On any given night there was one thing that would make us dash to our hot rods and scatter from the scene.

It was the sound of Tom McEwen’s Chevy approaching.

Long before he staked his claim as a drag racing legend, McEwen raced at our little makeshift venue on Cherry Avenue. And he ruled the roost. The first time we laid eyes on this guy he rolled up in a brand new 1955 Chevy Tudor. It was painted that blue and white two-tone, the post model. It was rumored to be the very first one delivered in Long Beach, and it was one mean machine. It had this strange whistling sound that we figured was how they all sounded since this was the first time for any of us being up close and personal to Chevy’s newest and baddest. Tom did say it was stock, but we all said that. In reality it was hiding an Iskenderian cam and almost unnoticed was a set of Hedman headers. That whistling sound was coming from a McCullough blower. I swear if someone showed up to race at our spot with a second engine hanging out of the trunk the owner would say, “Came from the factory like this.”

The cool thing about that whole Cherry Avenue racing deal was the ritual involved. Before ganging up in front of Sunnyside to wait for someone to show, we would first cruise into our favorite spot just a couple of miles from the strip at Grissinger’s Drive-in. It was twofold. Best burger in town, but the fries topped with gravy was the real treat, plus whoever planned to shoot it out that night over on Cherry would most likely first stop at Grissinger’s. It gave you a chance to size up the competition and visa-versa. Many a good meal was choked on when we would hear that familiar sound of a hot machine turning off of Atlantic Avenue to slide into one of the carhop slots for their pre-race chow. The rush had started, and then it was an easy trip down San Antonio Drive to Cherry, hang a right and pull into the main entrance of the Mausoleum. Sometimes there was actually a mini caravan heading over there. It was definitely something you could not get from Lions Drag Strip. We really needed both.

I remember somewhere in 1956 there was a rumor floating around that McEwen no longer had that ’55 Chevy. It was gone. Did he crash it? Is he OK? We soon learned what happened – he now has a ’56 Chevy. Ah, geez. This puppy had the Corvette motor from the factory, which now was the 283 c.i. (replacing the 265 c.i. that came in the ’55), his trademark Isky cam and Hedman headers, plus a set of dual-quad carbs.

It gets worse. The next year he shows up in a ’57, which had all the speed features of the ‘56. Now who does this? A ’55 in ’55, a ’56 in ’56 and ’57 in ’57. Who else had each one of those Tri-Five Chevy’s during that period?

Tom did have some competition at Cherry Avenue, though. Joe Pisano, who would become a force at Lions as part of the Pisano Bros., had this mean-looking, black 1957 Chevy and would give McEwen all he wanted. One thing we never bothered to ask Joe was whether it was stock or not. That would be tantamount to asking Mickey Thompson if he liked his job as head of Lions Drag Strip.

Only in Long Beach, probably. Why not, after all we did have what most would say years later was the greatest drag strip ever.

I just assumed they meant Cherry Avenue.

Read more stories from this acclaimed team of writers from the books of Mickey Bryant and Todd Hutcheson. 

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