To me, a car is simply transportation, while for others, it’s a religion, or a status symbol. Despite driving a Toyota Corolla, I really do like the NHRA Museum at Fairplex. You can’t help but be impressed by the shiny old cars on display indoors, and the obvious affection for the sport of drag racing evinced in the displays. It has that cool ’50s-’60s vibe.
The National Hot Rod Association’s existence is proof that when bracketed by the soothing words “National” and “Association,” anything, no matter how rebellious, can be made to seem respectable. Mark my words, someday we’ll see the National Eminem Association.
This column was published Aug. 8, 2004.
D is for Drags: ‘Pomona A to Z’ gets up to speed
It’s D day as “Pomona A to Z,” my alphabetical survey of the city’s delights, dotes on the letter D.
Which delights should we dwell on? Among the dazzlers:
* Diamond Ranch High, the hillside school whose design, by rising architect Thom Mayne, has been written up in the New York Times.
* Donahoo’s, the popular take-out chicken restaurant with the fiberglass rooster on the roof.
* Dedication of Disaster City, the civil defense bunker under the Police Department whose opening in 1964 was presided over by — whoa! — nuclear physicist Edward Teller.
* Desi Arnaz, who performed at the Fox Theatre in 1947 with Lucille Ball.
What a dilemma! But after some dithering, my decision is that D is for Drags, as in Drag Racing.
Pomona didn’t invent drag racing — I think that was Ben-Hur — but the two go together like peanut butter and jelly.
The reason will rock you. Hot rodding became (gasp) respectable in large part because of the Pomona Police Department, specifically, car-loving Police Chief Ralph Parker and a young motorcycle sergeant named Bud Coons.
By 1950, hot rodders who had been racing in dry lake beds were taking it to the streets instead: peeling out, speeding, causing a racket and sometimes killing themselves or others. It was a national problem.
“In the ’50s, if you were a hot rodder, it was the same as being in a gang today,” Coons, now 80, told me by phone from his home in Lake Havasu City, Ariz.
One night Coons was on patrol when he saw a “real nice” Chevy, similar to one he was working on in his spare time. So he pulled over the driver for a chat.
“He thought I was going to write him up,” Coons said. “I was interested in his car.”
The motorist was on his way to a meeting of the Pomona Choppers car club and invited Coons, who practically caused a riot when he pulled up in uniform.
Coons explained his interest in cars, as well as his interest in safety, and found a receptive audience.
Soon he was helping to organize rally runs, shows and barbecues for racers. The Choppers were even allowed to meet in a nook of the police station. The co-opting had begun!
With a pitch from Parker, Coons and the Lions Club, the fairgrounds set aside space for a dragstrip in 1951.
Hot rodders had a controlled, legal straightaway. Deaths from speeding fell dramatically, as did complaints, Coons recalled. That prompted a writeup in an FBI bulletin to police departments nationwide about Pomona’s approach.
In 1954, Wally Parks, who had just founded the National Hot Rod Association, hired a group of four hot rod enthusiasts to travel the country to promote drag racing and safety.
Among them was Coons, who took a leave of absence from the force to join what was dubbed the Drag Safari.
No, they didn’t all wear dresses.
Their Dodge station wagon towed a trailer containing inspection gear and timing devices, everything they needed to run a drag race except white T-shirts and hair gel.
As a police officer, Coons commanded respect from city leaders wherever the Safari stopped. Dragstrips sprouted in their wake. Racing rules were honed.
“Pomona helped legitimize the hot rod movement and drag racing,” Coons said.
Pomona also was the site of the first National Hot Rod Association-sanctioned race, in 1953, and today is home to the association’s Motorsports Museum, housed in a stylish Art Deco building at Fairplex. For museum info: (909) 622-2133 or nhra.com/museum.
Amateur races still take place quarterly on the original Pomona strip, as do the professional Winternationals, to the delight of fans and consternation of neighbors.
Pomona has the oldest dragstrip in the United States still in use, and its bleachers turned drag racing into a spectator sport, museum director Sam Jackson told me.
The connection is even immortalized in song.
“GTO,” the 1964 classic by Ronny and the Daytonas, has the singer expressing his desire to buy a GTO, “take it out to Pomona and let ‘em know/that I’m the coolest thing around.”
And that’s why D is for Drags. Did you doubt it?
(David Allen, the lukewarmest thing around, writes Sunday, Wednesday and Friday.)