Street racing was a major problem in Long Beach and surrounding areas in 1955.
It was so prevalent, records say, that Long Beach Judge Fred Miller took it upon himself to declare war on the dangerous racing tactics. He was so alarmed by the continuing incidents and dire headlines that he contacted service clubs to see if they could help find an area where people could race legally.
So, with the assistance of a few dignitaries and a group of area Lions Clubs from Wilmington, San Pedro, Torrance, Lakewood, Signal Hill, North, East, West and Downtown Long Beach, a corporation was formed. They borrowed $45,000, leased what was a railroad classification yard from the Los Angeles Harbor Commission and on Oct. 9, 1955, introduced Southern California to the Lions Associated Drag Strip.
According to Drag Scoop magazine, it was considered one of the finest and fastest tracks in the country during the 17 years it was open.
Although it has been gone almost 47 years, the strip — known as “LADS" to the locals — will now have a permanent place to be memorialized. The Lions Drag Strip Museum will have its grand opening at 1 p.m. Saturday at the Price Automobile Group, 2790 E. Del Amo Blvd. in Rancho Dominguez.
Dave Mandella, one of the principals helping to put together the museum, remembers when his family raced at Lions.
“Oh, I have some great memories from the old jalopy days,” he said. “You could watch dragsters and slingshots race every week. It was quite a sight.”
Mandella has been working for more than three years on this project with Rick Lorenzen. Lorenzen, owner of the Price Transfer shipping container processing company, raced his 1940 Willys at Lions and has put together a collection of cars that ran at the drag strip.
“Rick has his ideas as to what he wants to get done and with that, we work to make it happen,” Mandella said.
Opening ceremonies are scheduled to begin at 2 p.m. The day features a guest panel that includes hot rodders Ed Iskenderian, TV Tommy Ivo, Carl Olson, Larry Sutton, Danny Thompson and Steve Chrisman.
The museum features a 4,000-square-foot reproduction of the drag strip’s starting line within its 15,000-square-foot exhibit area. It also showcases more than 5,000 square feet of murals created by Kenny Youngblood, Yvonne Meclalis and Keith Mooreland.
Lions operated on a weekly basis — every Sunday — for approximately two years. While opening day attendance was estimated at 15,000 people, the going was rough for the next three years. But then strip manager Mickey Thompson — who would not only become a legacy name in auto racing but a well-known promoter as well — came up with a master plan for Saturday night racing. It became a date night hit with younger race fans.
Attendance took off to the point that within two years all outstanding notes were paid off. Dividends to the nine harbor area clubs started to pour in and more than $250,000 was distributed to various charities.
The strip became so well known that an episode of “The Munsters” featuring Hot Rod Herman and his “Drag-u-la” dragster was filmed there. The TV series “Adam 12” filmed an episode there, too.
The strip's motto was: “drive the highways — race at Lions,” and the strip not only brought in the big-time dragsters, like Don “The Snake” Prudhomme, “Big Daddy” Don Garlits and Shirley “Cha Cha” Muldowney, but it let the amateurs compete, too.
Upward of 250 all-out competition cars raced for the money on Saturday night, according to Drag Scoop magazine, but almost double that number would compete for trophies on Sunday, thus placating the urge to street race, which was the original reason for building the strip.
Dragster Insider magazine wrote in 1975 that Lions’ extinction came Aug. 30, 1972, when the Los Angeles Board of Harbor Commissioners ordered that the racing facility be vacated by Dec. 31 of that year to make way for a scheduled cargo-container holding facility for the greater Los Angeles port district.
Tickets to the museum grand opening can be purchased online at www.thelionsdragstrip.com or at the door for $25. Children 12 and younger are free. The museum will be open to the public following Saturday’s grand opening by reservation only on Wednesday afternoons between 1 and 3 p.m. Admission is $15 for adults, $12 for seniors and $10 for children 12 and older.