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Richard Parks January 30, 2022 All Feature Vehicles

Leslie Long and Gene Mitchell organized the latest reunion for the Santa Ana Airport Drag Strip and Main Street Malt Shop on Oct. 12, 2013 at the Santiago Nature Park in Orange, California. The event honors all those who raced at or attended the first professionally run drag strip in California, and possibly the world, and it also honors those who used to hang out at the old malt shop on Main St. and Chestnut Ave. in Santa Ana. The malt shop location still exists, across the street from Pomeroy’s Garage, although now it’s a Mexican bakery.

Front row, left-right (seated): Doug Wilson, Patty Ryssman, Greg Ryan, Jon Durham, Craig Durham and Gene Mitchell. Second row, left-right (in chairs): Eldon Harris, Rose Hartelt, Leslie Long, Johnny Ryan, George Hale, Susan Whitney (Doug and Rose Hartlet’s daughter), Betty Belcourt and Janet Griebenow (Isky’s niece). Last row, left-right: Mac McClelland, Otto Ryssman, Phil Turgasen, Ron Griebenow, Howard Holman, Ron Whitney (Doug and Rose Hartlet’s son-in-law), Jim Miller, Bob Baxter, Wayne Harper, Bob Falcon, Douglas Westfall, Gene Ellis, Jerry Hart, Gary Fisk and Richard Parks.
One of many vintage posters announcing the drag races.

We got to the reunion slightly before 10 a.m. to find that Leslie was already there with his photo albums and historical records, and Gene had already set up the tables, tents and chairs. Racers and other folks involved in motorsports arrived throughout the day, including Jerry Hart, the son of C.J. and Peggy Hart, iconic founders of the Santa Ana Airport drag strip and originators of many of the rules and procedures for modern day drag racing.

A logo from back in the day.
Jerry Hart brought along lots of pictures of his dad C.J. and the Santa Ana drag strip.

People speculate endlessly over who founded drag racing as we know it today. Some say that it was C.J. Hart or Wally Parks or Robert E. “Pete” Petersen, Mickey Thompson or any number of renowned figures. But, the answer is simple: It was all of them and more. Hart’s Santa Ana Airport drag strip wasn’t the first, but in many ways it was the seminal drag strip from which all others formed. C.J. learned from the early dry lakes racers and developed rules and regulations based on his ideas and trial and error. His drag strip lasted a decade until the county decided that the growing needs of the area didn’t include a drag strip. But in those 10 years the ideas that C.J. and others developed exploded into the sport that we call drag racing.

1. Racing historian Leslie Long was an early dry lakes and drag racer.
2. Original racer Otto Ryssman started piloting cars at Santa Ana in 1950.
3. Phil Turgasen raced in the late ’50s in sedan and B-Altered coupe.
4. Eldon Harris raced at Santa Ana in the late ’50s.
5. Doug Hartlet and Melvin Dodd were early drag and land speed racers. Rose (pictured) is Doug’s widow.
6. Jerry Hart, son of C.J. and Peggy Hart.

Folks continued to arrive throughout the early afternoon, chatting, telling stories and remembering the golden era of drag racing. The reunion lasted from 10-2 p.m. and after a fun-filled day reminiscing, everyone headed home.

7. Gene Ellis was an oval track racer who tried out for the Indy 500 twice.
8. George “Red” Hale was a member of the Russetta Timing Association in the ’40s.
9. Johnny Ryan built more race-winning flathead engines than just about anyone.
10. Gene Mitchell provided a great buffet, drinks, chairs and tents for the event.
11. (Left to Right) Magazine contributor Bob Falcon, Wally Parks’ son Richard Parks, Society of Landspeed Racing Historians President Jim Miller and American Driving Museum Historian Gary Fisk.
12. Once the scrapbooks and pictures have been shared, the bench racing begins.

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