Twice a year we celebrate the very first pro drag strip, the Santa Ana Airport Drag Strip, and the men and women who made this such a special place in drag racing history. We said our goodbyes to many of our friends who have passed on, including Lou Senter and Art Chrisman (and last year, Otto Ryssman Sr.).
The reunion honors Leslie Long (whom we missed as he’s recovering from a fall) who took over the event many years ago and is an inspiration for his years of research into the history of the strip. In addition, we wish to thank Gene Mitchell who brings tents, chairs and food to our reunion and refuses all donations.
Without Gene we wouldn’t be able to keep this going. Roger Rohrdanz is our chief reunion photographer and a historian in his own right. I make the phone calls and notify the public when the event will be held. We try to keep to meet in April and October. Everyone is welcome to attend and there is no charge to do so.
The reunion is really a picnic, so it’s very casual. Jerry Hart, who worked at the Santa Ana Drags in the ‘50s for his father and mother, the first and only promoters of the drag strip, brings an easel and puts up old Santa Ana memorabilia and others bring their photo albums or interesting souvenirs. Wayne Harper and Durrell Corry represent the WRA and vintage roadster racing, which is still going strong today. Jim Miller is the west coast director and head historian for the American Hot Rod Foundation (and a dry lakes and Bonneville racer). Betty Belcourt’s husband and son were both drag racers and she told us stories about growing up on the Indian Reservation in Montana.
Junkyard Steve Reich was there. He has old and vintage auto parts at his store in Orange right across the street from Randy Ema, owner of the Duesenberg archives. With Steve was Bob Mullinax, a jazz and blues music recording artist. Eldon Harris is one of the few who visited the Santa Ana Drags and also an original Main Street Malt Shop reunion attendee. Irish Jim Murphy, who has raced motorcycles, cars and worked for many race teams, still has to give me his biography.
Gene Ellis raced oval race cars and even put up respectable times trying to qualify at the Indy 500. He was honored at the Walt James CRA Reunion some years ago. Tommy Thompson is the son of Junior Thompson who was very active in drag racing. Diane Vandenberg raced at the strip in the early ‘50s and her family history goes back to the founding of California in the late 1700s.
Ken Freund is a freelance racing and motorcycle writer. Susan Whitney is Doug Hartelt’s daughter. Some of the people in the community keeping the history alive. Hope to see you at the next event!
Editor’s Note: A version of this article first appeared in the February 2017 print issue of the Drive Magazine.
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