50 Years Ago This Weekend The SoCal Drag Scene Was Hitting Its Zenith – The Story Of July 4th Weekend 1971

50 Years Ago This Weekend The SoCal Drag Scene Was Hitting Its Zenith – The Story Of July 4th Weekend 1971

(By Bret Kepner) – (Editor’s note: This is the amazing story of the SoCal drag racing scene on July 4th weekend 1971. There’s incredible detail and information here. There is also great clarification between the mythology of the good old days and the reality of the time. Everything from the shows to the ticket prices are documented here. The payoff is the video at the end. This is truly “how it was”.)

Today’s trip in the Bangshift “WayBack Machine” is a stunning bit of Super 8mm film which chronicles one of the most glorious eras and locales in drag racing lore. It features but one of a trio of events on a beautiful holiday weekend in 1971 when three of the sport’s most hallowed tracks competed against each other for fans, racers and records.

While the video also highlights one of the most legendary but least understood Fuel Altered runs of all time, it gives a glimpse of what life was like for the lucky, (and wealthy), few who were able to witness quarter-mile history at three facilities on a weekly basis.

The race recorded for posterity was the fifth annual Independence Day Championships held on Sunday, July 4, 1971, at Irwindale (CA) Raceway. The event included a huge fireworks display and open competition in the form of eight-car qualified fields for Top Fuel, Funny Car and Fuel Altered Eliminators along with a traditional sportsman program.

On Saturday night, July 3, Orange County International Raceway, (thirty-three miles to the southeast in Irvine, CA), hosted its fourth annual Nitro Championships which offered racing in, (you guessed it), Top Fuel, Funny Car and Fuel Altered Eliminators but with sixteen-car fields. Simultaneously, twenty-four miles to the southwest, Lions Associated Drag Strip in Long Beach (CA) was presenting eight-car qualified fields of Pro Stocks, BB/Gas Supercharged cars and Junior Gas Dragsters.

One week earlier, Lions produced the final event in the Western Invitational Championship Series which resulted in Gerry Glenn, (the man who would later claim the 1971 NHRA Top Fuel World Championship), becoming the quickest AA/FD driver in history with back-to-back 6.41-second elapsed times at a best of 226.13 mph while defeating Don Moody, (who would be the quickest driver in history at the end of 1972 after unleashing a 5.91 at Ontario, CA), in the “Cerny, Lins & Moody” dragster. Ray Alley’s Mach I set the Lions track speed record at 6.81/216.34 while winning Funny Car Eliminator over the Gary Burgin-driven Dave Braskett Camaro and Mike Clancy won the Junior Fuel Dragster title with a best of 7.71/193.96. One week after the July 3 event, Lions planned to offer a sixteen-car AA/Funny Car show.

Picture 3The night before the Irwindale Independence Day event, Kelly Brown claimed the fastest Funny Car run in history, a 227.27 mph blast on a 6.91 pass, at the wheel of Barry Setzer’s renowned Vega. “Ridge Route Terror” James Warren took the Top Fuel title over Rick Ramsey in the Keeling and Clayton “California Charger” while Glenn set Low E.T. at 6.54 and Warren clocked the Top Speed at 226.70 mph. Dave Beebe drove the “Mr. Ed” Charger to the Funny Car victory against Stan Shiroma’s “Midnight Skulker” Barracuda, and only eight blown Fuel Altereds appeared for the sixteen-car field which was won by Mikio Yoshioka’s “Stone T”, the quickest and fastest at 7.11/192.71, over Danny Collins in the “Rat Trap” ‘32 Bantam.

Lions July 3 show featured an all-Dodge Challenger Pro Stock final in which Bill Bagshaw’s “Red Light Bandit” Challenger defeated Ken Dondero at the helm of “Dandy Dick” Landy’s mount, 9.72/142.40 to 9.81/140.62. Paul Pittman’s “Sassy Gremlin” won the Blown Gasser trophy with a 9.54/144.46 to drop Steve Woods’ 1948 Ford Prefect. Chuck White, who led the Junior Gas Dragsters with 8.96, redlighted and crossed the center line in the final round against Rick Holtgrieve. Jerry Darien had Top Speed at 148.76.

Why is all this important to the accurate portrayal of the Irwindale Independence Day Championships? Well, the video gives a graphic depiction of the grueling SoCal fuel racing scene in 1971 since many of the cars which attended the Saturday night battle at OCIR and the previous week’s burndown at Lions were in attendance at Irwindale. The fact these three tracks were within a thirty-five mile triangle yet still racing on all three days of each weekend is a consideration which may be difficult for some to comprehend. Moreover, there were other operating dragstrips in close proximity to “The Big Three” but, by 1971, Fontana (CA) Drag City had become a sportsman-only track, the notorious Pomona (CA) Fairgrounds track was only open for the annual NHRA Winternationals, and the one year-old facility at Ontario (CA) Motor Speedway also only operated once each year.

Likewise, in the interest of historical accuracy, we at Bangshift must destroy the drag racing myth which states high ticket prices were created in the twenty-first century. At most tracks in 1971, fans paid admission to the grandstands but were charged a separate fee to enter the pit area. A few select raceplants were just beginning to experiment with a reserved seat format, as well. Taking into consideration today’s all-inclusive ticket prices, the 1971 fees, corrected to 2015 prices, deflate much of the argument posed by old timers’ glorious recounts of “the good ol’ days”.

For example, the one-day Nitro Championships event at Orange County charged an adult admission of $45.81 in the equivalent of 2021 dollars. The ticket was actually $7.00 in 1971 but the Federal Minimum Wage was $1.60 per hour at the time. The Western Invitational Championship Series at Lions the previous week featured a stout $51.84 current price at the gate and Lions’ sixteen-car AA/FC show scheduled for the week after the July 4th holiday cost $32.83 in 2021 cash. A seat in the stands at Lions’ July 3rd Pro Stock show was only $22.53 in modern money and an extra $10.53 would buy a “pit pass”.

Incredibly, Irwindale’s Independence Day Championships, which included and entry list of twenty-eight Top Fuelers, twenty-one Funny Cars, nineteen Fuel Altereds, fireworks and even a giveaway for a Keystone (Wheels) 50cc two-stroke minibike, only charged the equivalent of $28.65 in 2015 per ticket. With children under twelve admitted free, it wasn’t a necessarily “cheap night out” but it was within the realm of financial reason for most working families.

Additionally, Irwindale’s track food was worthy of a night on the town. Bear in mind, Irwindale Raceway partially owned by Harry Snyder who created the In-n-Out Burger empire. The track’s concessions were operated by Snyder’s In-n-Out employees and, to this day, Irwindale usually wins the “Best Drag Strip Food of All Time” argument by a landslide.

The video opens with Dave Hough’s infamous bouncing wheelstand in the “Nanook” 1923 Ford Model T occurred during qualifying for the AA/Fuel Altered program and the broken steering linkage incurred on the run kept him from making another attempt. The fact the car has all fourPicture 2 wheels off the ground for only a fraction of a second, (at 00:40 seconds into the video), is proof why Steve Reyes is widely considered the greatest action photographer in the history of the sport.

The beginning of the video shows qualifying for the fuel fields including Hough, Sush Matsubara in Joe Mondello’s Camaro AA/FC (00:44), Lorne Cook in the Hammel & Garvin 1948 Fiat Topolino from Spokane (WA) (near lane) against the similar mount of Mike Sullivan (01:28), and Ed Moore in the “MOB” ‘23 T against the “Penner & Beach” AA/FD (01:45). Remember; qualifying was not conducted in “sessions” in 1971 so it was not unusual to see two different types of machines against each other during qualifying.

The Tocco, Buehl & Garten ‘23 T AA/FA appears at 02:13 followed by a rare glimpse of the spectacular “California Stud” Mustang AA/FC driven by Dave Bowman.” to “The Tocco, Buehl & Garten ‘23 T AA/FA appears at 02:13; behind the wheel is the same Roger Garten who lost his life racing at Bakersfield (CA) only four days ago. It is immediately followed by a rare glimpse of the spectacular “California Stud” Mustang AA/FC driven by Dave Bowman. Les Allen gets push-started in the “Praying Mantis” at 02:37 before an unidentified pair of AA/Fuel Dragsters complete a qualifying effort. An amazing clip appears at 02:50; a young fan gets his photo taken with Larry Derr, whose “Glass Rat” Javelin was the quickest and fastest of the injected gasoline-burning Funny Cars which competed at Irwindale, Lions and OCIR. Two years and three weeks after this film was shot, Derr would die at Irwindale in a new rear-engined Vega panel wagon Funny Car.

At 03:16, Roger Garten shows off the damage incurred on his qualifying run which kept him out of the AA/FA field. The beautiful Berry Brothers & Hughes AA/FD is up next (03:26) followed by the aforementioned Mikio Yoshioka and the “Stone T” AA/FA (03:37) which, only twenty hours earlier, scored its biggest win ever. Don Durbin’s non-qualifying red-and-white Nestor & Durbin AA/FD is shown in the pits (03:53) followed by what had been the quickest Top Fuel Dragster in history for eight full days, Gerry “the Hunter” Glenn’s “Schultz & Glenn” missile. Gary Hazen’s notorious “Panic!” ‘23 T AA/FA (04:37) is followed by Dennis Geisler’s “Instant T” fuel altered (04:43) and a rare shot of Gary Dubach’s AA/GS 1933 Willy’s previously campaigned with Bob “Bones” Balogh and Joe Pisano.

Mike Sullivan’s brutally tough Fiat Topolino AA/FA (04:52) and Fred Schirmer’s AA/GS Corvette (04:57) lead to multiple views of the “Mondello & Matsubara” Camaro AA/FC (05:07) which would be destroyed at the NHRA Supernationals at Ontario (CA) later that season. After another take on Dubach’s Willy’s (05:46), Gene Conway’s topless Corvette AA/FC is seen (06:04) and Don Cook’s “Damn Yankee” Barracuda AA/FC, driven at this event by Pat Foster, is shown already back on the ramp truck (06:14). Another shot of the “Glass Rat” Javelin (06:17) leads to a rare clip of the Skinner Brothers’ rear-engined dragster which was one of only two on site.

Picture 5The Ron Banks-driven “Danekas, Banks & Bowman” dragster appears at 06:30 followed by Bob Lilligard’s A/G 1948 Anglia panel truck. As the shadows grow long, another nonqualifier on the trailer heads out the gate; it’s Lee Jones and the “Jet Age Special” Camaro AA/FC (06:43). Ted Johnson’s injected smallblock Chevy-powered C/G ’56 Thunderbird (06:50), is followed by driver Denny Fitt working on the “Addict” AA/FD of Childs & Albert while Bill Leavitt’s “Quickie Too” Mach I AA/FC, a stunning nonqualifier considering it would be the quickest Funny Car of all time only five months in the future, heads for the gate (07:01).

Tom Toler is seen tuning Rodney Kirchoff’s AA/FD (07:39) while Don Moody and the gorgeous “Cerny, Lins & Moody” AA/FD prepare for the final qualifying run (08:03) alongside Marty Schwartz and “The Judge” of Charlie Marquez (08:32).

Eliminations were scheduled to start at 7:00 PM, (the fireworks were planned for 9:00 PM), but the program was running late when a reported 9,500 fans watched the “last ditch” qualifying opportunities (08:50). As at most tracks, the “hot pits” were located at the finish line where the cars would line up prepared to push start to the starting line. As John Rodeck’s new rear-engined machine (near lane) clears the finish line against a front-motored opponent (08:50), fully-suited Moody (09:01) and Schwartz (09:05) keep an eye on the progress of competitors ahead of them in line.

The Lee family’s spectacular four speed-equipped, 340-powered “King Cuda” SS/G entry (09:07) precedes starting line action from the final AA/FD qualifying runs. Denver Schutz is shown at 09:13 launching against Les Allen followed by the Toler/Kirchoff rig (near lane) being pushed started and making a run with Bobby Hightower in the “Vandal” (09:21). Next, James Warren is fired up (09:52) to meet Tommy “the Watchdog” Allen in Byron Blair’s blue machine which rolls the beams and wastes the qualifying pass (10:36).

Some great twilight footage of Moody qualifying against Schwartz (10:44) is followed by an amazing historical account of the earliest days of Top Picture 6Fuel motorcycle racing (11:16). The ageless rivalry between Joe Smith (near lane) and Boris Murray is featured in a match race which includes the tricky technique of putting the front wheel of the motorcycle against the back bumper of the support truck for a full-throttle, stationary burnout!

Once the sun disappeared, Super 8 “home movie” cameras became useless and Irwindale’s lighting system was far less effective than today’s Musco Lighting “artificial suns”. Therefore, no eliminations are shown.

So, what happened during the actual race? Well, after the fireworks display, eliminations got underway and the action didn’t take long since the fuel cars of 1971 were fully capable of returning for another run within forty-five minutes of each pass.

Chassis builder Dave Uyehara led qualifying for the eight-car AA/FD field with a 6.88 but lost in the opening round to Moody’s Low E.T. of the Meet pass of 6.75, (at a shut-off 195.22 mph), to Uyehara’s 6.92 at Top Speed of the Meet, (219.46 mph). In the semi-finals, Moody posted a 6.77/206.42 over Carl Olson’s 6.95/218.44. Gerry Glenn clocked a 6.87/187.88 to stop the 7.06/193.62 of Chuck Flores in round one and Glenn unloaded the second quickest pass of the event with a 6.76/204.08 to beat Allen’s 6.93/208.80. In the final battle, Moody gained revenge for his runner-up to Glenn at Lions the previous week by outrunning the Schultz & Glenn beast, 6.84/216.86 to 6.90/205.54.

Gary Burgin led the Funny Car qualifiers with Low E.T. of the Meet at 7.04/207.36 but Dave Beebe in the “Mr. Ed” Charger stopped Burgin in the opening stanza with a 7.13/206.88. Beebe, in turn, was pounded in the semi-finals by a strong 7.04 at only 186.72 by “Big Jim” Dunn in the conventional “Dunn & Reath” Barracuda, (their rear-engined AA/FC would not debut until 1972). Dunn earlier defeated the ’69 Mustang of Nathan Valdez in the opener, 7.22/178.21 to 7.67/171.13. Meanwhile, Sush Matsubara opened with a 7.16 at the event’s fastest Funny Car speed, 210.28 mph, to beat the 7.31/206.88 of Bob McFarland’s new “Mastercharge” Dodge Demon and then advanced to the final round with a 7.23/203.16 when Gene Conway lost traction. For the money, Dunn’s notoriously low-budget ‘Cuda ran a 7.08/197.36 over Sush’s game 7.23/205.94 to win the event.

Picture 4Danny Collins put Don Green’s “Rat Trap” Austin Bantam at the top of the Fuel Altered qualifying list with a 7.24/200.88 but he overstaged the renowned rig against Ed Moore’s “MOB” ’23 T which won the first round battle at 7.71/172.41. Mike Sullivan qualified dead last with a smoky 7.60/179.64 but hooked up to a shut-off 7.41/163.93 win when Hazen’s “Panic!” Model T roadster broke the rearend just off the starting line. In the semi-finals, Moore barely won a tire-smoker against Harry Burkholder’s gorgeous green Topolino, 7.60/188.28 to 7.89/191.08 and Sullivan kept Mikio Yoshioka’s “Stone T” from appearing in its second final round in twenty-four hours in a great race, 7.28/200.44 to 7.39/185.94. Mikio had posted an exceptional 7.24/186.72 in the first round against Fred Cerutti’s “Quality Auto” Bantam.

When he fired the engine on the “push road” in front of the crowd for the final round, Moore found the engine in the “MOB” sounded horrible and he wisely shut it down. Sullivan singled for the victory with a wild, tire-blazing pass which, to the delight of the fans, crossed the center line under full power!

That’s the way it was, Sunday, July 4, 1971, at Irwindale Raceway. It was the last summer of the front-engined Top Fuel Dragster, the “budget” blown fuel Funny Car and any semblance of weekly or even monthly AA/FA events. It was the end of an era.

And YOU are there!

(NOTE: While the older fans will lament the loss of everything from the cars in this video to the references to Walter Cronkite’s “You Are There!” television show which aired from 1953 through 1957, the younger readers will accurately note the fact not a single elapsed time recorded at Irwindale’s 1971 Independence Day Championships would have qualified for the Top Dragster field at any representative event in 2021!)


  • Share This
  • Pinterest
  • 0

2 thoughts on “50 Years Ago This Weekend The SoCal Drag Scene Was Hitting Its Zenith – The Story Of July 4th Weekend 1971

  1. Dave Tuttle

    Although I was a thirteen year old kid at the time, I\’m fortunate enough to say that I was among those in attendance at both the OCIR and Irwindale Raceway events on the Fourth of July Weekend in 1971. However the thing that makes the statistics and home movies special for me is the fact that my late father, Don Tuttle actually built and owned the Schultz & Glenn Top Fuel Dragster that was winning just about everything in sight that year!

    I was 10 years younger than those making history at the time, but still old enough to remember what happened that summer like it was yesterday. I considered myself part of the crew, but my duties were limited to dumping the oil drain pans and cleaning the spider webs of VHT Track-Bite off the body. (Like thinned down rubber cement we did the burnouts in at the time)

    I didn\’t go to Long Beach on June 28th but after seeing the times posted by Bret Kepner, I couldn\’t resist checking his accuracy against the actual Lions Drag Strip Record certificate. As always, his reports are spot on! ( BK-Your Da Man! )

    What I remember most about the Irwindale race was the fact that we lost in the final round to Moody. \”What\’Ya Mean We Lost? We Don\’t Lose!\” I felt like we\’d been robbed!

    The following weekend, 7/11/71, we won the only event that was ever run at Oxnard Air Force Base. But it was like the stars had aligned that day. Gerry\’s Competition Number was 711 T/F and the date was 7/11. It was our day!

    The highlight of the season, for me at least, came later that month at Orange County, the 32 car Top Fuel show at the PDA Meet. Gerry was doing double duty that day driving his own car, the Glenn & Schultz \”Woody Car\” as well as the car my Dad built. Had he lasted one more round, he\’d had to have raced himself! He wound up beating Rick Ramsey in the California Charger in the final when they blew the blower off it at 3/4 track. What a lot of people never knew was that we kicked #1 rod out the side of ours in the lights. The car had a dry-sump oiling system so hardly any oil came out of it. I remember Schultz actually laughing about how that one didn\’t owe him a cent when we found out at the far end. That was a 408 cuin. Iron 392 with a .100\” stroke stock crank and the car was high gear only. That engine had just won its 19th event that season! Total for the season….21 wins. A Guinness World Record at the time.

    In the winners circle with the rest of the class champions that evening, Gene Conway in Funny Car and Adams & Enriquez in Pro Comp, I had my epifany in life. That defining moment when you realize you\’ve found your destany. At that moment my career as a Professional Dragster Chassis Builder began.

    The following year I learned to Heli-Arc weld and a couple years later at age 16, I was finish welding most of the cars my Dad built, and I didn\’t even have a drivers licence!
    After graduating from High School in 1976, I moved on for a couple of years, you know, that age when you think you\’re smarter than your parents? I worked a a lot of different places any where from 2-weeks to 2-months for 5-bucks an hour. Looked terrable on a resume, but I gained experience my Dad never had in production Jigs & fixtures, Prototype machine work and tool & die.

    In January 1979, I took over full time opperations and 37 years later, I\’m building our 310th new car with a passion! The way I see it, I get to spend other people\’s money to build neat stuff! Can you think of a better job?

    The summer of 1971 left quite an impression on me.
    Thanks for the memories Guy\’s!
    ~Dave Tuttle~

  2. MGBChuck

    BIG thanks Brian, in ’71 I visited FREMONT Drag Strip a couple times a month, pretty much saw every car here run there (memory a little hazy, the ’70s you know), EVERYTHING here looked very familiar though! Awesomeness! Still in HS it took all the money I had to get there, made friends I have to this day, decidedly a more innocent time (pure). Thanks again Brian

Comments are closed.