Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Draggin' the line

Pomona, Calif is the drag race capital of North America

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Hot rodder Jimmy Shine's tattoo-covered arms are elbows-deep under the hood of a 1932 Ford as he adjusts the electrical wiring on a $100,000 racing engine that hasn't started in years.

Before a co-worker turns the ignition, Shine glances uneasily at the small red fire extinguisher standing near his feet. Suddenly, the V-8 sputters and wheezes, the noise echoing off the garage's cinder-block walls. Then it stops cold.

"It's being a little difficult today," he says, smiling. "But we'll get it figured out."

The pressure is mounting for Shine and the rest of the crew at So-Cal Speed Shop in Pomona, Calif., to put the final touches on the immense hot rod show car that's been five years in the making.

The car's owner has poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into building a masterpiece: a one-of-a-kind motor, hand-stitched leather interior and flawless body work. The delivery date is just days away.

"It's got to be perfect," Shine said. "That's what we're all about. You want a hot rod, you come to Pomona."

Pomona -- population 150,119 -- is home of the L.A. County Fair, California State Polytechnic University-Pomona and a reinvigorated downtown. But the city is just as well-known as a center for Southern California's hot rod culture, especially since other cities paved over their drag strips and racetracks and sold the land to developers.

The Fairplex has the largest high-profile hot rod races and shows in the world. Hundreds of thousands of people come each year -- filling hotels, restaurants and shops -- to visit the hot rod museum and attend events such as the Grand National Roadster Show, Swap Meet and Car Show, and the L.A. Roadster Show.

Centre stage is the quarter-mile drag strip officially named the Auto Club Raceway in Pomona. Since the 1950s, dragsters have locked in duels here, roaring down the 400-metre band of asphalt to ever-increasing speeds.

It's a place where legendary drag racers like such as "Big Daddy" Don Garlits, Shirley "Cha Cha" Muldowney, as well as arch-rivals Don "the Snake" Prudhomme and Tom "the Mongoose" McEwen, made a name for themselves, hitting speeds in excess of 480 km/h.

Daytona Beach has NASCAR. Indianapolis has the IndyCar. Pomona has the hot rod.

The National Hot Rod Association begins and ends every season at the famed drag strip, but that has created tension with neighbors, as engines with 7,000 horsepower scream at 145 decibels -- louder than a jet engine.

Pomona has an easier relationship with hot rod shops, which build show cars for wealthy auto buffs and manufacture speed parts for the racing set.

The after-market auto business is responsible for about 3,600 jobs in and around Pomona. There are 120 of these companies with combined annual sales of $250 million, according to an industry-marketing association.

Less than eight kilometres from the Fairplex drag strip, So-Cal Speed Shop's main garage is bustling with stubble-faced mechanics modifying cars that had rolled off assembly lines decades earlier. Engines, wheels and half-built hot rods are spread throughout the room.

A silver 1927 Roadster and a black 1958 Ford Thunderbird are parked along the right wall. In the centre is the silver 1932 Ford Coupe Shine couldn't start. After his team replaced a carburetor part, the engine fired up and kept running.

Eight exhibit halls at Pomona Fairplex were packed in late January with rows of vintage cars painted in electric yellow, flaming orange, cherry red and other colors. It was the Grand National Roadster Show, and clusters of baby boomers gathered around a maroon roadster and reminisced about similar cars, using terms such as "trick" and "bitchin'" and phrases such as "go like hell."

These are the fantasy cars of their youth: built in Detroit and modified in Southern California, during a time when ducktail hairdos, pork-chop sideburns and white T-shirts were as much a part of the subculture as the cars themselves.

The start of the hot rod scene can be traced to the 1940s as soldiers returned from the Second World War. Hot rods became a hobby for the veterans, an outlet for skills honed while working on P-51 fighter planes or tuning up Jeeps in the motor pool.

The first testing grounds were in Southern California's remote dry lakes, where unofficial races took place with crudely-customized automobiles.

These weekend mechanics soon began swapping parts and performing surgery such as bolting a streamlined 1929 Ford body to a wider frame to make room for a larger engine and provide more stability at high speeds.

Before long, the races migrated to city streets.

Not wanting to have roadsters scream through quiet neighborhoods, Pomona gave up the northwest corner of the L.A. County Fair Grounds parking lot for use as a drag strip. The NHRA, one of the nation's first racing organizations, was started here in 1951 by Wally Parks as a governing body to organize and promote drag racing as a sport.

-- Los Angeles Times

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 19, 2013 F8

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