NHRA Abandons Cradle of Drag Racing, Shifts From Southern California Base
They’re like fireworks in the night sky, the outrageous shenanigans and wild side-by-side races from storied drag strips and the antics of madcap promoter Bill Doner. They exploded in vivid color, a flash in our sensory-overload slice of history, and then they were gone. But they’ve lingered just long enough to leave an impression.
Now they’ve blown away—the whole swashbuckling vibe, the rebellious pulse, the venues themselves: most notably Lions Drag Strip and Orange County International Raceway. Still, Southern California always will be the cradle of drag racing. But “the baby” has grown up, is 70 years old, in fact.
And it has moved away from its roots.
As the National Hot Rod Association marks its 70th season this year, teams and even the sanctioning-body operations have shifted their focus to more centrally located Indianapolis. The NHRA office building at Glendora, Calif., valued at a cool $4.6 million plus, is for sale. Some executives will remain in Southern California.
But decorated nitro driver and current Funny Car team owner-crew chief Del Worsham remembers the iconic heydays of the NHRA swirling around his home base of Orange, Calif.—long before the sport had corporate marketing partners and the fancy label of “the Camping World Drag Racing Series” – and he has seen the gradual migration.
As the tour prepares for a belated stop this weekend at its fabled Pomona facility for the historic (but incongruously titled) Winternationals, Worsham shared some thoughts about the changing traditions.
“When I started driving, nearly every Funny Car driver was based out of California and more specifically Southern California,” he said.
“There were so many manufacturers there that if you were in the Orange County area, you could have a car built, your clutch built, an engine built. Basically, anything you needed was in Southern California. It just made sense to have your Funny Car there. Everybody was here. Not as much today,” Worsham said.
John Force still has a presence, but not his main race shop, in Southern California, at Yorba Linda. Part-time Funny Car owner-driver Jeff Diehl operates out of Northern California, and Alex Miladinovich, who also races sporadically, lives near Worsham at Orange and maintains his race car there. But Worsham’s DC Motorsports Toyota Camry entry with driver Alexis DeJoria is the lone full-time race car to run out of Southern California.
“Well, we don’t race as much on the West Coast anymore,” Worsham said. “Logistically, it just makes sense to be more centrally located. Back then, the way race teams worked was we traveled race to race, including the drivers and the crew chiefs. You all got in the rig and loaded up your tow vehicle and drove to the next race, where you worked on your car in the parking lot. We unloaded, then ran our race. Besides national events, we ran a lot of exhibition races and match racing. You would run IHRA. You just did a lot of racing. You didn’t spend a whole lot of time at home.
“Then, as NHRA progressed and there were more events, it became obvious that you couldn’t do the smaller side events and exhibitions. It just made sense to become more centrally located, where you could go back every week and re-load and re-stock and go to the next race,” he said. “That’s when the whole Brownsburg thing came in.”
The so-called “Whole Brownsburg Thing” has changed the rather sleepy Indianapolis-area outpost into a hot new zip code in the past few years. The State of Indiana, Hendricks County, and Brownsburg have been collaborating to foster and develop a business relationship with the motorsports industry via attractive economic incentives, connections between the industry and schools, and growth initiatives. Because of its central location, the town has been a hub for race teams, with its nicknamed Nitro Alley along Northfield Drive/Southpoint Circle, although it’s home to teams from other forms of motorsports also.
Just the same, Worsham is entrenched in California.
So it’s only natural that he would say, “Pomona is still a special place. It’s awesome. Growing up, I’d miss school on those days to get to go to the races. I’d run around the track, taking pictures, like I did at Orange County Raceway, but those weren’t national events. But Pomona is when you got to go to the Winternationals and see everybody’s new stuff.
“We didn’t have the Internet or the media coverage we have today, so I’d be on my doorstep, waiting for the mailman to deliver National Dragster (the NHRA’s official publication) to see what was new, then get to go to the Winternationals and see all the new cars and see what guys like Kenny Bernstein and Don Prudhomme were going to bring out. It was exciting,” Worsham said.
“My dad first got involved around 1976 with a local guy from Southern California in an Alcohol Funny Car. My dad became his partner and eventually owned the car by the late ’70s. We did that all the way through the ’80s, until about 1987. We were introduced to Art Hinde, who was a boat racer, who wanted to go Funny Car racing and he came on board as a partner, and he definitely upped our program,” he said.
“My first race I ever entered was the Winston Finals in 1990 (at Pomona Raceway, known today as Auto Club Raceway at Pomona). I qualified 12th and got beat by Ed McCulloch in the first round. Then in 1991, I started touring full-time. Then I won in April 1991,” he said.
Worsham has won series championships in both Top Fuel and Funny Car (as one of only three to do so, joining Bernstein and Gary Scelzi) as a driver. But a Winternationals trophy has eluded him.
“I’ve won Pomona multiple times in my career, but I’ve never won the Winternationals. I’ve runner-upped multiple times, so it would be really cool to win the Winternationals even as a crew chief,” Worsham said. “Alexis is a Southern California girl. So we have huge ties to the area, and I think it would be a great place to get that first win.”
DeJoria, who now lives near Austin, Texas, still is a Southern California girl at heart. And she was smitten by drag racing at Pomona as a teenager.
“Southern California was always known for Funny Car racing,” the ROKiT Toyota Camry driver said. “I was born and raised in Southern California. The first time I ever went to the drag races was Pomona for the Winternationals. I knew right then that’s what I wanted to do with my life is drive a nitro Funny Car.
“Pomona’s very special to the Funny Car class, which has always been very big in Southern California,” she said. “DC Motorsports is based in Orange, Calif., out of Del’s shops, and we’re the only ones left in nitro full-time.”
As for her own performances, she said, “I’ve gotten a No. 1 qualifier there, but I’ve never been to a final round in Pomona. That’s something I’d desperately like to do in front of my sponsors, my family, and my friends. Hopefully, we can get it done. We’re on a good roll right now.”
She has qualified No. 2 five times in the past nine races and reached four semifinals or better in the past six events, including a runner-up showing two weeks ago at Denver.
“I have a good feeling about Pomona,” DeJoria said.
So do NHRA fans, who missed out on the tradition of the Finals being there last November and the Winternationals being bumped from its February spot because of COVID restrictions.
With California allowing racetracks to re-open at Sonoma (last weekend) and Pomona for this race and the Finals once again, their world is back in its proper orbit.
“It was the biggest deal ever!”
Drag racing in Southern California isn’t exactly the same as it was in the “good old days,” when fans had no fear of crowding the starting line and even being so bold as to run up to the race cars following their burnouts and peer into the windows. Grandstands were overflowing, and people were lined up five- and six-deep at the fences. The sun went down, the header flames went up into the night sky, and bedlam erupted.
Promoter Bill Doner, the maestro of all this mayhem, was in the house, on the microphone, reveling in his role as the maestro of mayhem. Without social media, cell phones, or computers, Doner had his finger on the pulse of what people wanted—and he delivered. He said he “always knew excitement breeds excitement. We could get ’em so whipped up that if you weren’t there, your friends would track you down and throw rocks at you. It was the biggest deal ever!”
For Worsham and DeJoria, at least, Pomona still is the biggest deal ever.
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