by Danny Craig
photography by Jason Cooper
In an otherwise peaceful town, sheltered by the serenity of its orange groves and the passivity of the 1950s, the city of La Verne neighbored the site of a reckless weekly clash of speed between two steel-framed gladiators. The arena was the “Pomona Cut-Off,” now recognized where Temple Avenue and Valley Boulevard meet. An indiscriminate crowd of teenagers from all points of the valley congregated every Thursday night at the intersection to set the competitive stage. Some were bearing their varsity letters for football; others sported T-shirts that were torn and stained with grease and oil from a day’s labor on their eight-cylinder chariots.
The time for battle had arrived. Two contenders agreeing to the challenge met side by side with their headlights facing down Valley Boulevard’s dark straightaway. The race to determine the champion was awaiting the signal to accelerate. And then, the tension was interrupted by the sound of police sirens that were quickly approaching the “Cut-Off.” The officers arrived on the scene but had no intention of citing violations to the youngsters. There were no cuffs slapped on wrists or even threats made of calling home to parents. Instead, the Pomona Police Department had sent its finest for one reason-to strike up conversation and flag the race.
The ironic scenario was the exact situation that allowed Pomona to be the birthplace to a premiere drag strip and a host of memories for residents and neighbors alike.
The story began with the teenage racers. Often seeking a sanctuary for recklessness and excitement, their passion for racing was not well distributed amongst the community leaders of Pomona and its surrounding cities. The races were bound with intensity and danger, being carried out on poorly lit roadways with little regard to unsuspecting motorists unaware of places like the “Cut Off.”
The crude excitement of the contests incited an interest in the youth of a community whose recreation was limited to drive-in theaters on Holt and White avenues and Henry’s Drive-Through on Foothill Boulevard bordering La Verne and Claremont.
“There was a sense of rebellion. We were the outlaws,” recollects Keril Keiser, a retired racer and Palmdale resident who remembers the Thursday night duels. “It was a gathering of the renegades, and they all had some kind of a car.” The Pomona native and past member of the Army Reserves sported an early 1930s Model A Ford Coupe with a V-8 engine under the hood and an exterior that was evenly coated with primer. “I called it an ‘A-V-8,'” chuckles Keiser.
Keiser and his racing acquaintances found themselves wherever the best competition could be found on a given evening. Although the “Cut Off” provided for an ample matchup, he says that the racing hub was in Santa Ana where the John Wayne Airport now stands. Keiser was also aware that other sights were rising in the area. A strip in Fontana had been organized by the work of a car club in Pomona. He also remembers the city of San Dimas being a hot spot for teenage dragsters. In some instances, the city even provided a welcoming environment for a clearly illegal pastime.
“San Dimas was a poor town with tough people,” says Keiser. “People would sit on their porch and watch us fly down the street.” Through the numerous weekends and weeknights spent in San Dimas, Santa Ana and Pomona duking it out behind the wheel of his “A-V-8,” Keiser and his companions were made aware of a unique opportunity. “I was down at Santa Ana racing in the morning, and a couple guys from Pomona came down, and they told me they were giving out trophies there [in Fontana],” he explains. “I thought, ‘Awe baloney!’ No one would ever give out $5 trophies,” jokes Keiser. So he and his companions made their way to Fontana to test the validity of the rumor and compete for an unprecedented chance to win a material prize for their hobby. There, the hosting club was known as the Pomona Choppers. They were recognized by their signature red jackets that bore their name in cursive across the back of their shoulders with accents of gold and white. Their youthful president Chuck Griffith had been raised in Pomona and had worked continuously to organize events like the one at which Keiser was arriving. Choppers member Bobby Gormon came out to greet Keiser and his companions. When the introductions concluded, Keiser quickly saw the uniqueness of the event. The Choppers and the numerous racers set the usual stage for a competition. The cars were being tuned, and the rugged Fontana race strip had been crudely prepped for another day of vehicular onslaught. However, the presence of Pomona Police Sergeant Bob Coons as a co-facilitator of the event created a little bit of an offset environment. Police officers had not gained a reputation for being major supporters of the sport in past instances, and Keiser remembers feeling slightly apprehensive when seeing Coons on the premises. “We didn’t know whether we should follow him or not,” says Keiser.
Regardless of the persons present, Keiser and his company arrived at the competition with the intention to win, and, for Keiser, it was a successful venture. “I just happened to be at the right place, at the right time, with the right car,” he states with an air of modesty. When the day was over, he took the first place trophy – the first ever to be given at a race in Southern California. Few competitors could compete with “the right car” that clocked a speed 93.95 miles per hour. The day concluded with the presentation of the trophy by Sgt. Coons, and, for Keiser, it was another typical day of victory on the strip.
For the awkwardly placed police officer, however, the day’s race held a greater impact. Coons’ place at the strip was no coincidence. Although bearing badge 24 for the Pomona P. D. atop a motorcycle, Coons held the same interest in the competition as Keiser and his friends. He was a car buff, always working on his Chevy coupe and a fan of the races. But, his jurisdiction under Pomona Police Chief Ralph Parker was to oversee the activities of Pomona’s teenage dragsters and to create a safe environment for the “renegades.” As he reflects on the difficulties of the task, Coons laughs at the roots of the now regarded sport. “We would get a call for a disturbance on the east end [of town],” he says. “By the time we got there, they’d be dragging on the west end.” Coons found his first opportunity to communicate the concerns of the police department during a routine night on the beat.
Scanning the streets on his motorcycle, he spotted a Chevy Coupe cruising the speed limit, yet clearly equipped for a race. He pulled up alongside the hot rod and motioned for the driver to pull over. Sure that he was going to receive a ticket, Manuel Vallejo pulled over his car only to have the officer compliment him on his coupe. A friendly conversation between the two revealed that Vallejo was a member of the Pomona Choppers, and he was on his way to a weekly meeting.
Proving himself to be a race-friendly member of the community, Coons was extended an invitation to accompany Vallejo to the gathering at Griffith’s house.
With his staunch uniform and police light colored motorcycle, Coons arrived with Vallejo to receive a mixed welcome from the group of adolescent competitors. “That was the first time I met with the Choppers,” says Coons. “Pretty soon, I was half-way part of the guys without my uniform on.” Coons began a campaign with the Choppers to bring some organization to their races. Before they became acquaintances with Coons, the club devoted much of its time to street racing and the ever-popular “poker runs.” Designated members of the Choppers charted a course throughout Pomona’s streets by dropping bags of lime to mark a change in direction. Drivers following the path stopped only for five marked spots along the route where they would accumulate a playing card to create a full hand used in a game of five-card stud. Regardless of who finished the course first, the winner of the run was dependent upon who held the best hand.
Desiring an entity that would gather more community support, Coons took the Choppers form their backyard meetings and lime bag bearing contests and provided them with beneficial resources. The recreation room at the Police Department became the meeting place for the Choppers. The races at Fontana had the support of the Pomona Police Department in the provision of officers at the races to maintain safety and order.
Griffith remembers the Choppers embracing the new look to the sport that Coons and the Department were instilling on the youngsters. “Their whole thing was they wanted to cut down on the number of accidents amongst teenagers,” says Griffith. “We all had friends who had been killed drag racing. That’s really what motivated all of us.”
Motivated, the Choppers posted signs around the community promoting safe driving and donated funds to charities after a successful showing at their races in Fontana.
However, their greatest endeavor began soon thereafter. A long-time goal of the Choppers had been to move the strip to their hometown. For some time, Coons and Chief Parker had propositioned the administrators of the Los Angeles County Fairgrounds in Pomona to allow the racers to use their facility for competition. Early attempts had failed, and, as a result, the group had to establish its early events in Fontana.
Nevertheless, perseverance proved to be the key for the reformed renegades in 1952. After extended negotiation, an area in the southwest corner of the Fairgrounds parking lot was set aside for the dragsters. As a change of scenery, it proved ideal. The Choppers were hosting events in their hometown and slowly earning the trust of the community in bringing their sport from the streets to the track. The site would become known as the Pomona Raceway. With the expansion of the track, the Choppers underwent organizational changes. The matching jackets were retired, as was their name. Griffith remained in charge; however, he now spearheaded the Pomona Timing Association and was serving as the director of the Raceway. The group was focused on the organization of the sport.
The remarkable situation caught the attention of Hot Rod Magazine editor Wally Parks. Like Parker and Coons, he was a pioneer in his vision of drag racing. Parks had witnessed the work of the Pomona Timing Association in conjunction with the local authorities and decided that Pomona was the birthplace of a new avenue in the sport.
“Much of the experimentation happened at the fairgrounds,” remembers Parks. “We used Pomona as a working example. It was kind of a door opener.”
After founding the National Hot Rod Association, an entity devoted to promoting the dragsters as a professional showcase of competition Parks used Pomona as a springboard. Working with the foundations laid by Coons, Parker and Griffith, Parks wanted to make a national example of the community support shown in Pomona. Coons left the Police Department to join the NHRA in what Parks described as a “Johnny Appleseed campaign.” He, along with other members of the association, traveled the country in a small station wagon with an adjoined trailer that bore the NHRA’s bright red logo on its side. Their goal-to educate small car clubs nation-wide on how to organize their local drag racing circuits. “I quit my job at the Department and took a cut in what little pay I got to go out and ‘preach the gospel,'” remembers Coons. While he continued his “missionary work” for the NHRA in an adventurous effort that became known as “The Safari,” the model circuit in Pomona continued to thrive. Increasing numbers in the regularly scheduled races and a national growth of the sport demanded a major competition. In 1961, the NHRA organized an inaugural event at the Raceway that began one of its greatest traditions – the Winternationals – a gathering of the nation’s greatest racers assembled in Pomona for a face-off. “It was a mind blower,” laughs Parks. “It was a major league game in a little town.”
La Verne resident Dean Lowe remembers attending the first Winternationals at the Raceway. He was 16 years old, and he had not come with his father to observe, but to compete with his ’33 Ford Coupe roadster. Lowe had been racing with his father for some time and had even broken the 100 mile per hour barrier by the age of 15. “That was the fastest I had ever driven a car,” says Lowe. “For a kid who’s 15, you’re pretty excited.”
The excitement felt by racers like Lowe was the root that fueled the Winternationals. The Pomona Police Department aided in the event, maintaining order and support during a time when few other departments would.
With the passing of time, the Raceway grew. Six million dollars invested and countless races later, Pomona is home to one of the premiere drag strips in California in 2001. Griffith now works at the end of the strip, attentively maintaining the facility while Parks serves as the chairman of the NHRA board based out of Glendora. Coons has remained active in the NHRA, returning for selected races and promotional events. Lowe keeps a watchful eye on the track while maintaining an original yellow ’33 coupe that replicates the vehicle of his teenage years.
With the arrival of the 2001 Winternationals, so came the half-century anniversary of the track that they dubbed “50 Years of Power.” To mark the beginning of the races, Bud Coons made a special entrance onto the dragstrip. Along with the other members of the “Safari,” Coons paraded down the strip in the same station wagon and trailer that he once traveled across the nation. As they made their way into the stadium structure to be met by a standing ovation from thousands of race fans, Coons felt the impact of what he had started in Pomona.
“I had chills running down my back,” he remembers. “I go there, and I see the growth and the problems we had it brings back a lot of memories.” However, there is the purist spirit held by veterans like Keiser. He misses the sport at the Pomona “Cut-Off” that was never considered a sport. It was a competition, simply stated, without commercialization, sponsorships or media. “It seems to me that before they had the trophies it was better,” says Keiser. “The trophies became the idol when it used to be the car that was the idol.”
Regardless of their place, the “Cut Off” racers and officers played a large part in building the history of drag racing. After 50 years, watchers of power cars have benefited from the fairy tale story of the pauper club of Pomona racers who developed the premiere prince facility of their sport.