His invention brought precision timing to drag racing

A proudly held photograph of Oliver Riley with his prized Christmas Tree invention brings remembered joy to Garnett Riley, Oliver’s wife, and son Gary Riley. / photo by Christopher Guzman

A proudly held photograph of Oliver Riley with his prized Christmas Tree invention brings remembered joy to Garnett Riley, Oliver’s wife, and son Gary Riley. / photo by Christopher Guzman

by Jennahway Huerta
photography by Christopher Guzman

“Ah! What did I tell you? 88 miles per hour! The temporal displacement occurred at exactly 1:20 a.m. and zero seconds,” says Dr. Emmett Brown in the blockbuster movie “Back to the Future.” Like the fictional Dr. Brown, epic drag racing icon, Oliver “Ollie” Riley was a man ahead of his time when it came to “timely” inventions. As the design engineer for the Terrier guided missile at Pomona’s Convair plant, he worked with top secret precision timing devices. It was at a 1954 Dale Carnegie public speaking class that he met Bud Coons, a Pomona police officer and the National Hot Rod Association field director, who headed NHRA’s Safety Safari. The two struck up a friendship. “Bud Coons was active with kids and wanted them to drag race on a track instead of on the streets,” Tom Riley, Ollie’s son says. Coons told Ollie of incredible racers jumping to speeds way beyond accurate capture. Ollie’s interest was beyond the cars. He listened intently about the time it took for these mechanical dragons to burn rubber down a quarter mile strip. Up to now, the NHRA had just been using flag persons to start races and to announce winners. Ollie was a problem solver, a man who tinkered with tools in his kitchen, garage and business. A California Hot Rod Reunion V Magazine article, “Christmas Trees and Other Electronic Goodies,” by John Jodauga, tells what happened next: “When I learned of his guided missile engineering background, I couldn’t help but ask him to take a look at what we were using and give us some advice,” says Coons. “Riley had to work in an isolated room all by himself at Convair for security reasons, and he was somewhat unhappy with his job. He was also near retirement, liked auto racing and wanted to spend more time with his sons.”

Drag racing, born on the Pomona/La Verne border, was catching on nationally, and Ollie was working with its leaders. In the article, Coons relates that Ollie built the first Chrondek clocks right on his La Verne kitchen table. The timers were accurate to within .001 second, and they were modular, which allowed for the replacement of a single defective component. Soon, in his garage, Ollie was mastering other precision drag racing timing instruments that would change the sport and launch it to a new level. He soon opened an electronics business, Chrondek Electronics, a family run shop where he was the president, his wife the vice president, and his sons the share holders. The name Chrondek was carefully chosen and captured Ollie’s time passion: “chron” for time and “decca,” Latin for 10ths. “We had only a couple thousand dollars in our bank account and decided to put that money toward Chrondek Electronics,” Garnett Riley, Ollie’s wife remembers. At Chrondek, Ollie created his inventions. “He liked the electronic end of it. Others wanted their cars to be the best. He wanted to make his timers the best,” says Gary Riley.

The business was located in the city of La Verne. Ollie first moved into the former First National Bank building at the corner of D and Second streets (Circle K’s present location). He then leased a location near the southwest corner of D and Second streets, present site of the University of La Verne’s new residential housing building. His Chrondek staff numbered between five and 10. Gary Colby, University of La Verne professor of photography, grew up with Ollie Riley’s sons and has lasting memories of the family and their business. He worked at Chrondek Electronics when he was a student at Bonita High School. “After school, I would go to work and sweep the floors, paint and build objects,” Gary says. His mother also worked for the Rileys. “Inside Chrondek Electronics was a gutted building where they had a warehouse of timing parts and assembly rooms. It was like ‘Dad’s garage.’ It was fun to work there. I remember shipping products constantly.” Besides being an electrical engineer, Ollie also worked Chrondek’s business angle. But most of all he worked on his creations. “I saw Oliver as a man who was motivated to provide instruments that measured the human skill in popular culture,” Gary says. Ollie’s inventions included timers used by gun slingers and for starting track events. Both were also used as false start indicators. Ollie would help friends and family fix broken radios or any gadgets that needed repairing. But his precision timers were his true passion. “He sold these timers all over the world,” says Ollie’s wife Garnett. His timers used light beams at the start and finish lines—then a radical new technology. “Oliver was a big part of drag racing because he created the accurate time systems which are essential to make drag racing work,” Greg Sharp, NHRA Wally Parks Museum curator, says. Oliver traveled with the NHRA throughout the United States, educating others on the set up and use of his timers, therefore ensuring timing accuracy and continuity in the NHRA record books.

Inventing the Christmas Tree

During the late 1950s, a flag starter determined how deep the driver went into the starting light beams during the staging process. Oliver noticed that the flag men who signaled with a wave for the drivers to take off were not uniformly accurate. An invention was needed. According to John Jodauga’s article, “In 1962, NHRA National Field Director Ed Eaton approached Riley with the idea of a step-light countdown system that would give each racer a fair chance at anticipating the green while acting as an electronic judge of foul starts.” The story also says, “Eaton talked with Division 1 Director Lew Bond, who owned the Dragtronics timing business. Bond worked with Riley to develop the first Christmas Tree, which was initially tested at a Wednes­day event at Indianapolis Raceway Park during a May Speedweeks race. Its major-event debut was at the 1963 Nationals.” Jodauga says that the device signaled drivers to begin their races by a progressive change of colors from yellow to green and sometimes to red. This prevented starting errors and stopped the race if cars broke the line early. Pre-staging bulbs were added in 1964.

The author writes how the Tree was not initially accepted by the racers, who had “grown comfortable throughout the years with flag starters. In some cases, competitors attempted to run over the Tree with their vehicles as a sign of protest.” Nevertheless, Jodauga writes that Steve Gibbs, then NHRA vice president and retired director of the NHRA Motorsports Museum, later embraced the change impact of Ollie’s inventions. “Years ago, any news of an outstanding run was met with skepticism and was called a ‘popcorn time.’ We’ve worked hard to eliminate that specter. With so many important barriers being broken…it was important for us to make sure that the timing devices, as well as the starting line system at our high-profile national events, are always accurate and fair. I’m glad to say that I think that we’ve more than achieved that goal.” Ollie spent a decade perfecting his Chrondek timing systems. Then, in 1972, he sold the business to Aero-Marine.

The child inventor

Present day Christmas Trees are computerized, but the basics invented by Oliver Riley are still part of their operating systems, as attested by this Christmas Tree at Auto Club Dragway in Fontana, Calif. / photo by Christopher Guzman

Present day Christmas Trees are computerized, but the basics invented by Oliver Riley are still part of their operating systems, as attested by this Christmas Tree at Auto Club Dragway in Fontana, Calif. / photo by Christopher Guzman

Ollie, born in Kansas, was a premature child, weighing in at about 4 pounds and was raised on a farm in Stafford, Kansas with his two brothers. The family was poor. His sons remember that when Ollie was old enough to use tools, he made his own toys. “Even at a young age, my dad was always interested in electronics,” Tom Riley says. Before transistors were created, Ollie would create his own radios, and he would string together old batteries for power. In high school, he repaired radios for extra money. He attended Kansas State University and earned his B.S. and M.S. in electrical engineering, both with honors. Later, for five years, he was an instructor in the engineering department at KSU. During WWII, he moved to Florida to work for the Army as a civilian. Ollie was the main design engineer for the top secret Norton bomb sight. After the war, he worked for General Electric and later gained his Convair job in Pomona. “La Verne appeared to be a good city for my family to live in since it was affiliated with the Brethren church,” Gary Riley remembers. The Rileys lived near Bonita and Park avenues and were neighbors and close friends with the Colbys. “My dad assisted with Boy Scouts, and all of his sons were involved in Boy Scouts,” Tom Riley says. The three sons graduated from Bonita High School and attended the University of La Verne and Cal Poly, Pomona. Ollie’s daughter-in-law and two grandsons have or are in the process of graduating from the La Verne College of Law.

The impact of Ollie’s drag racing inventions spread nationally. “This is a national competition because of this inventor,” Gary Colby says. “I don’t think there would be drag racing today without Oliver’s inventions. His innovation was ahead of his time,” says Darren Davis “California Kid” drag racer. The time devices validated old records in the modern era and allowed for future NHRA success. Ollie’s inventions can be seen at the NHRA museum in Pomona, Calif. “The museum keeps the memory of these cars and inventions,” says Monique Valadez, NHRA museum manager.

Ollie died about 15 years ago. His family carries on his life story as an inventor, husband and father, who changed the NHRA not through power but the capture of time.

Who was first?

Oliver Riley? W.H.David? Lew Bond? Ed Eaton? Welcome to the confusing world of multiple claims of origination, says David McClelland, known as “the voice of the NHRA,” who holds, since 1959, a prominent national announcing role. While the NHRA museum credits Riley as the Christmas Tree inventor, there are others who claim a share of the fame. W.H. David, from Lafayette, Louisiana, the founder and president of Pel State Timing Association, early on began using a traffic signal-like device to start races. “He started using a rudimentary electric starting device in the ‘60s,” says McClelland. Lew Bond, an NHRA Division 1 official, and his predecessor Ed Eaton, who also served in Division 1 positions, also claim credit. An article in Hemmings Muscle Machines by Jim Donnelly tells, “Eaton came up with a countdown system of five yellow lights, each flashing at half-second intervals before the green would light. Bond developed the electronics to make it work.”

Says McClelland, “My personal feeling? They all could be given some props as being the originator, but, and it’s a big but, which was first? All three are widely scattered: Oliver on the west coast, David in the deep south, Eaton on the eastern seaboard; most likely they were all working on it at the same time, maybe with knowledge of the other, maybe not. Communications were not as sophisticated as today. But it is ironic that all the claims of origination occurred roughly in the same time frame. As you can see, it’s almost a matter of ‘Whom do you believe?’”