Forty-seven years after the last front engine dragster screamed down Lions Drag Strip in Long Beach, California, a new museum pays tribute to Mickey Thompson’s track, the cars, and legends who drove them.
Located in Rancho Dominguez, the Lions Drag Strip Museum was made possible by Price Transfer CEO Rick Lorenzen, in addition to countless volunteers. The curated space highlights the numerous records broken at Lions Drag Strip since it first opened in 1955. The track saw the biggest rivalries duke it out and several infamous deaths which have made it one of the most prolific drag strips in history.
You may ask yourself, how can a quarter-mile piece of asphalt mean anything? Has Lions Drag Strip become more of a legend through stories with a romanticized perspective over the years?
To enter the Lions Drag Strip Museum, you must walk through Lorenzens’ collection of automobiles, antiques, and automobilia. Once you get to the designated area for the drag strip, the room opens up and greets you with walls painted by artists Kenny Youngblood, Yvonne Meclalis, and Keith Mooreland with murals depicting Lions, complete with a life-size timing tower. The attention to detail is fantastic.
The first cars you see are “Pure Hell” and “Pure Heaven,” arguably the most iconic 60’s altereds, staged and ready to do quarter-mile passes with the Christmas tree going through staging to the green light. Behind them are the staging lanes, with altereds, front engine rails, doorslammers — all ready for battle.
Legends are everywhere you walk: TV Tommy Ivo, Don Prudhomme, Ed Iskendarian, Danny Thompson, Larry Sutten, Gene Adams, Carl Olson, Steve Chrisman, and many more. Part of the grand opening was a panel discussion with prominent members of Lions history all sharing stories from their past — the legends who made Lions iconic.
I’ve never seen so many original items from Lions Drag Strip in one place. The history this building contains is overwhelming. There are glass cases full of original Lions Drag Strip paraphernalia: Pit passes, trophies, fire suits, and even original signage from the long beach facility. Every piece curated for the museum is unique and has a story behind it.
I collect vintage drag racing jackets, so of course, one of my favorite pieces in the museum was the original Lions Drag Strip record holder jackets. I have always coveted having one in my collection, and to see so many in one spot was incredible.
My Father, Bill Lazaris, and I were invited to show our Chassis Research TE-440 front engine dragster, the “Antique Doll,” at the museum for its grand opening due to its history at Lions.
In 1959, the Antique Doll was a Top Eliminator at Lions Drag Strip with engine builder Gene Adams, Ronnie Scrima — the chassis man — and Mort Smith, the driver..
Shortly after Tommy Ivo beat the Scrima-Adams-Smith dragster, the team upgraded to a larger 394ci Oldsmobile engine. But, while dialing in the car, the team experienced some handling problems: the rail would violently turn to the right every time the clutch dropped.
Mort opted to sit out of the next pass. But Mickey Brown, a friend to the team and the first man to break 150 mph with pump gas, was at the event as a spectator and decided to hop in the digger and give it a shot.
As soon as he dropped the clutch, the rail went violently to the right, but he kept his foot in it. Unfortunately, the dragster went off the track and rolled on its side. Mickey was only 21 years old when he died on September 12, 1959.
A portrait of Mickey Brown (third from left) along with 12 other racers who lost their lives at Lions is on display at the museum, honoring those who died in pursuit of speed. Stories of these men were passed around. Mort Smith, the original driver of my dragster, spoke fondly of his friend Mickey Brown, remembering his accomplishments and the night drag racing took his life.
Having Mort Smith next to the dragster he drove 60 years earlier was humbling. It’s not too often you get to build a relationship with the people involved with your car from the past. Hearing the stories about the car means so much to me as is does to him. I realize it’s more than passing on a vehicle, but preserving history.
I asked him what this museum meant to him as he actually experienced the drag strip. He answered: “it’s wonderful, there is so much history here, it definitely did it [Lions Drag Strip] justice.”
Nitro Huffing Hemis
Outside of the museum, nitro filled the air. Steve Gibbs and the Nitro Revival brought out an entire row of nitro breathing cackle cars. Behind each one was a traditional push car: everything from station wagons to old Ford pickups.
Near the end of the event, each car was pushed towards the K-rail so people in attendance could witness what a nitro powered machine smells like and how it sounds.
And an exciting special guest was also there. The Hemi Under Glass wheelstander came out to put on a show, bringing the front end off the ground in an exhibition of a bygone era.
It was an incredible honor for me to have the opportunity to be in the presence of drag racing legends. I do my small part by preserving the history of Lions Drag Strip by keeping the story alive with my dragster, the Antique Doll. Letting enthusiasts relive the glory days by making exhibition passes and cackling the car. On this weekend, I had the opportunity to meet like-minded racers preserving history as well. You may have only been able to smell the scent of Nitro in the air during the grand opening, but when you stand alongside some of the most iconic dragsters, you can feel the presence of greatness.
Does Lions Drag Strip deserve this legendary status? This museum gives tangible proof of how iconic the track was.
To make an appointment to view the collection, contact the museum here.
Photography by Nicole Ellen James