There was a time back in the 1960s when Southern California was littered with dragstrips. From Orange County in the south to San Fernando in the north, the region was the epicenter of drag racing.
Today, things are much different. For many years there’s basically been one quarter mile dragstrip in Southern California, and it’s located far to the east in Fontana.
I use the word ‘basically’ because there is another historic and world-class dragstrip in LA , but it only sees real action twice a year. I’m talking about Auto Club Raceway at Pomona, home to the annual NHRA Winternationals and Finals.
Given its importance to the history of drag racing, it’s a bit sad that outside of these two weekends per year, the state-of-the-art racing facility at Pomona goes unused. There are no club meets, street legal race days or Friday grudge races held there.
Fortunately though, there is still a reason for race fans and gear-heads to come to Pomona all year round, and that would be the Wally Parks NHRA Motorsport Museum, located just a stone’s throw from the historic dragstrip.
This is not the first time we’ve visited the NHRA Museum, but it is the first time we’ve been back since the place underwent a major renovation in 2014 with the addition of its ‘Gallery of Speed’ exhibit.
After wanting to check out the new and improved museum for a while, I made a point to stop by and have a look when I was in Pomona for the recent Grand National Roadster Show.
As soon as you walk into the museum you are greeted by the Gallery of Speed exhibit, which shows how the grassroots hobby of hot rodding evolved into drag racing and other high speed motorsports as we know them today. Naturally, it begins with the rapid growth of the automobile in America during the first few decades of the 20th century.
From there it moves to the birth of hot rodding itself and tells the tale of Wally Parks and his pioneering work with the Southern California Timing Association (SCTA), Hot Rod magazine and then the NHRA itself in 1951.
Among the life-size dioramas displayed is a portrayal of the early days of drag racing at Pomona featuring Art Chrisman’s historic machine and the Albertson Olds dragster originally built in the late 1950s.
Also on display is the old timing clock that was preserved from the original Pomona events. It’s a very cool piece of drag racing history to say the least.
Combined with the museum’s existing collection of historic drag racing artifacts and memorabilia, you get a great picture of how drag racing evolved from the dry lake beds and air strips to become a nationwide phenomenon.
And just as drag racing developed from the world of hot rodding, so too did land speed record competitions, which are represented by this depiction of the Beast III streamliner on the Bonneville Salt Flats.
Horsepower On Display
With a goal of showcasing the history of drag racing, the best way to do it is through the cars themselves, and the NHRA Museum does not disappoint in this department. From the earliest days to modern times, there are drag machines of every shape and size to be found.
One area of the museum features all manner of purpose-built dragsters and rail cars, including the Glass Slipper. This was the first enclosed cockpit fiberglass-bodied dragster, originally built in 1958.
It’s impossible not to be fascinated by the wild, experimental days of drag racing in the 1960s. The twin-engined dragster movement is represented by the Dragmaster Two Thing and its pair of blown small block Chevy V8s.
Eventually, the engines would be moved behind the drivers and the shapes of these cars became more uniform and much closer to the Top Fuel dragsters of today.
Another side of the museum is dedicated more to production-based drag machines and Funny Cars. That’s where you’ll find machines like the Stone, Woods & Cook Willys from 1966, powered by a blown Hemi and capable of mid 9-second ETs.
And representing Detroit’s own foray into the world of drag racing in the early ’60s are cars like the Melrose Missile, a Super Stock Plymouth powered by a 426 Wedge motor.
To a history geek like myself, the display of classic Funny Cars at the NHRA Museum is worth the price of admisison alone. It includes cars raced by Tom “The Mongoose” McGewen and Don “The Snake” Prudhomme, as well as this Mustang driven by Parnelli Jones.
While “TV” Tommy Ivo was primarily known for his hot rods and dragsters in the early years, he also spent some time behind the wheel of Funny Cars, including this Dodge from 1977.
As with all other types of racing machines, Funny Cars became more aerodynamic as the years went on. Here’s the body of Kenji Okazaki’s Mooneyes-sponsored car from the 1990s.
And speaking of aerodynamics, here’s a 1/2 scale Toyota Celica wind tunnel model that TRD used when it entered NHRA Funny Car competition back in 2002. In just nine weeks, they had a competitive body that was ready to hit the track.
Not to be left out is the museum’s extensive collection of dry lake and salt flats racers, and that includes the famous Larson & Cummins Bonneville Streamliner now owned by Mooneyes’ Shige Suganuma.
And if the collection of real cars isn’t enough, there’s also the impressive display of scale race car models, replicating many machines which weren’t fortunate enough to have been preserved or restored.
The Wally Parks NHRA Museum might not be the largest auto museum in Southern California, but for hot rodders, drag racing aficionados and speed fanatics in general, it doesn’t get much better than this.
And even if you don’t consider yourself a fan of drag racing, a visit to the NHRA Museum might be just the thing to convert you.
Cutting Room Floor