La Verne Magazine
How the Lieutenant Helped the Bandit
by Danny Craig
photography by Jason Cooper
Drag racing history makers Keril Keiser, Pomona native, (left) winner of
the first drag racing trophy in the Inland Valley, and Dean Lowell, La Verne,
who raced in the first Pomona Winternationals in 1961 remember fondly their
glory days. Lowell stands by a car that is an exact replica of the one he
raced in that first race, while Keiser stands near a classic style Ford.
Says Keiser, "Back then, you couldn't afford to put a good paint job
on a car-all the money went under the hood. Painted fire flames on the side?
That's not how the real racers looked."
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
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 benefitted from the fairy tale story of the
pauper club of Pomona racers who developed the premiere prince facility
of their sport.