You’re going to love this: Rick Voegelin built this complete, working HO scale model of the hallowed Lions Drag Strip. Here’s the full tour.
The name Rick Voegelin is a familiar one to gearheads. He was the editor of Car Craft magazine in the 1970s, the golden age of door-car drag racing. Voegelin’s Car Craft, with its hardcore tech features and yards of attitude, was the sport’s leading chronicle. He’s also the author of the book Engine Blueprinting, the recognized bible on the subject. In recent years, Rick has served as the media-relations voice of General Motors for its Indy car and Corvette LeMans racing programs.
Among Rick’s current passions is HO scale slot car racing, and when MCG learned about the awesome Lions Dragstrip layout he displayed at the Lions Reunion recently, we asked our good friend for a full briefing. Here’s Rick.
Lions Drag Strip in HO Scale – Recapturing the Magic in Miniature
by Rick Voegelin
December 2, 1972, was a dark day for drag racing in Southern California – the date of the legendary Last Drag Race at Lions Drag Strip. The starting line crew wore black, the PA system played a funeral dirge, and the crowd dismantled the track after the last pair of Top Fuel dragsters crossed the finish line. The last night at Lions was a volatile mixture of Woodstock and Altamont, fueled by a heady dose of nitromethane.
Now 40 years later, Lions lives again – in miniature. My Lions Drag Strip is a working HO scale slot car track that pays homage to the original track that stood at the intersection of 223rd St. and Alameda in Wilmington, Calif., from 1955 to 1972.
The real Lions Drag Strip was a gritty, working class race track in a seedy part of town, bounded by oil refineries, power stations, and the San Diego freeway. In an age when “supertracks” like Orange County International Raceway and Ontario Motor Speedway boasted glass-walled towers and VIP suites, Lions sported plywood shacks, wooden bleachers, and outhouses.
But Lions had qualities that eluded the antiseptic supertracks. Racing under the lights on a Saturday night, the joint was magical. When the cool, foggy air rolled in from the nearby Pacific, Lions was the king of drag strips. Drag racing ace Don Prudhomme compared Lions to Yankee Stadium: “It was the all-time coolest place ever,” said The Snake.
The Lions Drag Strip model is my attempt to capture the magic of the track where I attended my first drag race. It’s where I raced my ’55 Chevy in the ’60s, and tested cars when I was a rookie writer at Car Craft magazine. And in 1972, I wrote Lions’ obituary.
The slot car drag strip is 24 feet long, with a timed 1/4-mile (in HO scale) and eight feet of shutoff. The track surface is Sintra (expanded PVC) that’s been CNC routed to maintain the height of the raised steel power rails to +/- .002 inches. A variable power supply delivers up to 30 volts of DC current—but because voltage is like nitro to a slot car, the power is typically dialed back to under 20 volts.
A computer-controlled infrared timing system records elapsed times, top speeds, reaction times, and the margin of victory with accuracy to 1/10,000th of a second. A miniature LED Christmas Tree can be programmed for heads-up or handicapped starts.
Lions’ defining features – the grandstands, pedestrian bridge, elevated announcer’s booth, time slip building, concession stands, and porta-johns – were built from scratch or modified from model railroading structures. My long-suffering wife glued hundreds of scale spectators in the stands and created the graphics and signs that line the track.
The stationary cars are diecast replicas of famous drag machines. The electric-powered race cars use classic Aurora ThunderJet and AFX slot cars chassis from the ’60s and ’70s, updated with modern speed parts. The vintage and modern bodies are made from styrene plastic or cast from resin. Classes range from Stock and Super Stock to Gassers, Pro Stock, Nostalgia Funny Cars, and Top Fuel; the classes reflect different levels of modification.
Lions Drag Strip now hosts races organized by the National Thunder Rod Association (NTRA) through the www.Nitroslots.com online forum. In the parallel universe of slot car drag racing, racers compete in NTRA events across the nation by mailing their cars to the host club, which then conducts qualifying and eliminations on their behalf.
With a six-figure budget now the price of admission for even a modest full-size drag racing operation, slot car drag races offer an affordable alternative. A basic car costs about 15 bucks, a pair of silicone tires is a dollar, and the “fuel” comes out of a wall socket. A complete racing operation easily fits inside a Walmart tackle box, and it’s possible to run a national series for the cost of first-class postage. Drag racing is alive and well at Lions in the 21st century – albeit on a slightly reduced scale.