Drag Racing the LA River

LA River Night Drag Racing

It’s long been a staple of hot rod exploitation flicks but it’s difficult to imagine a time when people actually drag raced down the LA River. Life Magazine sent a photographer out to capture these hauntingly atmospheric images. It must have been a difficult shoot: the low levels of light, the long exposures to capture the speed as the headlights leave a trace of the death-defying path. The results were more than worth it. They look so peaceful and moody that convey a solemnity that makes you forget the cacophonous sounds that must have been echoing off of these concrete river banks 50 or 60 years ago. If you tried this today, you might have to just keep going after you finished your first quarter-mile run, as the cops would no doubt be well alerted and on their way. What was once a minor nuisance for some neighbors resulting in a few equipment violation tickets would today send out the helicopters. And jail time. Alas.

LA River Night Drag RacingI’ve happened upon underground street drags on more than a couple of locations—although now much more likely to happen with Hondas and Toyotas than Fords and Chevys. I can’t help but wonder if it would be better if these guys were still tolerated in the off-road strip of the LA River than on a lonely warehouse street where anyone might accidentally cross their path. Sure, there’s always official sanctioned drag strips, but where’s the fun in that?

Whatever the case, it’s certainly worth enjoying these images and imaging ourselves in a world slightly more tolerant of (admittedly dangerous) automotive recreation. Support your local street racer.

More images from the set at Along for the Ride.

DISCUSS (7 Comments)

  1. Pilote Ancien

    Helicopters aside, pushing the envelope belongs on a road course (HSAX) or a sanctioned strip. It’s one thing to crowd or surpass legal limits while driving within your own. It’s another to engage in a competitive event where your adrenalin is up and your focus is only on performance, to the exclusion of observing your surroundings (defensive driving).

  2. Peter Linsky

    In hindsight, there probably couldn’t have been a safer place for these cars to run (unless you dropped a wheel into the central drain cut). The old LA River channel had only recently been paved, if memory serves (I was much too young to drive in the early 1950s) and street racing was extremely dangerous unless you went way out in Orange County or the northern end of the San Fernando Valley. Alas, almost every single proper, sanctioned drag strip in greater LA has disappeared…so kids race on the street again.

  3. Mike Jacobsen

    I’m not sure when that channel was paved along side downtown, but probably pre-War, and it doesn’t look very smooth; there are visible joints between slabs of concrete. I sure agree it’s a pity we have no regular 1/4 mile strips; as a teen we went to Azusa, San Fernando, and Lions quite often.

  4. john

    “Thou Shalt Drag”…

  5. John Straub

    Thanks for showing the link guys!

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