Lyon Air Museum

The Days of Drag Racing at John Wayne Airport

In the 1950s, when ‘hot rods’ were all the rage in Southern California, and John Wayne Airport (SNA) was officially called the Orange County Airport, sanctioned drag racing took place on one of the airport runways.

According to the Lyon Air Museum, an aviation and automobile museum on the west side of the airport, in June 1950 Santa Ana local C.J. “Pappy” Hart struck a deal with Orange County to use a portion of an unused runway for drag racing.

He promised to give 10% of the proceeds to the county. And the country’s first official commercial drag strip was born.

Racing was held every Sunday, from dawn to dusk, on what became known as the Santa Ana Drag Strip and continued until Sunday, June 21, 1959. 

The Lyon Air Museum is paying tribute to those drag races with a new exhibit, Santa Ana Drags and Beyond: America’s First Official Drag Strip, running July 1 through September 4, 2023.

Bean Bandit Dragster

Joining the history-making drag racing cars on display during the Santa Ana Drags and Beyond exhibit is the famed Bean Bandit Dragster

The Bean Bandits was one of the earliest drag racing teams and was organized in San Diego in 1949 to pool its member resources so they could afford to go drag racing.

Known for its Mexican membership, the Lyon Air Museum says the club in reality consisted of multiple ethnic groups, including Anglo, African-American, Asian, and Lebanese members.

A few months after Santa Ana Drag Strip opened, the Bean Bandit Dragster was built. Within a short period, the dragster was winning races at Santa Ana Drag Strip, as well as all over California. The Bean Bandits went on to win hundreds of races and are still racing on the dry lakes, salt flats, and select drag strips where they continue their tradition of breaking records.”

(All photos courtesy Lyon Air Museum)