Redevelopment Plan for LA Fairplex Signals End of NHRA Drag Racing at Pomona

The Los Angeles County Fairgrounds or Fairplex, in Pomona, has been debating what to do with some of its less-used 487 acres for 20-plus years. Many proposals have seen mixed opposition. The National Hot Rod Association strip on the Fairplex property has been a popular mecca for the sport of drag racing since opening in 1953. But competing interests, and a slow reduction in racing spectators, are signaling the end of the storied track. 

Why is drag racing so important to the Fairplex?

Pomona drag strip
Top Fuel dragsters at Pomona drag strip 2018 | Getty

The Auto Club Raceway drag strip has been home to some of NHRA’s most prominent races. For decades it has been both the season’s inaugural and closing racing venue. Historical wins, elapsed time records, and untimely driver deaths have all played a part in it becoming drag racing’s most historic track. And within the Fairplex, the NHRA Museum is the sport’s premiere historical record. 

Top Fuel dragster owner Roland Leong and crew, 1965 Pomona Winternationals | Getty

Drag racing began in Southern California. First, at the dry lakes outside of Los Angeles in the Mojave desert in the 1930s. After the war, the timed quarter-mile format conducted on abandoned airstrips set the standard. And by the early 1950s, drag racing exploded across the country. 

Neighboring cities and residents complain about drag racing

LA County Fairplex
Fairplex layout with drag strip on left | Fairplex plan

But the neighboring households surrounding the track can’t stand the racing. Noise and congestion are the typical refrains. In fact, in 2012 NHRA closed operations at Pomona for a time over noise complaints. Because of the track’s layout, the majority of it rests within the Fairplex footprint, which is in Pomona. But the tower touches the edge of the property within the jurisdiction of the city of La Verne. And the specialized parking next to and behind the tower is also in La Verne.

La Verne Fairplex
La Verne Fairplex | La Verne Specific Plan

The city has been a vocal opponent of racing held there throughout the years. Its Specific Site Plan is moving forward with plans for that parcel eliminating its use be the Fairplex. So far, it doesn’t look like those plans will affect the track too much, but that portion of the current drag strip facilities will be no more.

As for the Fairplex, it has put forward a revitalization plan first meant to debut in 2020. But you know what happened that year, COVID-19. So this April, Pomona presented the plans asking for community input. Included in the future plans are affordable housing, new retail and restaurant spaces, and a multipurpose community green space. 

Why does the Fairplex want to end drag racing there?

Pomona drag strip
Funny Cars race at the Pomona Raceway in 2001 | Getty

It touts this as bringing the Fairplex in line with present and future interests and needs. “Reflecting the true identity of the organization, while boosting marketing opportunities and igniting new revenue-producing activities” are just some of the goals. Let’s be honest, the bottom line for all of this is the “revenue” part of the equation. And there is nothing wrong with that. 

Pomona drag strip
1968 NHRA Winternationals standing room only | Getty

How the Fairplex addresses racing is veiled but significant. “Another concern of the panel is a seeming conflict or polarization between ‘what Fairplex has been’ and ‘what it can be.’ Some stakeholders indicated resistance to change. In addition, many on-site functions have outlived their relevance, and there appears to be little appetite for innovative or significant change to reflect modern needs or changing demographics.”

Follow the money…

NHRA Winternationals 1966
1966 NHRA Winternationals Drag Race at Pomona | Getty

The coffin-nailing continues, “Interviews with stakeholders revealed ambiguity about Fairplex’s identity. The ULI panel believes Fairplex’s identity and core businesses need clearer articulation and suggests evaluating those businesses to identify opportunities for generating the best returns for Fairplex and its investment partners.” If it “evaluates” the NHRA track and determines that the “best returns for Fairplex and investment partners” lies elsewhere, then racing is over.

La Verne redevelopment
La Verne redevelopment plans with walkway cutting into track area | LVSP

NHRA responded to this post by saying, “Pomona is not going away,” says Jeffrey Young, NHRA’s VP of Communications. “We have a multi-year contract with the Fairplex. The LA market is very important to us. It’s been a staple of the sport through the Winternationals.” But it forgot about the closings of Irwindale Raceway, Carlsbad Raceway, Orange County Raceway, Terminal Island, Lions Drag Strip, San Fernando, San Gabrial, Fontana Drag City, and most recently, Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, just this year.

How has NHRA handled other track closings recently?

La Verne redevelopment
La Verne redevelopment plans with walkway cutting into track area | LVSP

NHRA has a storied history of moving on once track owners consider selling. From Englishtown to Wild Horse and Atlanta, tracks have closed. NHRA either removes the race altogether or takes it to another track. What else can it do? It doesn’t own the tracks.

But wait a minute. It did own Atlanta Dragway but shut it down last year. It sold the 318-acre site to a South Korean company to build a battery plant. So even when it has complete control over a venue, there are no assurances it will keep them open.

Phoenix, Houston, Wild Horse, Atlanta, Palm Beach, Memphis, Englishtown…

OCIR closed
Orange County International Raceway | Facebook

Houston Raceway Park is only the latest track to be closed this year. It held NHRA’s SpringNationals there for decades. While NHRA says it was talking with Tulsa as a replacement, it is calling a second race scheduled for Las Vegas the SpringNationals for 2023.

Redevelopment, especially redevelopment of county fairgrounds with a historic race track and horse racing track on the premises, moves slowly. NHRA says it has a contract with the Fiarplex through 2028. That gives everyone enough time to face closing the track after by 2028. It’s only five years away.

So even if it were announced tomorrow that the track is toast, it could still take years before anything happens. You can call it progress, regress, greed, or community improvement. Whatever, it sure looks like the end of drag racing at Pomona is coming soon.

09/12/2022: This post was updated to include comments from NHRA, more information about track closings, and La Verne Specific Plan Illustrations.