What A Drag

Teenagers, horsepower, and the brief, boisterous life of the Beechmont Dragway.

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A turquoise 1955 Chevrolet Bel Air small-block V8 twitched forward. Two glasspack mufflers coming off headers rumbled and popped as the driver struggled to hold the engine’s revolutions up while clutching and inching to a white line just feet away. Next to it, the driver of a 1952 250 horsepower Oldsmobile Super Rocket 88 Hydramatic accelerated against the brake as he crawled along. 

A man holding two flags stood in front, motioning them slowly ahead. Both drivers fought their cars’ power, landing exactly front bumper to the line with their motors’ revs rising even higher. When the carefully choreographed lineup was perfect and still, the flags jerked skyward and the two cars bounded off in an explosion of noise from two stressed engines and a thick gray haze of burning rubber.  

In seconds, one car’s bumper touched the finish line 1,320 feet straight ahead and the furious match ended. The results came over a loudspeaker, announcing elapsed times and top speeds. Like any classic rivalry, the winner, regardless of his neighborhood or life’s accomplishments, got bragging rights and—if he was lucky—a plastic trophy. And in 1958, when cars were central to a young man’s identity, both mattered at the Beechmont Dragway, where I stood for hundreds of hours with my high school friends on the track’s dusty apron, peering through a chain link fence, hearts pounding as cars raced past.

It may not have looked like much: a quarter mile of flat, straight, two-lane blacktop running east-west, parallel to the Beechmont Levee across from Lunken Airport. But the Beechmont Dragway loomed large in the lives of the youthful drivers and their fans. And when the engines howled and the tires squealed, it meant something to the older, more refined folks who sat on patio chairs on new decks in Signal Hill—the neighborhood on the hill above it.

This was new for them, an unwelcome intrusion into the pastoral ambiance they’d come to enjoy in Mt. Washington. And as their anger bubbled at the commotion below, the future of the drag strip became cloudy. There was a showdown brewing—a struggle based on generation, class, and politics formed between a small group of relatively affluent adults and a bunch of gritty kids who loved big motors and the speed they produced.

That made so many teenagers of the 1950s and ’60s go to flat fields in America to watch, hear, and smell cars racing wheel to wheel on short strips of road? And why were cars so important to them? Many of us began our preoccupation with cars through literature—specifically the novels of Henry Felsen, who wrote about teen rebellion in wildly popular books like Hot Rod, Street Rod, and Rag Top. Or we idolized James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause, terrified and titillated by the deadly two-car “chickie run,” watching the action unfold on drive-in screens as we sat, rapt, in our borrowed family sedans.

Inspired, we began to act out these scenes in our own neighborhoods on quiet, straight patches of road: pairs of teenage guys vying to win a short race with a blast of speed. I once lined up my mom’s 1958 red Nash Rambler American with reclining front seats—she had no idea her daytime ride to work was a dragster at night—against a McNicholas High School classmate’s British 1959 Vauxhall on the stretch of Forest Road running alongside Anderson High School. I won, but we spent part of the time watching over our shoulders for the headlights of the Forest Hills Rangers who were on the prowl for street racers.

The Beechmont Dragway, which operated during warm weather from 1956 to 1959, was born of just such vehicular passion and rogue racing. And oddly enough, it started as a way to get kids off the street.

One hot summer night in 1955, a pack of teens from the Roselawn area poured two lines of white kitchen flour across the old Lockland Highway near the General Electric plant. The lines were exactly one quarter mile apart—the start and finish of their illegal urban drag strip. Throughout the evening, as spectators watched from a footbridge overhead, pairs of cars matched up for competition, some ferrying back and forth to Bilker’s Delicatessen over a mile away to fine-tune their engines in the parking lot they’d converted into their makeshift pit. The drivers had been racing on this spot for weeks—long enough that the police had caught on and were planning a raid that night. When the squad cars descended, kids scattered. Some were arrested at the scene, others at the teens’ hangout, Carter’s Restaurant, across the street from Bilker’s.

Six of the group, including 17-year-old Ed Hermes of Winton Place, a junior at Hughes High School, spent the night in juvenile detention. “The next morning, with our parents standing behind us, Judge Benjamin Schwartz told us he was going to save someone’s life,” Hermes recalls. “Then he pointed to a police officer in the back of the courtroom and told us that he was going to be our mentor and we were to do what he told us. That man was Carl Poppe, and he worked with us to start the Beechmont drag strip.”

Hermes and his friends belonged to hot rod clubs—regional groups that virtually institutionalized a generation’s obsession with cars. They proudly announced their membership with engraved iron plaques that hung from chains under their back bumpers. Hermes was part of a group called the Knights of the 20th Century; others were from rival groups like the Cam Lifters and the exotically named Diablos. Poppe tapped into their shared need for speed, and blended these clubs together into what became the Southern Ohio Timing Association (SOTA). Its purpose: to hold legal, supervised drag races—something that, the judge hoped, would end the action on public roadways.

Hermes, today a retired Procter & Gamble executive who lives in Green Township, remembers that creating the Beechmont Dragway was a huge challenge. Neither he nor anyone I talked with about the strip recalls where the money came from to build it; whatever the source, it wasn’t enough and Poppe turned to his many contacts in Cincinnati and in-kind contributions poured in. Zimmerman and Adler, a road building company at the time, cut their rate for the two-lane stretch. Heavy equipment companies donated operators and gear. Sometimes those operators had to go home to their families, and when they did the kids learned to operate the huge vehicles on the site, moving dirt and digging trenches themselves.

Officer Poppe died in 1993, but his widow, 95-year-old Vera Poppe, who still lives in Cincinnati, remembered her husband’s fondness for the project. “He built that drag strip with those kids,” she said. “He wanted to make them safe on the streets.”

When the strip opened in 1956, it drew local teens—some in old cars they’d bought with money from after-school jobs, others driving family cars (vehicles that, under normal circumstances, might have been at church on a late Sunday morning). It also lured serious dragsters from the region looking for fresh competition.

The car preoccupation that fed the new drag strip was powerful in the 1950s partly because a guy in high school with a weekend job could usually pull together the cash for what was called a “hundred dollar car.” Clunkers, jalopies, hoopties—call them what you will, they filled high school parking lots all over town because they were reliable (mostly) and safe (fairly). And for the ingenious hot rodder, they were the platform for whatever custom creation the owner could imagine and afford.

Take John T. “Buck” Schrotel, the son of Cincinnati Police Chief Stanley Schrotel. “My mom took me up to a mechanic’s shop at the top of Beechmont hill in Mt. Washington near our house to make something of myself,” says Schrotel, now a retired attorney living in Tampa, Florida. At the tender age of 14, the McNicholas High student became a mechanic’s apprentice—a gig that gave him the money and skills to indulge his automotive obsession. Working at the shop, Schrotel found a 1937 Packard Phaeton convertible four-door “buried under a bunch of stuff in the back.” He bought it for $135, “fixed it up, painted it azure blue, and had the neatest car around.” Schrotel recalls it even had three spare tires and the original owner’s manual, which included instructions on removing bloodstains from the leather seats. “You may recall that Packard was the preferred car for gangsters when it was built,” he says. A quick Internet scan shows a well-restored version of a Phaeton would fetch as much as $375,000 today.

Just as Officer Poppe and Judge Schwartz had hoped, many teenagers transferred their dangerous road ways to the Beechmont Dragway. Larry Conover and Richard Hoffman were fast friends from McNicholas in the late 1950s. “I came from Loveland and he came from Milford,” says Hoffman, 68. “When we’d see each other on that stretch of Wooster Pike between Terrace Park and Newtown, the race would be on.”

Conover remembers other races against Hoffman running in the opposite direction after school on twisty Newtown Road. But when the drag strip opened, he became a regular, taking his 1953 Chevy (“it was highly modified with a couple of two barrel carbs”) down to the Beechmont drag strip a couple times a month where he won a few trophies in the D Class.

But it was Hoffman who turned that youthful love of cars into an expensive lifetime passion. He says he went to Beechmont Dragway once and ended up wandering over to the oval where the midget autos were roaring around. That’s all it took: “I became a roundy-round guy,” he says—an oval racing fan. And he did it in a big way, becoming the owner of Hoffman Auto Racing, winner of eight United States Auto Club (USAC) national titles and the owner of seven Indianapolis 500 entries over the years. And even though he wasn’t driving, he was a hands-on racer—“the right front tire changer in the pit crew,” he says. When we talked last spring, he didn’t seem to be slowing down. “Tomorrow night, my number 69 Mean Green car will be running at Lawrenceburg Speedway,” he said, “and I’ll be in the pits.”

Jerry Kanis (McNicholas High Class of ’61), remembers his first trip to the Beechmont Dragway with his father, an auto body repairman. “For me that drag strip was like going to Mecca,” he told me via cell phone while driving from his home in Dacula, Georgia, to Bowling Green, Kentucky, for the 10th Annual Hot Rod Reunion at the Beech Bend Dragstrip. After racing his 1952 blue Ford column shift with two glasspack mufflers a few times at Beechmont, logging moderate elapsed times in the 20 second range, he eventually went off to a long executive career in the auto world, mostly involving the Ford Motor Company, where he worked for six years in Special Vehicle Operations—Ford’s racing group.

Whether our preoccupation with chrome, speed, and fender fins was fleeting or a gateway to a lifelong obsession, we didn’t seem to pass it along through our bloodlines any more than we did 45 rpm records, pegged pants, or 25-cents-a-gallon gas. The car may have been king for my generation. But the king is dead.

Last May I sat down with a group of journalism students at McNicholas High School who had just read a number of archived school newspaper columns from 1960. The eager young columnist was me, and I had used my weekly forum to spotlight cool cars from the McNick parking lot. Only Jessie Kaising, the student editor and a senior, could grasp the social significance that a car had a half-century ago.

“I drive a 1988 Nissan 300zx that my grandmother gave me and my dad helped me fix up,” she said proudly. But even she joined the group in laughing when I told them that one of my classmates had welded an extender to the floor shift of his 1947 Plymouth because he thought the sight of his knuckles scraping on the headliner would look cool as he drove down Beechmont Avenue. Pushed to explain how a car could loom so large in my adolescence yet be so small in theirs, they just shook their heads.

Looking to academia for an explanation, I talked to Dr. Tassie Hirschfeld, a professor of anthropology at Oklahoma University. Hirschfeld’s take on the matter was that cars symbolized the changing era. “Car design was at its apex in the 1950s,” she said—a world apart from what came before, and what followed. “It was the Atomic Age and cars had lots of chrome, big engines, and men were almost exclusively the car buyers. There was a great difference in the beautiful design of the 1957 Chevrolet and the 1937 and 1987 ones. The 1957 was the zenith.” Hirschfeld sees sociology playing a role, too. Part of the edginess about cars in the 1950s was the fact that owning one gave a teenager a rare feeling of independence from his parents. Today teens take cars—and the independence they offer—for granted. “Today it’s technology,” she said. “Today’s teens are far more interested in their Internet presence through social networks like Twitter and Facebook.”

Of course, there are exceptions to every rule. While males were clearly more car-centric in the 1950s, there were some women who got bit by the love of gas engines. When two girls faced off at the Beechmont Dragway, it was called a “powder puff run”—which, by today’s standards, sounds like an insult. But everybody paid special attention to those races.

For the record, teen obsession with cars in the 1950s and early ’60s was not a universal American phenomenon. In New York City, where it was possible to get just about everywhere by bus and subway, you couldn’t even get a license until you were 18 years old. Talk show host and former Cincinnati mayor Jerry Springer, who grew up in the borough of Queens, remembers taking the wheel with some friends only once during high school. “We got the keys to one of our parents’ cars and drove it around the underground parking garage of our building,” he says.

Today there are reverberations from the adolescent automotive revolution of the 1950s and ’60s. At Fuel, a coffee shop housed in a former gas station on Riverside Drive just east of downtown, a mostly older crowd gathers on sunny Saturdays from 8 a.m. to noon to show off their wheels. Sports cars of all ages, vintage cars, motorcycles, period trucks, and occasional hot rods park with hoods up while proud owners and car lovers talk over every detail. On Friday evenings during warm weather another group convenes in a Kroger parking lot on Rt. 28 outside Milford to display their fabulous rides—mostly American customs, hot rods, and muscle cars. Bob Armstrong, business manager for St. Bernadette parish in Amelia, often shows up at the Rt. 28 cruise-in just to admire the work of others. “A lot of us who used to work on our own cars still have a fascination to see what other older guys are working on in their garages,” he says. “The latent talent is still there; these guys never stop.”

Armstrong didn’t race at the Beechmont strip, but he supported his automotive habit by working at another teen passion: rock and roll. When he was a McNicholas High student in the early 1960s, he made the $295 needed to buy a ’52 Mercury by playing at canteens with his band, the Ram Rods. A couple years later, he was at the keyboard when the Casinos recorded their doo-wop hit “Then You Can Tell Me Goodbye.” He walked away with enough to land a new Corvette T-Top: $5,400 cash.

So, what happened to the Beechmont Dragway? Today as you drive along the north side of the Beechmont Levee, you see only a dense grove of trees ensnarled with honeysuckle. In 1960, just as it was to open after a seasonal flood receded, it fell silent. Hermes remembers its demise as a class battle. “We called them ‘the rich people on the hill,’” he said, referring to the neighborhood where today newer, even bigger houses dot the landscape. “The word we got was that people living on Signal Hill got the city to enforce a noise ordinance to shut the strip down.” He points out the irony in this: Airplanes had been taking off right next door at Lunken Airport for years. And then there was the “pollution” problem. “We heard they hated seeing the dusty film from spinning tires floating up onto their patio tables and into their swimming pools,” he says.

John Gilligan, former governor of Ohio and a Cincinnati City Council member during the Beechmont Dragway’s short life, remembers the controversy well. “There was a lot of howling on that side of town about running a drag strip and its noise, and that was a contributing factor to shutting the whole thing down,” he recalls. Though he doesn’t think it was discussed on the floor of council—back then, the city manager had the legal and political juice to handle such cases—he recalls the complaints and remembers it being a classic generational and class dispute. “This was one of those relatively few cases where one self-generating effort, namely those kids wanting to start a drag strip, ran afoul of older folks,” he says. “And those in opposition were louder and in many cases were people with standing in the community and therefore got more attention than the dragsters.”

In the end, some residents took legal action, recalls Harry Adler of Madeira, whose family owned the land that the dragway sat on. “That pressure, combined with allegations of city noise ordinance violations, caused the strip to close,” he says.

And thus ended the idea of a safe, controlled urban drag strip conceived and developed by a tough-love police officer, a visionary juvenile court judge, and some rag-tag, car-loving kids who just wanted to roll with their hair on fire. Such a partnership was unique for Cincinnati. And by the accounts of many of the kids who lived the experience of the Beechmont Dragway, it did take some dangerous rogue racing off the streets. The strip wasn’t the only 1950s youth venue driven into obsolescence. Drive-through restaurants, where kids paraded round and round through the parking lots in their cool cars, closed because too many adults complained that too many kids made too much noise. And eventually teen canteens—one of the only social havens where boys and girls revved up on hormones, loud music, and engines, could dance, talk, and show off—lost their steady flow of volunteer adults and closed.

If political pressure hadn’t killed the Beechmont Dragway, other factors might have done it in eventually. For one thing, drag racers need lots of room after the finish line to safely come to a stop. “When the cars got faster, the shut-off area was too short there,” Kanis points out. Hemmed in by Wooster Pike at one end of the track and the Little Miami River at the other, the Beechmont venue could never have grown to accommodate the more powerful engines of the 1960s and ’70s.

Perhaps it was telling that this drag strip, born of adult concern about our lives, was quickly shuttered by other adults who let tranquility trump safety. Think about it. Only a few years later, still other adults told us to turn down our music, cut our hair, and go fight a war in a country we’d barely heard of, in villages we couldn’t even pronounce. For many of us, that brief battle over a gnarly piece of flood plain on the east side of Cincinnati was a lesson that affected us for life.  It has always been a heavy lift for adults to understand the primordial dynamics of youth even though they were young once themselves. I’ll leave others to sort out the complicated psychology and sociology of changing times. But as someone who lived vicariously through his cars during a time when the phrase “catalytic converter” sounded like science fiction and “global warming” meant a hot afternoon at Sunlite Pool, I still resent the death of the dragway. Don’t be surprised if one day you drive by my empty-nester condo and see a banner hanging from the balcony in direct violation of the home owners’ agreement that shouts, “Drag Strip, Sí; Signal Hill, No!”   

Photograph from the collection of Tom and Jerry Westerkamp, courtesy Mike Helton
Originally published in the October 2011 issue.

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