The answer to Southern California’s decades-old drag racing problems could very well lie in returning to its earliest beginnings.
In 2004, Micky Grana purchased a parcel of land just off I-10 in Desert Center, California that had previously been the site of the Desert Center Airdrome, later referred to as Desert Center Army Air Field. Commissioned in the early 1940s, it was utilized during World War II to train General Patton’s armored forces and various flying units for training purposes. Decommissioned by the Army in 1946 and its structures auctioned off, the site was used in a variety of capacities until Grana acquired it from Riverside County.
Grana constructed a new 2.68-mile, 17-turn road course adjacent to the 5,300-foot runway, known as the Chuckwalla Valley Raceway. He has continued to operate the airstrip privately in the years since, giving only very brief thought along the way to the idea of opening it for the purpose of drag racing. That was, until long-time racers Lee and Mary Baltzell, who operate West Coast Street Outlaws, an organization for heads-up, 1/8-mile grudge racing, extended a proposition he couldn’t refuse.
The Baltzell’s, recognizing the need for a facility in Southern California for the growing street, grudge, and no-prep style of racing, approached Grana with the concept of running a series of Street Outlaws-style, no-prep, no-time, flashlight-start races on his runway. It turns out, Grana shares similar feelings on the need to get racers off the streets. To prove the merit of the idea to Grana, the Baltzell’s brought out a group of racers to test out the strip.
“We get asked about it [drag racing] all the time, and my standard answer when I don’t have a real good knowledge of something is: you guys show me how it works and then we’ll decide if it’s worth doing. And Lee and Mary did. They came out and met with me, and they had a concept to do street drags and get people off the street and provide a safe place for people to race and not go to jail. They wanted to do a test out here, and my first reaction is always, ‘let’s see what you can really do.’ People call all the time and tell me they can do this and that, or they know this person, but I’m more of a show me, don’t tell me type of guy. And they did. They brought about nine or 10 cars out; they were good cars, not a bunch of leakers and smokers, but purpose-built cars by guys that had clearly spent some time, effort, and money to do what they love doing. They put on a good show, it was safe, and they impressed me.”
Hit first box checked, Grana was ready to sit down at the negotiation table.
“I told them, ‘you guys did what you said you were going to do.’ It was very unique, because they kept it very hush-hush…otherwise all of these people will show up. And I was pretty happy with that, because I didn’t want to deal with crowd control and all of that. All the way up until an hour before, these guys didn’t even know where they were going. I was impressed because they performed…it wasn’t just talk. So we’re taking it to the next level now,” Grana says.
Grana fully intends to maintain the runway for aviation purposes, but will gradually make improvements as funding permits to cater it to racing use without altering the landscape. First on the docket are proper concrete burnout boxes, along with fencing, plastic barriers, and other essential crowd control items…what he calls the basics to be able to conduct racing events.
“There are wants and needs to get this thing going, and right now we’re going after the needs,” he says.
Drag racing fits into Grana’s ultimate vision for the 1,100-plus acre site of adding a wider array of motorsports to the facility.
“For us, it’s a matter of having more racing, and introducing more people to the raceway. We’re a purpose-built motorsports facility and virtually anything that we can do that’s motorsports-driven that works, we’d like to do here. That includes if the right people came along and we wanted to do offroad or desert tours. In this case, it’s drag racing. We have a bunch of unused land here. We know the road course side really well, and the way I see, the more people that come through here, it makes the racetrack the more successful. And in turn, that makes all aspects of the facility grow.”
Throughout the process, Grana has grown his knowledge of drag racing, and he remains open to any and all opportunities his runway can afford to racers, be it racing or club events, private testing, filming, or other uses. And behind that is his mission to provide those racing on the streets a safe alternative.
“We’ve all seen what racing on a city street ends up at; it’s either jails or hospitals at the end of the day, and we’re pretty big on safety. None of us are doing this to get rich. We aren’t doing this as a profession…everyone has a day job. And so we cater to the hobbyist, sportsman, club-type racing. Lee and Mary are talking about running ‘cash days’ and those types of things, and since the little sneak peaks have gotten out, we’ve already been approached by people in other states to come test,” Grana explains.
“We’re a rental facility, so if a club wants to come in, we’ll put together a day where they can come out in a controlled environment and they’ll be able to let their cars eat,” Grana says. “All the way up to the guys that want to test-and-tune to race for money. Previously, we’ve always used our runway prior for magazine testing and such. With Mary and Lee having a passion for the racing side of things, that’s where we’re kind of dipping our toe in the water. Anything is possible. Where it ends up, who knows. The right people in the right circumstances and the stars align, we’ll do anything that makes sense. But we walk before we run.”
California, the most populous state in the union by a wide margin, has seen the demise of countless drag strips throughout the sport’s history. Time and again, cities have encroached upon racetracks, and either government pressure, the mere value of the land for residential and commercial use, or a mixture of both has wiped them clean off the map. As a result, the most densely-populated area in the country is home to less than a handful of legitimate drag racing facilities, causing an uptick in illegal street racing.
And that’s where Grana and the Baltzell’s have the upper hand. Chuckwalla is located 180 miles from Los Angeles city center, but its position is so remote that its nearest neighbor is more than a mile away, and the possibility of residential encroachment is improbable, at best.
“It will be a long time before that happens. There’s a lot of solar energy production scheduled to go in out here, and solar generally doesn’t lend itself to people wanting to move in. But we’ve already met our requirements to the county to be a motorsports facility, and we passed the test of time with the noise that we produce.”
West Coast Street Outlaws racing is expected to begun in early 2020, but no event dates have been finalized at this time.