Drag racing visionary C.J. Hart dead at 93

Updated: July 4, 2004, 2:41 PM ET
Associated Press

PLACENTIA, Calif. -- C.J. Hart, who helped create the country's first commercial drag strip, died at 93.

Hart, known as "Pappy," died at the home of son Gerald on June 25, Gerald Hart said Sunday. He had a stroke in May.

Hart and two partners helped to popularize the sport by running the first commercial drag race June 19, 1950, on a runway at the Orange County Airport, according to the National Hot Rod Association.

They set the quarter-mile distance and made a deal with airport operators to rent out space on Sundays. Spectators paid 50 cents. Hart eventually bought out partners Frank Stillwell and Creighton Hunter and the races were held at what is now John Wayne Airport until 1959.

Hart's wife Peggy, who died in 1980, competed regularly at the track.

"There's been drag racing since cars were invented," Hart told National Dragster magazine in 2001. "But I guess they say I invented drag racing because I was the first one to have a commercial strip. ... I saw a need to get people to stop racing on the streets; that was dangerous."

Born Cloyce Roller Hart in Findlay, Ohio, Hart's mother died days after his birth and he was raised by neighbors. He ran away from home as a teenager to work in the circus and later worked for Ford, making engines. Hart moved to Santa Ana in 1944 as Wally Parks began organizing drag racers.

After 1959, Hart operated other drag strips in Southern California and worked as an NHRA safety officer. Hart, who lived in Lake Elsinore, was inducted into the International Drag Racing Hall of Fame in 1991 and the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America in 1999.

His eyesight was failing and he had been unable to drive in recent years, but Hart was still fond of high speeds in his 80s.

"He just had a ball racing motor homes and stuff up hills," his son said.

In addition to his son, he is survived by a daughter, Joanie Hart, six grandchildren and 13 great-grandchildren.

Funeral services were held Thursday in Santa Ana, with participants firing up a loud dragster at the burial.

"They called it an eight-cylinder salute," Gerald Hart said.

Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press

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