Saturday, August 27, 2011

Griffith Ranch

Los Angeles County, June 21, 1995

Just off the 215 freeway, it would be nice to say there’s still an active ranch dedicated to the film industry, or a museum, or something other than the reality that it’s a unassuming landmark on the northeast corner of Foothill and Vaughn acting as part of the perimeter fence of what was then a bolt factory and is now a propane yard. Time marches on. Shoot, this is D.W. Griffith we’re talking about, the guy who invented Hollywood, and ‘Birth of a Nation’ was filmed here.

While here, there was this feeling of having been here many times before, which as it turns out, was a block away where the top end of San Fernando Raceway ended at Foothill and where this writer’s dragster crashed in 1966.  As part of the land shared with long gone San Fernando Airport, the drag strip was run (mostly by Henry Hibler) from 1950 to 1969….and like the ranch, made its way into numerous TV and film spots. Race day was Sunday, and local noise abatement ordinances allowed for only three hours of competition (12:30 to 3:30) ‘without mufflers’, so it was a Chinese fire drill to qualify and go through a field of eight for the $250 top eliminator prize. It was one of the few places we, as fledgling top fuel racers, actually had a chance at winning. Memories are mostly of the incredibly high track temperatures and sitting strapped in a fire suit and drinking the giant 50 cent cups of pink lemonade nonstop through a straw under the mask.

As to the crash, this writer was baffled by a glitchy clutch action that was grabbing too early and asked driver Bob Hightower to take shot at it. By putting extreme force on the handbrake he was able to hold it at the line but that proved costly on the top end for the brake handle came off in his hand. Add to the that the chute didn’t deploy and he was in deep snow on a track with a notoriously short shutoff area…something like 1500 feet before reaching the concrete overhead arch that was Foothill Boulevard, and the pole in the middle with the little sign that said: ‘Spin Out Area’.  Bob thought quickly and slowed the car some by coming down on engine compression before dodging the pole and flipping the car on the rocks on the other side. Miraculously, he was uninjured and we actually gained a sponsor out of the incident for one of the people helping extract Bob was the owner of Chute Metal Products in Tarzana, a maker of drag chutes, harnesses, and racing safety equipment, and my running mouth of how crappy our parachute was led to his correction that it was actually my dimwitted mounting of the chute and general lack of knowledge of the aerodynamics that make them work, led to a great relationship once we all cooled down.  

Plaque inscription: NO. 716 GRIFFITH RANCH - Originally part of the San Fernando Mission lands, this ranch was purchased by David Wark Griffith, revered pioneer of silent motion pictures, in 1912. It provided the locale for many western thrillers, including Custer's Last Stand, and was the inspiration for the immortal production, Birth of a Nation. In 1948 it was acquired by Fritz B. Burns, who has perpetuated the Griffith name in memory of the great film pioneer.
Location: 12685 Foothill Blvd at Vaughn St, San Fernando
Google maps: 34.289834,-118.411267

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