SANTA ANA – In the 1950s and 1960s, more than just airplanes squealed and roared at what was then called Orange County Airport.
Back then, a quarter-mile strip of concrete at what's now John Wayne Airport hosted frequent drag races. This weekend, some of the hot-rodders from back in the day are getting together at Santiago Park to reminisce about trophies and busted rods.
"Every weekend that it didn't rain, we were out there," recalled Diane Vandenberg, an Orange native who now lives in Seal Beach. "There are a lot of memories. It was always a good time. ... Sometimes we would pray for a Santa Ana wind because it came from the right direction and could help push our cars and make us go just a little faster."
The races pulled in drivers and spectators from across the region. In the 1950s, racers got to use part of the airport, which kept them off city and county streets.
"As time went on, there would be hundreds of cars and thousands of people coming out to watch," said Leslie Long of Yorba Linda, whose car, "Good Grief," piled up the trophies.
"We stopped taking trophies when we found out we could get $7.50 cash instead," Long recalled. "We didn't know where to put them anyway."
Back then, Long, now 80, by day was a physicist at the Naval Ordinance Laboratory in Corona.
"I had a lot of fun. I did research all week and ran races all weekend," a smiling Long remembered.
Still a racing fanatic, Long keeps several dozen binders' worth of old race results, programs, and photographs related to drag racing.
He often helped out an Orange garage, owned by Jack Hart, where several cars got prepped for the races.
Long is helping to organize Saturday's picnic, called the "Main Malt Picnic." The name comes from the Santa Ana drive-in frequented by racers after a hard day on the track. The yearly picnics usually attract about 40 racers and sometimes, some of their old rigs.
Vandenberg said she's looking forward to seeing some of the old cars.
"I'm a Ford fanatic. "My '32 Ford was my first love," she said. "I was one of the few (women) who got into a competition coupe that was stripped down as far as we could with the biggest engine we could put in it."
Vandenberg got into racing because it was a family pastime. She often helped her father maintain the four-cylinder Fords he used for his citrus-spraying business.
"I was his No. 1 son, I guess," Vandenberg said. "My mother even drove a stock car at the drags."
Vandenberg didn't do too well starting out, but later, she began collecting trophies.
"The secret was my shifting...and I only weighed 98 pounds at the most, so that helped, too," she said. "I had an eye for the flag. I could get off the line faster than most. My best time was 103 (mph) in about 13 or 14 seconds. I'm very proud of the fact that I was able to do that."
And though she's a few months away from her 75th birthday, her love for cars and racing is as strong as ever. She still attends races whenever she can.
"I'd do it again, if I could find my (racing) car. I'm still capable of driving," Vandenberg said. "I think I could do a really good job of it."
The Main Malt Picnic begins at 10 a.m. Saturday at Santiago Park, 900 E. Memory Lane in Santa Ana. It is open to the public. Participants must enter the park off Memory Lane and should bring their own lunches. Information: 714-921-1814.