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Keeping the Houston Drags in tune

John Lombardi sat down with the Houston Today to talk about the past, present and future of the Houston Drag Races.
John Lombardi stands in front of his son's Ford Meteor at A1 Car Wash in Houston. The Meteor is one of the several dozen cars getting a tune up before the 2011 Houston Drag Races on Aug. 19

When the clock strikes in John Lombardi's car shop, it roars like a drag car. Racing gear lines the shop walls, and peeking out of Lombardi's right shirt sleeve is the bright red tattoo of a 1932 Hudson hot rod.

"It's a reminder to me to stay with the project," he says, laughing.

A heavy-duty mechanic who moved to Houston in the early 1970s, Lombardi is the horsepower behind the Houston Drags—the premiere drag race in northwest B.C.

Every August since 1997, the three-day event has brought thousands to a small airstrip outside Houston.

It was a long time coming.

Lombardi, who this year built a mini drag car for his 8-year-old-granddaughter, was in his twenties when he volunteered to build the Houston airstrip.

"I was quite young then, and I thought to myself, 'Man, this would be cool—to some day have drag races up here."

Lombardi and a friend even built up a natural grandstand with the leftover dirt. But career and family soon came into play and the idea idled for 25 years.

The catalyst, said Lombardi, was Toni Madison.

In the spring of 1996, Madison started a local car club—the Bulkley Valley Cruisers.

Once the Cruisers lit to idea of a Houston drag race, it was a matter of months before they had sponsors, cars, and an agreement from the District to shut down the airport.

In its best year, 160 drivers registered for the Houston Drags—racing everything from 220 mile-per-hour dragsters to sleds, bikes and stock cars. In 2004, Houston became the first northwest race to switch from a 1/8 to a much tougher 1/4 mile strip.

Lombardi raced a little himself, running a hot-rodded Model A equipped with Beach Boys tapes and air-conditioning.

"I'm not a racer," he said. “My passion comes from getting the most of the car, making it do what it’s supposed to do.”

To that end, Lombardi served as crew chief for the Salem Contracting Car. The alcohol-injected dragster ran the 1/4 mile in 7.74 seconds.

Cranking out 1500 horsepower, Lombardi said the Salem team had to fill the engine's water cavities with cement to withstand the acceleration.

Lombardi's partner, Monty Belsham, told him the sensation of racing that car is total euphoria.

"The noise, the smell, the rubber, the whining of the engine… and then all of a sudden you watch your lights. And when your time comes—you're gone."

Over 14 years, the Houston Drags have added a two-storey steel tower to call races from, broadened into new events, and booked a string of headliners like the 200 mile-per-hour cars of the Northwest Door Slammers.

Tragically, in 2006, the Cruisers and the Houston Drags suffered a huge loss with the death of Toni Madison.

Madison had been driving a friend to dinner when she apparently lost control of her hot rod, which fell into the Bulkley River. She was 49.

"The car club—after Toni passed, it was just really, really hard to keep things going," Lombardi said with emotion. "Toni was one of these special people."And she was a gear-head, head to toe."

As it enters year 15, the Houston Drags are still running strong.

Lombardi passed the role of Race Coordinator to fellow gear-head Cam Malkinson in 2009. But on the day he spoke to the Houston Today, Lombardi had spent the morning calling sponsors, getting set for a race he first imagined some 40 years ago.

“I love the sport," said Lombardi. "But most of all, I like it because I live in Houston and we’ve taken a thought and turned it into something.”