Ever since the invention of the motor car drivers have been obsessed with speed. But how did this lust for the ultimate fast ride evolve into one of the most popular sports in America?
Drag racing was born in the dry lake beds in the California deserts. In the 1930s as engines got better and drivers got braver, speeds began topping 100mph. But it wasn’t until after World War II that a bunch of kids with cars, hanging out with nowhere in particular to go, turned into something more serious.
Popularity grew steadily but drag racing still remained largely an underground pastime. Races frequently took place on disused military runways with the first organised event dating back to 1949 at the Goleta Air Base in California.
Things were simple and low-tech in those days. Cars were driven to the track or towed in makeshift trailers. Drivers raced over a quarter of a mile, the length of a city block, but without the aid of safety barriers or regulated track conditions. The spectators in particular got a raw deal with no proper grandstands or seating.
As the decade turned drag racing began to get organised. The National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) was founded in 1951 by Wally Parks, and within the decade two classes of competition had developed ‘Unmodified Stock’ and ‘Top Eliminator’.
As the sport grew the first drag racing superstars emerged. The Albertson Olds and Dragmaster Dart were the cars to beat. The Dragmaster Dart was famously owned by Dode Martin and Jim Nelson, and was so successful they used it as a model on which to base cars built for other drivers.
The 1960s saw things get more technical. The traditional race starter, the flagman who stood between the two racing cars, was replaced with an electronic lighting system. More thought was given to the design of the cars with a shift in shape from wide and short to long and thin, and an increasing number of organisations sprung up including the World Series of Drag Racing.
This decade also brought about big business involvement. Ford and Chrysler battled to make the best cars with designs becoming more radical. ‘Funny cars’ were introduced which were comprised of a one piece fibreglass body which had to be lifted up so the driver could climb inside.
However, it wasn’t until one of the most serious accidents in early drag racing history in the 1970s that the fundamentals of car design changed. When Don Garlit’s front-motored dragster suffered a transmission explosion which split his car in half and cut off his right foot, he vowed to invent a car with the engine in the back capable of being a winner. He succeeded and within two years all car engines sat behind the drivers.
From the 1970s onwards drag racing began to take its modern shape. This was the era of sponsorship with big companies throwing their support behind teams. Volunteer crew members were suddenly given wages, trailers were turned into mobile workshops, and even the NHRA found a sponsor allowing it to offer bigger prize money.
When the NHRA celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2001, it was clear to all that drag racing had truly stamped its mark on the heart of the American public.