Drag Racing

views updated


Millions of fans watched drag racing in the early twenty-first century, and the industry generated billions of dollars. The origins of this speed-craving sport lie in the city streets of 1930s Southern California, where young men exchanged glances at stop lights and then urged their vehicles down the road in a dangerous, thrilling competition. Police began patrolling for these law-flaunting youths, and racers moved their contests to secret locations that provided the necessary flat straightaways, such as dry lake beds in stretches of desert such as Muroc in the Mojave Desert. Aficionados formed the Southern California Timing Association (SCTA) in 1937. This group organized races that focused less on rapid acceleration, as future drag races would, and more on achievable top speeds, as racers accelerated for three miles before crossing the starting line. After overuse threatened the safety of racing at the lakes, hot rodders eventually moved to airport landing strips, which conventionalized the quarter-mile course length, since that was the farthest a car could race on a landing strip while still having enough paved ground on which to decelerate. In the early 2000s, most top racers weren't able to maintain their extremely high speeds for longer than a quarter-mile without destroying their engines.

Racing largely disappeared during World War II, but as returning GIs armed with mechanical expertise gleaned from service re-entered society, the sport returned to popularity as well. This time, it overwhelmingly featured the two-car head-to-head competition that gives the sport so much of its excitement. The first organized drag race took place at a Santa Ana airstrip in 1950, and official legitimization was not far off. In 1951, the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) formed as an umbrella organization for the smaller racing clubs nationwide, and by 1955 it had created the National Championships. Its role has remained largely static: the NHRA oversees the main 18-race circuit of drag racing, makes and enforces the rules for the different classes of vehicles, and publishes Hot Rod, a periodical launched in 1948 and aimed at the enthusiast. Motorheads formed car clubs across the country in the early 1950s, and the NHRA sent its Drag Safaris or Safety Safaris across the nation to instruct these clubs in racing safety and rules.

The Race

Drag racing began with street cars, and the first true "dragsters" were basically street cars with engines modified to produce more power and bodies modified to reduce weight. In the early 2000s there were 200 classes of vehicles grouped into twelve categories sanctioned by the NHRA, of which the two fastest and most popular were Top Fuel and Funny Cars. Top fuel cars are the fastest land racing vehicles on earth, although funny cars are not far behind. Fuel cars are light, long, and skinny, leave their rails exposed, and are seldom aerodynamically engineered. Most crucially, top fuel cars use nitromethane in their engines, a powerful, volatile concoction that also propels rockets. Fuel cars look the least like stock cars, and have varied the most in design and appearance over the years. Funny cars, also called floppers, must resemble the body design of a car manufactured within the last five years, but their bodies are made of fiberglass instead of metal and "flop" down onto the chassis of the car. The sponsors' need for product identity mandates that funny cars resemble regular cars as much as possible, by, for instance, featuring door handles even if a funny car lacks doors. They have powerful engines, but must use gasoline. Even though they are more powerful than fuel cars, and use aerodynamic styling to compensate for their required weight of 2,325 pounds, they consistently perform about ten miles per hour slower than fuel cars.

No matter the class, each race features two cars (or motorcycles) battling head-to-head. The loser is eliminated, and the winner moves on to face off against another racer. The NHRA awards points for several accomplishments, including elapsed time and top speed. Thus, the winner of a championship achieves victory by having accrued the most points. Since the 1980s, commercial sponsors have awarded large sums of money to the winners. Although the NHRA itself financially rewards its victors, these prizes are dwarfed by the corporate money. Building or buying a dragster is expensive in itself, but the cost of maintaining such a vehicle is prohibitive. Very few racers actually make money from the sport; most pursue it for the love of competition, the rush of speed, and the satisfaction of combining the precision engineering and innovation of the crew with the fast reaction time, hand-eye coordination, concentration, and killer instinct of the driver.

Innovations for Speed and Safety

One of the most important parts of the drag race, the Christmas tree, debuted in 1964. A fixture of every drag race since, this tower of lights can be found at every track in America. Amber bulbs light every half-second in sequence, culminating with the green lights that signal go. The Christmas tree setup also ensures that dragsters are staged properly before the race and that they do not false-start. Known as red-lighting, a false start disqualifies the racer and immediately awards victory to the other competitor.

Other innovations, specifically safety considerations, were slow to be adopted in the 1960s. After a string of high-profile fatal top fuel crashes, Don Garlits, a highlyregarded racer, debuted a new design in 1971 that quickly caught on. Previously, the standard fuel car design, known as the slingshot, placed the engine over the rear axle and seated the driver behind it. Although this arrangement desirably centered the majority of the car's weight over the rear wheels, it left the driver exposed to extreme danger. Engine explosions were sadly common, and flying engine components or burning nitro often injured or even killed drivers. The new design, known as a mid-engine car, or middie, placed the driver in front of the engine, reducing the danger. Besides being safer, the middie was simpler to construct, lighter, more aerodynamic, and, most importantly, faster than the slingshot. The middie's success also allowed top fuel to recapture the spotlight from funny cars, which had enjoyed a vogue in the late 1960s.

Improved technology also gave drivers Nomex fireproof suits to wear, NASCAR-style fire extinguisher systems to mount in their dragsters, and improved parachutes to slow their cars. Modern parachutes can brake cars in a shorter amount of time than a race lasts. Goodyear and M&H debuted new tires in the early 1970s, which gave dragsters better traction. The NHRA eventually also sanctioned the laying of a sticky substance on the race tracks, also improving traction.

However, the NHRA does not always prize innovation, even though its official slogan is "Ingenuity in Action." In 1963, Pete Robinson returned to a technique 1950s sidewinder racers had discovered: using jacks to elevate the rear wheels above the ground, allowing them to spin before they made contact with the ground. Jacks could immediately shoot a car down the track up to five car lengths ahead of its competitor. Although such a start inhibited a car's steering capability, the gain in acceleration was tremendous. Yet the NHRA banned the use of jacks, for unclear reasons. Similarly, funny cars could eclipse records set by fuel cars if they were allowed to use canards (wings over the rear wheels that reduced air turbulence) or airfoils (similar to spoilers). However, funny cars are banned from incorporating any device that directs airflow underneath the car's body, which both these innovations do. Thus, the NHRA's very specific rules sometimes encourage and other times stifle the creativity of drivers and crews.

Female Drag Racers and the Role of Family

Women have been top drivers at NHRA events and at other drag races, even though their numbers have been fairly low. Until the early 1960s, many women competed in the separate ladies' races until the NHRA admitted them into the regular races, recognizing that the rules did not prohibit female drivers. In the late 1960s, the NHRA cited spurious safety considerations as their reason for rescinding women's licenses. Outrage followed, and eventually the NHRA realized the need for the promotional money and fans that women drivers were bringing in. Women finally got back their right to race in 1970. Of all the female racers, Shirley Muldowney is the most famous. In 1977, she became the first woman to win the fuel car NHRA points championship, and later became the first person, male or female, to win the same championship three times. Although women drivers faced a great deal of criticism and animosity from male drivers, standout racers such as Muldowney, Peggy Hart, Shirley Shahan, Paula Murphy, and Barbara Hamilton proved that they had just as much of a right to race as men.

Additionally, drag racing is for many a family sport, where couples, parents, and children all work together on teams and enjoy following the sport together. The Junior Drag Racing League, sponsored by the NHRA and featuring smaller dragsters and shorter distances for its youngest racers, features young boys and girls, any of whom may continue on to become a top name in racing.


Drag racing is primarily a family spectator sport. Its draw is both in applauding the engineering feats that allow these specialized vehicles to soar down the track and in basking in the spectacle of the show. One of the most prominent features a spectator notices about the race is the unbelievable noise coming up from the track, especially when nitro engines ignite. The billowing smoke from the burnouts that clean each dragster's tires also functions to entertain the fans. Drag racing is an American celebration of technology, skill, nerve, and showmanship.

See also: Auto Racing, Drag Racing, Hot Rodding, Open Wheel Racing, Sports Car Racing, Stock Car Racing


Batchelor, Dean. The American Hot Rod. Osceola, Wis: Motorbooks International, 1995

Moorhouse, H. F. Driving Ambitions: An Analysis of the American Hot Rod Enthusiasm. New York: Manchester University Press, 1991.

Post, Robert C. High Performance: The Culture and Technology of Drag Racing 1950–1990. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994.

Spohn, Terry, ed. The Fast Lane: The History of NHRA Drag Racing. New York: Regan Books, 2001.

Vincent, Peter. Hot Rod: An American Original. Osceola, Wis.: MBI Publishing Company, 2001.

Elissa L. David