Drag Racing History

Drag racing is one of America’s greatest past times. Learn more about the origins of this two-lane motorsport and what it’s like today.

Living Life a Quarter Mile at a Time

NHRA Winternationals - In-N-Out Burger Pomona Dragstrip on Facebook
NHRA Winternationals - In-N-Out Burger Pomona Dragstrip on Facebook

Americans love fast cars. While the rest of the world has been focused on racing through winding tracks, one of our greatest motorsports takes place in a straight line in an attempt to achieve top speeds. Drag racing is where two vehicles line up at the “Christmas Tree” and both accelerate to the end of a set distance over a long strip of asphalt in the quickest amount of time. You’ve got dragstrips all over the United States spanning an eighth, quarter, half, or even a full mile for these high-speed hot rods to compete at. But how did this sport of straight-line speed come about? Take a trip down memory lane as we look back at the early history of drag racing.

Southern California Hot Rods & Post WWII Racing

1930 Ford Model A hot rod - carsforsale.com
1930 Ford Model A hot rod - carsforsale.com

Drag racing’s roots trace back as early as the 1920s in Southern California. It’s here that gearheads would culminate at dry lake beds to compete in their souped-up hot rods to achieve top speeds approaching (and sometimes surpassing) 100 mph. You may associate the term “hot rod” with an older car that features a flame paintjob and extensive customization to the exterior, but they’re more than a visual style. These were specially crafted speedsters, stripped down to only the most basic components and given modified engines. This created better power to weight ratios for the cars and allowed them to accelerate significantly faster than stock models. These pre-war hot rods typically consisted of Ford models like the Model T or Model A carrying heavily modified Flathead V8s.

World War II put a pause on the Southern California hot rod scene, but the fascination with going fast only grew in the post-war era. Now there were people coming back from overseas with a greater understanding of engines thanks to their experience working on military vehicles like the Willys MB, M3A1, Dodge WC, diesel tanks, and aviation craft like the P-51 Mustang. That mention of experience in aviation also lent a hand in the utilization of better aerodynamics for hot rodding.

Hot rods racing - coast-classics.com
Hot rods racing - coast-classics.com

Racing at dry lake beds came back into the picture for the Southern California hot rodders, but the speed craze was now nationwide. Thankfully, the war created surplus air strips around the United States at decommissioned air bases. This gave middle American motorists a place to hold their own head-to-head races with their own hot rods. These long patches of empty asphalt were the earliest forms of what we now know as the modern dragstrip.

So many people showed up in hot rods all over the country to speed without any restrictions, standardized safety equipment, or coordination. It was at time that a sanctioning body needed to come into existence to set some rules to keep this motorsport viable. That’s how we ended up with the National Hot Rod Association.

Creation of the NHRA

Wally Parks with his early hot rod - nhra.com
Wally Parks with his early hot rod - nhra.com

Wally Parks was a part of the early Southern California hot rod scene prior to World War II. He even founded the Road Runners Club in 1937 in which he organized drag races on public roads. Parks ended up as a driver for General Motors testing their military tanks and spent time in the army before returning to the states to continue is passion for speed. In 1947, Parks helped organize and run the Southern California Timing Association (SCTA) which both organized events and acted as a record keeper for speed trials out on the dry lake beds and salt flats.

SCTA organized their first Speed Week event at the Bonneville Salt Flats in 1949. These events had the racers perform time trials from point to point rather than race directly against each other. The following year saw the creation of the Santa Ana Drags at an old airfield. Not only did this location introduce the use of computer timers for races times but it was able host head-to-head races more capably. As drag racing continued to change and expand, Parks finally introduced the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) in 1951 to act as a governing body over the growing motorsport as organized races started to take hold.

Wally Parks at an NHRA event - nhra.com
Wally Parks at an NHRA event - nhra.com

Parks was the first president of the NHRA and oversaw the governing body as they made decisions on the issues of standardized safety equipment, regulating vehicle performance, and instituted classes to help even the playing field. The first official NHRA sanctioned race wouldn’t occur until 1953 at the Los Angeles County Fairgrounds in Pomona, California – a dragstrip location that the NHRA continually uses for the season opener to this day.

1955 is when the NHRA took their sanctioned drag racing events nationwide. The NHRA Nationals toured around the USA helping further popularize drag racing at various airfields and newly developed dragstrips. These event locations would gradually be updated over the years with standardized NHRA lighting and timing equipment as well as extensive renovations in terms of safety infrastructure and grandstands to create the modern dragstrips we know today.

Some Iconic Drag Cars

NHRA has seen a ton of great drivers and memorable cars over the course of its history. We went through and found some of our favorites that either held historical significance in the sport or that were some show stoppers at drag events. Let us know who you enjoyed speeding down the dragstrips back in the day down in the comments below too!

Dragliner - georgeklass.net
Dragliner - georgeklass.net

Dragmaster Dragliner Special

Jim Nelson and Dode Martin came together to form Dragmaster, one of the first drag chassis builders and a legendary drag racing duo. These two went into business with each other helping produce race chassis and parts that helped grow the motorsport. They also won some of the early NHRA events including the 1962 NHRA Winternationals. The crew crafted a number of different cars, but their most iconic has to be the Dragliner Special.  A sleek, closed cockpit design featuring a small-block Chevy with its headers sticking out from the body work.

Stone, Woods & Cook - The Gearhead Lounge on Youtube
Stone, Woods & Cook - The Gearhead Lounge on Youtube

Stone, Woods & Cook Willys

Fred Stone and Tim Woods worked together to create a hot rod out of a Studebaker known as “Swindler”. The duo couldn’t retain their driver and joined up with Doug Cook in 1961 to drive their new 1941 Willys Coupe that they’d swapped in a blown V8 engine . The trio of Stone, Woods & Cook would go on to set records and win Nationals titles in their ever changing Willys coupe, but their public rivalry with Big John Mazmanian is what really brought crowds to the stands. Weekly advertisements and reporting on the rivalry could be found in hot rodding magazines in which the two parties would call each other out creating the infamous name calling of “Pebble, Pulp & Chef” and “Big June”.

Hurst Hemi Under Glass - dodgegarage.com
Hurst Hemi Under Glass - dodgegarage.com

Hurst Hemi Under Glass

Hurst Performance is one of the bigger names in the world of drag racing and muscle cars as a whole. Tp market themselves, the aftermarket performance brand crafted an exhibition  wheelstander, a drag car dedicated to creating so much torque it could pull a wheelie down the length of the dragstrip. It was a series of brand new Plymouth Barracuda models over the course of 1965 and 1970 that featured a fuel injected Hemi mounted at the rear of the vehicle. These wheelstanders were called “Hemi Under Glass” as you could see the Hemi powerplant clearly through the rear window.

1972 Motown Missile 'Cuda Pro Stock - allpar.com
1972 Motown Missile 'Cuda Pro Stock - allpar.com

Mopar Missile

The Mopar Missile, sometimes also known as the Motown Missile, was a series of cars developed with the help of the Chrysler Performance Development team for Pro Stock drag racing. It was technically one of the first major instances of a manufacturer backing a drag racing team. The original Missiles came in the forms of the Dodge Challenger, Plymouth Duster, and Plymouth Barracuda in the ’70s.

Sox & Martin 1968 Plymouth Barracuda - Lou Costabile on youtube.com
Sox & Martin 1968 Plymouth Barracuda - Lou Costabile on youtube.com

Sox & Martin

Ronnie Sox and Buddy Martin were one of the most successful drag racers of their time. The iconic red, white, and blue colored Mopar cars dominated dragstrips around the country. One of their most successful cars was a 1968 Super Stock Plymouth Barracuda that won the 1968 and 1969 NHRA Nationals.

Petty's 1965 Plymouth Barracuda - Lou Costabile on YouTube
Petty's 1965 Plymouth Barracuda - Lou Costabile on YouTube

Richard Petty’s Outlawed

Richard “The King” Petty took a break from NASCAR for the 1965 season after his 426 Hemi was banned from racing. Petty spun the ban into a publicity stun as he took his Hemi powerplant to the dragstrip that year in his “Outlawed” Plymouth Barracuda. What was supposed to be high point in the history books for drag racing and Petty turned into one of infamy. Petty had an accident that sent his vehicle into a crowd resulting in an untimely death. Petty had the car buried away on his property so it wouldn’t be seen again, but he briefly returned to drag racing in a completely new Barracuda.

Moonburst dragster - stanlow69 on jalopyjournal.com
Moonburst dragster - stanlow69 on jalopyjournal.com

Moonburst Dragster

Moonburst was a front-engined AA/Fuel dragster driven by Jack MacKay back in the ’70s. The Mooneyes sponsored dragster could achieve a 6.6 second quarter mile time and featured a custom made matching trailer. It was a Mopar powered beast that disappeared from the limelight soon after it had been featured in magazines of the time. It resurfaced along with its trailer some 43 years later sitting out at a Texas farm.

Fishbowl - mikechasephoto.com
Fishbowl - mikechasephoto.com

Tom Hoover’s Fishbowl

One of the most beautiful examples of early Top Fuel dragsters has to be Tom Hoover’s “Fishbowl”. This long full-body dragster featured a blown and injected 392 CID Hemi and unique tail design around the cockpit and parachute. The nickname “Fishbowl” came about when Tom told a reporter that a hole in the tail section he planned for wood paneling was instead for a fish tank to be installed jokingly.

Snake & Mongoose

While Snake & Mongoose were two different people, their storied rivalry is one of drag racing’s most memorable. Don “The Snake” Prudhomme and Tom “The Mongoose” McEwen went on a national drag racing tour and teamed up with Hot Wheels to help popularize the motorsport to the general masses. Prudhomme was known for his 1970 Plymouth Barracuda Funny Car with McEwen lined up next to him in a 1970 Plymouth Duster Funny Car which were both recreated as Hot Wheels cars. Their story was so interesting that it was recreated for the big screen as the movie Snake & Mongoose, which we ranked in our list of the best race car movies of all time.

Related Pop Culture Articles

MF Ghost: A Modern Successor to Initial D

The 1970 AMC Rebel Machine was All-American Muscle

The ’64 ½ Mustang Started it All

Jesse McGraw

Jesse McGraw brings his life-long car obsession into his writing. A fun childhood that involved growing up around race tracks, working on a rusty ‘99 Dodge Dakota held together by zip ties, and collecting Hot Wheels developed into a strong appreciation for automotive history. If there is an old, obscure, or rare car, he wants to know about it. With a bachelor's degree in Web Development & Design from Dakota State University, Jesse can talk shop about car or computer specs, focusing on classic cars, imports, and car culture.

  • 1

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Share
Tweet
Pin