What Became of Drag Racing?

While never participating in the sport, I will confess to attending a few organized drag racing events in the early 1970s. But, more than that casual curiosity about an admittedly working-class pastime, I began as a young man to see a hidden connection between my background as a General Motors brat in Flint, Michigan during the ‘50s an ‘60s, and my surely more enlightened, educated adult self.

Yes, I outgrew the morbid fascination with speed and power … and noise. But there was still something to the subculture, I felt.

Organized drag racing began officially in 1951 when Wally Parks founded the National Hot Rod Association. It never seemed much like a “sport” to me – drivers did not appear to have a great deal of skill or endurance to simply mash the accelerator to the floor for a straight-line sprint, then hit the brakes after 1320 feet. But I admired the motivation behind building and tuning a car that would go faster than the next guy’s car. I didn’t care about the professional teams’ hoopla and marketing glitz for Top Fuel Dragsters and Funny Cars. Drag racing was a tribute to amateur mechanics and craftsmen. My vision was of James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause, or the coming-of-age characters in American Graffiti.

It was nothing, if not romantic – for a protected GM brat from Flint.

There was real money, organization, and advertising muscle behind the drag racing establishment as it moved beyond street racing (too dangerous) to sanctioned events on abandoned airstrips, then eventually to sponsorships rivalling NASCAR. Drag racing, however, never managed the mass crowd appeal or TV contracts of NASCAR.

Sanctioning bodies kept challenging the dominance of NHRA. Rival AHRA seemed to be on the rise in the halcyon days of the sixties and seventies, and today there is still an IHRA (International Hot Rod Association) which holds its own events in the U.S. and Canada. There’s even NEDRA (National Electric Drag Racing Association – without the noise, what’s the point?). Foreign countries, too, have their own sanctioning bodies. Despite no international coordination, drag racing enthusiasts have emerged in many parts of the world.

NHRA, IHRA, and the more disorganized “Sportsman Racing” all use different classes of competition vehicles. In addition to rules governing acceptable modifications and bodies for different classes, there is usually indexing, or “brackets,” which sort contestants by how fast they may traverse the quarter mile – measured primarily by time, but also terminal speed. Although not a draw for spectators, NHRA allows “run what you brung” racing by amateurs – where participants can race their own daily driver, with no restrictions on modifications, simply sorted by how fast they think they can run that quarter mile. They’re not allowed to drop below their bracket time (“break out”) – something like a poker bet.

Spectators, such as they are, invariably prefer the noise and smoke of the Top Fuel, Pro Mod, and Dragster classes, but I always found those professional “Eliminator” competitions boring. The draw for me was that street racer going all responsible on the drag strip. Your car should be capable of being driven to the track! And I always liked classes that differentiated the degree of modification permitted to the car, so I could tell what to expect both in appearance and under the hood of competing machines. In my book, all should be “door slammers” (bodies with doors that open and close). 

Although there was a time when Detroit automakers felt that they could gain sales by sponsoring professional racing teams, those days seemed to end in the 1980s. Muscle cars were no longer a thing, except among dedicated aficionados content to buy bolt-on accessories for their aging Camaros, Mustangs, Chevelles, and Plymouths. In the 1990s, a new generation of (mostly) immigrant working-class young men from Latin America or Southeast Asia started making an impact both on the street and at strips with their “tuners” – small imports from Japan or Germany. A flourishing after market of speed parts for Hondas, Toyotas, Nissans, Volkswagens emerged. You still see (and hear) their cars at night on the streets. Depending on the demographics of your area, you may also occasionally see a Mustang, Challenger, or Camaro with booming exhaust note, high RPMs, and manual shifting passing you as well.

Yet, all these interest groups together no longer are critical to sales targets for U.S. or world automakers. It may be mostly generational. Discretionary spending power of younger working-class males has been shrinking. Student loan debt has become astronomical, especially for the less advantaged, well into their career and family building years.

Nobody has the money for building a car from scratch – even if they work in the sector. Bolt-on turbochargers and programmable ECUs are, likewise, very expensive for the average younger working stiff. He has other things to spend his money on – like sports betting and video games. Alas, the old-timers like me are rapidly dying off too. None of us have real-life memories of hot rods in the ‘50s – we don’t even watch Rebel Without a Cause anymore. The Detroit muscle cars of the sixties are a fading memory, good for a branch of drag racing known as “Nostalgia Racing” – where all entrants must be 1978 or older body and engine (with mods) — but little else. Shows are often a better alternative to races. You get prizes for show cars, too. And pride in your creation, or curation, may well exceed the more visceral thrill of beating your neighbor down that quarter mile track – especially for old-timers like me.

Antique cars for antique enthusiasts, seems like the solution. Not sure I have the money or time for that, either, though!

— William Sundwick

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