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Drag Racing Then and Now

In order to understand drag racing's roots, you’ve got to transport yourself back to 1948. World War II is over and you’ve just returned home to Southern California. You’re in your early 20s with a little extra cash to spend, the rush of the war is over but something inside you craves the thrill of adrenaline again. Late model cars could be picked up for some pocket change and hot rodding was generating a lot of buzz around town. These fellas wanted to go fast and that they did. Vintage_Drag_Racing_40 Vintage photos courtesy of the Dode Family collection. It was the perfect combination, except for the awful accidents caused by street racing - citizens were up in arms at these dangerous hot rodders! The war had left many unused airstrips which were easily converted to the earliest drag strips. Soon enough drag racing was becoming an organized, sanctioned event with folks like Wally Parks at the helm. Vintage_Drag_Racing_26 There was little money at stake, if you were lucky you’d win enough to fill your tank up with gas to get you back home again. The thrill of speed is what propelled these early racers, and the excitement of figuring out how to engineer vehicles to go fast. Vintage_Drag_Racing_36 By the 1960s things were beginning to take shape into something more similar to what we know drag racing to be now…but just by the slightest amount. Young guns had grown up a bit, rules and regulations were changing as cars grew faster and faster. Vintage_Drag_Racing_01 Front engine diggers were the way to go the fastest during the 60s – gone were the days of taking your daily driver to the strip and hoping to be competitive. While a track’s top winners could make a name for themselves locally, it was only those at the top echelon who could turn the hobby into a career (and that meant they owned a shop where they were earning work on other people’s cars!) Vintage_Drag_Racing_07 After this point, dates get a little hazy. I couldn’t tell you the exact year – but drag racing evolved into something totally different. A hobby turned into a show, with millions of dollars at stake - huge sponsorships, multi-millionaire drivers, royalties, and advertising. Becoming a top contender at the drag strip departed the reach of the average man, to reside only in dreams. Vintage_Drag_Racing_15 The old saying “you got to pay to play” really comes into effect. Sponsors are needed to support the sport and help to pay the bill of speed. Just as we don’t race on airstrips any longer, we also can’t expect jalopies from the 1930s to make ¼-mile 3 second passes. Vintage_Drag_Racing_11 For drivers, not just anyone can get behind the wheel any longer. In order to accelerate at 3Gs and then come to an abrupt stop takes an extreme amount of conditioning, not to mention balls of steel. Vintage_Drag_Racing_21 The fact that drag racing has changed is indisputable - whether good or bad is up to personal opinion. The folks in the pits are still gearheads, trying to squeeze as much out of their machines as possible…even if their budgets are more then I’ll ever dream of having.  Adrenaline and ingenuity are still the cornerstones that have held drag racing together for all these years. Vintage_Drag_Racing_17 Understanding the vehicles and sport throughout its history yields much more appreciation for the modern state that drag racing has evolved to. If you’ve only attended major NHRA events, check out nostalgic drags next time you get a chance…and vice-versa to all you old-school hot rodders! Vintage_Drag_Racing_34 More on local Southern California amateur drag racing at Irwindale in Long Live the Drag Strip.
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