The History of Drag Racing
Drag racing seems like it’s been with us forever. In truth it’s a postwar phenomenon, with roots stretching back to dry lakebed racing in Southern California in the 1930s. From those humble beginnings to modern times, when a modern Top Fueler can go 0-1000 feet in a tick over three seconds at speeds topping 330mph, we present a brief history of drag racing, hitting important milestones along the never-ending quest for the perfect pass. Wally Parks (photo: Tom Medley/N.H.R.A., via New York Times)
- 1913: Wallace Gordon “Wally” Parks was born in Goltry, Oklahoma. His family moved to Southern California in the early ‘20s. You will see his name again in this story.
- Early 1930s: The dry lakebeds of Southern California were wide-open and available to hot rodders to drive as fast as they dared. Parks starts the Road Runners Club in 1937.
- 1941-45: World War II gives a generation of American boys engineering know-how, thanks to the aircraft industry requiring ever-better planes for the war effort, and others a taste for speed and derring-do for the same reason.
- 1946: Restless young adrenaline junkies turn to hopping up cars; speed contests and bad behavior spill onto the streets of America, giving the boys and their fenders jalopies something of a reputation. Where speed and testosterone is involved, competition will naturally ensue, and with the dry lakes far from civilization, thrifty tinkerers kept their exploits closer to home. Games included Chicken, where two opposing cars would accelerate toward each other to see who would spook first; Crinkle-fender, where moving cars would hit each other without wrecking; and Pedestrian Poker, where a driver tried to brush (but not actually hit) pedestrians. The public was getting fed up.
- 1947: The Southern California Timing Association (SCTA) is formed, meant to organize this growing band of speed fiends. Wally Parks again helped create the group.
- HOT ROD Magazine launches. The name itself was provocative, suggesting a seedy if not downright criminal element—but the magazine’s longer-term goals were to mainstream the car-hop-up movement, and to make a shedload of cash in the process.
- Late 1940s: The idea of side-by-side racing becomes known as “drag racing” – the origin of the term is unclear. Popular theories: The only paved section in smaller towns was on the main drag. Racers may have goaded each other to drag their car out of the shop so they could race. To maximize revs, drivers might hold a car in gear longer, or “drag” through the gears. Which of these is correct? Maybe none, maybe all.
- 1949: Goleta, California saw a match race that some refer to as the first official drag race; another is run at Mile Square airfield in Garden Grove. Soon, SCTA’s first “Speed Week” is held at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah. This is the first instance of timed speed runs; the stopwatch puts a premium on acceleration as well as top speed.
- 1950: Now editor of HOT ROD Magazine, Parks discusses an alternative to the lakes racing that SoCal speedsters had enjoyed for decades, “controlled drag racing,” in the April 1950 issue. Shortly after, C.J. “Pappy” Hart (a Santa Ana, California-based gas station owner/mechanic) opens the first official organized drag racing event. Pappy used an auxiliary runway at Orange County Airport; it was both closer and cleaner than the dry lakes. He charged .50-cents admission to spectators and participants alike, and the Santa Ana drags quickly gained a following. It was here that several drag-racing fundamentals were established. Racers were split into classes that depended on a car’s year, make, engine displacement and more. A computerized clock measured top speed at the end of the quarter-mile (high-tech stuff for the 1950s) and determined a winner.
Early Santa Ana drags (source: Pinups & Kustoms Magazine)
The reasoning behind the quarter-mile distance is as murky as the origin of the term “drag-racing”. Popular mythology ties it to quarter-horse racing, or the distance of a city block, but in an interview with hot-rodding historian Gray Baskerville, appearing in Rod & Custom magazine in 2001, drag racer/ eyewitness Leslie Long swore that it was simply the length of runway available, plus a short run-off, at the Santa Ana facility. Whatever the case, the quarter-mile soon became the default race-distance measurement.
- 1951: The National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) is created to “create order from chaos”; the new sanctioning body would also introduce safety and performance standards to legitimize drag racing. Parks would run both the NHRA and HOT ROD magazine for the duration of the 1950s. Its first sanctioned race, at Pomona, is held April 1953.
- 1954: The first purpose-built, front-engine dragster (rail job, digger, slingshot…) was built by Mickey Thompson. The driver sat on or behind the rear wheels, with the engine far back in the frame. Slingshots were the gold standard of speed until the early 1970s.
- 1955: The NHRA’s first national event was held in Great Bend, Kansas. The event was washed out after the third day by the worst storms seen in the area in decades; the finals concluded in Phoenix two months later. In the end, Calvin Rice won Top Eliminator, with a 10.30 e.t./143.95mph run. Also, NHRA established its Stock Eliminator class—one of many attempts to get back to grassroots racing, using cars that looked like the ones that you could buy in showrooms.
- 1956: Competition for the NHRA came from the AHRA—the American Hot Rodding Association. AHRA was a small but influential circuit of smaller drag strips across the country, and introduced a variety of crowd-pleasing (and racer-pleasing) changes to the sport that were later absorbed by the larger sanctioning bodies.
- 1957: Nitromethane, used as a fuel in top classes, was notorious: it was volatile, and propelled cars to then-unheard-of speeds. Various NHRA member tracks’ insurance companies caught wind; rather than fight the power, the NHRA banned nitro for 1957. The competing AHRA welcomed the nitro-huffing rail jobs with open arms. Meanwhile, the NHRA established its Super Stock Eliminator class, for street cars built to within factory limits. Classes were determined to power-to-weight ratios, and soon Detroit’s engineers were a constant presence at major race events, seeking any competitive advantage.
- 1959: Historic Santa Ana closes, its runway annexed by the airport for expansion. Racer Eddie Hill introduced bicycle tires to the front of his rail job. Parachutes are first used for braking, and are soon mandatory for any car topping 150mph. In the face of the NHRA’s nitro ban, and with the AHRA lacking a full schedule of events, a group of independent racers created the famed “Smoker’s Meet” at Bakersfield.
- 1960: NHRA expands to accept cars with automatic transmissions. The first NHRA World Champ was Buddy Garner, in a Chevy-powered C/Altered Plymouth, who won 24 of 26 events that year. Experimental racers with multiple engines become all the rage, as NHRA racers search new paths to speed and spectacle since nitro went away.
- 1961: Detroit is quietly building stock-appearing cars, unadvertised in any Pontiac literature and not meant for public consumption, that were designed to be flogged on the quarter-mile. Witness the Super Duty Pontiac Catalina: the stripped coupes arrived at the dealer with a trunk full of high-performance parts and no factory warranty.
- 1962: The birth of the Factory Experimental class, which sees stock sheetmetal with powertrains unavailable in these bodies. Think a 421-cube rope-drive Tempest, or a fuel-injected-Corvette-powered Chevy II.
- 1963: NHRA bites the bullet and lets the nitro-powered Top Fuel class back into the fold; they instantly ascend to the top of the high-performance food chain. ABC’s Wide World of Sports covers the US Nationals at Indy, giving drag racing a national audience. The Christmas Tree, a row of countdown lights at the starting line, finally replaces the flagman. And each of the Big Three’s drag racing packages are refined: 409-powered Chevy Impala Z11s, lightweight 427-cube Ford Galaxies and 413-cube Plymouth Belvederes become the scourges of the strip.
- 1964: In August, Don Garlits may or may not be the first man to hit 200mph in a race car. His run and record is official, but evidence suggests that “Golden Greek” Chris Karamesines ran 204mph in Illinois months before, with Frank Cannon also running over 200mph at LIONS Drag Strip that July.
In the stock classes, after years of Detroit perpetually under-rating their engines to gain advantage on the track (and with insurance companies, no doubt) the NHRA develops their own horsepower figures. In the Factory Experimental division, making power was not the problem… hooking up on the crappy slicks of the day was an issue. Engineers tweaked suspensions to solve the problem: altered wheelbases, solid front axles, nose-in-the-air stances… all designed to put more weight on those rear tires, encouraging them to hook up rather than go up in smoke. It wasn’t long before “Dyno” Don Nicholson ran the first 10-second pass in a “doorslammer”; at the end of 1964, Art Chrisman, also in a Comet, eliminated the firewall and pushed his engine back a whopping 25-percent. Art Chrisman's '66 Comet funny car (source: Chevy Hardcore)
- 1965: The AHRA christens these new cars “funny” cars—weird funny, not ha-ha funny—and ran a class of them in Phoenix; the NHRA ran Chrisman’s Comet in the fuel dragster class because they didn’t know how to classify it.
- 1966: Mercury asks the Logghe Brothers to build a one-piece flip-top fiberglass Comet body and tube frame chassis to match—a recipe that, with some tweaks, still holds today. Funny cars, some of which were nitro-fueled like rail jobs, found a home in the new Experimental Stock class. Shirley Shahan becomes the first woman to win an NHRA national title event, in a Hemi-powered ’65 Plymouth, in front of the Wide World of Sports cameras. A match race at LIONS Drag Strip saw John Mulligan run a 6.95 quarter-mile in his Top Fueler, but the run was deemed unofficial.
- 1967: Funny cars get their own category in NHRA. The first official six-second Top Fuel run is owned by Dave Beebe, running an altitude-adjusted 6.94 e.t. at Odessa, Texas. Top engines of the era are estimated to produce 1,800hp.
- 1968: The AHRA’s heads-up Super Stock Eliminator class sowed the seeds of what is now Pro Stock. With funny cars evolving beyond stock classes, but with spectators used to seeing terrific on-track action, SSE saw the largest possible engine crammed into cars like those you could see on the street, running high-10-second passes approaching 130mph. For 1969, the AHRA called it Heads Up Super Stock.
- 1970: NHRA adopts and renames the Pro Stock class, slotting it beneath the Top Fuel and Funny Car in their hierarchy. Pro Stock is seen as a blend of high performance and brand identification, an outgrowth of the production based Stock classes, with fewer rules. AHRA, meanwhile, announced plans for its Grand American Series of Professional Drag Racing. A season-long points competition would produce a World Champion in several classes, with winners receiving cash bonuses at the end of the season. The Top Fuel winner, for example, won a $25,000 bonus.
- 1971: Following a catastrophic 1970 crash that saw him hospitalized after a blown driveling hacked off half his foot, Don Garlits develops and builds Swamp Rat XIV, the first successful rear-engined dragster. Gaullist won the Winternationals and Bakersfield in short order; moving the engine behind the driver soon became the Top Fuel template that remains to this day. Another game-changer was the Keith Black Hemi. Chrysler’s 392 Hemi engine, dating to the late ‘50s, was the standard among racers, but junkyards were bereft of usable blocks by 1971, and nitromethane demanded frequent rebuilds. Engineer Ed Donovan had the answer: an aluminum 417-inch block based on the 392 Chrysler but modified to withstand the rigors of nitromethane. The first Donovan 417 powered John Wiebe’s dragster to a track record at Ontario, plus runner-up honors at the ’71 NHRA Supernationals. Donovan’s block would shortly dominate the field. On-board fire extinguishers are mandatory.
The International Hot Rod Association (IHRA) formed. Born of founder/Muncie Dragway owner Larry Carter’s inability to get along with Wally Parks, the IHRA invested in track facilities and top-name drivers to draw crowds. They survive to this day. Don Prudhomme at the 1967 NHRA Springnationals (source: enginelabs.com)
- 1972: Mike Snivley makes the first five-second Top Fuel run, a 5.974 in the Top Fuel semi-finals at Ontario. The NHRA outlaws big-block Pro Stock cars; the Sox & Martin Hemi Plymouths had won both seasons of the new class, and the NHRA wanted to shake things up.
- 1973: Don Prudhomme becomes the first driver to win championships in both Funny Car and Top Fuel. Shirley Muldowney becomes the first woman to obtain a Top Fuel license.
- 1974: NHRA establishes a points system. Gary Beck, Shirl Greer and Bob Gladden become the NHRA’s first series champions in Top Fuel, Funny Car and Pro Stock, respectively. Pro Stock evolves: the first tube-frame-chassis Pro Stocker is a 1972 Chevy Vega run by Bill “Grumpy” Jenkins.
Also, drag racing is re-democratized with the birth of bracket racing. Credited to Ron Leek of Byron Dragway in Illinois, it was designed to pump up grassroots racing, which had fallen into a slump. With rapidly advancing technology and a shaky economy, many weekend racers found themselves priced out. Leek’s innovation was racing against yourself as much as you’re racing against the clock or the guy next to you. You predict the time you’re going to run, and so does the guy in the other lane. Whoever is closest to their prediction, without going quicker, wins; consistentcy is rewarded over all-out speed. Slow drivers could compete against pro machinery with an equal shot of winning. Advertise a cash prize, and suddenly cars are flooding the staging lanes, angling for a shot. It worked; bracket racing today is a track staple nationwide.
- 1975: NHRA draws R.J. Reynolds as a series sponsor; the new Winston Drag Racing Series posts a $100,000 prize kitty. Ever-faster racing continued unabated: Don Garlits runs a 5.63/250.69mph run at Ontario, a time that went unchallenged until 1981. Don Prudhomme made the first five-second Funny Car pass, a 5.98, along with the class’ first 240mph trap speed.
- 1976: Shirley Muldowney becomes the first woman to win a national event in a pro NHRA category (Top Fuel). A year later, she would be Top Fuel world champion.
- 1977: IHRA throws the existing Pro Stock rules out the window and launches the “Mountina Motor” Pro Stock class—stock-bodied cars with 500-cubic-inch V8s in heads-up competition that the spectators ate up.
- 1981: A “win light” appears on the scoreboard. No more having to guess who won.
- 1982: NHRA embraces the 500-cubic-inch Pro Stock formula and Don Prudhomme breaks the 250mph barrier in a funny car. Shirley Muldowney and Lucille Lee face off in Columbus in the first all-female Top Fuel final in NHRA history.
- 1984: Don Garlits tops 260mph. The AHRA, so influential in its day, closes its doors.
- 1986: Garlits tops 270mph in his streamlined Swamp Rat XXX. A year later, SRXXX was enshrined in the National Museum of American History. The path from outlaw drag racing to full-on acceptance by the establishment was complete.
- 1987: Pro Stock Motorcycle is now a top-level category; Dave Schultz is its first champion. Don Garlits tops 280mph in his top fueler.
- 1988: Eddie Hill becomes drag racing’s “four father” (see what they did there?) by being the first man out of the 5s, racking up a 4.990 at an IHRA event in Texas. Soon after, Gene Snow ran the first four-second NHRA run. Don Prudhomme lowers the Funny Car ET record to 5.30.
Eddie Hill hits 300mph (source: Tom Margie)
- 1989: Connie Kalitta becomes the first driver to top 290mph in Top Fuel. Prudhomme breaks the 5.20 mark in Top Fuel. Power from a top-level NHRA nitro-fueled, blown V8 is around 3,000hp.
- 1990: Battle of the Imports, the first all-import drag race, is held at LACR in Palmdale.
- 1992: Former Funny Car pilot and Top Fuel convert Kenny Bernstein records the first 300mph pass in NHRA history.
- 1993: Jim Epler records the first 300mph Funny Car pass, while Chuck Etchells is the first Funny Car pilot in the 5s, with a 4.98 e.t..
- 1994: Kurt Johnson runs the first sub-seven-second Pro Stock pass at Englishtown.
- 1996: Kenny Bernstein is the first to win World titles in both Funny Car and Top Fuel.
- 1997: Warren Johnson, Kurt’s dad, records Pro Stock’s first 200mph pass. A new sanctioning body, the National Electric Drag Racing Association (NEDRA) is the first exclusively-alternative-power quarter-mile sanctioning body.
- 1998: The IDRC (Import Drag Racing Circuit) arrives to cater to the newly-emerging power-mar four-cylinder crowd.
- 1999:Top Fuel driver Tony Schumacher shatters the 330mph barrier in Phoenix. Battle of the Imports sees the first front-wheel-drive 9-second pass, a tube-frame Honda Civic driven by Stephan Papadakis. Not long after, Ed Bergenholtz ran a 9.87 at an unsanctioned event in his full-interior, unibody, front-drive Honda CRX.
Stephan Papadakis at the Battle of the Imports (source: Papadakis Racing)
- 2000: NHRA again worries that its cars are getting too quick, and mandates a fuel blend with only 90-percent nitromethane. ESPN covers all national NHRA events.
- 2001: NHRA introduces its Import Drag Racing Series with a six-race schedule. A twin-turbo-V8-powered rear-drive Toyota Celica becomes the first sport-compact-class car to exceed 200mph.
- 2002: John Lingenfelter pilots the first front-wheel-drive car into the 6s, a Chevy Cavalier that went 6.993 at 197.67mph
- 2004: Gary Scelzi becomes the first Funny Car driver in NHRA history to eclipse the 330mph barrier, with a 330.15 second run in Chicago. NHRA dials the nitro back further, to 85 percent, an unpopular move with car owners.
- 2005: A new grassroots sanctioning body, the NHRDA (National Hot Rod Diesel Association), is created to push the limits of diesel-powered vehicles.
- 2006: J.R. Todd becomes the first African-American to win a Top Fuel race. The official NHRA Funny Car quarter-mile speed record became—and still is—Jack Beckman’s 333.66mph.
- 2008: Hearing owners’ grievances, NHRA re-instituted the 90-percent nitro fuel regulations. On-board diagnostics estimate that Top Fuel engines on 90-percent nitro now put out 8000hp from 500 cubic inches. This is the last year of the NHRA’s Import Drag series.
Larger changes would soon be in effect. On June 21, Funny Car pilot Scott Kalitta was killed when his engine exploded near the finish line, his parachutes did not deploy, and he smashed into a heavy crane that ESPN was using for filming. As a result, Top Fuel and Funny Car categories now run a 1,000-foot track, with additional safety measures enacted.
- 2012: Limiting Top Fuelers and Funny Cars to a 1000-foot track doesn’t stop the progress of speed: Top Fueler Spencer Massey went 332mph on a 1000-foot track.
- 2013: NHRDA records include Jared Jones’ 6.64-second dragster, with Marty Thacker claiming 221+mph in his diesel-powered rail job.
- 2015: The calculated power of a Top Fuel engine is now between 8500 and 10,000hp, with 6,000 foot-pounds of torque. As long as fuel and fierce competitiveness combine, drag racing will continue unabated.
(Story by B.K. Nakadashi)