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Then and Now: 50 Years On the Asphalt Ribbon


Drag Racing THEN, 1964

It’s 1964 and Chrysler has un-corked their legendary 426 Hemi motor on a drag-rabid public. Quarter mile strips of asphalt have been paved into country real estate from coast to coast. Even Hollywood has groped drag culture, releasing countless, mostly B, movies set around hot rod racing and drag strip locations. The Beatles would soon alter youth culture for the rest of the decade, but for now drag racing dreams held the minds of a million adolescents. In '64, drag racing is everywhere and the new Hemi is leading the way. Professional level drags are still mainly a few guys in a garage building and refining cars without large organizations backing them. Even the top race teams are fielding loosely finished cars, and up close most of them are roadworn and rough. Super Stock coupes with names like “Outlawed” “Locomotion” and “Tasmanian Devil” shake the stands and look a lot like the cars lining the dirt parking lots. Top Fuel dragsters are called “Rails” because most of them still have no bodywork and they look like a big motor sitting on rails between two axles. dl001 The major drag meets are organized, but still informal. Admission is a couple bucks and for an extra fifty cents you can get a sticker for your shirt that will let you wander into the open pit area and stand over the shoulder of your favorite driver while he turns wrenches with his mechanic and gulps down a hot dog before his next heat. If you have a kid or a pretty girlfriend with you, there might even be an autograph in the mix. The cars- Top Fuel Dragsters, Gassers, Super Stockers- are all unique. There is no uniform shape designed in a wind tunnel for maximum airflow. Metalflake paint glistens in the sunlight big corporate sponsorship is absent. Detroit’s Big Three help out some factory-backed cars, but the best that most guys can hope for is a few cases of free motor oil or special go-fast parts in exchange for slapping on some decals or painting the name of a local auto dealer on their sheet metal. No one wonders what next season’s “livery” will look like. DL-Header1100X480 Ronnie Sox, Danny Ongais, Gas Rhonda, and Gordon Collett, among others, will score some big wins.  Jack Williams will take the Top Fuel title. The biggest score of '64 will go to “Big Daddy” Don Garlits when he breaks through the 200mph barrier.  The 200mph quarter mile has long been considered unreachable. In the August heat, Big Daddy rockets down New Jersey’s Island Speedway, tripping the electric timers and turning a 7.78sec/201.34 blast. Climbing out of his black Wynn’s Jammer dragster, he quips, “It’s like being in another world.” In 1964, Don Garlits is the greatest drag racer anyone has ever seen.

Drag Racing NOW, 2014

Fast forward 50 years later, and everything is bigger. NHRA Drag Racing is big business and even bigger spectacle. It’s commercialized and sanitized. Every major event is covered by ESPN.  The traditional 1320ft quarter mile has been shortened to 1000ft for safety reasons. Computers dictate body shape for maximized efficiency.  The huge associated costs have narrowed the field. The drivers and cars are no longer a fifty cent sticker away. None of today’s nitro jockeys are eating drag strip hot dogs. antron-brown-drag-racing-01 Photo courtesy of Antron Brown Racing. But the thrill is still palpable. The adrenaline jolt that comes with the green Go! lights is still there. Top Fuel Dragsters are pushing a mind-numbing 8000 horsepower out of what could be called highly developed Chrysler Hemis, the kind first raced in ’64. The stadium bleachers rattle and shake when they launch off the line and regularly turn times of 3.8 sec/330mph...Big Daddy’s 201mph breakthrough seems junior league in comparison. But the big change, is an unexpected change. It’s a given that horsepower and chassis and tire tech are all going to continually evolve and improve. Drivers are going to adapt and sharpen their skills. And it’s in the drivers where the biggest changes are happening. Girls. Girl Power. All classes of top-tier NHRA competition are boasting competitive females.

drag-racing-alexis-dejoria Photo courtesy of Alexis DeJoria Racing.

Courtney Force and Alexis DeJoria in Funny Car. Erica Enders-Stevens in ProStock. Brittany Force and Leah Pruett in those monstrous Top Fuelers. Just a few weeks ago, at the most recent NHRA Nationals in Phoenix, DeJoria took the top Funny Car win, the first time ever for a female. This is good for the sport. Already popular, fan interest in NHRA events is growing. antron-brown-drag-racing-02 Photo courtesy of Antron Brown Racing. A few guys in a garage messing around with engines and winning races in stock-based cars, at least at the top level, are a thing of the past. But the current super slick polished professional world of drag racing still generates the same rush, the same hold-your-breath-what’s-gonna-happen anticipation as those lights turn green. And where the field has narrowed in some ways, it’s opened up in others. To paraphrase the long retired Big Daddy Don Garlits, “It’s another world.”

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