Looking back on the glory days of drag racing, it’s easy to see where the hobby got its roots, even though modern-day drag racing is so far away from its earliest beginnings. These days, drag racing is a highbrow business, with big-money sponsorships, high-tech equipment, and tow rigs that require a commercial drivers license. If any of those three items gets your gearhead juices flowing, more power to you, but I enjoy stepping back to a much simpler time in the sport—when crude cars and ruthless drivers made it exciting to watch, as each racer used unorthodox ways of finding speed. This type of innovation led to many breakthroughs in the drag racing industry, but our story starts in the late 1940s, when drag racing had no industry, and racers had no ulterior motives, besides going faster than the guy in the other lane.
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Although the thought of racing two cars in a straight line had occurred to many people before World War II, this form of racing definitely saw a huge boom in popularity in the late 1940s, when an influx of mechanically minded men returned from the war. This was also the beginning of hot rodding in general, which completely changed the scope of being a car guy. Before this time in automotive history, if you were interested in modified cars, your attention was more than likely geared toward Indy car racing, which was the only prominent motorsport, aside from salt-flat racing, which started in the 1930s.
Indy car racing was not suited to grassroots car guys, as it required big-time money to keep up with the competition. To this day, Indy car racing is still a high-tech motorsport that limits the number of racers by pricing the majority of them out of competition. The initial concept of drag racing made it easy for the average guy to compete with like-minded individuals, without requiring a heavy engineering background and a ton of money.
With no place to legitimately compete, early drag racers used any straight, flat surface to line up and put the hammer down. Unquestionably dangerous for both drivers and on-lookers, drag racing was regarded as illegal soon after its inception. This pushed folks to find a safer place to race, and what could be more perfect than an airport? Long, straight, and flat, airport runways served as drag strips for quite some time, but as the hobby grew, so did the need for legitimate racing in a safe, yet exciting environment.
The first purpose-built drag strip was in Southern California, and is known as the Santa Ana Drags. It began operation in 1950 on an airstrip, and it gained the attention of salt-flat racers because of its revolutionary timing system. At the time, salt-flat racers wanted all-out speed, rather than a timed affair recorded at a particular distance, so it took some adjustment for the salt-flat guys to get the hang of the shorter race distances. There were no regulations, in terms of racing distance, but through the years, the quarter mile ended up being the distance of choice. Unfortunately, many quarter-mile tracks suffered from crashes and near misses due to dangerously short shutdown areas, so many of them were shortened to an eighth mile during the 1970s and 1980s.
Regardless of the danger, or your preference for eigth- over quarter-mile tracks, drag racing is still a popular pastime, and much of its success can be credited to one individual—Wally Parks.
Wally Parks was an instrumental part of the hot rodding and drag racing industry, having helped found the Southern California Timing Association (SCTA) in 1947, as well as the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) in 1951. Things moved quickly as the NHRA assembled rules, classes, and organized races by 1953, and held its first official race at the Los Angeles County Fairgrounds, in Pomona, California. Although the racing surface for this event was essentially a parking lot, the NHRA gathered quite a following before it blossomed into the multi-million-dollar operation it is today. If not for Parks and several other influential car guys, the sport may not have gone mainstream at the right time, which would leave me with little to write about in this book.
During the 1950s, most parts of the country still used air-port runways as drag strips, but the West Coast ways soon moved across the country, with drag strips popping up every-where. From big cities to small towns, drag strips became more common. Compared to other forms of racing, drag strips were fairly simple to build, especially in the early days. If you had a strip of pavement wide enough for two cars, and a way of telling who won the race, you were in business. Find a place for people to park, give them a good vantage point to watch the racing, and you had a world-class facility. Safety wasn’t a huge concern in the beginning, so guardrails or concrete barriers weren’t common.
Technical inspection was also lacking, but the NHRA made this a mandatory process in order to compete in one of its events. This changed the sport drastically, although outlaw tracks still had the “anything goes” mindset, which offered its own level of excitement. In 1955, the NHRA held its first national event, which drew an unbelievable crowd of racers and spectators to a drag strip in Great Bend, Kansas. Attracting more than 200 cars and 15,000 spectators in this first-of-its-kind event, the NHRA knew this was the way to really make money and take drag racing to the next level.
“The Nationals” then traveled to various drag strips around the country before arriving at its final destination of Indianapolis, Indiana, in 1961. And while big-buck tracks held NHRA events in the late 1950s, the small-town tracks were slow to evolve, but still managed to draw enormous crowds with high-stakes match races, and lots of interesting grassroots racing classes.
Many of the early tracks simply lacked the equipment necessary to hold a major event; some even lacked pavement. How can you have a drag strip without pavement, you ask? Packed dirt or clay seemed to be the answer for quite a few Southern tracks. A concrete or asphalt launch pad was generally only 100 feet in length, and then the track was dirt the rest of the way. If you wanted wild action and a huge element of danger, dirt drag racing was the answer because traction was nonexistent. Many of these drag strips were later fully paved and campaigned as a regular quarter-mile drag strip.
Back then, it was extremely rare to see a track owner intentionally build a track shorter than a quarter mile, even though eighth-mile tracks are so popular these days. In the Small town guys, especially those in the East, didn’t always have the budget for a fully paved drag strip, so dirt drag strips were fairly common, such as this one at Dalton Drag Strip in Maryville, Tennessee. Most of the time, these dirt tracks had a concrete or asphalt launch area (no more than 100 feet), with the remainder of the track being a hard-packed dirt or road-base mud/gravel material. (Photo Courtesy Larry Rose Collection)
late 1950s and early 1960s, some tracks were a fifth mile (1,056 feet) in length, while some others restricted certain classes to shorter distances than the full quarter mile. This approach is similar to the modern era, where the NHRA has limited its nitromethane-fueled classes to 1,000 feet instead of the full 1,320 to limit top speeds and hopefully improve safety.
In prior years, when races were generally held on abandoned airfields, the length of the track was not an issue, but short shutdown areas were quite common with purpose-built drag strips. Racers simply had to figure out ways of making their vehicles slow down quickly, so military parachutes became supplemental braking power for the faster cars of the 1950s. Drag racers still use parachutes today, but companies such as Simpson Performance Products and Deist Safety make them specifically for drag racing, instead of the old ring-slot design, which was known to create too much drag. So much, in fact, that it caused the cars to come off the ground momentarily. It also created health concerns with the amount of negative g-force applied to the drivers.
Again, in the early days of drag racing, it was all about trial and error, and it evolved into a legitimate motorsport while racers still continued to experiment with outlandish concepts. These days, it’s not often you see a truly innovative drag car, but in the golden era of drag racing, crazy ideas were put into motion, and soon, racers were trapping speeds close to 200 mph in home-built dragsters. During this time, drag racing was still a grassroots motorsport, and you didn’t have to have an 18-wheeler with living quarters and a double-stacker trailer to go drag racing. In fact, you were considered “big money” if you hauled your car to the track on a ramp truck or a trailer. Most cars were flat-towed in the early days, right into the 1960s.
As racers desperately tried to increase speed, weight reduction became the focus as a way to go faster without spending money. This encouraged racers to strip down their cars—something that had already been seen in the salt-flat racing world. Low-slung roadsters and stripped-down coupes made up the majority of race cars, but more serious racers realized moving the entire engine toward the rear increased traction by greatly changing the car’s front-to-rear weight distribution. Eventually, this mindset led to what we now call a dragster.
Although racers first used original factory-made frame rails to build dragsters, custom-built round-tube frames reduced weight even further and allowed for any engine and drivetrain combination imaginable. There is no question that racers’ imaginations were much more vivid in the early days of drag racing. With no regard to their own safety, drivers threw tons of power at home-built cars, and didn’t complain to the track owner if the track didn’t hold it. They drove those cars like madmen and it added fuel to the already uncontrollable drag racing fire in the hearts of car guys across the United States.
Whether you raced a basically stock passenger car or a cobbled-together dragster, the late 1950s saw a number of breakthroughs in the sport of drag racing. Influential car guys developed components to increase speed, using many different mindsets. Marvin Rifchin was one of those guys, and he is responsible for producing the first drag racing slick in 1957. At that point, M&H Racemaster had actually been around for a few years, but Marvin concentrated on circle track racing before jumping into the drag racing world. Before the introduction of M&H slicks, racers used recapped tires, which provided marginal traction and a high failure rate at extreme speeds.
When a young man by the name of Don Garlits used a set of M&H slicks to win a big race in South Carolina, the other racers took notice, and the drag tire industry began. The same story can be told for many innovative products in the drag racing realm, but tires have always been a big deal, in combination with a good-working track.
Throughout the 1960s, the number of drag strips continued to increase. Many racers were able to quit their day jobs and race professionally, although it certainly didn’t make anyone rich in the beginning. Relentless traveling from coast to coast resulted in tired eyes and sore backsides, but the thrill of competing against the nation’s best racers made it worth the effort.
As racing caught on, and racers found new ways of going faster, dividing the vehicles into respective classes leveled the playing field. Restrictions in regard to vehicle weight, engine cubic inches, and many other parameters made the classes distinct, but many tracks used different sanctioning bodies with varying rulebooks. With the rapid growth of the sport, class rules changed often, and almost every car in competition was a record holder at some point due to the many sanctioning bodies, racing classes, and rule loopholes.
By the mid 1960s you could compete professionally in the NHRA, the AHRA (American Hot Rod Association), or countless independently promoted events and match races. Just because a racing organization didn’t have a fancy, four-letter acronym didn’t lessen its importance in the racers’ eyes, so a great number of small tracks attracted very well known racers to their facilities by offering big purses and even bigger bragging rights.
It was hard to deny the popularity of drag racing, especially when race tracks kept popping up across the country throughout the 1960s. Before that, folks were desperate for a place to race, and the influx of tracks resulted in a number of drag strip choices in many areas. Many tracks joined forces in the 1960s to co-promote local points series, where racers competed at one track Friday night, moved to another track on Saturday, and then another on Sunday afternoon. This three-day attack made for great racing, and many tracks were in close enough proximity for spectators to view all three events, so it was a win-win for racers, track owners, and spectators.
And while big-time West Coast tracks such as Lions Associated Drag Strip and Riverside International Raceway provided Top Fuel racing on a regular basis, the smaller tracks offered wild action with an outlaw atmosphere that kept gearheads coming back every week. This outlaw attitude was highly evident in the South, and it still lives on many of the remaining tracks.
Top Fuel dragsters were hot at the big-time tracks on the West Coast and racers across the country worked hard to keep up with the big guns. In the early days, dragsters were very basic racing machines, built primarily from two frame rails, an engine, and a place for the driver to sit. Very light in weight, dragsters were the ultimate drag racing machines, and it didn’t take long for racers to come up with new ways to go faster. The formula was simple, but the lack of legitimate speed parts limited horsepower for a while.
As dragsters evolved during the late 1950s, there was no end in sight. From 1960 to 1970, you could count on Top Fuel cars to literally grow 10 inches in length every year, making the cars more and more stable at high speeds. Various front axle and suspension systems passed through the experimentation process, from solid-mounted axles to transverse leaf springs to torsion bars. The rear suspension was never a factor, as it always remained solid-mounted.
Unlike today’s top classes, the engine setups were very diverse as experimentation took a firm grasp on the sport.
Multiple engines were a popular trend for a while, but the single-engine dragsters were nothing short of extraordinary. Back then, there was no such thing as a cookie-cutter engine, because Pontiac, Oldsmobile, Buick, and Cadillac engines were all part of the game, even among Chevy, Ford, and Mopar offerings. Even within the big three, there were a number of choices in potent powerplants. Chevy had the tried-and-true small-block and then the big-block in 1965, while Ford had the 427-ci SOHC engine, and Mopar had the Max Wedge and then the Hemi.
Experimental supercharger setups, advances in fuel injection technology, and revolutionary ways of transferring power to the rear end kept the hobby interesting for quite some time. Racers learned something new at every race, and generally made vast improvements with little planning—try something different and see if it works. The sport’s most influential trendsetters, such as Mickey Thompson, Joe Mondello, and Don Garlits, set the standard, but it didn’t take a big name to make long strides, in terms of speed.
Dragsters remained in the front-engine configuration until Don Garlits’ unfortunate accident at Lions Associated Drag Strip in Wilmington, California. The event happened in 1970, and Garlits was out of commission until the next season, but he debuted a new design that set the drag racing world on its ear—a rear-engine dragster. Keep in mind that rear-engine cars had been built before, but the design was never perfected until Garlits introduced the Swamp Rat XIV.
This new design made for a quick transition into the professional fuel ranks, but many of the slower classes kept the front-engine configuration for several more years. Then front-engine dragsters began to be phased out, and many of them were scrapped because no one wanted an outdated race car. Imagine everyone’s surprise a few decades later when nostalgia drag racing hit an all-time high, and those vintage race cars became priceless pieces of history. The ones that survived are certainly highly coveted artifacts.
Although Top Fuelers were high-tech considering the era and drew huge crowds of spectators, another series of classes formed to cater to the grassroots guys. It was called Super Stock and it evolved from the many levels of stock-class racing.
Super Stock racing got its start in the early 1960s, when many American automobile manufacturers began producing high-horsepower cars from the factory. Big cubic inches, multiple carburetors, and increasing compression ratios quickly turned into 400-hp production cars. Chevy had the 409-ci W engine and Ford had the FE-based big-block, while Mopar had the Max Wedge and Hemi. In an effort to keep pace, other makes had unique offerings too, such as the Pontiac Super Duty 421.
The idea of the class was to limit the output of the cars by putting restrictions on the engine modifications. No power adders are allowed in Super Stock to this day, and all vehicles must retain a particular carburetion setup, depending on the class. In the infancy of the class, racers did everything they could to squeeze more power out of their engines, but drive-train modifications and weight reduction became the places to find quicker elapsed times.
Early Super Stockers were built from full-size passenger cars, such as the Chevrolet Impala or Ford Galaxie, but by 1964, Super Stock made a quick turn to the lighter platforms of the newly created midsize sedans. Mopar had the market covered with its Dodge Coronet/Polara and Plymouth Belvedere/Sport Fury models, which were available with 426-ci Max Wedge engines (and later, Hemi engines), backed by very strong transmissions. Limited quantities of these performance-oriented cars were built as drag cars straight from the factory. Lightweight body panels and countless other weight-saving measures made these factory drag cars unbelievably quick, so a number of highly sought after race cars were running at tracks across the country. Mopar wasn’t the only manufacturer in the game—Ford created a special Fair-lane in 1964 and called it the Thunderbolt. Other manufacturers followed suit, causing the Super Stock class to grow tremendously.
Throughout the 1960s, car manufacturers began offering high-horsepower engine combinations, which made perfect Super Stock race cars. By the turn of the decade, the class had a wide variety of competitive combinations, while innovative racers and quick-shifting drivers made the racing action extremely close. Super Stock racing was particularly popular in the South, but other regions picked up on it and capitalized on the opportunity to draw a crowd. Rules were fairly simple, as the cars were divided based on their weight and claimed cubic inches.
You can safely assume that racers stretched the rules and found lots of loopholes in those early days, but that’s what led to the evolution of the class and the sport. Racers didn’t mind pushing the limits of their vehicles, so drag racing stayed fresh with new ideas, new cars, and fearless drivers. No matter the class, drag racing was a fierce competition in the 1960s, and innovation moved at a brisk pace.
Gassers and Altereds
Today, it’s common for these two classes to be confused because of their similar qualities, but they were very different machines in the golden era of drag racing. The reason for the confusion is the fact that the term “gasser” has become a household description for any car with a nose-high stance. So, when someone sees a car that sits high, with radiused rear wheel openings, they assume it’s a gasser, when it could very well be considered an altered. Regardless of the modern-day confusion, these two classes have produced some of the wildest drag cars in the history of the sport.
Classes had rules and regulations using the letter system (e.g., B/Gas, A/Altered, etc.), which was determined by the engine displacement and weight of the car. Even with these rules, the Gas and Altered classes looked like the outlaws of the sport from the average fan’s perspective. From the driver’s perspective, it was all highly competitive, even in the slower Gas and Altered classes, as the classes evolved at a quick rate.
At first, the Gas class was developed as an alternative to the Stock classes, which had specific rules against engine swaps or anything of that nature. In other words, “Stock” vehicles had to retain their original engines. Gas classes allowed you to stick a 392-ci Hemi engine in a Ford coupe, or any combination a racer could dream up. Obviously, this created a very unique class packed with wild setups. The most common Gas class car was a tossup between Willys coupes and the tri-five Chevy (1955, 1956, and 1957), but many racers really put their creative juices to work when it came time to build a gas-ser drag car. Throughout the years, the Gas classes evolved, and the Altered class was thrown into the mix, creating yet another division in the world of drag racing.
The main difference between the two classes was the amount of engine setback allowed, but other rules gave Altered class cars (simply called altereds) a bit more latitude, in terms of modifications. Gassers were allowed a 10-percent setback, meaning that the number-one sparkplug could be no more than 10 inches behind the front spindle centerline of a car with a 100-inch wheelbase. Altereds were allowed a 25-percent setback. The purpose of engine setback was to put more weight toward the rear of the vehicle.
Gassers were limited by seat location and a factory appearance of the interior. altereds could have a center-mounted seat with any type of interior modifications. Without question, Altered class cars had much more potential for speed, but the Gas classes placed no specific rules on engine combination, aside from the fact that it had to run on gasoline.
The innovation of super stock cars led to factory experimental cars, which eventually led to the creation of “funny cars,” originally named because of the comical looks of the altered-wheelbase design. Still holding onto the gasser mentality that a nose-high stance increased traction, the early funny cars had a very high center of gravity. This, in combination with the altered wheelbase and insane amounts of horsepower, made these volatile cars very fun to watch, and it didn’t take long for the class to grow. Midsize cars, similar to those used in the Super Stock classes, were popular in the early days of the funny car ranks, and it was common to see very unique combinations on the track. Engine combinations that rivaled Top Fuel powerplants gave these funny cars a mind of their own, and the drivers worked hard behind the wheel, skating on the edge of control.
These cars quickly evolved, moving away from the stock-style frames and transitioned to purpose-built tube frames. The tubular chassis design was much lighter, and while some folks kept the original skin of their respective cars, custom fiberglass bodies greatly reduced weight and improved aero-dynamics. From there, it was only a matter of time before one-piece, flip-top bodies were considered the norm for funny cars. The concept of a pivoting body is pretty much the only thing that hasn’t changed in the Funny Car world.
Although the competition aspect created lots of buzz, the showmanship of the drivers kept folks coming back to see the funny cars, and these driving techniques helped develop fan favorites and rivalries. Of course, there were always the popular Ford versus Chevy battles, but fans also liked particular drivers. A fan favorite didn’t have to win all the time, so if a driver did the longest burnouts, made the wildest passes, and had the hottest back-up girl, he’d get lots of attention, which generally meant he would be scheduled for more match races and invited to big Funny Car meets. It was hard to deny the popularity of Funny Cars and the class withstood the test of time, as it continues to be a crowd pleaser to this day.
Decades ago, be it a thirty-two-car sanctioned event or a two-car match race, funny car drivers put on a show and had a good time doing it. Other classes had great showmanship, but Funny Car was definitely the top class in this regard. The days of 1,000-foot burnouts, dry hops, staging battles, and other starting-line activities might be gone, but the spirit of Funny Cars is still alive and well. Obviously, it was a win-win for drag strip owners, as the intense action attracted a steady flow of spectators, which caused the racing community to grow exponentially. And as those fans grew older, they wanted drag cars of their own, so the sport certainly blossomed as the years passed.
More Speed and More Fun
In the infancy of drag racing, there was no such thing as track prep, aside from sweeping debris off the surface. This made for a low-maintenance facility, for the most part. Obviously, as the cars went faster, measures were taken to keep them glued to the racing surface. Today’s traction compounds werent available in the early days, so racers found ways to stay in control of the horsepower, rather than relying on the track to do the work for them. This lack of traction forced the introduction of purpose-built drag racing tires in the late 1950s, along with an endless list of components that are still in use on many of today’s drag cars.
Even after the development of drag racing tires, the high-powered cars, especially in the fuel classes, spun the tires for the majority of the quarter mile. Smoke-screen passes were standard practice, and a regular burnout before a run was essentially unheard of until the 1960s. Without question, these tire-smoking passes made for exciting action, but it also made for a very high level of danger, as the cars were nearly out of control from start to finish. Crashes were fairly common, which is yet another bittersweet aspect of the golden years of drag racing—the unpredictability was great for spectators, but it came with a hefty price tag for the gearhead behind the wheel. When racers started figuring out how to keep their machines hooked up, speeds went up and elapsed times went down in a hurry.
Tires grew larger over the years, as tire engineers found new ways to soften the tread for increased traction. By this time, Firestone was a huge player in the drag tire game, alongside M&H Racemaster, pioneer of the drag racing tire. Like many forms of competition, necessity led to innovation, which allowed the sport and the industry to grow at a feverish pace. Unfortunately, today’s big-money drag racing has reached a bit of a flat spot on the innovation graph, so to speak, although the cars continue to evolve in terms of safety.
Another factor that added to the fun of drag racing in the 1960s and 1970s was the diversity and entertainment value. Drag racing wasn’t nearly as polished as it is these days, and that was a good thing. Drivers didn’t know how to be a spokesman for their sponsors, aside from putting on the best show possible. TV interviews were the last thing on their mind. Back then, if your track didn’t have the right connections for a big points race or something of that nature, you picked up the phone and set up a match race. It was the perfect scenario for small, outlaw tracks because they could draw a great crowd of spectators without all of the regulations required in sanctioned racing.
It was also a great experience for spectators, as it allowed them to pick a favorite, usually based on the make of the car. Ford versus Chevy has long been the most prominent battle of the brands, but there were lots of big players in those days. The big three (Ford, Chevy, and Mopar) were heavy hitters, but you couldn’t count out the other brands of the era when it came to making power.
The cars, in general, weren’t all that fast compared to the rocket ships of the modern era, but they didn’t leave anything on the table. No matter the class, racers used every ounce of power they had, and put it all on the line with every single pass.
Written by Tommy Lee Byrd and Posted with Permission of CarTechBooks