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Drag racing remains one of the most wide-spread racing subtypes in America. Like many long-standing institutions, it has existed for so long that many never question its origins. It is like the mountain: who cares why it is, so much that it is.
But this mindset often gives way to ignorance or a lack of appreciation for a large concept with a massive historical context. The inception of drag racing occurred over the course of decades. It is a tale that, for any drag racer, is important, for you cannot appreciate a thing until you know its history.
Ever since motorized vehicles came onto the market, people have longed to race them. Fast cars, like fast horses before them, became a desirable object for anyone with that need for speed. Early on, people tried to create race tracks to hold amateur races between overly eager boys and girls willing to put the pedal to the metal.
The concept of drag racing has a common origin with the old magazine Hot Rods. Before the war, young teens would race on dry riverbeds (most notably in Southern California during the droughts), but, following World War II, these young boys who raced their cars had confronted first-hand experience with on-sight mechanics. On the warfront, cars and tanks, along with other diesel-fueled vehicles, had to be repaired on site – even reconstructed from scratch.
Boys left for war, but mechanics returned with years of experience of assembling junk to create something powerful. Something with an engine. Something better than the sum of its parts.
But these boys had no more war machines to assemble, so they fell back to their boyhood dreams. Fast cars. Riverbeds. How could they modify cars to push beyond the limitations of the cars for market? How could these grease monkeys transcend their limitations?
Magazines like Hot Rod were launched to capitalize on this interest. Showing off car modifications. Detailing the engines of various vehicles, and how to push them into new heights of speed.
They put their gloves on, work goggles on, and grabbed their wrenches and drills. They went to work to up the ante for the vehicles.
And then they played their games.
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Devils on the Road
First came the games. These men had confronted the intensity of a life abroad. Driving on dry riverbeds wasn't enough. The fun of driving lost its appeal without a little life-or-death risk.
The games started. Games like "Chicken" and "Pedestrian Poker" came into popularity. The games emphasized a sense of danger. In Chicken, two cars would drive toward one another. Whoever swerved out of the way first, lost. Pedestrian Poker, though, was even more dangerous. Drivers would swerve toward pedestrians, seemingly to run them over. The intent wasn't to hurt, but just to frighten.
Aside from that, side-by-side races were held on the streets of town, on paved roads across the cityscapes. High speed. High risks.
The newspapers and people on the streets called these games and races "drag racing."
But these games led to accidents. You don't play games with people's lives without a few people losing the game. Often, innocent civilians were caught in the crossfire. But, to the young adult going into these games, the risks were worth it. "After all," many would say, "I'm not gonna screw up."
The authorities, however, were less confident in these young drivers' skills.
Police went out of their way to arrest any boys who dared drag race, and treated them like menaces to authority. Something had to be done to tame the wild spirits and protect the innocent civilians caught in the crossfire for these games.
The Games Begin
A man named Wally Parks, born in 1913 in Goltry, Oklahoma, helps fund an organization called The Southern California Timing Association (SCTA). To authorities, this organization was the perfect solution to the drag racing epidemic sweeping the nation. The organization sought to create a "safe place" for drag racers to do their thing without the public being caught up in the twisted metal.
In 1949, the first official drag race is held, overseen by SCTA, in Goleta, California. Time trials are held. A second race is held at the Miles Square Airfield, located in Garden Grove, California. These races rise in popularity, as well as emphasize that speed and acceleration, as monitored with the use of a stopwatch, are essential to a drag racer.
So the mechanics get to work to modify their cars to boost up their speed and acceleration capabilities.
Wally Parks becomes something of the face of SCTA, and, in 1950, becomes a chief editor in Hot Rod magazine. He uses his position in the magazine to popularize his Southern Californian games, making sure to emphasize "controlled" races. This both slakes the concerns of the authorities, as well as whets a generation of racers' need for speed.
Drag races in controlled environments start to spread all over the country as Hot Rod magazine hits newsstands.
And, somewhere along the way, the standard length, perhaps due to the limitations of the controlled environments drag races could be held, became a quarter-mile.
SCTA's success leads to the creation of the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA), whose intention is to "create order from chaos," in 1951. It held its first major event three years later in Great Bend, Kansas... only for a storm to interrupt everything. Two months later in Phoenix, the finals took place.
A few years later, the American Hot Rod Association (AHRA) becomes the top competition for the NHRA's reign over the continental drag racing scene. AHRA's events were shorter, smaller, but they welcomed in the use of turbo-fuels like nitromethane. NHRA banned nitromethane in 1957, but the AHRA welcomed the chemical, even encouraging drivers to add it to their engines, as the chemical, when ignited, could speed cars off to unfounded speeds.
Faced with steep competition, in the early 60s, the NHRA ended their ban on nitro. And, thus, the racing scene was changed forever, boosting up drag races to untold levels of intensity.
In 1963, ABC's The Wide World of Sports covers the Indiana Drag Racing Finals, which introduces the signature "Christmass-Tree Lights" to start the race, replacing the typical flag-man. Now, drag racing becomes televised, introducing a new generation of children to the sport.
To compete with NHRA now that both companies embrace nitro, the AHRA begins hosting events for "funny cars." Altered wiring, altered wheelbases, solid front axles. The designs put the weight on the rear of the car, which allowed them to push forward at faster rates. They were unlike anything else on the market.
The main supply of "funny cars" came from Detroit, where drag racers and mechanics had been steadily designing their own unique car designs unbeknownst to the rest of the country for a few years prior. The NHRA had lumped these odd vehicles in with "normal" cars.
But funny cars prove to be highly popular among crowds. The next few years, the NHRA and AHRA begin competing on how to implement these "funny cars" into the drag racing fold more and more, which results, ultimately, in these "funny cars" becoming a mainstay in the drag racing world.
The NHRA and AHRA would compete throughout the 70s, until 1984, when the AHRA finally closed its doors. Despite all its innovations, everything it did, the NHRA copied. It could offer nothing more to the industry.
Technology has only improved upon the drag racing industry. While other companies and organizations have emerged to manage the industry, drag racing remains a source of innovative racing. So long as there are mechanics willing to pop up the hood of their cars and grind gears, cars will always push the boundaries of speed and potential.
Of course, while official drag racing remains super popular, there are still those who like to live on the edge, speeding down populated streets. These risk seekers put everyone's lives at risk, as we have seen time and time again. The official venues for drag racing have tried to offer a sanctuary for drivers to live on the extreme, yet, so often, those living on the edge just keep on pushing beyond safety restraints and measures.
They play a dangerous game. But then again, even when controlled, drag racing is a dangerous game.