The amazing growth of drag racing made it a very popular hobby, even with the inherent danger that always lurks around these unbelievably fast racing machines.
During the 1950s, drag racing caught on quickly, causing a ripple effect in the car guy community. Casual fans watched the action and eventually wanted to try their hand at it, which made the hobby grow exponentially. Gearheads became enthralled with the idea of going quicker and faster every time they hit the track, and it was truly a time of excitement as records fell on a regular basis. The various sanctioning bodies offered great racing across the country, but the wildly popular sport eventually felt the effects of its rapid growth.
Home-built hot rods and dragsters evolved greatly during the late 1940s and early 1950s, but this ingenuity didn’t include a great deal of safety equipment. During the first full decade of drag racing, most serious injuries and fatalities were caused by rollover accidents, which either ejected or entrapped the driver. There are lots of stories of throttles sticking, causing cars to careen out of control, and fi re was also a big enemy of the early drag racers.
Pushing an engine to the limit revealed the weak points of the components, while the driveline parts faced a tough battle as well. Clutch explosions were fairly common in the early days, as stock clutch sets couldn’t quite withstand the intense engine RPM, additional horsepower, and unruly driving style. Without the assistance of a scatter shield, these early clutch explosions wreaked havoc on a drag racing car, with shrapnel going in every direction, often shearing fuel lines. Massive fires and violent crashes took the lives of many early drag racers, but it was all a large part of learning the importance of safety in this swiftly growing sport.
This photo was taken in 1957 at San Fernando Valley Drag Strip and perfectly illustrates the creative side of dragster building. With a longer wheelbase than most cars of the era, and a blown Olds sporting a primitive two-port fuel injection setup, this car was probably a hot topic in the pits. (Photo Courtesy Larry Rose Collection)
Unfortunately, racer creativity didn’t often go hand in hand with safety, which resulted in numerous injuries and fatalities in the early days of drag racing. Poor track conditions, combined with lots of horsepower made for unpredictable races—exactly what the crowd wanted to see. This Ford sedan at Brainerd Optimist Drag Strip in Tennessee didn’t fare too well, but its driver walked away! (Photo Courtesy Larry Rose Collection)
Yet another example of the no-rules attitude is brought to life with this home-built Crosley-powered dragster, making a pass at Oswego Dragway in the late 1950s. Obviously, the car didn’t make much power, but the driver still took a big risk by squeezing himself into the tiny cockpit. (Photo Courtesy Norbert Locke)
The first in a long line of safety measures taken was the infamous “fuel ban” policed by the NHRA for all of its sanctioned tracks. Racers experimented with a number of volatile fuels, but the most prominent was (and still is) nitromethane. The difference between this fuel and gasoline is the way it burns inside the engine. Racers quickly figured out that an engine could consume a lot more nitromethane than gasoline during a single combustion cycle. For instance, the perfect air/fuel ratio for a gasoline engine is 14.6 parts air and 1 part fuel, while a nitro-burning engine is much closer to a 1:1 ratio. This means a violent explosion in the combustion chambers that helps make incredible horsepower. Due to a number of fires and accidents, Wally Parks and the NHRA placed a ban on nitromethane in 1957, which was like throwing out an anchor to slow down the racing world.
During the NHRA fuel ban, the AHRA allowed nitro cars to compete, giving all those folks a place to race. While the big guns moved to the AHRA circuit, those dedicated to the NHRA were forced to up the ante with various engine combinations and unique experiments. Multiple engines were popular for the dragster crowd, but superchargers quickly stole the show by multiplying the engine’s horsepower without the aid of exotic fuels. The addition of nitro to a supercharged engine unleashed a new level of power and speed. The NHRA lifted the fuel ban before the 1964 season began.
With the increasing speeds, it was up to drag strip owners and operators to update their facilities to accommodate the action. There are different stories about the first 200-mph pass in a fuel dragster, but by the mid 1960s, it seemed to be an ordinary task for the top drivers of the sport. Big-time drag strips quickly adapted to the insane speeds and unpredictable nature of drag cars by installing guardrails, limiting spectator access, and prioritizing driver safety. While the outlaw atmosphere of drag racing was reduced by the ever-evolving rulebook and safety regulations, it ultimately saved a lot of lives on the professional circuit. However, the professional circuits (NHRA and AHRA) only accounted for a fraction of the drag racing activities in the United States, meaning that many drag strips fell behind the times, in terms of safety equipment.
While some dragsters were crude by nature, others such as the Nesbitt's Orange Special, featured masterful workmanship. Built by Bob Armstrong and driven by Maurice Richer, this dragster was a top-notch piece in its day. A Hilborn-injected Chrysler Hemi powered the dragster, motivating it to mid-9-second passes at more than 155 mph. (Photo Courtesy Larry Rose Collection)
During the NHRA’s ban on nitromethane fuel, racers had to find new ways of making horsepower. Superchargers came onto the scene and made huge gains, but many racers, including Norbert Locke, went with the “two is better than one” mindset and coupled two engines together. His dragster (here at Oswego) featured twin blown flatheads! (Photo Courtesy Norbert Locke)
Some of the wild race cars were built in the name of true competition, while others, such as this fourengine, four-wheel-drive dragster, were built as exhibition vehicles. “TV Tommy” Ivo built this Buick-powered dragster and thrilled crowds across the country by smoking all four tires the entire length of the track. Poor vision and unbelievable torque steer made this a very dangerous machine. (Photo Courtesy Norbert Locke)
The freedom to walk around in the pits and close to the race track made outlaw tracks a big hit, as here at Harriman Drag Strip. (Photo Courtesy Ray Bunn)
Paradise Drag Strip, an outlaw track in Calhoun, Georgia, always had huge events, but was never sanctioned by any of the major associations. Here Poison Dart and Dr. Feelgood go head to head.
Generally, large purses brought out lots of racers, which, in turn, brought out lots of spectators. Events such as the AHRA Summer Nationals, held at New York National Speedway, always attracted huge crowds because the general public knew that all the big dogs would be in town. (Photo Courtesy Bob Snyder)
With experimental engine and transmission combinations, parts failures were quite common during the first few decades of drag racing. This 1957 Chevy at Oswego Dragway experienced a major clutch explosion, which left it with a broken windshield and a mangled cowl and dash. These accidents were terribly dangerous for the drivers, but also put the spectators and track crew at risk. (Photo Courtesy Brent Fregin)
In the mid 1960s, competitive class-based drag racing was still affordable for the average working man. Even with lowbudget racers, many guys teamed up with friends or family to form a small racing team. By splitting the budget, it made racing much more affordable, and proved to be one of the attractive aspects of the hobby. This race took place at Drag City in Georgia. (Photo Courtesy Richard McFalls)
This sight became all too normal for drag strips across America. The gates are closed, weeds are growing, and there hasn’t been any sign of activity in years—this is how many abandoned drag strips appear today, unfortunately. The pavement in the background hasn’t been used since the 1980s, and there is no chance of the track reopening.
Unsanctioned drag strips are often referred to as “outlaw tracks” because of their no-rules attitude, and these tracks actually made an impact on the sport. The outlaw tracks provided a place to race for those who couldn’t make the trek to a professionally sanctioned drag strip, and the no-holds-barred racing mindset made for some interesting innovations. The Southeast drag racing scene is famous almost entirely because of its outlaw roots, which eventually produced a host of drag racing legends.
Although outlaw tracks catered to the grassroots guys, track managers and promoters were not afraid to put up a big purse to draw a bunch of racers and spectators. Super Stock and Funny Car races were huge events for hometown tracks, so you didn’t have to live near a high-dollar facility to see the big names of the sport. These tracks also set up incredible match races, which kept the popular drag racers quite busy in the 1960s.
All across the country, track promoters created flyers, made radio commercials, and generated all sorts of hype to bring folks in the gate—and it worked. Huge crowds gathered for these events, which eventually caused safety concerns. The close proximity of spectators at the outlaw tracks combined with the unpredictability of the wild drivers turned out to be the biggest drawback of all. Both the drivers’ and the spectators’ lives were in danger and it was only a matter of time before injuries and deaths put a damper on the sport.
Southern tracks suffered the most from the inherent dangers of drag racing, as the tracks and race cars generally had a bit more homegrown flavor than some of the bigger tracks. Accidents became more common as the cars outgrew the tracks, and it caused many Southern venues to close their gates by the late 1960s.
Fast forward another ten years, and the number of outlaw tracks had dwindled even further. A bad economic outlook on the shoulders of the oil crisis caused devastation to many drag racers and spectators. The mid and late 1970s were a particularly bad time for drag racing, as the harsh economy caused a general lack of interest in high-performance cars. In 1975, the most powerful American car on the market barely made 200 hp, so these lifeless cars became the norm, as did a number of atrocious “economy” cars.
As time went on, drag racing became more expensive for the “average Joe” wanting to race a souped-up production car, which meant entries quickly dropped off and spectator numbers soon followed. With the muscle car era in the rearview mirror, the only racers who stayed with the hobby were the ones who could afford to play. The days of bolting a pair of slicks to a stock Chevelle were over because the sport of drag racing had evolved to the point of out-pricing its participants. The professional ranks continued to go quicker and faster, thanks to the aid of sponsors and high-dollar racing teams, but grassroots racing all but ended when the muscle car era came to a close.
Big events at big tracks retained the interest of spectators for several more years, but eventually even the big events lost their appeal to the general public, as the number of car enthusiasts continued to shrink with each passing day. When the car hobby dried up, so did sponsorship dollars. By the late 1970s and early 1980s, drag strips had a tough time staying in business. Even tracks with high-dollar contracts with the big sanctioning bodies could barely afford to stay open. A particularly difficult time for drag racing came in 1978, as a large number of tracks closed due to poor attendance and participation.
Without question, the car hobby didn’t completely die during those tough times, but many tracks simply couldn’t sit back and wait for the industry to resurrect itself. Drag strips quickly became hot items in the real estate business, providing plenty of room for housing communities, industrial buildings, or retail buildings. Even if a track changed hands with the hopes of resuming the racing action, many had been grandfathered in to noise and other local ordinances, which leads us to the next reason for widespread track closures in the United States.
Population and Politics
Parts of the United States suffered from various effects of growing populations and/or the influence of local politics. The West and some parts of the Northeast had an exploding population, which caused major problems for local tracks that were simply overtaken by suburban growth. Others were claimed by the industrial growth that accompanied the increased population. It was a no-win situation for drag strips across the country, as functioning tracks were sold to developers who didn’t waste any time disposing of the track and bulldozing local racers’ hopes in the process.
Many West Coast drag strips were taking up valuable real estate in the 1970s, so land developers made land owners an offer they couldn’t refuse. If the actual title holders had been drag racers at heart, the outcome may have been different, but many tracks were built on leased property, so dollar amounts could easily sway the owner’s opinion of drag racing.
Industrial development caused several tracks to close, but it came down to individuals for many other closures. By that, I mean individuals who complained to their local law officials, and forced new rules to hurt the track’s business in an effort to get it shut down for good. Politics killed a lot of drag strips, and it’s one of the big reasons most tracks close today.
In the 1970s, the hot rod and drag racing industry fell on hard times due to an ailing economy. With people struggling for money, it left no budget for racing, which killed a number of tracks. The year of the most track closures seems to be 1978, but the late 1970s and early 1980s also proved to be a tough time for racers. This run was at Drag City. (Photo Courtesy Bob Snyder)
Noise complaints are normal for drag strips, which has been true since the early days. The cars are naturally loud, because they have lots of compression, big camshafts, and very large headers. With no mufflers, any drag car is quite loud, but when you add nitromethane to the mix, the noise is incredible. I still don’t understand why everyone doesn’t love it.
Politics caused many drag strips to shut down, and it’s been a problem for many years. In fact, it’s one of the leading causes of drag strip closures in the modern era, and it’s mainly related to noise complaints from nearby neighbors, as here at Green Valley Raceway Drag Strip in Smithfield, Texas. (Photo Courtesy Steve Scott)
The type of politics associated with race tracks are generally town governments and organizations that band together to stop a particular function—like drag racing and the noise that goes along with it. When the initial buzz of drag racing went away, the complaints started rolling in on a regular basis. It was an unfortunate “black eye” for the sport, which thrives on all things loud, fast, and dangerous. Quiet, slow, and safe doesn’t quite have the same appeal. So, as the years went on, track owners could no longer ignore the requests made by local officials, which meant strict curfews and a limited number of events per year. These actions did just as much damage to the drag racing community as the fatal crashes and the bad economy. A significant number of small circle tracks suffered this same fate.
Many of the complainers were folks who moved into the area long after the track was constructed, leaving them without a logical argument, at least in the eyes of most racers. If you move near a drag strip or circle track, you could expect to hear a great deal of noise on the weekends—seems simple, right? As we all know, logic has no place in politics, so many drag strip neighbors got their way by contacting the right people to get the job done. County commissioners, mayors, and other city officials played a big part in closing many race facilities, which wasn’t just limited to drag strips. Other race tracks have also felt the pain of noise complaints, but drag racing definitely wins the decibel contest, especially in areas where the sound could carry for many miles. The end result of all this drama between tracks and local governments was a drastic reduction in the number of functioning race tracks in the United States.
Some gearheads simply hung up their helmets and never raced again when their home track was shut down, while others decided to travel more often to find places to race. The lack of hometown drag strips forced the diehard guys to step up into the professional ranks, which played a large role in creating the high-class world of drag racing we’re left with today. It’s great to see drag racing as a legitimate motorsport, but when it’s more of a business plan than a pastime, it takes having fun out of the equation.
These days, sponsor dollars take precedent over the showmanship that once powered the sport, at least in the professional ranks. Nostalgia drag racing has brought back some of those great qualities from the 1960s and 1970s, but it will never be the same, no matter how hard we try. The professional ranks (i.e., Top Fuel, Funny Car, Pro Stock) are dead in the water in terms of entertainment value, because every car is nearly identical to the next, every driver is overly concerned with sponsor obligations, and every pass down the strip costs more than most folks make in a month. Imagine scattering a $50,000 engine and going into the trailer and grabbing another one to make the next round. With that mindset, there’s no such thing as grassroots or entry level, so it’s easy to see why the sport has been in a relatively downward spiral in the eyes of longtime drag racers and hardcore gearheads.
The Hemi Hurricane was built in the mid 1960s, using a brand-new 426-ci Hemi engine out of a factory lightweight 1965 Dodge. This type of creation made for a diverse field of drag cars, even in classes where an increasing list of rules evened the playing field.
When drag strips went through tough times in the early 1970s, many racers were forced to hang up their helmets and move on to a different hobby. Bunky Bobo and Frank Groves built this 1940 Willys in the mid 1960s, and then Bobo’s son Tony restored the Hemi-powered coupe forty years later to perfectly match its former glory.
During the 1960s, the Deuce coupe went through a few changes, such as the higher ride height, but the one to the left is documented to be the original car seen in the vintage photo above. The car is pictured here at a swap meet, with an asking price of $32,000. A fully documented vintage drag car like this with local history demands big money these days.
You won’t find a more classic drag racing photo than this one at Brainerd Optimist Drag Strip. It features a blown 1940 Ford Deluxe coupe squaring off against a 1932 Ford coupe with the flagman in mid-jump. After the drag racing scene dried up a bit, the 1932 Ford was sold off, where it went into hibernation for more than forty years. (Photo Courtesy Larry Rose Collection)
So, what happened to racers who couldn’t afford to keep up with the big dogs? Some of them raced on different circuits, such as the International Hot Rod Association (IHRA), while others sold off all of their go-fast equipment and moved on to a different hobby. There are a select few who held on to their cars and speed parts, hoping for a breath of fresh air to revive the spirit of the good ol’ days.
That resuscitating breath came in the form of nostalgia drag racing, which started in the late 1980s. It inspired many retired car guys and racers to pull their defunct drag cars out of the barn and put them back on the track. It also gave hope to thousands of neglected cars.
While some car guys blew the dust off their old hot rods and supported the nostalgia drag racing scene, others were past the point of return. Despite the lack of interest, it’s still a big deal to find the whereabouts of an old race car, so the barn find craze has certainly rejuvenated a number of retired drag racers. There are still hundreds, if not thousands, of abandoned drag cars across the country that have yet to be unearthed, some of which may be right under our noses.
In the early 1970s, the closing of countless drag strips resulted in an effort to find alternative places to race, as a great number of competitors had their home tracks taken away. It was normal to see a drag strip on the pit road of a NASCAR speedway, but these pit-road drag strips rarely offered a full quarter mile of racing surface. Most of the time, pit-road strips were eighth mile in length, while a select few actually had the real estate to go the full quarter.
Even then, at tracks such as Ontario Motor Speedway in California, the burnout box wasn’t in line with the racing surface, requiring burnouts in what were staging lanes at a conventional drag strip. Although it had an odd burnout area, Ontario was a big-time facility, mainly because it catered to so many racing organizations. It hosted NASCAR events, NHRA events, as well as Formula One and other openwheel events. It had a 2½-mile oval track, a quarter-mile drag strip, and an infield road course that was more than 4 miles in length.
Although various drag racing events were held on the pit lane of many speedways, this trend didn’t last. Some tracks still hold “street drags” on pit road, but it’s generally a testand- tune atmosphere, geared toward street cars.
Decades of abuse from Mother Nature took its toll on the Satisfaction 1955 Chevy, but local car guy Scott Abbott dug it out of the weeds anyway. Although the car was rusty from top to bottom, Abbott stuffed a big-block V-8 between the fenders, and got it running again. The car was a huge hit at nostalgia drag events.
Dennis Hefner stands with his B/Gas-prepared 1955 Chevy 210 at Harriman Drag Strip. A straight front axle, radiused rear-wheel openings, and blue lexan windows were popular Gasser items, and this 1955 had them all. Hefner campaigned the car for several years before he retired from drag racing. (Photo Courtesy David Giles Collection)
Another way to take advantage of multiple forms of racing in a single facility is to incorporate a drag strip in a road course. A good example of this is Infineon Raceway in Sonoma, California, which features an NHRA-sanctioned, quarter-mile drag strip within the confines of its 900-acre racing course. The big road course is home to one of NASCAR’s only road courses used in the Sprint Cup series. There are still several motorsports parks that feature a drag strip, as well as another racing course, but Infineon is unique because the drag strip is actually inside the borders of the road course track, rather being than a separate entity.
Although many racers and entrepreneurs have banded together to build drag strips, it’s much more difficult. Stories of tracks being closed greatly outnumber stories of brandnew drag racing facilities. One of the biggest news stories to hit the drag racing world in the past decade was the unveiling of Z-Max Dragway, located in Charlotte, North Carolina. This is Charlotte’s first drag strip since Shuffletown Drag Strip closed in the early 1990s, so the NASCAR-crazed city welcomed it with open arms. The new four-lane drag strip has been extremely popular.
One Diehard Mopar Guy
There were many old-time drag racers who quit racing, but never sold any of their hard-earned equipment. One such case is Milburn Varner.
Like many young men, Varner began drag racing in the late 1950s. He started with a Pontiac, but quickly moved his focus to Mopar as he became more serious about going fast. Varner found a racing partner, who turned out to be his brother-in-law, David Rehring, and the two ate, drank, and slept drag racing for more than a decade. They started with a Max Wedge–powered 1963 Plymouth Belvedere.
Racing in the Super Stock ranks during the 1960s, they had plenty of choices when it came to drag strips, so they traveled to local tracks and battled it out with like-minded racers. They moved on to other Mopar-sourced drag machines over the next few years, but the focus here is their 1970 Plymouth ’Cuda. Instead of moving on, Varner decided to simply park this race car, as well as an abundance of Mopar speed parts.
A typical drag car from the early 1970s, this Plymouth ’Cuda belonged to Milburn Varner and David Rehring, who raced in the Super Stock ranks. Though it was originally a 440 Six-Pack car, the eager gearheads swapped in a Hemi engine shortly after buying the car. Varner claims they quit drag racing due to being priced out of competition. (Photo Courtesy David Giles Collection)
The Drag Addicts ’Cuda was parked in 1973, and it still sits in Varner’s garage, unaltered from its racing days. The 426-ci Hemi is intact, as is the original 440 Six-Pack engine, which only has a few hundred miles on it. Varner still loves drag racing but admits it was way more fun in the 1960s and early 1970s.
During the 1970s, many oval tracks held drag races on their pit road. One was Charlotte Motor Speedway. The pit road was home of the 1974 IHRA Southern Nationals, which was reported to be the first eighth-mile national event. Unfortunately, the drag racing was short-lived, due in part to Dave Anderson’s fatal crash aboard the Pollution Packer rocketpowered dragster. (Photo Courtesy Bob Snyder)
Ontario Motor Speedway in California was another great example of a track that really made pit road racing work. Unfortunately, the entire facility shut down in 1980, even though it was sanctioned by NASCAR, NHRA, USAC, and FIA, the four most prominent sanctioning bodies in the racing world. (Photo Courtesy Bob Snyder)
It’s not often that new drag strips are built, but the Z-Max Dragway in Concord, North Carolina, is a top-of-the-line facility in every aspect. With four lanes of racing action, it made big news in the drag racing world by running four-wide Top Fuel and Funny Cars at its first NHRA event.
Purchased new from Austin Motors in Chattanooga, the 1970 ’Cuda entered Varner’s life as a Plum Crazy–colored 440 Six-Pack car. He says that it was the infamous 1970 Chevelle convertible Super Stocker driven by Ray Allen that motivated him to up the ante among the local Super Stock ranks. That blue Chevelle broke records, won countless races, and set the Super Stock world on its ear. Varner’s only answer was a four-letter word that Mopar owners are very familiar with—Hemi.
This is where the story gets interesting, as Varner’s donor car of choice was a 1967 Plymouth GTX convertible; yes, a Hemi convertible. One of seventeen built, the rarity of the GTX didn’t mean much to Varner at the time, so the engine was plucked and transplanted into the ’Cuda. With only a handful of passes and exactly 149 street miles, the original 440 Six-Pack engine now sits on a stand in Varner’s basement.
The beauty of all this is that he still has the ’Cuda, as well as the GTX convertible. He also has the old 1963 Max Wedge car, as well as another 1966 Belvedere factory Hemi car, so to say he’s a diehard Mopar guy would be a gross understatement. His love for racing is still as strong as ever, but Varner and his racing partner stopped racing in 1973, after twelve straight years of the drag racing life.
This article was written by Tommy Lee Byrd and was originally featured in the book, Lost Drag Strips: Ghosts of Quarter-Mile Past.