The History of
Drag racing is an
invention of the United States. It came about in the postwar
world of the late 1940s and the early 1950s. The United States
underwent an economic boom after World War II, and suddenly the
country was flush with cash. Many teenagers and young men used
their cash to soup up cars and show off their mechanical skills.
These young men wanted to prove who had the better skills and
better cars, so drag racing was born.
It is said the distance of ¼ mile was chosen for its ease of
measurement on the back roads of America. It was just enough
distance to get the cars up to a good speed, but short enough
not to be too dangerous. Many of the souped up cars could get up
to speeds around 100 mph in those early drag races.
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The popularity of drag
racing was seized upon and widened by cheap paperback novels
like “Hot Rod.” These novels emphasized that hot-rodding was a
way for the youth of America to rebel. They glamorized the
danger of the hot-rodding youth culture.
Seeing the way that drag racing had become extremely popular in
the underground youth culture, enterprising promoters began
building legal venues for drag-racing in the early 1950s. For a
very small investment of capital, these entrepreneurs could lay
down a ½ mile of asphalt with two wide lanes. They could throw
up some bleachers, a concession stand, and a timer, and they
then had a place that would be sure to make money due to the
postwar popularity of the sport. It also gave the young men
involved in drag races an opportunity to take part in their
hobby in a legal manner, while still having the same thrills and
opportunities to make money.
It was this background that Wally Parks, a former army tank
driver who became a tank test driver for General Motors
following the war, used to build up the National Hot Rod
Association (NHRA). Parks organized the Southern California
Timing Association (SCTA). The SCTA first held races at the
Bonneville Salt Flats in 1949. In 1950, the first drag strip in
the country was created by the SCTA on an airfield in Santa Ana,
California. Parks and the SCTA led the way for other drag strips
with their innovative use of computerized timing devices.
Parks soon became the editor of a monthly magazine called “Hot
Rod,” and he used the influence he held in this position to
create the NHRA in 1951. His stated goal for doing this was to
“create order from chaos” through the use of safety rules and
racing equipment standards.
NHRA President Wally Parks organized the first official NHRA
drag race in April 1953. It was held in the parking lot of the
Los Angeles County Fairgrounds in Pomona, CA. While Parks was
president of the NHRA, the sport quickly grew across the
country. However, the venues were mostly still amateurish
efforts like the parking ground venue of the first event.
That all changed when Parks stepped down in 1984. He was
replaced as president of the NHRA by a man named Dallas Gardner.
Gardner made it his mission to upgrade the NHRA venues to modern
stadium venues with all the amenities, including grandstands,
towers, and VIP booths. He was wildly successful in his efforts,
and both the legitimacy and popularity of the NHRA grew by leaps
and bounds under his watch.
This is proven by the incredible statistics the NHRA now boasts.
The NHRA is now the largest motorsports sanctioning organization
in the world. There are more than 80,000 members, more than
35,000 currently licensed competitors, more than 140 sanctioned
tracks and more than 5,000 annual sanctioned events.
From its humble roots on rural roads to its modern face of
professional stadium events with tens of thousands of fans in
attendance, drag racing has been an important part of America’s
culture for more than 60 years. It will be interesting to see
how it evolves over the next 60 years.
Accidents are happily rare; racing drivers
seem to have more off the track than on it! Here's one that
'Slick' Mills -