What is Drag Racing?
Drag racing is the ultimate test of acceleration and speed. Essentially, a drag race pits two vehicles against each other over a quarter-mile track from a standing start. When the lights go green, the pedal hits the metal and it’s a straight line race to the finish.
In each tournament-style round, the fastest car goes through and the slowest is eliminated until there’s a winner. It’s a pure speed challenge, packed full of adrenaline, raw pace and tons of horsepower.
The vehicles themselves are usually either bespoke drag racers or track cars heavily modified with specialist safety equipment, ensuring a safe experience for drivers, spectators and officials.
While drag racing happens worldwide, it’s most popular in the USA. The primary arbiter of the sport is the National Hot Rod Association, or NHRA, which has 80,000 members and holds year-round competitions featuring 35,000 licensed competitors at 140 tracks around the country.
There are over 200 classes of drag racing for all sorts of vehicles, but the top division of the NHRA features four classes:
The History of Drag Racing
Since the dawn of time, mankind has been obsessed with speed. From homo erectus running after his food (and often running from his food) to the ancient Olympic movement and Roman chariot races, the pursuit of citius, altius, fortius – faster, higher, stronger – has had a permanent and unwavering hold over us.
The mass adoption of the motor car in the 1920s did nothing to curb our enthusiasm for speed. In fact it was only a matter of time before our in-built quest to go faster than the next guy took over, and grew into a global sport adored by millions.
Like most forms of motor sport, drag racing had illegal origins and took place in venues barely fit for purpose. In the 1930s, the arid Californian lake beds and disused military airstrips were the home of cars topping 100mph and people showing up for a surreptitious off-road race. However, it wasn’t until after WW2 that things got a little more competitive and serious…
Post-war, when money was a little less scarce, rural American teenage boys with nowhere to go and nothing to do would ‘soup up’ their cars to show-off their mechanical prowess (presumably to bobby-socked American teenage girls). The best and easiest way to rule on who had the fastest car was a very simple point-to-point race over a short, measured distance.
A quarter-mile was arbitrarily chosen as it was, according to one version of the tale, the distance between city blocks. A longer distance was deemed ‘unnecessarily dangerous’.
The reason why these outlawed sprints came to be called ‘drag’ races has been lost to history, but two possible – probable – reasons seem most valid. The first was that it was the call to challenge – ‘drag your car out the garage and race me’. Alternatively, the main road through a town was, in those days, one of the only roads to be paved. It was also wide enough to take two cars side by side, and known as the ‘main drag’. A lesser possibility was that early drivers held their cars in low gears for longer, a technique known as ‘dragging’. Whatever the reason, it spawned a phenomenon that is as competitive today as it ever was.
In 1951, the National Hot Rod Association was formed by Wallace Gordon ‘Wally’ Parks, a military tank test-driver for General Motors whose interest in cars in the ‘20s and ‘30s was whetted with his attendance at the dry lake speed trials of the ‘30s.
After the war, Parks was instrumental in the organisation of the Southern California Timing Association. At the first SCTA ‘Speed Week’ held at the iconic Bonneville Salt Flats in north-western Utah in 1949, racers started running against the clock. The first dragstrip, the Santa Ana Drags, was run from an airfield in Southern California in 1950. This historic location now forms part of Edwards Air Force Base, where almost every aircraft in the USAF inventory since the 1950s has been tested.
During this period of early development, Parks became the editor of Hot Rod magazine. He now had the forum, the support and the power to create the National Hot Rod Association – which he formed in 1951 with the idea to ‘create order from chaos.’ He put into place rules and regulations governing safety and performance standards that went a way to legitimising a ‘sport’ that had remained underground and largely illegal for years.
In the following decade, entrepreneurial promoters built legal drag racing strips for minimal cost. They could lay half-a-mile of tarmac (the extra length took in a prep and burn-in apron at the start and a run-off area at the end), adding in seating for spectators and timing apparatus. This new approach pleased local law enforcement, as well as the teenage mechanics. If they didn’t win, they simply went back to the garage and worked on their cars some more.
The first officially sanctioned NHRA event was held on a small section of the Los Angeles County Fairgrounds car park in Pomona, California in April 1953. Two years later, the first national event took place in Great Bend, Kansas called, rather lazily, ‘The Nationals’.
The Star Cars
Drag racing in the 1960s took on a more professional focus. Ford and Chrysler got involved in a battle to see who could design the best, most radical cars. ~In the following decade, blue-chip sponsorship allowed teams – traditionally made up of volunteers and friends – to be well-funded and waged. The increased money in the sport also allowed the NHRA to increase prize pools.
The first cars, known as ‘dragsters’, were basically ‘chopped’ road cars (to reduce weight) with uprated engines. But as with any formative sport, as science and technology improved, so did the cars. The amateur hobbyists who would tinker in the garage on the weekends became professional chassis builders. They started building purpose-built dragsters with more refined engines, better aerodynamics, and more than a passing nod to downforce, braking and safety.
Compared to Formula One and Indy Car racing, drag racers may have seemed on the surface to be a little more ‘agricultural’, but they soon became advanced technical machines at the forefront of mechanical engineering.
The Top Fuel dragsters, once front-engined (until drag legend Don Garlits’ transmission literally exploded when it was between his feet, ripping off half his foot ) became rear-engined, sleek, aerodynamically-precise cars with massive power, often exerting 5,000lb of downforce on those monster rear tyres and huge rear spoilers.
As the Top Fuel cars got more advanced, they got faster and faster, hitting truly eye-watering velocity:
Politics and Power
Today, drag racing remains as popular, bold, brash, noisy and scorching as it ever was! The 24-race 2015 NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series is the ‘most geographically dispersed US touring series in all of motorsports’ and the highlight is the Chevrolet Performance US Nationals. The world’s most prestigious drag race, it boasts teams traversing the States – from New England to California – throughout the season. The stats make for very positive reading:…and the US Army uses drag racing events as recruiting drives!
Like most – if not all – sports, drag racing isn’t without its issues and controversies. It comes a very distant fourth behind Formula 1, NASCAR and Indy Car in terms of prize money, and classic tracks are closing because of the lack of cash in the sport, coupled with the pull of the corporate dollars of investors who want land for development.
Drag racing is also a very noisy sport, and complaints from nearby residents have led to a number of closures. In addition, the cars aren’t exactly environmentally friendly and have come under intense scrutiny from the environmental lobby.
Despite the issues, drag racing is an amazingly exciting, adrenaline-filled sport watched by millions of people in the US and around the world. It is fast gaining popularity in Europe, Australia, South America, the Middle East, South Africa and beyond. An established, legitimate, speed-bending spectacular, there’s no doubt the sport has expanded hugely since the days of those early racers facing-off on a quarter-mile of dusty, pockmarked tarmac, each pushing their souped-up machine to the limit.
Find out how Idris got on behind the wheel of a drag racer when he was coached by NHRA legend, 2012 Top Fuel champion and all-round nice guy Antron Brown. You won’t want to miss it!