With his less priced assembly-line automobiles, Henry Ford brought the automobile to the public. It was just a matter of time after cars were widely used before the human desire for competition took over. The first venues to test your vehicle against another driver were dry lake beds and two-lane highway strips. Non-sanctioned events were basically illegal drag races that took place all across the country. A few aficionados of the burgeoning competition began establishing the rules and regulations that would eventually lead to the formation of the NHRA, or National Hot Rod Association, as we know it today.
On the Muroc dry lake bed in California’s Mojave Desert, speed demons were able to breach the 100mph barrier, but it wasn’t until 1950 that C.J. Hart was able to open the first official drag strip for racing. The sport of drag racing was truly formed when individuals realised the chance to participate in safer and better-timed events. This original drag strip hosted races until 1959, by which time the NHRA had expanded to include many national events around the United States.
The NHRA has grown to a size that no one could have predicted, with over 80,000 members. “We did have hopes of it becoming a national sporting entity,” said Wally Parks, the association’s first President. We weren’t strategists, marketers, or anything like that. Things occurred, and we followed our instincts.”
THE TERM’S ORIGIN
The concept of drag racing as we know it now did not exist when the first track was built. These were just races – drag racing didn’t get its moniker until much later. To be honest, no one knows the true tale behind why straight line speed contests were dubbed drag races. One explanation is that the first racer may have said, “Drag your car out of the garage and race me!” because these races are the result of a challenge from one party to another. Another theory appears to be more grounded in reality and is based on the location of the race. Because paved roads were few and far between in the early days of motoring, early races could have taken place on the main “drag” or road through town. Some drivers would “drag” through the gears or hold the car in the same gear for longer periods of time as the sport progressed and began to take place on sanctioned circuits. We may never know when a sanctioned race was originally referred to as a drag race, but all of these scenarios exist.
DRAGS OF SANTA ANA
Santa Ana, California would be the first city in the United States to have a commercial drag strip. C.J. “Pappy” Hart and his colleague Creighton Hunter realised that street racing was dangerous and unlawful, and they wanted to legalise it. During the 1950s, an underused runway was used to stage drag races on Sundays before the airport was renamed John Wayne International.
Within the first month of business, Hart became the sole owner of the strip, and he also ran a petrol station in Santa Ana. His initial objective was to set a racing distance for the automobiles. Things could be measured in this way, and a true winner could be discovered. He chose the Quarter-Mile because it is widely used in quarter horse racing. He was therefore able to classify cars into several categories depending on their ability, ensuring that races were fair. Axle ratios, year, manufacturer, engine displacements, and safety equipment were used to divide the cars.
Races cost $0.50 each, and approximately 50 cars competed each week — business was thriving! The good times had to come to an end at some point, and the airport’s expansion in 1959 threw the drag racers off their game. The Lion’s Drag Strip at the Orange County Fairgrounds was soon open for business, allowing drag racing to resume. Pappy had established himself as a racing legend, and he went on to hold other roles in the NHRA. His passion for high-speed thrills lasted well into his senior years, and he was once penalised for driving his motor home at 85 mph.
HISTORY OF THE NHRA
Wally Parks was a drag racing pioneer who built his reputation on the dry lake speed trials. He formed the Road Runners Club in 1937 and went on to become the first President of the National Hot Rod Association. The NHRA hosted its maiden event just north of where the first official drag racing were place. The first race of an event that would become legendary was held at the Los Angeles County Fairgrounds in 1953.
The track has been expanded and upgraded to the tune of $6 million, and it now hosts the first and last events of the season. The Kragen O’Reilly NHRA Winternationals kick off the season. The venue currently features stadium-style seats, VIP towers, and a cutting-edge track. The sport increased in popularity and became a national phenomenon in 1955, when the first national race was held in Great Bend, Kansas.
With 80,000 members, the NHRA has grown to become the world’s largest racing sanctioning body. With 140 member tracks hosting 35,000 licenced participants, motorsport fans may enjoy races all year long. Drag racing has grown to the point where different types of vehicles compete in each event. The earliest racers simply modified their daily drivers and drove them to the track for the weekend, but top-fuel dragsters now dominate the speed records. The 260 mph speed record was broken in 1984. It took until 1992 for Kenny Bernstein, a Funny Car driver, to break the 300mph barrier. Tony Schumacher was the most recent person to break the 330mph threshold, which he did in 1999.