The History of Drag Racing

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 happened to 'Slick' Mills -