Dragging is a form of specialized automobile racing that is most popular in the United States, although it is also practiced on a limited basis in England, Canada, and Australia. In a drag race, two entries start side by side, aiming to finish the straight-line course-called the drag strip and usually 0.25-mi long-in as fast a time as possible. Such cars, known as drag racers, take many forms. Some have engines behind the driver and parachute-assisted braking. Speeds are maintained only for a short burst, but are calculated in miles per hour and also in seconds.
Drag racing owes its origin to hot rods, cars specially modified for improved acceleration and speed, which were first built in southern California in the late 1930s. Drag racing was formalized in 1937 with the creation of the Southern California Timing Association (SCTA), an organization of automobile enthusiasts who raced their cars in the California desert. World War II (1939-1945) interrupted development of the sport, but after 1945 it blossomed, helped by the U.S. Air Force, which saw drag racing as a way to identify young men who could serve in the mechanical and flight crews of the bombers that made up the Strategic Air Command.
The first paved strips for drag racing, in fact, were runways at air bases and airports. The first formal drag strip was opened in Goleta, California, in 1948. The sport spread rapidly, and today there are hundreds of drag-strip facilities on which more than 5000 events are run annually. American drag racing is overseen by numerous organizations, the most important of which is the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA), located in Glendora, California.
Sanctioned drag racing is a test of acceleration and reaction. After the cars are staged (as shown by a white light), the christmas tree sequence starts and continues to green. A red light comes on if a racer starts early and he's disqualified. If neither car red lights, the winner is determined by the first car to break the lights at the finish line. A car may have a faster top end speed (measured by a series of lights at the finish line) but if his reaction to the lights was bad, he loses. Street racing is a test of ... well ... something else.
Sunday! Sunday! Sunday! was the cry heard over Chicagoland airwaves in the mid 1960s. Loud radio ads shouted at the listener to come out to U.S. 30 Dragstrip in Gary, Indiana, to see the new, radically modified stock cars duke it out on the quarter-mile. When Chrysler engineers moved both sets of tires forward to gain a weight distribution advantage, a strange looking breed of Detroit iron was born.
Ford and GM racers followed Mopar's lead and soon a weight reduction/power escalation war was on. Stock cars were stripped of excessive weight; fuel injection replaced carburetors; nitromethane then replaced gasoline; and finally, blowers were added. The sanctioning bodies and media tried all kinds of dignified sounding names to identify these wild cars that evolved from the early '60s factory wars: Experimental Stock, Exhibition Stock, Factory Altereds, and Match Racers. Of course, the most embarrassing and goofy name stuck with the fans ... Funny Cars!
One of the best remembered Funny Car feuds: Arnie The Farmer Beswick's Tameless Tiger against Mr. Norm's Grand-Spaulding Dodge Coronet at legendary U.S. 30 Dragstrip in the spring of 1966. Mr. Norm's hired gun, Gary Dyer expertly drove and tuned the big Hemi Dodge while Beswick was a hands-on owner, driver, and tuner. This two out of three match race billing had it all: Dodge vs Pontiac, the big city car dealers vs the farmer, and big money vs little money. Both cars pulled power wheelstands with Beswick's '63 Tempest hybrid launching completely skyward!
The altered wheelbase Funny Car era would soon end with the debut of Mercury's flip-top Comets. Their combination of a one-piece fiberglass body draped over a sophisticated tube frame chassis quickly outclassed the pioneer AWB cars and made them obsolete within a year. The early match racers, gone, but certainly not forgotten.
St. Louis had Hall Street during the latter part of the 1960s, Hall Street was known to be a haunt for people who had a need to jam gears in the wee hours of the morning. The street had all the qualities needed for drag racing on the margins of legality. It was straight as an arrow for much longer than even the pro strips, in an isolated industrial area, and usually lightly policed. It was a place to take your muscle in the form of American horsepower, and to then line up and have at it. May the best shifter win! Hall Street was a place to "haul the mail" and then, after the racing, make about twenty-five loops through Steak & Shake.
Street racing typically involves a crowd that conducts its activities in an underground fashion to avoid police attention. The American street-racing tradition dates back to the 1950s, and has long been a staple of Hollywood movies, including films such as "Rebel Without a Cause" (1955), "American Graffiti" (1973), and "Grease" (1978).
But no movie did more to boost the popularity of street racing than the 2001 surprise hit, "The Fast and the Furious," which grossed nearly $80 million in its first 10 days in theaters and includes spectacular racing scenes and daring stunts (including one where a car swerves back and forth beneath a speeding tractor-trailer). Although the movie studio issued public service announcements that encouraged safe and legal driving, the film likely provided fresh inspiration to street racers.
The fact that males have always had, according to one scholar, a "profound need for speed." This love of speed is not restricted to the males of the United States; indeed, street racing has reached serious levels in Canada, Australia, Germany, England, France, New Zealand, and Turkey.
Today in the United States, the racing tradition replays itself during every weekend in thousands of communities in the nation. The primary difference today is that street races are extraordinarily brazen and elaborately orchestrated functions, involving flaggers; timekeepers; lookouts equipped with computers mounted in their cars, cell phones, police scanners, two-way radios, and walkietalkies; and websites that announce race locations and even calculate the odds of getting caught by the police.
Street races typically involve racers and spectators meeting at a popular gathering place, often on a relatively remote street in an industrial area. Here they decide where to race; they then convoy to the site, where a one-eighth or one-quarter mile track is marked off. Cars line up at the starting line, where a starter stands between them and drops his or her hands to begin the race. Several hundred spectators may be watching. Street racing can also be unorganized and sporadic in nature, involving impromptu, one-time races between persons who do not know one another; the police generally have little means for dealing with these types of racers.
One Sunday morning a group of hot rodders got together near Santa Barbara, California, to race their souped-up cars down a straightaway, and for the first time ever, they were doing so legally, with police approval. That was the modest birth of drag racing. Within a few years drag strips had opened all over the nation, specially designed needlelike vehicles had evolved just to drag race, and the fearless people driving them were shooting from zero to 180 miles an hour in less than nine seconds before stopping almost as fast.
The sport was deadly dangerous, deafeningly noisy, totally unrespectable, and wildly expensive. Why did anyone do it? Drag racing had many colorful characters, including Don ("The Snake") Prudhomme, Shirley Muldowney (who nearly died and kept at it), and Big Daddy Don Garlits (who blew his foot off and didn't give up). Fantastic machines evolved (usually not scientifically at all) and a whole subsport spun off: "funny car" racing. What does the spread and persistence of this utterly useless activity tell us about our relationships to cars and to machines in general?
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