The Rise of Drag Racing: Imported From Detroit – Part 1

4 years ago Racing

It is hard to think of drag racing as a sport that just popped up and “became”; it’s more like a movement. Yes, I just defined a sport based on cars as a movement, why you mad? Although the more notable events and people credited in drag racing locate its roots out west, I can’t help but to shift the focus on its rise in popularity to Detroit.

Drag racing. Horse and buggyGood ole drag racing. The sport that entails a couple of hillbillies driving side by side in a straight line to see who gets to an arbitrary finish line faster, thus declaring a victor in all things. No one seems to know what prompted drag racing EXACTLY. But here is what we do know:

That one guy named Henry, from that other company that people used to talk about 115 years ago or so, introduced the mass-produced automobile. It had four wheels and an engine and made noise when you pressed the accelerator pedal. That might be all that was needed to spark the flame.

Wally Parks sitting in a car
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Picture it, two 50-something-year-old guys in their burlap rags find each other side by side only feet apart waiting as some horse-drawn buggies pass in front of them at the intersection of the town square while sitting idle in their fancy gasoline powered automobile. “That is a mighty fine automobile you have there, too bad it’s not as nice as mine, partner…” And off they go. When did that happen? No one knows exactly, but I’m pretty sure it happened that way and continued to happen more often, spreading about the countryside.

In the early 1930s, a more organized form of drag racing started to take shape in the dry lakebeds of California.

Prior to that time, drag racing was nothing more than a group of guys on the streets trying to show off how awesome their cars were and, more importantly, how awesome THEY were. That brings us to Wallace (Wally) Parks, a fella with a plan. Wally began organizing a variety of groups and events to try to bring some structure to the idea of straight-line racing. In 1937, he formed the Road Runners in California, as well as the Southern California Timing Association to bring some standardization and provide real measuring sticks for the events being held in the lakebeds out west.

When did the term “drag racing” start? As far as we can tell, people started referring to straight-line racing as “drag racing” in the 1940s. During this same time, illegal street racing started to pick up heavily throughout the country, leading to fun, freedom, horsepower and burnt rubber; I mean, fear, chaos, danger and menacing acts in the streets. The first official drag strip event was started in 1950 by CJ Hart, who hosted the event on an auxiliary runway in California, complete with race classes and top speed readings.

1950 drag strip
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Shortly after Hart began hosting organized races, the NHRA was created to bring some structure and organization to the sport. The goal was to make sure the sport was held in a safe environment while creating standards to measure a driver’s success. Street racing and drag racing were heavily criticized and considered to be dangerous and reckless. However, there was hope that safety standards could help sway the public opinion of the sport. NHRA events became popular, drag strips opened around the country, cars got faster, events got bigger, more people watched and the sport raged on.

So why do I say Detroit played a big part in drag racing history? I’m glad you asked…tomorrow, I will explain my bold statement!



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