Games Learning Resources Visit the Museum
America on the Move
Collection Exhibition Themes
Return Arts and Leisure Communities Immigration and Migration Making the Exhibition Technology Work and Industry Other Topics Guest Curators

Drag racing
 

Drag racing—the straight dash over 1/4 of a mile from a standing start for the shortest elapsed time—is a form of racing unique to the US.

The form grew directly from illegal match racing on rural roads by high-schoolers in the postwar 1940s-early 1950s. Teenagers, “souping up” their rebuilt cars, wanted to show off their mechanical skills. The most objective way was the standing-start race of two cars over an identical short distance.

The arbitrary distance of 1/4-mile came, according to one version of the story from the fact that it was easily measured on a straight stretch of rural road and because a longer distance would be unnecessarily dangerous.

Many worked-over old cars could hit nearly 100 mph in “the quarter.”

Mass market novels such as Hot Rod made the hot-rodding phenomenon seem like a widespread form of youth rebellion. Its lurid cover glamorized speed and mobility even as the content warned of the terrible consequences of dangerous driving.
Hot Rod, by Henry Gregor Felson, 1950
Hot Rod, by Henry Gregor Felson, 1950

In the early 1950s promoters built legal drag-racing strips. With little investment, an organizer could lay just over 1/2-mile of asphalt in two wide lanes (the extra length for the prep and burn-in apron at the starting end together with an over-run beyond the finish line), add some bleachers, add timing apparatus, and go into business on sunny weekends. Local law enforcement authorities were pleased that such tracks gave the drivers a legal, and safer, place to race. Teenage mechanics and drivers proudly brought their cars to the “strips” to prove their mettle in fair competition. And if they failed to win, they worked on their cars some more and tried again the following week. The bulk of fans have always been those who have had experience working on their own cars

Rules served teenage enthusiasms and teenage views of fairness. The result was a form of racing with just a few basic classes to accommodate modified production cars raced by amateur owners and also to accommodate highly specialized, purpose-built dragsters mostly run (today) by professional teams.
'Big Daddy' Don Garlits and his Swamp Rat XXX
"Big Daddy" Don Garlits and his Swamp Rat XXX
This top fuel drag racing car was the first to exceed 270 mph.

Acceleration was and is the only value. Briefer and briefer elapsed times, the goal; shaving weight and boosting power any way possible, the means. Cars with comparable kinds of bodies ran in match races, with few restrictions on engine, chassis, and drive-train modifications that owners could try.

The motivating idea—and the quality that still attracts the die-hard enthusiasts for the form—is the “no holds barred” expression of sheer power deftly.

Rules have changed over the years to accommodate technical changes, such as fiberglass bodies, and additional safety improvements, such as roll cages and fire suppression to protect the driver.

Drag racing is not as widely popular with the public as Indy or NASCAR. It is, perhaps, more a mechanics’ form of racing rather than a drivers’ form—but any enthusiast will rightly point out the skills of the drivers of such high-powered cars, the fastest of which now exceed 300 mph in “the quarter”—a far cry indeed from the drag race depicted in Rebel Without a Cause.

Previous Page
Next Page
National Museum of American History About This Site | Sponsors | Buy the Book | E-mail Signup | Credits