Drag Racing with Jim Hand – Part 2: History of Drag Racing
Auto racing has transpired almost since the first two auto owners encountered each other. Racing has taken many forms: Hill climbs, cross country races, top speed contests, closed course races, endurance races, and standing start racing. The latter is what we know today as drag racing. Two vehicles line up side by side and race to some given point, usually 1/8 or 1/4 mile. In the purest form, the winner of the race is the vehicle that crosses the finish line first.
How did this sport get started? The roots can be found in top speed racing at the “dry lakes” in California as early as 1934. Enthusiasts discovered the dry lakes, such as Muroc in the high desert, were flat, relatively smooth, and had no driving restrictions. Their vehicles were driven to the dry lakes, where various components such as fenders, windshields, and tops were removed in preparation for the top speed runs. In those early days, speeds of 100 MPH was considered quite fast. There were no purses, trophies, safety checks or rules, and the racers ran just to get a top speed number. In 1937, the Southern California Timing Association was formed and this group pulled together various Clubs to establish classes, some safety rules, and a schedule of four organized races per year. Such safety features as roll over bars and seat belts were mandated, and during this period through the start of the second World War, aftermarket speed accessories began to appear.
After the war and through the late forties, interest in cars and street racing exploded. According to the people that lived in Southern California during that period, the races usually began with a “Choose Off” where a driver would choose a competitor and they would have at it. In about 195O, the invitation to race was usually proffered by telling the opponent to “Drag It Out”. Apparently, that term, which originated in Southern California, is the basis for today’s “Drag Racing”. Other terms, such as “Dig” or “Digger” were used in other parts of the country, but did not become as common as “Dragging”.
The first organized drag races were held at unused air base runways, and the first commercial strip was apparently Santa Ana in Orange County in 1950. Typical 1/4 top speeds were in the 90’s. The National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) was formed in 1951, and the initial purpose was to unite the various Car Clubs for regular safety checks, cruises, and reliability runs. As interest in racing was so high, NHRA quickly expanded into drag racing. Regional meets were implemented, and the NHRA “Safety Safari”, a group of people familiar with drag racing requirements and structuring, began to travel around the country helping local organizations conduct races. The first national event was held in Great Bend, Kansas, in 1955, and NHRA was off and running with the annual Nationals. Other associations have been formed since that time to promote drag racing, and some are still active.
In order to attract racers to a race, each racer has to have some chance to win occasionally. Thus, racing classes have been established based on some combination of cubic inches, rated horsepower, actual or factory weight, weight distribution, body styles, number of carburetors, or other factors that may affect the vehicle’s performance. With the proliferation of car models and engine sizes, vehicle sizes, front wheel drive, electronic fuel and ignition controls, turbo charging, etc., during the 70’s/ 80’s, the numbers of possible classes increased to an almost impractical number. The Car makers recognized the value of winning, and began to assign questionable low HP numbers to certain engines to increase their chance of winning. It became increasingly difficult to police the entries to insure proper classification, and the local drag strips could not conduct practical events with so many potential classes.
As a result of the above changes, a new type of drag racing was tried -Bracket Racing. Brackets of elapsed times in seconds normally run in the 1/4 by the vehicles in competition at a given track are delineated (such as O to 11.99, 12 to 13.99, and 14 seconds and slower). The drivers run a series of practice runs, called “time trials”, and based on the vehicle’s elapsed time, the driver selects an elapsed time (ET) to use in competition. This ET number, called a “dial-in”, is written on the vehicle windows, usually with white shoe polish, and the vehicle is classified accordingly. When it is time for actual competition (called “elimination’s”), that Bracket class is called as a group to the “staging lanes”. As the vehicles are paired up, the dial-in for each vehicle is entered into the track timing system by the Tower operator. The timing system delays the beginning of the starting lights sequence for the quicker car by the difference in the two dials. Thus, the slower car will be given a head start, and if both cars have a good start and run close to each of their respective dials, the cars will arrive at the finish line at about the same time. Bracket racing’s most valuable asset is that it minimizes cheating. Engine make, size, or power, vehicle type or weight, intake system, etc., is no longer of concern because the driver selects the dial-in. If the vehicle runs quicker than the dial, it automatically loses, and if it runs much slower than the dial, it will probably lose. Driving skills in quick and consistent starts, (“reaction time”), and the ability of the vehicle to run close to the dial-in are the keys to successful bracket racing.
Many drag racers prefer “heads up” racing where the car that finishes first is the winner. I also like that style, but I don’t like to compete against a 400 ci small block that is incorrectly entered as a 327, or a 455 Pontiac that is entered as a 350. Bracket racing immediately stops such games, and it allows local tracks across the country to conduct honest racing with a minimum of technical staff. Various associations presently conduct “heads up” or class style racing at larger events.
So whether it is the most preferred style, bracket racing is the most common form of drag racing available for us. Accordingly, the majority of our discussions will concern bracket racing, and as mentioned in the introductory column, we will try to make it easier for you to begin bracket racing, and possibly even become a regular contender.
For those of you interested in drag racing history in general, and NHRA history specifically, the two hour video titled “Gathering Speed”, produced by Diamond-P Sports, Inc., traces the evolution of drag racing through the 70’s. Many racing pioneers and their cars are featured in this interesting and informative video.