Where Are The Young Drag Racers Today?
by Connell R. Miller
Having watched the sport of drag racing almost from its infancy in the early 1950s to what it has become today, I feel proud to have been a part of it as spectator, racer, chassis builder, photographer and writer. I’ve seen the good and the bad, and right now I’m not feeling real chipper and perky regarding its continued health.
I’ve worked with a promoter on some events the last few years, and have noticed not only fewer young participants, but also a lack of those same age-bracketed folks as spectators in the stands. For quite some time it’s been apparent that our beloved sport does not grab the interest of the youth of today as it did in decades past. Yes, we have the Junior Dragster classes (that have already produced Wally winners to several who have graduated to the pro classes) and there are high school shop classes building drag cars as well as many strips that feature high school drag nights. But, without a doubt, interest is on the wane by the younger population – the very ones who have escaped all the birthing pains our founders’ suffered through their trials and tribulations and have had the sport literally handed to them!
As the world and its ever-evolving technology, likes and dislikes, interests, demographics, and mores change, we have to seriously wonder who will carry on with the traditions we have revered, nurtured and added to these past few generations. Maybe I’m sounding a little melodramatic here, but methinks I speaketh the truth!
Sociologists, who explore the forces that influence people and help shape their lives, are scratching their heads to make sense of this present day, radically fast-changing world. Baby Boomers were followed by the Gen-Xers, (who introduced us to the term, “Yuppie”), then Generation Y, and now the Post-Millennials, also known as Generation Z. However, before shutting that deep and way-too-boring textbook the sociologists are constantly mulling and mumbling over, let’s first take a look at how these generational changes are affecting our world of drag racing…..
Today, these newer generations don’t readily join social or fraternal groups like they did in the past. Socializing is now done on the internet via email, Twitter, Facebook and MySpace. Baseball, which used to be “America’s Sport,” has now been supplanted by the faster and more physical game of football. Even in most movies of today, smart dialogue and intricate plot twists are now passé, as box office success deems necessary for there to be cars suddenly flipping through the air after being hit by a three-shot burst from an automatic weapon, or the auto and its occupants crashing through a plate glass window two stories up and landing with no damage to the suspension or its occupants as they successfully escape their pursuers.
It would seem that the youth of today, jaded and demanding ever increasing doses of thrills involving speed would naturally be drawn to the world of drag racing, which offers the ultimate in speed, noise, and excitement. But I, sadly, might be wrong! A recent article by Jeff Burk, publisher of Drag Racing Online, also shared my concerns. He wrote:
“It seems that my generation of drag racers and fans has taken it for granted that their kids and grandkids were going to like drag racing as much as they do. Unfortunately, that isn’t the case and we as a sport are going to have to wake up and make some changes so that drag racing is affordable, attainable and, most importantly, cool!”
It’s no secret that our sport does not capture the imagination – or the interest - of those latter two generations as it did when I was growing up as a ‘Boomer. Back in the day – and I’m growing to dislike being put in that “box” as I’m still very much in today’s “day” – most of the kids I ran around with were really into cars…hot rods, customs, drag racing, and tinkering in the garage. To many of us, it seemed to be a normal part of what, years later, would begat the phrase, “it’s in our DNA.” The desire to race or watch drag racing was strong in those days. We just couldn’t wait for the weekend and whatever strip was running nearby – Caddo, Green Valley, Circle, Cedar Hill, Kennedale, and even scary Yellow Belly.
Sitting back deep in thought, I’ve come up with a few possible reasons (a tad tongue-in-cheek but with a modicum of truth) for why so many of us had this strong interest in cars and racing in those days?......
- There were no big malls for us to cruise, looking for the girls who now inhabit them on the weekend, looking for cute guys.
- We only had a small black and white TV with three channels (the fourth, PBS, hadn’t been born yet), so there was not today’s temptation to stay at home with one’s buds, watching endless sporting events from the 200+ channels available on the 42” LCD TV in one’s bedroom.
- We didn’t stay home, zombie-out and put serious wear on our thumbs playing with such later devilish devices as a Wii or Playstation2.
- Many of us were into sports, and since games were usually played on Saturdays, that left the next day open to go to the drag races, which were usually one-day events, held on Sunday (and who could forget those wonderful and compelling radio ads that called to us often, much as the Sirens beckoned Odysseus and his men: “Sunday..SUNDAY!..At beautiful Green Valley Raceway...Come see twenny-five top fuel dragsters compete for….”).
- We didn’t have hundred-horsepower crotch-rockets, jet skis, four-wheelers, computers, skateboards, ziplines, water parks, bungee jumping, indoor rock climbing, “naked Twister,” computers, and cell phones to compete with or distract us from our car building or quarter-mile fun.
- A reasonably competitive car was cheap to build and race. In 1963, I had less than $1000 in my fairly competitive D/Gas 1956 Chevy two-door post. 301 cu. in., Engle cam, headers, 4-bbl carb, Mallory ignition, and a Hurst floor shifter on my three-speed. Oh, and that dollar amount includes the car, by the way.
- Cars were a helluva lot easier to work on. How To Modify Chevy V-8 Engines by Don Francisco that I bought in ‘57 or ’58 was my “bible” to engine building. I blew a head gasket one time racing at Circle Drag Strip in Dallas, and with a minimum of hand tools, I was able to remove the radiator, manifold, heads, water pump, front cover plate, and pulled and checked the cam. I buttoned it all back up with new gaskets after a non-hurried working time of a few hours one morning.
In the fifties and sixties, one’s daily driver could successfully compete in several classes without a large expenditure. A trip to the local Chevy parts counter and thirty-five bucks could buy one a fairly hot Duntov 097 cam that was cheap, good for some power on the strip, and entirely streetable. Bolt on a set of headers with cut-outs, traction bars, and swap in a set of 4.11 gears, go have fun and maybe bring home a trophy now and then (in addition to being known as a “real racer” who was talked about around town).
Today’s cars are just not conducive to tinkering with in the garage. Open the hood of any product made later than the ‘70s, and one is confronted with…well, with stuff that only an officially-certified, factory-trained mechanic – or should we say, Service Technician – should touch. I gave up changing spark plugs on my cars several years ago when I couldn’t even find the damn things, as they were so covered up by all that unidentifiable “stuff” under the hood!
If the average, bucks-down rodder wants to go racing now, new cars - particularly the so-called “muscle cars” of today - are very expensive to buy and set-up for the track. Soup it up at home in your garage? Naw, just have a Service Tech install a high-performance chip! Oh, and be careful you don’t void the warranty on that thirty-eight-thousand-dollar ride!
Dragsters and altereds, ready to race, are in the same high-dollar stratosphere. Even a competitive Junior Dragster for the young’un in your family will probably cost way more than I had in my well-built and equipped AA/GD back in the ‘60s! A conundrum here is that trying to find an old car to build and go racing on the cheap is just as daunting – anything from the ‘30s through the ‘70s and you better have a big wad in that wallet or be in very good standing with your credit card company. Those lucky enough to find an old race car at a decent price, such as a cool front engine dragster or short wheelbase altered, are often disappointed because many times they cannot be certified to run without expensive renovations that can prove prohibitive to many.
In the seventies, as costs were really beginning to escalate, Car Craft magazine had the brilliant idea to build a low-cost dragster, termed an econo-rail. It became a multi-issue feature that successfully convinced Wally Parks and his NHRA to establish the popular Econo-Dragster classes. Keeping costs down obviously is healthy for the sport’s survival in any case, but it also would certainly have a positive effect on youngsters contemplating getting into the sport but afraid of the investment.
I really miss the days of racing when it was all heads-up with no break-out and, after winning one’s class, one then headed back to try and take a Little, Middle, or Top Eliminator trophy. Returning to those simple and fun days ain’t gonna happen, and – as some have suggested – I doubt if this would make a gnat’s behind change in stemming the dropout rate of these young folks. I’d love to say I had all sorts of ideas rolling around in this old grey-haired head, but I don’t. Well, maybe just a few suggestions:
- More “Econo”-type classes, with strict rules to limit the equipment used. Maybe institute “claiming” into them, as used to be popular in stock car racing and horse racing.
- Maybe local strips could look at the old AHRA’s (unwritten) mantra of, “if you bring it we’ll find a class for you..”
- Grandpa or dad – take those kids to a drag race, if they’ve never been to one (hogtie’em if they insist they have to “meet someone at the mall!”).
- Get involved with your local school’s shop program and see if they wouldn’t consider a drag car as a project. There should be a lot of supporting material to use from around the country if they’re not familiar with the concept.
- It goes without saying, for the general health of the sport, go out and support your local drag strip. Volunteers on race day are always welcome, and if you happen to bring that teen with you, it could foster his or her love for our great sport!
Obviously from my short list I don’t have a lot of ideas, but YOU – the reader – might. Send us your thoughts and ideas on the subject. We’d be happy to hear what you have to say and will publish them in future issues.
Nostalgia Drag World - Connell R. Miller, Editor-in-Chief