A Wonderful Future Behind Us
by Ed Miller
As the great songwriter Willie Nelson memorably wrote, “I’ve got a wonderful future behind me.” Current trends have been causing me to speculate recently that the same thing might be increasingly true about our dear sport of drag racing. I hope the thought doesn’t disturb you, but I think that question needs to be asked and answered out loud.
When I was coming up (and perhaps some of you readers, as well), teenaged hot rodders were considered to be a major social problem. Tearing around town in old cars with souped-up V-8 engines, greatly concerned with speed and performance, drag racing…. Why, back in the day we were thought to be every bit as serious a threat to community safety as the Godless Immorality of Rock and Roll, the Vast International Red Menace, or even the dreaded addition of Fluoride into our public drinking water supply!
No more, though. Yeah, there are some kids out there in front-wheel drive Japanese whizzers cruising around town with their four-cylinder sewing machine engines humming. Their idea of altering a car now principally seems to consist of putting really tall, skinny tires and high-dollar wheels on it so they can ease their thumpin’ mobile sound system stylishly on down the street. None of that can be confused with hot rodding, however.
The old days of getting grease under your fingernails and busting your knuckles installing high performance speed equipment are over for a whole lot of people. There’s not much you can do to cars made in the last quarter-century but change rims and put in woofers. Most all of the fuel intake and ignition timing is now computer-controlled. You can just forget about adding a couple of more carburetors and bumping up the distributor advance a few degrees. Really, all you can do now is stick a different chip in the ECU computer.
That, of course, applies to those youngsters that even have a car. Recent research shows that fewer people of driving age are getting licenses, and fewer still are buying cars in the first place. Lots of them don’t seem to go outside very often, preferring to just digitally schmooze with their virtual “friends” on the social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, or maybe veg out and play games on their cell phones. They don’t need to go anyplace, somewhere in the real world in a car, when they can sink mindlessly into their iPads.
Seems like the whole world has gone digital and metric on us. My old wrenches that worked just fine for every car I came into contact with during my first 40 years haven’t fit any new cars made in more than 20 years. A High School near my home now requires excellent math and science class grades to get into the Automotive Technology program, because much of the work in auto shops is being done on laptop computers sitting in the front seat of a vehicle instead of crawling around up underneath the car getting grubby.
Personal pride and one-upsmanship no longer revolves around who has the coolest custom ride, the rumbliest exhaust, and the roughest idling cam. Now, it appears to be more a matter of who has more apps and better games loaded up on their pocket communicator. You don’t need a set of spinners or moon discs anymore, just a trendy new download. The money now goes for cell phone service plans - not gas, oil, and drag strip entry fees.
Are there exceptions to this? Sure there are, but that’s exactly what they are - exceptions. It’s not like it was when we grew up that you and your teenaged buddies would likely be hot-rodders. A young man I know from a small central Texas town shot and edited great video of the Texas State Championship Races and the other nostalgia drag events he loves at San Antonio Raceway. Asked how many of his high school classmates shared his interest? His answer: “None!” They all think it’s like really strange that anybody their own age would even be the least bit interested in watching some old cars race.
Take a look at who’s sitting in the grandstands at your local drag strip. My own highly unscientific personal observation survey puts the age range from nearly 30 up into the 60’s, with an average age of about 40 or so. Again, there are exceptions; but, again, not all that many. This seems to be especially true of both attendance and participation at nostalgia events. Bracket race crowds may be a little bit younger, but not the traditional kind of both-cars-start-at-once heads-up drag racing we’re accustomed to.
In an age when consumer interest has swerved completely away from long-established big American brands and on over towards imports like Camrys, Civics, and Miatas, it looks like our sport could be going the way of the Plymouth, Mercury, and Oldsmobile. What are we gonna do if our sport is no longer on the mind of the younger crowd, and all the trend-setting up-and-comers have no interest in it and focus on other things instead?
Where does it all go from here? What will become of the next generation? Who’s gonna take our place up on the starting line? How does drag racing survive? Damned if I know, but it’s sure enough got me puzzled and concerned.
Ed Miller is the Competition Director of the Texas Timing Association. He has been involved in drag racing since the 1950s, as a car owner, driver, promoter and writer. He won the A/Fuel Altered class at the 1968 AHRA Nationals and, with his wife, Dianne, currently enjoys his seat time in their 355 cu. in., Mark Williams-chassied ’23-T fuel altered, the “Texas Bandit.”
Nostalgia Drag World - by Ed Miller; photos by Connell Miller