The exposure of drag racing to the public today is worlds away from what we had in the first few decades of our sport. The main publication for many years was good ol’ Hot Rod, but with its lead time, reportage of the one or two national drag meets (and a few others from time to time) was always a couple of months late in giving us the results. No television coverage and only a smattering of print in newspapers unless you lived in an area that had a hip, young sports reporter who might actually follow something other than ball sports or circle track racing. (Not sure how “hip” I was in 1958, but I did persuade the editor of a small Dallas weekly newspaper to publish my photos and “Rodding Around” column. Heady stuff for this budding young automotive journalist!)
Today is a whole new ballgame! Several print magazines of the straight-line motorsports genre dot the shelves of your nearest bookseller and the internet features any number of magazines (such as one of the, ahem, very best… the one you’re reading right now!) that can provide coverage literally within hours of an event’s conclusion, complete with photos. Television coverage of NHRA’s national meets, with qualifying and finals for the Pro classes and finals of the Sportsman classes are looked on somewhat in awe by us older guys who grew up racing in the days when bets could be made that nary a broadcast camera would ever grace the hallowed grounds of a drag racing emporium! Oh yes…and they actually have sponsors for these telecasts that, besides tire and oil products, are not even motorsports related, such as floor coverings, cooking utensils, men’s clothing and pocket catheters. My, how the world has changed!
However, there is the flip side of the coin to all this wide exposure our sport has been getting over the years and that is the reluctance to a big degree of our millennial population to become involved, either as spectators or participants. (As a side note: Those studying demographics are even reporting that lower percentages of teens reaching driving age are now (1) getting their license and (2) buying/owning vehicles. This is absolutely amazing to me, one who was born a smidgeon before, but grew up with the Baby Boomer generation, where both of these were an absolute necessity and right of passage!) This lack of interest, however, is not some new phenomenon; I’ve been reporting and railing about it for several years now, trying to stem the flow of butts away from the stands and pits and urging parents, uncles, friends, etc. to pull the young ones away from the Xbox or Playstation hooked up to their bedroom’s big flatscreen and bring them to a day at the track. Where, hopefully, they might - just might – be interested enough to say at the end of the day: Dude!..I wanna do that again!
Perhaps one of the biggest factors behind this reluctance, though, is the cost involved as a spectator or to become a participant. The average young person can, putting the game controller aside, call up a heavy dish of zombie movies all month from Netflix for $8 (soon to go to $10), which probably would not buy them a Coke and a burger at a “Big Show” event. Gas and the ticket to get in will be more than their weekly take-home pay from McWindyBurger. Fortunately, we have always tried to promote local strips, where entry fees and concessions are usually within pocketbook range. For one example, Todd Martin and Keith Haney have teamed up their first-class Tulsa Raceway Park with the nearby Osage Casino, that buys the tickets, thereby providing spectators with free admission. Parking is ten bucks per car, so you can pack all your buds in the jalopy and chug into one of the country’s finest facilities and sniff nitro all day long for that one amount. Killer deal!
Competing today is difficult and another reason for what some perceive as dwindling car counts at events around the country. Back in the old days, a person could find an old Ford or Chevy from the ‘20s, ‘30s or ‘40s for a hundred or less, fire up the old Lincoln welder and plop in a V8 Chevy/Ford/Cad/Olds or ‘nailhead’ Buick . Add a 3-carb manifold (these are 1962 prices from a catalog) for $65.95, three Stromberg 97 carbs at $24.95 ea., Clay Smith cam at $69.50, a set of Jahns pistons for $55.50, Schiefer aluminum flywheel and clutch assembly for a tick over $100, and the big splurge – a must-have Vertex magneto for $160. Also, don’t forget to balance that engine for another $40 or pick up a set of Hedman headers for $59.50. Maybe pick up a cheap, old but strong, ’37 Cad-LaSalle 3-speed floorshift out of the junkyard while digging for a tough ’49 Olds rear end. Most of us actually settled on good used speed parts which could cut the above investment by half (I bought my first Vertex mag used in 1959 for $75!).
Putting it all together, along with a pair of Bruce or Inglewood slicks, and you had a strong running gasser or even an altered at a pretty reasonable price. The gas class (particularly B, C, D and E/Gas) was the most popular, and the old built-for-racing coupes and sedans were matched in those same classes with the late model Fords and Chevy’s (all that mattered was pounds per cubic inch). With headers, three 2-barrels or two 4-barrels, a $34.00 factory “Duntov” cam and a set of traction bars, the family’s daily driver Chevy coupe or sedan could usually compete for that trophy on the weekend and then be driven home - rather than towed or trailered - with stops to pick up groceries along the way.
Back in the day when, without a big expenditure, your daily driver could be competitive at the drag strip.
This is Pete Kennedy’s C/Gas ’57 at Caddo Mills in 1959.
Pete, a high school student at the time, actually built the engine for this car in the bedroom of his Dallas home!
It was a good trophy contender and yet was very tractable as a primarily street-driven car.
That’s the big difference today causing pause to many who are thinking about building a car to drag race. Even the world of the Sportsman classes have become so professional and so caught up in the use of very high-tech and specialized parts; therefore, so expensive. Even the Jr. Dragster you might like to get for your five-to-eighteen-year-old? If you have a hope of being competitive, be prepared to spend twenty-grand or more. The old coupe we built a couple paragraphs back? We would have a fun and competitive car on the track and with the possibility of bringing home the bacon (or at least a $5 trophy) for a total investment of less than what many of even the lower class sportsman racers today have in their transmission or rear end!
Today’s young person with an interest in drag racing can’t go out and find the old cars from the ‘30s, ‘40s or even the ‘50s or ‘60s to buy at a cheap price like we used to do. If they are able to discover a sweet deal on an old rust bucket, though, the staggering cost of everything else will quickly pull the plug on their plans. Now, with nothing in the garage to tinker with (a nightly and weekend passion we held so dearly back in the day) maybe they can at least switch off the flatscreen, put the controller down, quit texting their girlfriend and run to the store for a “performance” computer chip for the late model Honda, Toyota or 6-cylinder Mustang in the driveway……
NOSTALGIA DRAG WORLD - By Connell R. Miller, Editor-in-Chief