NHRA history: Drag racing's fast start

Born on the backroads of America in the post World War II years, drag racing's roots were planted on dry lake beds like Muroc in California's Mojave Desert, where hot rodders had congregated since the early 1930s and speeds first topped 100 mph.

One could even argue that drag racing was born in Goltry, Okla., in 1913, with the birth of Wally Parks, who nearly four decades later would found drag racing's most successful and influential sanctioning body.

Parks' family moved to California in the early 1920s, and Parks had an early interest in cars. He attended his first dry lake speed trials event in the 1930s, which whetted his fascination for performance. In 1937, Parks was one of the founders of the Road Runners Club.

Organized drag racing
In 1947, Parks, a military tank test-driver for General Motors who served in the army in the South Pacific in World War II, helped organize the Southern California Timing Association and later became its general manager.

The first SCTA "Speed Week," held at the famed Bonneville Salt Flats in 1949, was the result of a diligent effort of Parks, then its executive secretary. It was here that racers first began running "against the clock" - actually, a stopwatch - coaxing their vehicles to accelerate quicker rather than simply to attain high top speeds.

The first dragstrip, the Santa Ana Drags, began running on an airfield in Southern California in 1950 and quickly gained popularity among the Muroc crowd because of its revolutionary computerized speed clocks.

Wally Parks

When Parks became editor of the monthly enthusiast magazine Hot Rod, he had the forum and the power to form the National Hot Rod Association in 1951 to "create order from chaos" by instituting safety rules and performance standards that helped legitimize the sport. He was its first president.

NHRA's first races
NHRA held its first official race in April 1953 on a slice of the Los Angeles County Fairgrounds parking lot in Pomona, Calif. Four decades later, that track has undergone a $6-million expansion and renovation and hosts the NHRA season-opening Kragen O'Reilly NHRA Winternationals and the season finale, the Automobile Club of Southern California NHRA Finals. The aggressive upgrading of facilities to stadium quality, with fan amenities, VIP towers, and tall grandstands, was the passion of NHRA President Dallas Gardner, who took the reins in 1984 when Parks became board chairman. In 2000, Tom Compton became just the third president in NHRA history as Gardner ascended to the role of broad chairman and Parks became chairman of the Wally Parks NHRA Motorsports Museum.

In 1955, NHRA staged its first national event, called simply "the Nationals" in Great Bend, Kan. Six years later, as the Nationals hopscotched around the country to showcase the growing sport before settling in Indianapolis in 1961, the Winternationals became NHRA's second event.

Incredible success
Now in its fifth decade, NHRA is the world's largest motorsports sanctioning body with 80,000 members, 140 member tracks, more than 35,000 licensed competitors, and more than 5,000 member-track events.

"No one could have conceived what has happened," Parks said of the NHRA's tremendous growth and success. "But we did have ambitions of its becoming a national sports entity. We weren't planning or marketing geniuses or anything like that. Things happened and we went with our instincts.

"We just had an idea and a strong desire to be self-sustaining ... to control our own destiny and be our own masters. We wanted to build the organization on its own merit. We saw a need -- that being an avenue for safe drag racing -- and with the help of a lot of good people and a little luck we seem to have had some success."

About the term "drag racing"
Although the tire tracks of its history are clear, the origin of the term "drag racing" is not. The theories are almost as many and varied as the machines that have populated its ranks for five decades. Explanations range from a simple challenge ("Drag your car out of the garage and race me!") to geographical locale (the "main drag" was a city's main street, often the only one wide enough to accommodate two vehicles) to the mechanical (to "drag" the gears meant to hold the transmission in gear longer than normal).

The first "dragsters" were little more than street cars with lightly warmed-over engines and bodies chopped down to reduce weight. Eventually, professional chassis builders constructed purpose-built cars, bending and welding together tubing and planting the engine in the traditional spot, just in front of the driver; the engines, and the fuels they burned, became more exotic, more powerful, and, naturally, more temperamental.

Like almost all racing cars, they have undergone tremendous evolution as racers upgraded, experimented, theorized, and tested their equipment.

Safety and innovation paved the way to rear-engine Top Fuel cars in the early 1970s, and once drag racing legend Don Garlits - himself a victim of the front-engine configuration when his transmission, which was nestled between his feet, exploded in 1970, severing half of his right foot - perfected the design, the sport never looked back. Today's Top Fuel dragsters are computer-designed wonders with sleek profiles and wind-tunnel-tested rear airfoils that exert 5,000 pounds of downforce on the rear tires with minimal aerodynamic drag.

As racers became smarter, the speed barriers fell: 260 mph toppled in 1984; 270 in 1986; 280 in 1987; 290 in 1989: and the magic 300 mph barrier fell before the wheels of former Funny Car champion Kenny Bernstein on March 20, 1992. Just seven years later, Tony Schumacher became the first to top 330 mph in February 1999 in Phoenix.

Over the years, NHRA racing has lived up to its claim as The Extreme Motorsport®