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Drag Racing Lives On in the Imagination — & Reality

No stop signs more than 8 decades after being born in Southern California

By Leo Shvedsky
March 03 2022
At the starting line. (Shutterstock) 

Drag racing has been around for better than eight decades — and for good reason. Since Day One, there’s been something timeless about a contest between two cars, drivers and engines taut and ready. Then and now, there has never been a better way to determine whose car was best than by a screaming, pedal-to-the-metal drag race. 

Southern California has been a major hub since drag-racing began, when the sport was born on the hot sands of the dry lake beds of the high desert. 

1950s stocks racing. (Fuel cars) 

Pining down the exact time and place drag racing began, however, has proved to be impossible. Like most folks involved in an extra-legal activity, early drag racers weren’t exactly keen on developing a sustainable system of record keeping. But from what we could gather it, started in the 1930s when people would tune their cars to get the most out of them for a straight burst. 

On a side note, the 1930s seem to have been a ripping good time for car culture in SoCal. Along with the birth of drag racing, sunny SoCal also spawned what would eventually become the art of modding with hydraulics. What Detroit built, Californians rebuilt — and then some. 

After the war in 1949, first organized drag race was held on a disused airfield runway at the Bonneville Salt Flats, which explains where Pontiac Bonneville got its name. It was the first organized “against the clock” race, and from which any drag race anyplace in the world gets its basic rules.  

First Drag Racing championship was held in Kansas. (Motortrend) 

The National Hot Rod Association (NRHA) was created in 1951, the same year when the two main categories of “Unmodified Stock” and “Top Eliminator” that we know today were established. It was around this time that Santa Ana Drags opened. It was the first official drag strip. 

From the ’60s through today there has been perpetual growth in the tech and power in cars. Because of that growth, the sport is very much alive and thriving in SoCal, as well as around the country. The sport became “super official” during that time, when giant automakers like Ford and GM started fielding cars and teams to see who could get the fastest quarter-mile time.  

Modern Drag Strip. (Shutterstock) 

Drag racing is why we have amazing muscle cars like the Mustang, the Corvette and the Challenger. They weren’t built for F1 tracks like many European cars. Those cars were the direct result of the drag races that began in the deserts of SoCal. 

Drag racing lives on and not just in the imagination. There are still lots of underground drag races, which is where the immensely popular film franchise “The Fast and the Furious” got its inspiration. And where was the first of those films set? SoCal.  

Whether it’s on the big screen or the big car manufacturers’ design floors, all drag racing can trace its roots to the sunny climes of Southern California. 




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