When other sports are said to reinvent themselves, the changes are typically minor and gimmicky, artificially engineered to fatten the wallet of whomever’s in charge. Drag racing might be unique in its ability to continue evolving the original concept while spinning off additional, specialized subspecies for vehicles being overlooked or left behind by technology or politics or the changing tastes of fans.
When NHRA exorcised its “/X” classes for traditional in-liners and Flatheads in the ‘60s, car owners didn’t all convert to overheads or drop out; they invented the Antique Nationals, which begat nostalgia racing, which is arguably the fastest growing form of drag racing, half a century later. Drag racing’s early discrimination against imports was the fertilizer for the air-cooled Bug-In movement, still going strong out West. Super Stockers evolved out of legal Stock classes, then branched into Funny Cars and Pro Stockers. Bracket racing produced open-qualified, handicapped AHRA Top Comp Eliminator in the ’70s and IHRA Top Sportsman of the ’80s, which spawned Pro Modified. The Super Chevy circuit is a successful GM world all its own, as are the NMRA for Mustangs and NMCA for muscle cars. Byron Dragway’s biggest annual event is now a wheelstanding competition. Families on a lawnmower budget can run Junior Dragsters.
Whereas professional baseball and football make a big deal out of adopting “throwback” uniforms (to stimulate ticket and jersey sales), today’s airport drags are a natural throwback to the beginnings of organized drag racing on rural military bases abandoned after World War II. The newest of these temporary facilities, California’s Eagle Field, went virtually unused from 1945 until last year, when a 50-something bracket racer named Rocky Phillips persuaded the airport’s owner to try a nostalgia grudge race and car show. Despite the absence of timing, starting and win lights, advertising, bleachers, AC power, liquid burnouts, track prep, classes (except one for HAMB dragsters), purse money or trophies, that experiment was a financial success.
So was a second event this year, which more than doubled both the racer and spectator counts. While repeatedly protecting my Nikon inside my T-shirt, I noticed that nobody seemed to mind the wind gusts coating everyone and everything in fine dust. Those happy campers didn’t seem to be having any less fun for their 10 bucks than the fans with whom I’d sat at Pomona in February. The friendly vibe reminded me of the noncommercial atmosphere of Bonneville. For the first time ever, I imagined the joy of discovery experienced by our ancestors racing on military runways. I can’t wait to go back to that place, both literally and figuratively.