Traditional hot-rod drag racing grows in popularity not because people long for the past, but because it’s some of the best racing on the strip today

In the dimly lit past, there was a time and place where anyone could build a car in their garage, show up at the local drag strip and challenge for a national title. Race cars were driven to the track instead of being hauled around in multimillion dollar semi-trucks. The driver was most likely the designer, builder and the mechanic. Hot rod and custom clubs that caught the racing bug would come together to build a race car to win bragging rights over other clubs. Race cars were known by their catchy nicknames or owners’ names instead of the corporate sponsor. Such was the nature of the early days of drag racing. Passion, innovation and cubic inches ruled the day, not corporate sponsorship and the cubic dollar. At select Nostalgia Drag Racing events around the country, those days are returning.

Long obsolete race cars and racing classes are being revived and enjoyed by ever-increasing numbers of spectators and racers. Whether carefully preserved originals, restored barn finds or newly built tributes, Gassers, Factory Experimentals, Super Stock, Altered Wheelbase, Funny Car, Front Engine Dragsters, Jalopies, Hot Rods and Customs are finding their way to the staging lanes. Drag racing fans seeking to relive a simpler time, see famous cars and drivers from their childhood, and enjoy the more intimate settings of smaller racing venues are packing the stands at tracks across the country.

What Qualifies as Nostalgia?

Nostalgia Drag Racing events vary in size, rules and what is considered nostalgic, but all strike a chord with racers and fans. Some events allow cars of any era as long as they are not current frontline competitive professional race teams, while others restrict the staging lanes to certain years and styles of cars. Some of the most restrictive, such as The Race of Gentlemen in Wildwood, New Jersey, are limited to pre-WWII vehicles. Most traditional style drag race events set their year restrictions for race cars allowed on track to 1964 or 1966 and before.

The NHRA Hot Rod Heritage Racing Series is the most liberal with its year restrictions allowing cars from the 1980s and earlier to compete. These restrictions help create a certain look and feel in the pits and on the track. One can relive the earliest days of hot rodding and racing on the beach at The Race of Gentlemen, or get a feel for what the evolving drag racing scene had become in the 1960s at a Billetproof Drag Race, or sample some of the more modern race cars at an NHRA Hot Rod Reunion race. What is common to all is a reverence and enjoyment of racing history. At many events, famous drivers are often present as grand marshals and famous cars put fans in the stands when they go down the strip.

Safety Considerations

Tech inspections can require current NHRA certification and safety gear, or can be as lax as making sure nothing is leaking and the car isn’t currently on fire. Most require at least lap belts and helmets for cars and fully covered riders on motorcycles and minibikes. Open cars without roll bars are allowed at some events giving those with historic or period-correct re-creations an opportunity to run.

Some events are part of a series that award points and crown season champions in multiple classes, while others are once-a-year get-togethers where there are no classes, eliminations or trophies. The tracks themselves vary from current top-line NHRA ¼-mile venues with all the modern conveniences to rustic 18-mile asphalt strips in someone’s back 40.

Where to Find Nostalgia Drags

The largest Nostalgia drag events are sponsored by the NHRA in their Hot Rod Heritage Racing series, spread over 10 events at tracks from California to New Hampshire. This series runs a full set of rules and regulations, occurs at only NHRA-sanctioned tracks and crowns season winners. Two of the most popular NHRA events are the storied March Meet and California Hot Rod Reunion held at Auto Club Famoso Raceway in Bakersfield, California. Hundreds of Nostalgia Race Cars fill the pit lanes and tens of thousands of fans pack the stands for three days of practice, heats and eliminations at the historic track.

Front Engine Dragsters, Gassers and Altered Wheel Base, all obsolete racing classes live again at Nostalgia Drag events.

These events attract historic Top Fuel dragsters, Altered wheelbase and Funny cars that are the highlight of the show. An evening “Cacklefest” during which dozens of Top Fuel cars line up on the track and fire up their ear-splitting, ground-shaking engines all at once. The cacklefest experience is not to be missed, as it is the only opportunity one has to see, hear, smell and, most of all feel, that many Top Fuel engines running at one time.

In the middle of the scale are the Billetproof series of Drag Races. Billetproof has three Nostalgia Drag Racing events held in California, Washington and Florida. The Billetproof races are not part of a series and do not have eliminations or classes. All of the events are held on 18-mile “outlaw” tracks, meaning that they are not beholden to any set of rules for safety or procedures. Tech inspection is fairly lax for slower cars but can be very strict as the speeds go up and elapsed times go down. Race cars are restricted to period-correct 1964 and before models only, with exceptions made for later model years that would have raced in classes from the mid-1960s like Factory Experimental and Altered Wheelbase.

Special exhibition runs are allowed for vintage pull-start-style minibikes and go-karts at Billetproof events adding a fun twist to what would normally be period-correct pit transportation. The Billetproof Hot Rod Eruption Drags are held in late August at the picturesque yet rustic Riverdale Raceway in Toutle, Washington, just a few miles from the still rumbling Mount St. Helens volcano. Most racers come the night before and camp out, swapping stories and what passes for racing wisdom over campfires. The camping and the track facilities are primitive, but that adds to the fun and flavor of the event.

Rocky Philips’ Dual Engine “Evil Twin” Dragster at the Billetproof Hot Rod Eruption Drags (photo by Alan Galbraith), Eagle Field Drags.

The great Northwest was a hotbed for car club racing in the 1950s and 1960s, and today the Estranged and Slo-Pok’s car clubs carry on that tradition by bringing club-built cars to the Hot Rod Eruption drags. This event draws a large contingent of historic and tribute Gassers, front-engine gas dragsters and street-driven hot rods and customs, giving a strong time-warp feel to the proceedings. If one didn’t have the opportunity to attend a drag race in the late-1950s or mid-1960s, or would like to relive the races they did attend, an admission ticket to a Billetproof event is a ticket to the past.

Similar to Billetproof, the Eagle Field Drags take place at a WWII B-25 training strip located deep in the heart of California’s agricultural central valley. Twice a year this still-active airstrip is closed to all but earthbound traffic, harkening back to the very first organized drag races that took place on similar underutilized airstrips. The pits are dirt, the races are flag-drop start, non-timed, 18-mile and just for fun. Although open to 1970 and prior American-made vehicles, this event has a heavy showing of traditional street driven 1950’s-style hot rods and historic drag cars from California’s rich drag racing past.

Other events such as the Detroit Dragway Reunion have similar regional flavors. Held at the Milan Dragway in early June, the reunion commemorates the now-closed Detroit Dragway, or the “Dirty D” as it was affectionately known. Some of the early innovations in drag racing and clandestine factory testing can be traced to the Dirty D. This event features staging lanes full of wheelie-popping Gassers and Alcohol Funny cars, giving it a decidedly Midwestern feel.

Photos by Kleet Noris.

Other events of note that follow the 1964 or 1966 and prior model are the The Meltdown Drags at Bryon Dragway in Bryon, Illinois, The Hunnert Car Heads-Up—put on by the Chrome Czars car club at Great Lake Dragaway in Union Grove, Wisconsin—The Day or the Drag Race put on by the Kontinentals car club at Little River Dragway, Holland, Texas, The Jalopy Showdown Drags at Beaver Springs Dragway, Beaver Springs, Pennsylvania, and the H.A.M.B. Drags at Mokan Dragway in Asbury, Missouri. Many other Nostalgia events have their own looser interpretations of the term “nostalgia,” but the prior mentioned events give the racer and spectator a real taste of drag racing from the past.

Why Not Give it a Try?

No less a figure than 17-time world drag racing champion “Big Daddy” Don Garlits commented on the popularity of Nostalgia Drag racing events, saying, “These events reflect a simpler time that was less expensive and a lot more fun for both racers and spectators.” Many racers and spectators alike are rediscovering this at drag strips across the country. If you would like to join in on the fun, check out the events listed below and we’ll see you at the track.

These events reflect a simpler time that was less expensive and a lot more fun for both racers and spectators.