Driven to Win: Drag Racing
Art Arfons and Wally Parks with the Trophy for Top Speed, NHRA Nationals, Detroit Dragway, 1959 / THF122663
Loud, fast, intense. On the surface, drag racing looks fairly simple, but it’s much more complex than it appears. Especially in the professional classes of the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA)—Top Fuel, Funny Car, and Pro Stock—the cars are technologically ultrasophisticated, with truly awesome capabilities. A Top Fuel dragster—today’s ultimate—has a supercharged, 500-cubic-inch V-8 engine that can produce 11,000 horsepower burning nitromethane fuel. It propels that car and driver to well over 300 mph in a 1,000-foot charge that can take as little as 3.7 seconds.
Drag racing’s roots come from the 1930s on California’s dry lakes and the country’s back roads, where people raced each other in a straight line to see which car was fastest. Especially after World War II, speeds were getting up over 100 mph, and Wally Parks, who himself was a performance enthusiast, decided it was time to “create order from chaos.” Parks formed the NHRA in 1951, with the goal of getting hotrodders off the streets and into safer, more controllable, and legal venues. The NHRA legitimized the sport with safety rules, as well as performance and performance regulations, and today it is America’s largest, most important drag racing organization, with a multitude of classes for professional and amateur racers.
Read on to learn more about what you’ll see in the Drag Racing section of our new exhibit, Driven to Win: Racing in America presented by General Motors.
1933 Willys Drag Racer
In the 1950s and 1960s, drag racing fans loved the “gasser wars”—duels between gasoline-burning coupes and sedans. "Ohio George" Montgomery was among the most famous, and most frequent, winners. He owned, built, and drove this Willys gasser, and scored class wins in NHRA national championship events six times. It is based on the Willys coupe—a small economy car from the 1930s, favored by drag racers for its light weight.
Montgomery called his car the "World's Wildest Willys," and frequently used his considerable talents as a mechanic and machinist to modify the car to make it even wilder. He kept it winning races and championships from 1959 through 1967.
This is its final version, with the top chopped four inches; fiberglass hood, fenders, and doors; and a supercharged, single-overhead-cam Ford V-8 engine.
1960 Buck & Thompson Slingshot Dragster
Dragsters are designed for a single purpose: cover a quarter-mile from a standing start as quickly as possible. Builders throw out anything that does not contribute to that goal, and they concentrate weight as close to the rear wheels as possible to maximize traction.
Slingshot dragsters were popular from the mid-1950s through the early 1970s, so named because the driver sat behind the rear wheels "like a rock in a slingshot." This design was the ancestor of today’s Top Fuel dragsters.
Bob Thompson and Sam Buck, from Lockport, Illinois, built and drove this car and were very successful in the Midwest from 1960 to 1963. They bought the chassis as a kit and did extensive modifications to the 1948 Ford V-8 engine, with special cylinder heads, crank, pistons, magneto, camshaft, and fuel injectors.
2018 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 1LE
On Loan from General Motors Heritage Center
Essentially a factory-built race car designed more for the track than the street, this next-generation, ultra-high-performance Camaro is designed and executed for “out-of-the-box” weekend racing.
In addition to a supercharged 6.2L V8 engine rated at 650 horsepower, the ZL1 carries a track cooling package with engine oil, differential, and transmission coolers. Additionally, an exposed weave carbon-fiber rear wing adds up to 300 lbs. of downforce, and integrated front dive planes contribute to ultimate downforce and grip.
Engineers also paid extra attention to ensure the Camaro ZL1’s immense power could be reined in just as effectively with a short stopping distance. The Camaro ZL1 can go from 60-0 mph in just 107 feet, ensuring both remarkable track time and safety, thanks to its specifically designed performance brakes.
Overall, the Chevrolet Camaro ZL1’s incredible performance is the end result of carefully considered engineering decisions that have resulted in a vehicle that redefines what a sports car can do on-track, without compromising its on-road manners.
Beyond the cars, you can see these artifacts related to drag racing and racing culture in Driven to Win.
- Tachometer, circa 1935
- "Hot Rod Magazine," December 1948
- Billiard Ball Gearshift Knob, 1950-1965
- Crash Helmet Worn by Drag Racers Bob Thompson and Sam Buck, circa 1960
- Jacket Worn by Drag Racers Bob Thompson and Sam Buck, circa 1960
- Record Album, “The Big Sounds of the Drags!,” 1963
- Record Album, The Beach Boys "Little Deuce Coupe," 1964
- Brochure, 1966 Mercury Comet Preliminary Drag Specifications and NHRA Stock Car Classifications
- Hot Wheels Dragster, 1975-1980
- Bare Foot Gas Pedal, circa 1989
- 1993 Honda Civic Coupe Scale Model
- Blow Off Valve, circa 2000
- Xbox 360 "Import Tuner Challenge" Game, 2006
- Cragar Super Sport Wheel Cap, circa 2010
- "Hot Rod in a Box" Advertising Brochure, 2011
- Rat Rod Sticker, 2011
- Round2 “Auto World: 2019 Brittany Force Top Fuel Dragster” Diecast Model, 2019
Official Start of First NHRA Drag Racing Meet, Great Bend, Kansas, 1955 / THF122645
Learn more about drag racing with these additional resources from The Henry Ford.
- Check out hot rods and custom cars from years of Detroit Autorama shows with Curator of Transportation Matt Anderson’s round-up posts.
- Hear Indy car driver Lyn St. James talk about drag racing legend Shirley Muldowney, who inspired St. James in her own career.
- See Shirley Muldowney, as portrayed by Bonnie Bedelia, in this promotional still from the movie Heart Like a Wheel.
- Check out a poster from the 1967 movie Hot Rods to Hell, which represents street racing’s bad reputation that Wally Parks tried to overcome by forming the NHRA.
- See photos of Don “The Snake” Prudhomme and Tom “The Mongoose” McEwen, whose friendly rivalry thrilled drag racing fans in the 1970s.
- Take a look at the electronic “Christmas tree” signal, introduced in 1963 to ensure fairer starts in NHRA races.
- See a cap presented to drag racing legend John Force, who won more than 150 races and earned 16 NHRA championships.
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