I’ll never forget my first drag race. It was the 1971 NHRA Winternationals. I lived a block away from the south entrance of the Fairplex in Pomona, where the season-opening event took place, so it was a big influence on my formative years. While most of the kids in my neighborhood were trading baseball cards, I was building models of my favorite drag cars.
Back then, many of the Dragsters and Funny Cars were being towed on open trailers behind C10 and F-100 pickup trucks. Yes, there were a few ramp trucks back then, but that kind of luxury was reserved for the likes of Don “The Snake” Prudhomme and Tom “Mongoo$e” McEwen—the “rock stars” of drag racing. It would be quite a few more years before Top Fuelers and Funny Cars rolled into town with an army of 18-wheelers carrying multiple cars, a pit crew of 12 gearheads, mobile hospitality area, PR person, and a high-tech computer station for the crew chief.
Those early days of seeing open trailers and car haulers carrying door-slammers hold nostalgic memories for me as the coolest days of drag racing. So when I attended the Winternationals this past February, I made it a point to get there early enough on Friday morning to catch the Stock and Super Stock qualifying rounds. Of all the NHRA drag racing classes, those two seem to be the closest to what drag racing was like back in the late ’60s and early ’70s. Although there are some late-model cars competing within these classes, there are still a good number of classic Chevys going rounds. There’s nothing better than a first-gen Camaro or a 1968 Chevelle pulling up to the line against a vintage Ford Mustang or Dodge Coronet and then watching them battle their way down the quarter-mile.
With that said, the modern Funny Cars and Top Fuel Dragsters are still fairly exciting to watch—especially when they launch—as nothing in the world compares to the heart-stopping concussion generated by a pair of 10,000hp blown, nitro-fed engines. Unfortunately, the modern Pro Stock class lacks the same excitement, or any excitement, for that matter. But that wasn’t the case back when the class was introduced in 1970. Pro Stocks were incredibly exciting to watch back then. They launched hard with their front wheels reaching skyward, only to touch down for just an instant until the driver slammed the manual four-speed into Second gear for a bit more air time.
Out of that class came door-slammer legends like “Dyno” Don Nicholson, Ronnie Sox, Bill “Grumpy” Jenkins, Bob Glidden, Gapp & Roush, Dick Landy, Bill Bagshaw, Arlen Vanke, Butch Leal, Roy Hill, and Don Carlton. There were plenty more, but these are the ones who stood out most to me. These guys were hard-core competitors that would do whatever it took to win. I recall hearing a story about Bill Jenkins bolting a piece on top of his engine that did absolutely nothing to enhance performance, yet the following weekend a few other Pro Stock racers had adopted the same item on their engines, hoping to be able to keep up with “da Grump.” It was Grumpy’s unique way of finding out who’s been stalking his ride. No doubt there are more great stories like this one from the good ol days of drag racing, but with today’s tight rules and regulations in place, those stories are few and far between.
Although the Pro Stock drag racers of yesteryear have since passed or retired from the sport, Stock and Super Stock racing is about as close as you’ll be able to get to what I consider drag racing in its purest form. So when the NHRA tour hits your town this year, make it a point to catch these very cool door-slammer classes. The wheels-up action is far out!