Reese Bobby: How'd stock-car racing get its start?
Ricky Bobby: Uh, bootleggers during Prohibition, they had to have cars fast enough to outrun the fed, then they started racing each other!
Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby
Stock car and drag car racing originated with ‘souped’ up cars that American alcohol bootleggers used to outrun law enforcement during prohibition. So as not to draw attention, all the improvements were done under the bonnet. By forcing more air into their cylinders, bootleggers could achieve speeds of 75mph, far faster than the police.
And, to this day, there’s still a manoeuvre called ‘the bootleg turn’. To execute it, the driver drops gears, swerves onto the opposite side of the road and carries out a 180 degree turn ready to take off in the opposite direction. A useful trick for outsmarting any pursuing police cars fast enough to stay on your tail.
But when the 18th Amendment banning alcohol ended (the only US amendment ever to be abolished), Americans new found fascination with fast cars didn’t. So, improvised racetracks were made out of disused runways, interstate freeways and the main roads through towns. Some think that this use of a town’s main road or ‘drag’ is where drag racing got its name. And it’s easy to see the inspiration for the ‘Christmas tree’ starting system in the traffic lights used in American towns in the 50s and 60s. Racers would use the traffic lights to signal the countdown, and the next set, the finish line, as seen in classic films like ‘American Graffiti’. The length of a drag race is still often a quarter of a mile, the length of an American city block.
Since those improvised, amateur days, racing's evolved...
From Bootleg to Burnouts
Drag racing cars are now hi-tech, high performance machines with some capable of 300mph plus. Everything from fuel composition to track distance has changed. And after maiming and mutilations, front engine dragsters have mainly been relegated so that the engine sits behind the driver. But one thing has stayed the same. Drag racing is still survival of the fastest. And it’s still as much about the lightning speed reflexes and reaction time of the driver as the horsepower of the machine. Every millisecond counts. From burning rubber and burnouts to double drag parachutes, in the elimination rounds of drag racing, there can be only one winner.
These American automobiles have high-performance petrol-popping V8 engines that simply purr power. Early models stripped away everything but the essentials (why have two windshield wipers when one will do?) in order to deliver powerful street performance at an affordable cost. The 1970s’ oil crisis coupled with the expense of the ever increasing engine size, seemed to signal the end of the muscle car. But technological innovations and models made for both budget and luxury markets meant the muscle car not only returned to America, but versions took off in other countries such as Australia, South Africa and the UK.
The early minimalist approach of muscle cars was also applied to motorcycles. In order to increase power and speed, any excess weight was stripped from the motorcycle. Once the bike was reduced to the bare essentials, the next step was to take the factory supplied frame, and ‘chop’ it. This was then welded back together according to the riders own spec. Despite this DIY approach, many designs are variations on the standard set by the iconic bikes seen in ‘Easy Rider’. The long front end evolved from finding it gave a smoother ride at high speeds. The downside was difficulty with turning and harder handling at slower speeds. But why go slow with a bike built for speed?