Tony DeFeo: A Token of my Extreme – The State of Drag Racing

We are proud to welcome the legendary Tony DeFeo to DRAGZINE as a columnist.  Tony is a well-known editor and racer in the drag racing community.  Tony is also been considered the father of the 5.0 Mustang. –Mark

Some will always see the glass as half full…others half empty.  But, when it comes to the state of Drag Racing today, it’s becoming more and more obvious that we’ve simply got the wrong size glass.

“Nostalgia” is huge.  I hate to use our version of the N word, but unfortunately, it’s what we’ve got.  All over the country, people are building slingshot Fuelers, Retro bodied Funny Cars, and even (gasp) Fuel Altereds. like it’s 1969 all over again.

Then and Now – Indy 1969 vs 2010

Indy, 1969. John The Zookeeper Mulligan runs  6.43′ for low ET of the meet.  It’s the first event the Beebe and Mulligan Fueler is using a late model 426 and they appear unstoppable.  They draw Tommy Ivo in the first round, and have him covered to half track, when driveline issues lead to clutch disintegration, oil pan puncture, and an intense under-cowl fire that not only takes the team out, but leads to Mulligans death 13 days later.  Don Prudhomme proceeds to wade through the remainder of the field and wins the event with a 6.51,  I was 7 years old and could barely read, but I remember accounts from this race like it was yesterday.

Indy 2010. I don’t have a clue who won…I have no idea what the speeds or ET’s were.  Hell, I don’t think I can even name five current Top Fuel drivers or cars. I’m not the only one either.  On Monday of this past Labor Day weekend, realizing that the US Nationals was happening just five hours up the road, I hit all of the message boards that I normally frequent.  The Yellow Bullet, The Hamb, The Classic Funny Car Board…combined membership of well over 200,000 fellow gearheads and Drag Racers…and not one single mention of what was happening at what once was the biggest, most prestigious Drag Race in the world.  Indy 2010 was a non-event.  For all intents and purposes, it didn’t happen… for most of us.

The 1969 Winternationals final between Mulligan and Don Prudhomme - Photo By: Cacklefest.com

A Look Back Through the History of Drag Racing…from the 70’s back.

So, this got me thinking…and reading.  Somewhere our sport came off the rails, and I was determined to find that point. Out came a stack of old magazines.  Copies of Hot Rod, Car Craft, Drag Racing USA, High Performance Cars, SS&DI…ranging from the very early 60’s to the late 90’s.  And this is what I found:

The mid to late 60’s were a golden age.  All reports and accounts were vibrant, full of enthusiasm…everything was growing, expanding and alive, and right up until 1971 or so, the emphasis was always on the future.  Drag Racing was not only a sport, and a hobby, but a cultural movement that was in tune with the people and the times.

Beginning at around 1972, the culture appeared to be on the ropes.  The safety people,  environmentalist movement and the economy conspired to crush the musclecar movement and began to push away the casual street/strip guy.  These were the folk that would have previously climb the various ladders and formed the Pro ranks during the 50’s and 60’s.

Magazines began running vintage road tests of things like 409 Chevies and 421 Pontiacs.  The hard core Drag Racing magazines began referring to the good old days and ran features on famous cars and racers from the past..they talked about stuff that was only five years old as if it had happened centuries ago. This was better than 35 years ago!

The Funny Car movement was still in full swing and growing at this point in the early 70’s, but less frequent and less detailed event coverage was the order of the day.  People just didn’t seem to care.  The Top Fuel cars of this era began to take on a very utilitarian appearance, and when compared to the polished jewels of the previous decade, were downright ugly.

Remembering the old days - Ron Colson pulling a burnout wheel stand - Photo by: Draglist.com

As the World Turns, Circa 1980s

By the 1980’s, the Winston money had completely transformed the upper ranks of the sport.  Car names, driver nicknames, racecars that could do double duty on the show circuit had just about completely disappeared. The fine line that had separated the serious professional from the backyard Hot Rodder had become a gaping chasm.  Neither one could identify with the exploits or machinery of the other.  The Dark Ages of Professional Drag Racing had begun.

But then, at the end of the decade, the first sparks of what we know today as “Nostalgia” began to appear.  A handful of guys on the West Coast began dragging their old pipes out of the rafters, and informal events featuring tire smoking slingshots started to make the news.  It was still obscure, and very limited in scope, but it clicked with enough people that a legitimate movement was born.  I myself was running with a few Big Show NHRA cars at the time, but was so stoked by the idea, that I went and build myself a Slingshot Top Fueler.  It was a thing of beauty!  160 inch Woody Flexy Flier, polished, chromed Blown 392, multi colored candy paint..Never got to actually run it, but that’s another story for another column.

So, that brings us to the present.  It’s not  “what’s old is new again”…it’s more like, what’s old is the only thing that is actually happening. The magic year seems to be 1970.  The big 3 automakers each have cars styled and themed directly from this time as their flagship performance offerings.  I own a Coffeehouse and am surrounding every night by 20 year olds who sing along with every Beatles song, have Hendrix blacklight posters on their walls…they discuss the work of Jim Morrison as if they’re waiting for him to turn out something even freakier than American Prayer…and the Slingshot Dragster is the new state of the art!

What we have here is a quest for purity, simplicity and soul. Not only in the general culture at large, but within the sub culture we know as Drag Racing.
That glass half empty thing….it’s obvious to me now.  As a Sport, Drag Racing’s glass is more than half empty, as are the seats at events that were once considered iconic. The sport of Drag Racing has been sterilized, commercialized and commoditized to a point at which it’s not even recognized by those of us who love it the most.  And this is because….wait for it….drum roll please…Drag Racing is NOT A SPORT!

Yes, it is a competition…but it’s not a sport.  Drag racing, at its highest form is an exhibition of speed and power within the cultural art of Hot Rodding.  Going fast and winning races is just a small part of the bigger picture.  The color,  the smell, the sound and the PERSONALITY of the machines and their caretakers are far more important in the grand scheme of things than the latest innovation or broken record.  Now, the trick…the task in front of us is to somehow erase everything that has conspired to pervert and mutate this ART over the last 40 years, and get back to it’s point of purity.

Back in 1970, the common ideal amongst the radical sect was that the system needed to be torn down and rebuilt in order to fix it.  That message is as valid today as it was then. The sport of Drag Racing needs to be disassembled from the top down, and rebuilt in order for it to survive and then thrive.  I do believe the time has come for a revolution.

About the author

Tony DeFeo

Tony DeFeo was thrown out of school at 16 for stealing a bus. He went on to start a career as an auto mechanic and, on a whim, entered the field of automotive journalism, writing for Cars Illustrated magazine. Tony founded High Performance Mopar, and then launched Mopar Action a year later just to compete with his first book. He is currently building a twin-engined Fuel Altered, and in his spare time studies economics and abstract psychology.
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