Drag racing has matured into a marvel of a sport over the last seven decades, as sanctioning bodies, racers, builders, and manufacturers have gone places and done things no one could have imagined in the 1950s. But for all that we’re blessed to see and do in the sport today, it’s hard to argue that its formative years were its greatest. Those who lived it tell of an innocence, of simplicity, and of limitless possibilities in the minds of young dreamers in Southern California and other hotbeds of hot rodding. It was a time when bright minds and creative thinking could outrun cubic collars, when dragsters, altereds, and modified coupes were in every neighborhood, and anyone — if they worked hard enough — could become household name.
Just as none of those greasy-haired teen and 20-somethings could have dreamed what the sport they helped to cultivate would become, neither did they realize at the time what an amazing time in American and automative history they were living through. And-grey-haired today, no number of modern conveniences we enjoy in racing today could supercede in their minds the magic of what they lived and saw all those years ago.
In late summer 1959, just eight years after the official creation of the National Hot Rod Association, Hot Rod Magazine filmed what is arguably one of the finest looks into the very heyday of drag racing, as it followed a group of young hopefuls as they trekked across the country from sunny Carlsbad, California to Detroit for the fifth running of the NHRA Nationals (now the U.S. Nationals).
Illustrating the very humbleness of the time, the Masters Auto Supply team, which included icons Jim Nelson and Dode Martin of Dragmaster Chassis fame, hauled their C/dragster 2,300 miles to the world’s biggest drag race with their Cadillac station wagon and a flatbed trailer. They traveled by convoy, worked on their car in motel parking lots, and did everything without any of the amenities we seemingly can’t live without today.
The racing, barbarian by today’s standards, consisted of two cars, a flagman, a wide stretch of unprepared asphalt, and rudimentary timing equipment. Electronic gadgets and rules to create parity or curb ingenuity? Never heard of it. But that didn’t stop thousands of Motor City-area gearheads from turning out to establish a mental time capsule their children and grandchildren would only wish they could turn back time to see.
Said NHRA founder Wally Parks at the time: “Never before had so much high-level attention been focused on the drags. Top leaders in the auto industry stood shaking their heads, some stating, ‘I’d never have believed it if I hadn’t seen it!’ Not only impressed by types and performance of the vehicles, and the obvious investment in time and money, they were even more amazed at the hardworking, dedicated enthusiasm of the contestants.”