NHRA history: Drag racing's fast start
Born on the backroads of America in the post-World War II years, drag racing's roots were planted on dry lake beds like Muroc in California's Mojave Desert, where hot rodders had congregated since the early 1930s and speeds first topped 100 mph.
One could even argue that drag racing was born in Goltry, Okla., in 1913, with the birth of Wally Parks, who nearly four decades later would found drag racing's most successful and influential sanctioning body.
Parks' family moved to California in the early 1920s, and Parks had an early interest in cars. He attended his first dry lake speed trials event in the 1930s, which whetted his fascination for performance. In 1937, Parks was one of the founders of the Road Runners Club.
Organized drag racing
In 1947, Parks, a military tank test-driver for General Motors who served in the army in the South Pacific in World War II, helped organize the Southern California Timing Association and later became its general manager.
The first SCTA "Speed Week," held at the famed Bonneville Salt Flats in 1949, was the result of a diligent effort of Parks, then its executive secretary. It was here that racers first began running "against the clock" - actually, a stopwatch - coaxing their vehicles to accelerate quicker rather than simply to attain high top speeds.
The first dragstrip, the Santa Ana Drags, began running on an airfield in Southern California in 1950 and quickly gained popularity among the Muroc crowd because of its revolutionary computerized speed clocks.
When Parks became editor of the monthly enthusiast magazine Hot Rod, he had the forum and the power to form the National Hot Rod Association in 1951 to "create order from chaos" by instituting safety rules and performance standards that helped legitimize the sport. He was its first president.
NHRA's first races
NHRA held its first official race in April 1953 on a slice of the Los Angeles County Fairgrounds parking lot in Pomona, Calif. Four decades later, that track has undergone a $6-million expansion and renovation and hosts the NHRA season-opening Circle K NHRA Winternationals and the season finale, the Automobile Club of Southern California NHRA Finals.
The aggressive upgrading of facilities to stadium quality, with fan amenities, VIP towers, and tall grandstands, was the passion of NHRA President Dallas Gardner, who took the reins in 1984 when Parks became board chairman. In 2000, Tom Compton became just third president in NHRA history as Gardner ascended to the role of broad chairman and Parks became chairman of the Wally Parks NHRA Motorsports Museum. In 2015, upon Compton’s retirement, Peter Clifford, a longtime executive with the company, was named the organization’s fourth president.
In 1955, NHRA staged its first national event, called simply "the Nationals" in Great Bend, Kan. Six years later, as the Nationals hopscotched around the country to showcase the growing sport before settling in Indianapolis in 1961, the Winternationals became NHRA's second event.
Incredible success and growth
With 70,000 members and more than 40,000 licensed competitors; NHRA is a thriving leader in the world of motorsports. Parks, who died in 2007 at the age of 94, initially started NHRA as a means of getting hot rodders off the streets and on to legal drag strips. Since those early days, NHRA has evolved into the largest promoter of professional drag racing in the world. Today, with more than 200 dedicated employees, NHRA offers drag racing opportunities for hot rod enthusiasts of all levels, from youth ages 5 to 17 in the NHRA Summit Racing Jr. Drag Racing League all the way up to the top of the professional ranks with the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series.
NHRA’s key business partners include The Coca-Cola Company, whose Mello Yello brand sponsors the top touring series and Lucas Oil Products, which sponsors the important developmental series. All of NHRA’s major series receive television coverage from NHRA’s exclusive multimedia partner, ESPN Inc. Other official sponsors of the sport include Coca-Cola, Toyota, Chevrolet, Goodyear, Traxxas and Harley-Davidson, to name a few.
While Top Fuel dragsters routinely cover the race distance at more than 320 mph, NHRA is moving just as fast in popularity with auto racing fans. Second only to NASCAR in terms of attendance, fan appeal, television ratings and sponsorship commitment among the major motorsports organizations, NHRA is moving quickly into mainstream America.
There are 120 member tracks across North America that host NHRA competitions each week in NHRA’s seven geographic regions. In addition to the marquee Mello Yello Series, which crisscrosses the U.S., making 24 stops in 21 cities in 10 months, NHRA offers popular weekly grassroots programs at many of its member tracks. One of the most popular is the NHRA Drags: Street Legal Style presented by AAA, which offers anyone with a car, driver’s license, helmet, and auto insurance the opportunity to compete in grudge-match style drag racing. Serious weekend warriors can compete each weekend at their local track in the NHRA Summit Racing Series, which crowns national champions each season. The NHRA Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series provides a developmental series for those who are interested in a career as a touring pro. And the NHRA Pro Mod Drag Racing Series features some of the nation’s wildest doorslammer race cars covering the drag strip at speeds approaching 250 mph.
NHRA is all about diversity. With more than 20 categories of competition, including Top Fuel, Funny Car, Pro Stock and Pro Stock Motorcycle at the professional level, and a multicultural array of high-octane personalities it calls world champions, NHRA thrives on unique competitors accomplishing unique achievements. Last season Courtney Force secured the 100th win by a female in the NHRA professional categories. In 2012, Antron Brown won the Top Fuel world championship and in the process became the first African-American to win a major auto racing title in the United States. In 2008, NHRA was named the Diversity in Motorsports Award winner at the 12th annual Urban Wheel Awards, held during the North American International Auto Show in Detroit. NHRA claimed the award based on the success of Hispanic driver Tony Pedregon, who won his second Funny Car world championship title in 2007. Also in 2008, Tony’s brother Cruz won his second Funny Car crown. In 2007, Peggy Llewellyn became the first black female to win an NHRA event. She ultimately finished a career-high fourth in the Pro Stock Motorcycle category points standings. In 2006, J.R. Todd, an African-American and former NHRA Summit Racing Jr. Drag Racing League competitor, recorded his first three professional wins in the Mello Yello Series circuit to earn the Automobile Club of Southern California Road to the Future Award as the season’s top rookie.
Information about the NHRA is available in various forms, including the bi-weekly newsmagazine National Dragster and highly acclaimed NHRA.com. The award-winning National Dragster covers every race from the first sportsman run to the final Mello Yello Series blast in the winner’s circle. NHRA.com has won several awards for its innovative, interactive coverage of all forms of NHRA drag racing and provides daily results, feature stories and breaking news at the click of a mouse.