Drag racing history at your fingertips
Being an historian means having a near-encyclopedic recall and knowledge of your subject, and while I like to think of myself among the top 10 or so in that category when it comes to drag racing, everyone needs a good wingman. Sometimes it’s not just about knowing everything, but knowing where to look when you don’t. For me, that wingman is Bill Pratt’s DragList.com website.
Whether it’s verifying information I already had or searching for something I didn’t, it’s a one-stop shop for hardcore freaks like me to easily search a driver’s history of rides, and for even the casual fan, it’s a bonanza of drag racing history spanning the majority of classes dating back to the sport’s infancy.
The database-driven site allows users to search by driver, owner, or car name; to restrict searches by year, class, location, and make or model and contains nearly 110,000 entries, all annotated with information such as body and engine type, crew chief, best performances, and, in many cases, detailed notes about the car or driver. Most of the entries also include a year-correct photo of the vehicle, supplied by a network of generous photographers who, like me, recognize the value of this tool in sharing the sport’s history.
Like many digital platforms, DragList.com has its roots in a printed publication. In 1986, Pratt began tracking and compiling career-best runs of currently-active drivers in many of the sport’s quickest classes and began printing what amounted to a rear-pocket-sized booklet. It was short on glitz and style but heavy on stats, which was just fine for me and my National Dragster cohorts at the time. I’m not saying we lived and died by it, and, because it was snail-mailed (email wasn’t on anyone’s radar for a decade still to come) we didn’t always have the stats when we needed them, but we nonetheless were blown away by the amount of work and accuracy that went into it, and dedicated a column to praising it. I've been a fan ever since.
As the Internet became a “thing” in the mid-1990s, the list went online and has continued to grow and evolve in terms of complexity, flexibility, and searchability. Pratt also regularly sends out updates to his Twitter followers, and I’ve watched in amazement as the list as swelled not just in depth but in breadth to even include some Sportsman classes.
I can’t imagine the amount of time and effort that goes into maintaining and updating the list, but he’s got a loyal band of like-minded drag geeks, led by the well-read and hard-working Danny White, who keep the engine running. In fact, I think so much of the pair that I invited both to be part of the exclusive panel that helped me create the amazing Top 50 Racers list compiled in 2000 for NHRA’s 50th Anniversary celebration. They’re that good and that knowledgeable.
While you can read more about the history of Drag List here, Pratt took some time to share his thoughts with me about where the site has been and where it’s going. My original plan was to interview him for this column, but he did such a fabulous job in sending me what were just supposed to be some notes, that I decided to let him tell the tale. Take it away, Bill.
Draglist is surviving in the new era although there are a number of outstanding new websites have surpassed it in readership. When it first came out, for two years a Google search for “Drag Racing” would put Draglist at the top of the results. But over 20 years, many other terrific new websites have supplanted us.
I think of Draglist as the “Joe Pisano of Drag Racing websites.” We don’t have all the sponsor support but we’re always in there and running well. And every now and then we grab a win with something nobody else has.
The Drag Lists themselves now total nearly 110,000 entries. It’s grown tremendously since we did the small booklet in the 1980s. The booklet, by design, only covered the current and past seasons. When we went on the internet we decided to cover the entire sport from 1950 to present. Unfortunately, we tossed out or overlooked a lot of great data from the past that we are now desperately trying to reconstruct. And it doesn’t help that we lose our heroes day by day.
One of the issues with Draglist right now is that it requires keyboard entry of every piece of information. With so much data available on the web it’s impossible for Danny, me, or others to type all that information into the Draglist. Although we have a ton of data already, we are falling behind. One thing I would like to do is request everyone to come onto the site, have a look at the lists, search for yourself or your favorites, and offer edits. We will validate each one to the best of our ability. That’s what we can do today. We really want to look at Draglist as “the crowdsourced Drag Racing History site.”
The other thing we are proud of is that so many of the great sport photographers have allowed us to use their photographs to illustrate the Draglist entries. Believe it or not, of the 110,000 entries we have out there, 41 percent of them have photos attached. That frankly amazes me. Now we can use some more but I’m always reticent to ask folks to submit them because of copyright issues. We want the photographers' approval for each one.
Another of the challenges we face is that this is still a hobby. I am an IT Director at a large federal agency and Danny is a teacher in Texas and obviously stays very busy as teachers do. We have some volunteer support who do a great job. But day-to-day, weekend-to-weekend, we try to do this as much as we can. I personally have found my involvement waning as the requirements of my job have me bringing day job work home on weeknights and weekends.
One of the things I’d love to try to fix is to set up Draglist somewhat like ancestry.com. It would be great to have the information in Draglist continually compared to an internet search which would bring up a side-by-side comparison of the data to see if what’s out there is newer or different than what we have. It would be great to just click yes on the appropriate fields that are changed. I suspect even doing that would be an amazing amount of work but nonetheless it would remove a lot of typing.
I would like to put out a call for serious volunteers to report after the events. One of our challenges is to get the updated performance information into Draglist after each major event because there are so many of them and the performance seems to improve every day! One of the other challenges we face is getting match race information or information from smaller organizations. Draglist is agnostic with regard to drag racing organizations so basically anytime a pro, semi pro, or quick Sportsman car makes a pass we would like to record it. But not every organization has the outstanding coverage that NHRA does and as a result sometimes those results can be spotty. Results from overseas are also a challenge.
One of the other aspects of Draglist that is that it’s still very popular across the globe. We have almost 47 million lifetime page views but that has fallen off over the past few years. We do have a vibrant social media presence with 340,000 Facebook followers and quite a few Twitter followers as well. And again because of the rigors of having to work full-time during our history we never really had the opportunity to reach out to advertisers. So Draglist is still funded out of my pocket at a loss. But I like to think it’s cheaper than actually having a race car! We kind of feel like this is 'our race car' and it’s our way of involving ourselves on the sport.
One of the other great aspects of Draglist is our Racin' & Rockin' radio show / podcast that we do every Monday night on RacersReunion.com. Houston musician John Bockelman co-hosts with me and we bench race with racing stars and sportsmen alike about their careers and favorite music. We’ve spoken to hundreds of racers including the absolute top drag racers in the sport every week pretty much since 2010. Don Garlits, Chris Karamesines, John Force -- you name it they’ve been on. It is a fun half hour of bench racing. And, of course, we're always looking for new guests as well but that’s been very gratifying.
I also love our Draglist community. A core group of us get together once a year for the "Draglist Nationals," a reunion usually held in concert with a racing event. In addition to enjoying the races, we share breakfast, lunch, and dinners and also do some off-track sightseeing. We are coming up on our 13th year.
The future: One thing I’m really concerned about and have to come up with some sort of solution for is keeping this website going after I’m gone. I also worry about the same thing for Don Ewald‘s We Did it For Love, George Crittenden‘s NitroGeezers, Lee Schelin's Standard 1320, and others. A few years ago we were able to save Byron Stack‘s Gasser Madness and Jeff Thomas turned over 70sfunnycars to us. But you know there’s just too much information, too much history to let these sites fade away. I’m trying to figure out how to work with lawyers and this is definitely a new type of estate planning. I plan to keep the site going with hosting services paid for with Google ads or something. Another idea would be to turn it over to one of the many fine drag racing museums. It is some degree of work and someone would have to be prepared to take on the effort.
I expect to get a little more involved after I retire in five or six years. However by then how many of our heroes will we have lost? Sometimes I fantasize about getting a grant that would pay for a living wage so I could just do nothing but fly around the country interviewing is great racers and making sure I had all their information. But on the other hand you know memories fade, including my own! And it’s more likely we will get the needed information by combing through all the old magazines and newspapers to get the information as we do currently. I have to imagine someday I’ll be able take a quick snapshot of a page of a drag racing newspaper and have some kind of artificial intelligence scan it and assign it to the appropriate Draglist entry. It’s almost the only way will possibly be able to do this.
One interesting thing is that even within the Drag Lists themselves and certainly within the racing results on Draglist, we have information that would update the lists! And when you expand that to what’s available on the web you can see that there is a lot of work to do!
But I have to think that either IBM’s Watson or some other kind of Artificial Intelligence eventually could be trained to review this information for us and allow me to quickly approve, reject, or modify the recommended changes. Until that happens I invite all Drag Racing fans of all categories and of course all drag racers to come on up, take a look at the lists, and tell us what we have wrong. Again we are attempting to list each and every drag racer who is driven anyone of these cars down the strip at least once in each year.
Credit where due: I have dozens if not hundreds of people to thank but I need to thank Danny White, Bret Kepner, Phil Elliott, Dave Esqueda, Mike Goyda, Ron Colson, David Cook, Barb Santucci, Bud De Boer, and many other contributors. I am leaving out a ton of people.
I got pretty great insight into exhibition racers as an announcer at Maryland International Raceway from 1987-2001. I have to thank Tod Mack and Larry Clayton for that. (PS: Lewis Bloom was the first guy to put me on the mic!) I met several great drag racers there.
One of the other wonderful things about this experience has been turning heroes into pals, which is pretty amazing. It was a pretty crazy idea to get started and only the folly of youth let me think that I could possibly do this!
One funny story was my first ad in National Dragster. I picked a small rectangle cost me a couple hundred dollars. I chose the 1987 Cajun Nationals souvenir issue because I thought that I could reach not only get the subscribers but also get the readers of the issues that would be passed out at the Cajuns. Of course, the event was rained out! But the ad did introduce me to Bret Kepner, Phil Elliott, and other long time drag racing historians that really brought me into the fold.
Early support from you, Chris Martin, Steve Collison at Super Stock & Drag Illustrated and a couple other key guys really put us on the map to get started. I still remember the amazing "Out the Back Door" article you guys did for me in ND. Truly humbling and appreciated.
Draglist consists of the core feature which are the 110,000 drag racing entries. But we also do daily news updates and a number of other photos and stories. We publish the results of every national event and we also cover most Lucas Oil series events to provide one more place to find that information.
I'm very proud of Danny White who joined me in 1990 as a young volunteer and is still there as my partner. To this day, he has not taken a red cent and volunteers all his time for the cost of Internet access and computer equipment. We also have the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s Funny Cars sites which are quite popular and we are in the process of revising those to a more modern platform.
We are always open to ideas for partnerships and support. We have a very unique product and a very loyal base. The only thing we don't have is time, but I'm always available to assist folks who have serious research needs. In fact, a lot of the drag racing authors have used the lists to research their books … sometimes we even get credited!
If ever there was a group of people who can appreciate the value of Draglist and the need to have this history of the sport, it’s the members of the Insider Nation. If you haven’t already, take the opportunity to spend some serious time with the site and, if you’re so inclined, offer your support and input. You can reach Bill at [email protected].
Again, my personal thanks to Bill and Danny and all of the people behind the list. They definitely make my job easier and share my love and passion for the sport.
Phil Burgess can reached at [email protected]