Laying Down a Tradition

D rag racing’s early history actually evolved from gangs running street drags in Southern California in the late 1940s and ’50s. So tarnished was the name “hot rod” that Robert Petersen had to ponder whether to use that name in his ground-breaking publication Hot Rod Magazine. Hot rods consisted of stripped-down cars, typically with a later-model motor installed, preferably a V-8. Cars were built in basements or garages with the crudest of tools. Hours were spent grinding or filing for lack of a proper cutting tool. Seats were salvaged out of military aircraft en route to the scrapper. Salvage yards were constantly perused in quest of wrecks for more modern “juice” brakes. There were no toll-free numbers or Web sites to consult for FAQs

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This custom ’39 Ford was part of the informal parking lot show.

This HA/GR, or Hambster, car represents the early days of drag racing when enthusiasts were left to experimentation or their own ingenuity. There were a few local specialists, like Ed Iskenderian and Fred Offenhauser.

Soon, drag racing began to spread out onto the abandoned airstrips that dotted the country. Sanctioning bodies such as the NHRA and AHRA came into existence. Car clubs and timing associations took on the organization of these meets, as classes were formed and cars were pigeonholed into more competitive categories.

Today, drag racing is a multi-billion-dollar sport with regular TV coverage and massive corporate sponsorship. Many hot rods are built from kits with crate motors and modern components that are only several years old. An 800 number gets you the billet components you need, or a big check gets you a known shop like Boyd Coddington to build you one.


This HA/GR, or Hambster, car represents the early days of drag racing.

The Jalopy Journal is a Web site that came about 12 years ago. It is the creation of Ryan Cochran, who created the Web site after seeing a ’34 Ford hot rod in Paris, France. He wanted to learn how to build one, so he created jalopyjournal.com. It now caters to 35,000 listers. The heart of the Web site is the HAMB, or “Hokey Ass Message Board,” where there is an exchange of ideas, tips parts and activities. Jalopy Journal was brought about to celebrate the hooligan past of hot rodding. Here is where you find cars with crude welds, period accessories and lots of primer. The hot rods from the late ’40s and early ’50s are highly revered here. Early drag racing is revered here, too.

For the last five years, loyal members have gathered at the MOKAN Dragway in Asbury, Mo. MOKAN is the oldest extant purpose-built drag strip in the U.S.A. It dates back to 1962. Its past is rich and colorful. Standing in the pits next to the concession stand, smelling the mix of burgers, burning rubber and race gas, you get a feel of what it was all about.

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A couple of ’37 Chevrolets are already squaring off in the parking lot!

The HAMB Drags closely resemble the street drags of the ’50s. One class unique to the HAMB drags is the HAMB Dragster. This is a class in celebration of the pre slingshot “rails” that first appeared in the ’50s. Primarily, they are limited to earlier styles of motors, such as straight-sixes or flatheads, which must be pre-1962. They are crude vehicles that are built for fun and to imitate those early pioneers whose only goal was to get to the finish line first. They are also nicknamed “Hambsters.”

Willys coupes with their jacked front ends square off against the Henry Js in the Gas Class. An Anglia awaits to pick off the winner. Street roadsters even run without roll bars. Max Wedge Dodges and Plymouths once again are burning out in a throw-back to a ’60s match race that could have echoed here 44 years earlier. At the end of the race, participants still linger for hours socializing and putting faces with screen names from the Web site.

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A low-budget rodder can still have fun.

Of course, there is another whole show aspect to it, too. Participants gather the night before at several local motels. A smorgasbord of machinery sits on display. One roadster has its final assembly in the parking lot. One of the clubs puts on a cook-out. Serious bench racing and ogling is the fare of the day. New acquaintances are made; old ones renewed. Headers bark late into the night. Stories are told of each car’s history. Some of them go back 50 years, some just five weeks. All are steeped in an American tradition.

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