Democracy of Speed:

Friday Night Drag Racing in a Small Southern Town



John Mason


All the photographs and texts are copyrighted

I.

In the beginning there was smoke, noise, and power. Acrid smoke from tires that burns the eyes, noise so loud that it hurts, power as carefully modulated as it is explosive. Utterly enchanting for someone, like me, who has always been drawn to the art and science of making cars go fast.

From the time I first saw two cars launch themselves down the track at Eastside Speedway, I was sure that this would be a good place to make photos. The light, the smoke, and the cars (and motorcycles) brought me back to the track time and again. So did the people.

Automobile racing is always about metal and flesh. Drivers and mechanics struggle to coax maximum performance out of both their cars and themselves. Racing is also about a particular kind of intimacy between metal and flesh. The car and the driver are a pair, winning and losing together. At this track, the driver is usually the mechanic, as well, and will have spent hours under the car turning a wrench. Drivers learn to read their cars as well as they read themselves. But the relationship is not an equal one. It is about mastery. A good driver is to a good car as a virtuoso musician is to his or her instrument.

At Eastside and hundreds of similar dragstrips all over the country, racing is about money, too. But it's certainly not about getting rich. This can be an expensive sport. Racers seldom, if ever, win enough in prize money to cover their expenses. If you said that racing is about having fun while going broke, you wouldn't be entirely wrong.

 

 

II.


Drag racing has peculiarities that set it apart from other motorsports. It's over in an instant. Two cars race side-by-side down a straight 1/8th mile or 1/4th mile track. At Eastside, the fastest cars complete the 1/8th mile course in under five seconds and reach speeds of over 130 miles an hour. Drivers run in one of three classes, based on the degree to which their cars have been modified or purpose-built for the track. Drivers who run in the Trophy Street class may well drive the car that they raced on Friday night to work on Monday morning. A Super Pro driver, on the other hand, might have spent as much as $140,000 on his car, which is wholly unfit for anything other than covering a very short distance in an equally short time. Motorcyclists and young people race in classes of their own.

The racing at Eastside is bracket racing. The slower of the two cars gets a head start that is just enough, ideally, for the cars to arrive at the finish line at exactly the same time. They rarely do, because the driver's skill--his or her quickness, precision, and consistency--makes a very large difference. Slower cars often beat faster cars. Indifferent drivers rarely win.

 

III.

Something else sets drag racing apart from other motorsports. Itís integrated. From its beginnings as an organized sport in southern California sixty years ago, drag racing has been open to women and to African-Americans and other minority groups

I knew nothing about this when I first visited Eastside. The presence of so many black and women drivers, crew members, and fans surprised, delighted, and perplexed me. Iíd been to many stock car and sports car races and knew that, in those seri es, black spectators are few and that black and women drivers scarcely exist at all. At Eastside, many of the racers are African-American and more than a handful are women. The situation, Iíve since seen, is similar at dragstrips nationwide. From the g rassroots to the highest professional levels, women, African-Americans, Latinos, and Asian-Americans are familiar members of the drag racing community.

Eastside, located just outside a small industrial town in the American South, is comfortably and unselfconsciously integrated. Many of the friendships between blacks and whites may have been formed at the track, but most of them extend off of it as well. Eastside, and drag racing generally, is far more racially integrated than most American churches, clubs, boardrooms, and schools. African-Americans have been racing at Eastside since the track opened in 1965, a time when segregation was still t he rule in most southern settings.

The smoke, noise, power, and speed of drag racing suggest that itís a macho sport. It may be. Most male drag racers are comfortable with their masculinity, to say the least. But they are also comfortable racing against women and, often enough, losin g to them. This is as true in the professional ranks as it is at the grassroots. Admittedly, this hasnít always been the case. Although women have been drag racing since the 1950s, they initially had to fight sanctioning bodies and male racers for the opportunity. At Eastside, such battles, if they happened at all, are long since past.

What accounts for such racial and gender integration in a society that is still all too segregated? It may have to do with organized drag racingís origins in post-war southern California, rather than in the Jim Crow South. Stock car racing, born in the South, was a white manís sport. Drag racing wasnít; it belonged to anyone who showed up to race. The sportís inclusion of women and minorities may also reflect drag racersís open-mindedness. They could have closed ranks against blacks and women , but didnít. (Stock car racers did.) Drag racers have never hesitated to experiment and to gamble on technologies that promised to make their cars faster and more consistent. Perhaps their ready embrace of technical innovation mirrors a willingness to accept social change.




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