Jim Baker's Then and Now



Drag Racing as a sport has come a long, long, way since it all started in the early 1950s. It seems to be a popular topic lately to say that ‘Drag Racing isn’t what it used to be.” Really- have you truly analyzed that statement?


In the 1950s and early ‘60s, there were hundreds of drag strips as the new sport started to grow. They often were at abandoned air strips, built for emergencies during World War II.  Amenities? I don’t remember any. But many of today’s racers will lament that racing used to be better.

The Henderson Drags, just outside Las Vegas, in 1959. No seats, one PA speaker attached to the tower and rocks as a barrier line for the crowd alongside the track.  AHRA held their Winternationals there. When it was too dark to race, the race was called with three cars left in Top Eliminator. (AHRA photographer Don Elliot)


Then too there is the question of crowd size.  A crowd of 2,000 people standing five deep alongside a strip with no guard rail or barriers looks really large, packed, SRO. But the truth is, if the same folks went to a race of today at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, they would hardly be noticed!


And so far we have only covered the racing part of the sport. Where were the rest rooms? The clean modern concession stands, the Midway with exhibits and ‘how to do it’ seminars?  The ‘pits’ were left over runway or dirt or grass, or in the case of Quad Cities Dragway (now called Cordova), Mississippi River bottom sand land … UGLY.


How about media coverage? Somewhere in those early days a very talented young announcer from Detroit migrated to U.S. 30 Dragway in Gary, Indian,a and was heard on Radio WLS in Chicago, screaming S A T U R D A Y Night over the radio, not TV, not Twitter or Facebook, radio!  His name? Jon Lundberg, one of if not the best! Today there are many great announcers we all know by name, and there are several regular television shows that air our sport on a weekly basis.

When Orange County International Raceway was purpose built in the mid-1960s, it was hailed as the absolute ‘Super Track’ and in many ways it was a distinct departure from the past, but not ‘Super’.  It was poorly designed in several ways, some of which led to its demise after only 16 seasons. It was opened without any real access to Interstate 5 which formed the outer barrier of the ‘way too small’ pit area.  The stands were really advanced for the day, but no one counted the number of seats in the stands or the ladies restroom.  The timing tower was an iconic four story masterpiece; however it had no elevator or rest rooms.  At Las Vegas Motor Speedway today, the tower is only two stories tall, but it has an elevator and a modern rest room for men and women. Plus there is a dedicated area for the press.

There certainly was nothing like this ‘back in the day’.  It is Bruton Smith’s latest track, built just outside Charlotte, N.C.  Yes, he also owns Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Sonoma Raceway and Thunder Valley!  And they are all very GOOD from every aspect.


Perhaps those who complain should focus their efforts into persuading promoters like Smith into building more of these modern venues.  They could do this by supporting our sport and sharing the GOOD instead of just the BAD and the UGLY.


Then there is the problem of event pricing.  This is one place the old time races score a GOOD mark without question.  Back in my day as manager of Tri State Dragway at Kahoka, Missouri, we charged $1.00 to $1.50 to attend our races. That works out this way for me: A good ‘muscle’ car back then cost around $5,000, whereas today a good ‘muscle’ car runs  at least $50,000, a 500% increase due to inflation over the years. If you apply the same logic to spectator pricing, it should cost $10 - $15 to go to a big event. Try that amount for the NHRA Nationals and see how many drag racing fans show up!

Every sport has a portion of the phenomenon, but when I read countless complaints registered on Twitter and Facebook, I am in dismay. Sure NHRA is tough, it has to be; that is why it has survived. Do these misinformed individuals not realize, ‘it has always been that way’?  Tech inspection at the 1970 NHRA Nationals, was probably tougher to get through than it is today. (I was there and did it). Today, however, many of the present rules and specifications have to do with driver safety!  That is GOOD, not BAD.


During my career in motorsports I had the UGLY burden of being witness to several fatalities at the race track. Present day rules have closed the gap considerably from those early times when racing was really dangerous.  Tracks are much safer and spectators better protected than ever. And that too is GOOD, not BAD.


As a case in point, recently most of us witnessed the horrific crash of Steve Torrence while traveling over 300 MPH. Because of the safety rules put in place through the work of the Medlin Foundation, Steve got out of the car and walked away.


Crashes and accidents are inevitable in our high speed sport, but with the latest safety rules in place, the present day racer has a better chance of keeping drag racing from being UGLIER than ever before.


Lee Baltzell, Big Tire car owner/tuner, made this statement: “A big difference from racing in the early days is the tremendous advancement in ‘haulers’ to get racers to the track. Motorhomes, stacker trailers, 18 wheeler rigs and powerful diesel pick-ups are in use at every race. And the roads available between destinations are like the ‘turnpikes’ of the ’50s which were very limited.”


This is very GOOD for the racer traveling from point A to point B. Comforts we never dreamed of in 1960 are now commonplace for today’s racers. Gone is the adventure of flat towing of cars with a bumper hitch (UGLY) and driving your B/Gas car from home to the track is unheard of.


To summarize, Drag Racing is bigger, better, and better promoted than ever before - GOOD. The days of driving on all two lane roads with tow bars and flatbed trailers is gone; that was tough and really BAD; and the chance of surviving a major mishap UGLY is higher than ever.


Think positive and keep a smile on your face at all times, like Clay Millican. Write positive blogs for the internet, and support our growing sport, whether 1/8 mile, 1,000’ or 1,320’. As a present day racer things are 100% better than ‘back in the day’ when I raced. If you like fast street cars, check out the Big Tire – Small Tire competition that is sweeping the country; if you like traditional Drag Racing, NHRA is still the best bet in town; and if you like Boats, the Lucas Oil Drag Boat competition has really grown; there is more ‘hot action’ today than ever before!


Until next time, Be on Time! 


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