The history of Drag Racing in the United States shows early, sanctioned racing began in the 1930’s. View the timeline of greats over the years, and many prolific male and female dragsters are noted. The late Scott Kallita, Shirley Muldowney, John Force, Don “Big Daddy” Garlits and others are certainly Hall of Famers in the sport.
But what about African American drag racers? Some prominent Web sites that proclaim to chronicle the history of the sport have conveniently left out the black superstars who also left blood, sweat, and tears on dragstrips nationwide for the love of the sport.
Inarguably, legend Antron Brown should be included in any conversation surrounding the greats in Drag Racing. In 2012, Brown became the first African American driver to win a major auto racing title, being crowned the Full Throttle Top Fuel Champion.
Before Brown, Steve Hamilton was mentored by Big Daddy Garlits and was predicted to be tops in the sport at some time, and used his success on the dragstrip to partner with organizations hoping to expose more young racers of all ethnicities to the thrill of the sport.
Even before Hamilton, the list of Black legends is deep. Malcolm Durham was very successful on the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) circuit. I fondly remember his Malcolm Durham Supercars shop in historic Hyattsville, Maryland, not far from my home.
And today’s drag racers male and female, Junior Dragsters (with ages under 18) and adults, usually from families where street racing was enjoyed for decades. In fact, many women of color have dominated certain classes of car and motorcycle drag racing over the years.
Well, there is no longer a reason to race on the streets, as black participation on tracks nationwide, as sanctioned events occur every weekend.
Over the Labor Day 2018 weekend, Maryland International Raceway (MDIR) played host to the Custom T’s Grudge Fest, featuring grudge racers from all over the country.
What is Grudge Racing? Do you remember the popular television show “Pinks?” On the show, two racers would agree to face off, with the winner taking home not only the title of victor, but also the keys and title of the car he or she just conquered.
In Grudge Racing, the penalty for losing is not as severe, as racers and those in attendance bet money on who they think will win the race. Bets from $10 to over $20,000 are cast to back the racers with bettors (and the racers themselves) hope are the fastest cars.
Prior to the Labor Day event, I attended two Grudge Race events to learn more about the sport, thanks to an invitation from Larry Butler, Co-founder of the Real Deal Grudge Racing Show, and a major player in the sport. The first was at Capitol Raceway in Crofton, Maryland, and the second, at MDIR.
At both Grudge events, with an invitation from Larry Butler, I had the pleasure to talk to Larry Thompson, owner of “Custom T’s of D.C.” screen-printing shop, who sponsors many grudge racing events in the D.C. Maryland and Virginia (DMV) area.
Larry spoke passionately about drag racing in general, and Grudge Racing in particular. He’s been involved in drag racing his entire life, watching relatives as a young boy and participating as an adult. “When you see it, it gets in your blood,” said Thompson. He was also proud to share some impressive news: Thompson is now the proud owner of Colonial Beach Dragway in Colonial Beach, Virginia.
On a typical race weekend, Virginians, Marylanders, North and South Carolinians, and D.C. natives have access to a black-owned track within a relatively short driving distance, considering the fact that on big Grudge Race weekends like Labor Day, race rigs roll in from as far away as Texas, Illinois, New York, and even Arizona to lay claim as King or Queen of the eighth mile. But Colonial Beach Dragway is not a “black” racetrack. Colonial Beach enjoys a great deal of diversity, and that’s reflected on every race day at Colonial Beach Dragway.
Though this is a weekend sport, grudge racers spend serious coin on their racing hobby. A “built” motor can cost $115,000, custom body work and paint jobs can cost tens of thousands, and the motorhomes, tow rigs and trailers and the cost of fuel, entry fees and parts for these high strung race cars can easily push the budget to get into serious grudge racing over $300,000. But you don’t have to have a custom rig to enjoy Grudge Racing. During my time at both dragstrips, I saw several Dodge Charger and Challenger Hellcats and several Mustang Cobras. Bolt on a set of drag radials and don a helmet and your street ride becomes a race ride. Always remember the old racing adage: Win on Sunday, sell on Monday! Many racers have an allegiance to Ford, Chevy, and other brands. They typically drive the same brands when off the track.
Rigs for Junior Dragsters are powered by small motorcycle engines, and push the young racers to about 80 mph. Expect an investment of about $25,000 to get serious on the track if your young one wants to be the Prince or Princess of the eighth mile.
So why do they do it? For the love of the sport, and the spirit and camaraderie. After all, with names like “Orange Crush,” “Krazy Horse,” “Copperhead,” “Bounty Hunter,” “Top Gunn,” “Shock Wave,” “Thunder Goat,” “Wickedbird XL” and many more names intended to influence disbelievers, it’s not only about being the fastest, but also being a great competitor.
And while the days are getting shorter and cooler, the competition never dies. Over the coldest parts of winter, teams are rebuilding motors, fabricating new chassis, and talking smack in preparation for the thunder and on-track lightning that will ensue once again on tracks across the nation come spring.