Not Necessarily “The Day Drag Racing Began” … But Could Be
There are many explanations of how the sport of drag racing began however, as an octogenarian and lifetime drag racer, I feel qualified to elaborate on the origin of this sport.
Many of us seasoned veterans on the West Coast look back on the race in 1949 at the Goleta Airport (just north of Santa Barbara) between the late Fran Hernandez and the late Tom Cobbs, as the first “organized” drag race. Both were dry lakes racers. Hernandez was manager and engine wizard at the Edelbrock shop on West Jefferson Boulevard in Los Angeles and Tom Cobbs was the heir to a tobacco fortune from Santa Monica, California, and arguably the first to adapt a GM diesel blower to a Ford flathead race engine and use it as a supercharger in his 1934 Ford roadster. The odds favored Cobbs with his 249 cu. in. flathead and the supercharger. Hernandez’ engine was a bored and stroked 296 cu. in. Ford flathead with three carburetors but no supercharger.
Power of nitro
Unknown to racers and the few spectators at the time, the Hernandez ’32 coupe was running on an experimental mixture of alcohol and nitro methane. When the starter threw the flag, Cobbs’ machine with the blower smoked the tires heavily at the start while Hernandez charged ahead for the win. The race became legend and was high priority at every racers “bench racing” session (see sources below).
The race was held on an access road next to a former WW II airstrip in Goleta and was legitimately organized by the Santa Barbara Acceleration Association, a local hot rod club. In drag racing circles it was considered “the day drag racing began” … but was it really?
Have you ever wondered how the word “drag” became part of an acceleration contest between two means of transportation? It’s historically interesting, let me explain. “Tragen” or the shortened version “Trag” is a German word that goes back as far as the fifteenth century and means to draw or carry. Later in the eighteenth century wagons and carts were drawn or dragged by horses, mules or oxen on dirt roads. In certain instances a well used road in a town such as the main thoroughfare where most of the town’s commerce took place would be dragged by horses pulling a large heavy plank such as a railroad tie, to smooth out any ruts in the street — and the townsfolk would call it dragging the Main and thus the “Main Drag”. When a man thought he could drive his horse and wagon faster than another he might challenge someone to a race. To facilitate this competition they would hold the event on the main drag. With the advent of the horseless carriage or “car” for short, the owners of these motorized contraptions would occasionally challenge a fellow owner to an acceleration contest. The match would be held on the main drag and simply be called a “drag race”. (Source: Yahoo!)
Today’s drag races are highly organized events. Marketing and advertizing have entered the arena making it a multi-million dollar monster. The small percentage of nitro methane fuel mixed with alcohol used in the Hernandez coupe has evolved to 97-98 percent nitro including a blower three times the size of Cobbs. The little Ford Flathead engines have evolved into purpose built 510 cu. in. hemi race engines reaching as high as 10,000 horsepower. Top Fuel Dragsters reach speeds approaching 340 MPH in four seconds traveling 1000 feet from a standing start. Cars like Tom Cobbs little ’34 coupe have morphed into “Funny Cars” reaching speeds and elapsed times insanely close to the Top Fuel dragsters.
I have enjoyed many years of drag racing, most of it legitimate and organized; I loved every minute of it but I can truly say, we are not in Goleta anymore.
See ya’ at the races.
Additional sources: Landracing.com – High Performance by Robert Post