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On Dragsters

June 2024
1min read

High Performance The Culture and Technology of Drag Racing, 1950-1990

by Robert C. Post, Johns Hopkins University Press, 448 pages, $35.95 . CODE: JHP -2

One Sunday morning in 1949 a group of hot rodders got together near Santa Barbara, California, to race their souped-up cars down a straightaway, and for the first time ever, they were doing so legally, with police approval. That was the modest birth of drag racing. Within a few years drag strips had opened all over the nation, specially designed needlelike vehicles had evolved just to drag race, and the fearless people driving them were shooting from zero to 180 miles an hour in less than nine seconds before stopping almost as fast. The sport was deadly dangerous, deafeningly noisy, totally unrespectable, and wildly expensive. Why did anyone do it? Robert C. Post is ideally situated to ask that question. He is both a former drag racer and a respected historian of technology, and editor of the scholarly journal Technology and Culture . In his engrossing account he tells the whole story of drag racing and its many colorful characters, including Don (“The Snake”) Prudhomme, Shirley Muldowney (who nearly died and kept at it), and Big Daddy Don Garlits (who blew his foot off and didn’t give up). He describes how the fantastic machines evolved (usually not scientifically at all) and how a whole subsport spun off: “funny car” racing. Through it all he asks the many provocative larger questions the subject makes unavoidable. What does the spread and persistence of this utterly useless activity tell us about our relationships to cars and to machines in general? About technology as something having to do with purpose and progress? You may read the book to ponder such questions or just to get a sense of an activity so seductive that a driver named Paula Martin could say, after almost burning to death while racing, “I will race my car again … because of the sheer and unequivocal feeling of joy I experience when I go fast.”

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