It is hardly a secret that the sport of drag racing set its earliest roots in California. Sources peg the year at about 1938 or 39, perhaps even earlier, but just as the new shoots began to reach skyward, the dark clouds of war postponed such frivolities as the hot rodders found themselves in uniform, off to fight for their country’s survival. It was during that time of war that these same young men acquired new knowledge and skills that they would utilize for the design, building and competition of automobiles. They returned with their skills vastly improved in the ways to make engines roar and chassis handle the power produced. In the process they met other military servicemen with an equal thirst for the thrill of speed in a machine built, maintained and driven with their own hands. It was from this that a nationwide, coast to coast hot rodding culture was spawned.
Why then, did the hot rodding sport, and ultimately that offshoot of drag racing become so identified with California, when there was as much activity happening “back east”? The answer lies within the media coverage of the sport and its embryonic creation. Perhaps even more pointedly, “the media” pretty much consisted of one Robert E. Petersen and his fledgling Trend Publishing Company. Notably, the title of HOT ROD MAGAZINE, first published in 1948, and edited in the Los Angeles area, established California as the place where hot rodding and soon drag racing, was “happening”. From the onset, Petersen’s realm of editorial coverage focused on Southern California, and this quickly, if unintentionally, led his readers to assume that hot rodding was indeed a California invention.
Since then hot rodding and drag racing blossomed to become far more than a mere weekend diversion, a “hobby” for restless young men. In the half century since it’s beginning – on both west and east coasts – hot rodding and drag racing has become a major motorsports activity and spawned an industry that now boasts a more than $1 billion dollar contribution to the nation’s economy.
All well and good, except that there remained, until a scant five years ago, very little recognition for the contributions to this sport and industry made by those from “The Right Coast”. Perhaps the only exception to this is the outstanding Museum of Drag Racing, founded and operated by drag racing legend Don Garlits, and his national Drag Racing Hall of Fame, which chooses its annual inductees from candidates whose careers occurred on both east and west coasts.
But five years ago, in 2002, one individual gathered about her a small yet determined group of eastern based drag racers, media types and fans and formed the East Coast Drag Times Hall of Fame. The site chosen for this pioneering effort, Henderson, North Carolina, was selected because of the efforts of one Nancy Wilson, a devoted fan of drag racing and Director of the Vance County Tourism Department. Nancy provided the location and the official support of the Vance County officials who were keen on the prospects of having such an organization make its home in their community.
Along those lines Mrs. Wilson and her colleagues created the entire East Coast Drag Times Hall of Fame weekend. Held each year in mid-October, this event has grown to become one of the Southeast’s largest car shows. The show part of the weekend literally closes down the main street of Henderson, forming a pedestrian mall that showcases hundreds of rods, musclecars, antique vehicles and race cars for a crowd of 20,000 plus eager spectators. Each year’s list of honored inductees gather on Friday evening at three different Henderson motels to enjoy cocktails and re-establish old friendships and racing rivalries from days past. A cruise-in that same night gives the car show participants the opportunity to show off their rides and return to the hallowed cruising scene of the 1950’s and 60’s.
On Sunday, at the Vance-Granville Civic Center, the inductees are gathered for recognition and formal entrance into immortality within the East Coast based drag racing community. There, old photographs, stories and memories are shared for those on hand as well as those who are honored posthumously.
Additional details on the event are available by calling the Vance County Tourism Department at 252-438-2222 or toll-free at 866-438-4565.