Celebrating 50 Years of New England Dragway

New England Dragway fans line up in the glow of the Hanna Motorsports jet cars.

How does one encapsulate five decades of race track history into one story? So many moments, men and women gave all they could to create this modern day racing facility known as New England Dragway. A writer could not tell every tale there is to share in all that went into the creation of this race track that opened in September of 1966 – there’s just not enough ink to cover all the pages needed for such an epic essay. So I can’t tell you all the stories, but I can tell you it was worth it, the effort needed to create New England Dragway. It’s located just off Route 101, in the Brentwood/Epping area of New Hampshire, about a 20-minute drive from the sea coast.

The race track’s roots go back to the 1950’s when the sport of drag racing, an outgrowth of the 1940’s Hot Rodding era, came off the streets of America. Racers knew that safety needed to come to the forefront for their new hobby of Hot Rodding and with specialized race tracks, their cars and motorcycles could attain great speeds. That’s what Hot Rodding was all about in the beginning – top speed.

In New England, legend has it that the hot rodders of the region held their first drag race on an airport runway in Newington, NH, in 1953. The Hot Rod clubs of the day in the early 1950’s, the men with their Arthur Fonzarelli “Duck’s Ass” haircuts and their leather jackets started it all. Clubs like The Orientals, The Cam Snappers, The Quarter Kings, The High Winders and others, played a strong roll in forming New England drag racing.

The initial race at Newington was a flag jumping, hot rodding weekend that was but a glimpse of things to come as the sport began to emerge. While the racing could not take place with regularity at Newington Airport, which incidentally evolved into Pease AFB, the racers did find an airport to accommodate them in Sanford, Maine, about three hours north of Boston.

At the Sanford Airport where on designated weekends, hot rodders would drag their cars out of their garages and go racing, the sport of drag racing for the New England region really took hold. From the 1950’s into the 1960’s, as the popularity of these drag races grew at Sanford, the racers knew they needed their own facility, a drag strip, in order for the sport to grow and to prosper. Members of the New England Hot Rod Council, an association of the hot rod car clubs, commenced a search for suitable land to build such a race track during the mid 1960’s. By 1965 they found their spot and started digging.

Here’s a snippet of how the track began, as announced during the New England Dragway 50th Anniversary show: “About 140 racers pooled their money and we started this. Brandeis University had bleachers for free if we wanted them, so we took them apart, hauled them up here and reassembled them.” The story line continued over the track PA system, “It was about the same for our first safety enhancements; our guard rails when we first opened, was some pipe we got for a good deal on from Quincy Shipyard. So we sunk some pipes, welded it up and went racing.”

One of New England Dragway’s early track photographers, Mike McCarthy of Loudon, NH, recalled “it was two-inch pipe I’m pretty sure as I remember it. Because it was two rails high and I didn’t need a step ladder back then to shoot, I just stood on the middle rail whenever I needed to.” Mike is clearly a man who knew that pipe well as he changed his rolls of Kodak film from behind it on Sunday afternoons.