Story continues below this advertisement
Bret Kepner, drag racing announcer, photographer, and historian
I found it ironic DRO Editor Jeff Burk would ask me to join those who’ve penned an account of their first drag race, if only because the end of this week also marks the end of my fortieth year attending drag races. Like the others before me, that first trip to the track changed my life and, in fact, it’s hard to imagine the direction in which it might have headed if not for a fateful trip to a single-runway airstrip in southeastern Pennsylvania.
On the weekend of July 17-19, 1970, the U.S. Army was making a huge push north into Laos as the war in Vietnam escalated beyond all expectations. President Richard Nixon’s plan to enact mandatory school desegregation was meeting strong opposition in the American south while his newly-formed President’s Commission on Campus Unrest opened its hearings on the shootings of four Kent State University students four months earlier. Around the world, preparations were made to mark the first anniversary of man’s landing on the moon.
On that same weekend, a spindly boy watched as his parents pleaded with an NHRA gate official to believe their son’s twelfth birthday was five weeks away and, therefore, he qualified for free admission.
Four years earlier, I sat on a cold living room floor and watched coverage of the 1966 NHRA Winternationals on ABC’s Wide World of Sports. Broadcast in fifteen inches of black-and-white glory, I was mesmerized by the weird-looking cars and their fantastic performance. I distinctly remember asking my father why the machines smoked their tires down the track. His explanation was nearly as alien as the sport I watched, but at 5 p.m. EST on Saturday afternoon, February 20th, 1966, the hook was set.
Within a few months, I discovered the wealth of drag racing information available at the local newsstand and, for the next four years, the vast majority of my meager allowance (along with earnings from mowing lawns and shoveling snow), went toward those publications. Whether I knew it or not, I was obsessed.
Through those years, I was besieged by radio commercials from the many local drag strips that advertised in the greater Philadelphia market. Listening in on my carnival-prize crystal set (look it up, kids), I learned about the weekly action conducted at Atco (NJ) Dragway, Maple Grove (PA) Drag-O-Way, Cecil County (MD) Drag-O-Way, and Madison Township (NJ) Raceway Park. The only access to any moving pictures of the sport came from those same Wide World of Sports shows and extremely rare television news features or commercials. I could only imagine the thrill of those advertised match races any of which may as well have been held a thousand miles away.
In 1970, the National Hot Rod Association expanded its four-race national event schedule to a whopping seven events. While this was big news, the real excitement was the fact a new race, dubbed the Summernationals, was to be held at another of those mythical east coast match-race havens, York U.S. 30 Drag-O-Way, a mere forty-mile drive from my home in the Appalachian mountains.