Slamming the Door on 2005


he casual observer could surmise the only thing that's going on in nostalgia drag racing is the fleet of top fuel dragsters and funny cars battling it out. The truth of the matter is a completely different story. There's a whole heap of racers that fork over their hard earned dough to run on raceday that have doors on their cars just like the kind most folks open and close to go pick up the pink box full of donuts on their way to work. Bitchin' Chevys, fast Fords, mad Mopars, and even oddball and unlikely jalopies with blowers poking though the hood where a one-barrel carburetor used to be. This is where drag racing came from. Hooligans and miscreants trying to prove their muster in hopped up jalopies banging the loud pedal from stop light to stop light.

This connection to the street, or delicious donuts for that matter, is the key to the once-bigger-than-the-Beatles-and-Elvis-combined popularity of drag racing, a popularity that for some reason or another seems to have lost its hold on the motoring public over the years. While the stock contraptions out on the big time drag strip these days are plenty fast, it's painfully easy to see why the connection to the street may be wearing thin. Often the only real way to tell from the stands what kind of car the one on the track once was is to squint your eyes and try to read the letters across the place on the car where the grille is supposed to be. Lesse…C, uhm…O…B….lemme see….A…what the?!? Ah, forget about it.

In the nostalgia and vintage doorslammer racing scene the connection from the fan in the stands to the car on the track is much clearer. The cars look like the cars that they actually are. That Camaro, Fairlane, or Barracuda motoring down the track looks a heck of a lot like it did when it came off the showroom floor in 1968. Overgrown and over the top maybe, but still directly connected. The Goodguys VRA races host a flood of doorslammers at every event. While the slower and more numerous street classes are missed, the sheer number of cars showing up simply overwhelmed the amount of time there was to get everybody down the racetrack. The NHRA Hot Rod Reunions roll out factory F/X cars and restored stockers for the museum in motion effect.

The smart part is that it all makes sense to the fan in the stands. The same people that are in the process of building a '32 Ford Hot Rod or restoring a '67 Camaro Street Machine come out to the Nostalgia drags as fans and even racers, with some car show slots suddenly empty during rounds. Back in the '60s and '70s Detroit understood this connection clearly, and the winners out on the racetrack on Sunday sold a heap of cars on the following Monday or Tuesday. Even a casual fan that knew nothing about drag racing whatsoever knew what car was which, and what it meant to be behind the wheel of a winner while picking up the donuts on the way to work. Too bad you can't go buy a '69 Plymouth Road Runner off the showroom floor today, nostalgia drag racing fans would be lined up around the block.

The apex of the win on Sunday, sell on Monday strategy from Detroit came in the form of strip-ready rockets you could buy ready-to-go from the dealer. One shining, or dull primered, example of this way of thinking was the now legendary hemi Dart. Walk down to the dealer, put down some money, and rumble on out to the dragstrip in a low-cost lightweight compact car with the biggest and most powerful engine available under the fiberglass hood. How bitchin' is that? The thing is somewhere along the line somebody dropped the playbook, lost the plot, forgot what it was all about. For entertainment purposes, one could use 1972 as a point where things started to go really go awry.

Coincidentally this is the same cutoff point the Goodguys have frozen in time for doorslammers coming out to play. One look at the 1972 lineup from Detroit tells the tale pretty well. Vegas, Gremlins, and Pintos in stock form were not exactly barn burners when it came to performance. While plenty of Vegas, Gremlins, and even Pintos made fine drag cars the direct connection between fan and racer started to wear a little thin. The same folks that would have bought an Edlebrock manifold and Holley carburetor for their 67 Camaro and gone out to the track thought complete engine and drivetrain swaps for their Gremlins a bit much. Turn the clock ahead by ten years and all is nearly lost. The once mighty Camaro was choked down to 165 hp and the Citation X-11 was Chevy's answer to performance innovation.

Fast forward to the present and the connection grows even more distant. While the Cobalt is a fine little car, I don't seem to remember seeing a rear-drive version with a large displacement V-8 under the hood the last time I visited my local Chevy dealer. Neither did the guy that didn't buy one after he didn't know what kind of car that was on the TV, before he changed the channel to the figure 8 trailer races on ESPN37. The connection from drag racing fan to car and driver has been lost, or at the very least is not quite as strong as it was back in 1968.

Ironically, the only folks that seem to be building factory racecars and putting them out on the showroom floor these days have a big Subaru or Mitsubishi sign out in front of the dealership. There's absolutely nothing wrong with a 300HP all-wheel drive beastie that handles like a slot car, runs a low 13 in stock form, and can be driven off the lot for under 30K. Performance reigns over comfort and amenities, just as the build sheet on the Hemi Dart deleted such luxuries as heaters and window cranks. All this of course sends a new year's message to those running the show in Detroit. Build a lightweight, bare bones, rear drive V-8 full blooded American monster with the same level of engineering and price as the equivalent bare bones Honda Civic and guess what will happen?

In the meantime, there's still plenty of doorslamming examples of Detroit getting it right out on the dragstrips of America to keep the legend of the connection alive and well.

Retro Rant [12-8-05]
Grass Roots


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