by Robert C. Post

It’s Valentine’s Day, and the Washington Post lands on my doorstep with a hopeful forecast on the front page of the sports section—that NASCAR’s “ailments” will be overcome in 2009 if a man who “wears a green-and-white racing suit and goes by the name of Dale Earnhardt Jr.” wins or even contends for the Sprint Cup Championship. In a carefully crafted 700 words, Post staff-writer Liz Clarke leaves no doubt of her own hope that Jr. will deliver as NASCAR’s personal “economic stimulus,” that he will succeed in jump starting (has there ever, ever been a more overworked expression?) a spectacle that stalled out in 2008. This is the Washington Post, the epitome of effete liberalism, which, not so long ago, would never run one word of NASCAR results, and only print a story if someone died violently.

Now, ailing or not, their NASCAR exploits have put Jr. (and Jeff Gordon) on the Forbes Celebrity 100, not all that high up (37 and 52 respectively) but ahead of Jennifer Lopez, Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, and Rush Limbaugh, and way ahead of Wolfgang Puck and Tina Fey, who are down in the 90s.

Meantime we have drag racing, the main subject of Cole Coonce’s anthology he calls Top Fuel Wormhole.

The Internet Encyclopedia of Science defines a wormhole as “a hypothetical ‘tunnel’ connecting two different points in spacetime in such a way that a trip through the wormhole could take much less time than a journey between the same starting and ending points in normal space.” Fair enough. A trip through drag racing from its starting to ending points could take sixty years. Here, Cole takes us on a trip through compressed time in a few hours. It’s a trip with moments of triumph, pathos, melodrama, and heartbreaking tragedy, and it is because drag racing has all this that I have started out with something about NASCAR. Which, though its fan-base may have dwindled, still has millions of them, still has a driver who ranks fourth among American athletes in endorsement income (that’s Jr.), still has prime-time start-to-finish television, and still gets front-page writeups in the most respected newspapers. And what does drag racing get on that score? Almost nothing. As I wrote in High Performance, if it’s lucky, in most places it gets a half-inch of results in agate type down there in the corner with arena football and duckpins.

If I were among the mandarins who control drag racing from their boardroom in Glendora, California, that would trouble me into life-threatening insomnia. But long ago they seem to have decided that the problem is insoluble, and recently they elected to pass the problem on to a new owner who, despite all, seemed ready to plunk down several hundred million dollars for control of drag racing’s top performers. Well, that deal fell through in particularly embarrassing fashion, and yet embarrassments on a small scale are nothing at all unusual for drag racing:

Consider the money spent on Madison Avenue campaigns that were dead on arrival—remember “We Have Ignition” or what Cole called the “rather pushed comparison” between top fuel racing and the “extreme” amateur athletes who surf lava-flows? Consider the fiftieth-anniversary book that Cole and I wrote, Life in the Fast Lane, which had to be withdrawn from circulation because of the uproar when it was found to have been stripped of reference to important people not in favor in Glendora, in all likelihood by the sainted Wally Parks himself. Consider the continuing presence of a TV broadcast anchor, one Paul Page, whom Cole dubs “the mastadon of malapropism.” Consider a leaker once dis-invited from national events but who was let back in the door in anticipation of a short field at the 2009 Pomona opener—and who showed thousands of appalled onlookers that his performances had sunk somewhere far below “an absurdist political statement.”

And on more treacherous ground, consider that drag racing’s all-time and forever hero, Don Garlits, has diverted his passions mostly to broadcasting vile racist pornography to his substantial e-mail list. Once unfairly nicknamed Don Garbage, Don really has become Don Garbage.

So, that’s the downside. On the upside, we have Cole’s wormhole. There are people from drag racing’s Olympus, such as it is, like Shirley, like Jim Herbert, like Wild Bill and Wild Willie, like Mike Sorokin. With Mike, there is the ultimate tragedy, but there are others, Blaine Johnson and the poor forgotten young man who met his maker on the bridge over the Pacoima Arroyo. There are the clowns, tragic in their own way, like Arley Langlo (a friend of mine who knew Arley in high school in Santa Barbara remembers him as a bad-ass who was always getting in fights). At the other end of the spectrum, there are the boys of Black Rock.

Now, for the particular enjoyment of old-time enthusiasts who have washed their hands of the Full Throttle Series (or whatever it’s called now)—Hall of Famer Dave Wallace comes particularly to mind—there is “nostalgia” racing. But as compelling as this is, nostalgia racing of course harbors the seeds of its own destruction. This is because people with “the desire to return to a former time” (that’s what nostalgia means) will soon be gone, and one imagines that all the 1960s slingshot dragsters that have been lovingly restored or recreated will go through another cycle of consignment to the garage rafters. Perhaps most sadly, there will be nobody left who cares about sitting in one of these silent machines to go “vroom, vroom….”

All that will be left in the end is some sterling storytelling, much of it by Cole Coonce. That will have to be enough.

(Bob Post is the author of High Performance: The Culture and Technology of Drag Racing (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001), which, in a thoughtful moment, Don Garlits called “the bible of drag racing for future generations.”)

Top Fuel Wormhole cover

Top Fuel Wormhole cover

One Comment to “Foreword”


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