The Evolution Of Drift & Drag Racing

The Evolution Of Drift & Drag Racing

For as long as the motor vehicle has existed, so has the human urge to make it do extraordinary things in the name of entertainment.

You could argue that using a car for anything other than transportation is completely unnecessary. And that same point could also be applied to what modern transportation then replaced, the trusty horse.

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Yet if you go back through history, the first records of actual horse racing are believed to have started with the nomadic tribesmen from 4500 BC. What about wheeled racing? Well, the Greeks added chariot racing to the Olympics in 776 BC.

While that’s not quite Formula 1, I bet they still argued over which horse was best for ‘daily’ use and which could pound the Colosseum all day long without skipping a beat. Followed by at least one smart-ass telling the others to improve their riding before getting a better horse.

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We might be galloping slightly off-topic here, but the original point remains true: It doesn’t matter what the method of transport is – or even what period you’re living in – transportation has never only been about getting us from A to B.

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What makes 2024 so exciting for us Speedhunters is just how diverse the automotive world has become. We’re not talking about the hundreds of brands or powertrains either, but all of those different motorsport disciplines that now fall within the automotive spectrum. Time attack, circuit racing, hillclimb, rallying, oval racing, stock cars, tractor pulling…

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…Touring cars, go-karts, IndyCar, motocross, autocross and even e-racing. It’s a never-ending world that caters for all people of all budgets and backgrounds, united by the passion for making wheeled vehicles even more entertaining.

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Some of these might be niche even by Speedhunters standards, but two terms in particular have become a staple of this platform since day one – drifting and drag racing. It seems bonkers to think these terms are normal in 2024; one simply requires driving faster than another in a straight line, and the other focuses on sliding your car around while smoke bellows from the tyres.

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So why bring up drag and drift now? For some of our younger readers – and some of our slightly older ones too – most of us were introduced to these two motorsports through computer games. And on May 21st, Need for Speed will launch its latest volume for Unbound handily known as Vol. 7: Drift & Drag. But this is far from Need for Speed’s first foray into these two worlds. Over the last two decades, particularly since the OG launch of NFS Underground in 2003, it’s one of the main elements the series has become renowned for. Something it’s hoping to recapture with that latest Unbound volume.

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We’ll cover that in more detail next week, but right now we want to take a retrospective look at the history of both drag and drift racing – namely how they first came to exist, and the individuals who shaped their very foundations. Strap yourself in, and get ready to live your life a quarter mile at a time…

From Salt Flats To Asphalt: Drag Racing

1950s America. Two Chevys line up at a set of traffic lights, ready to burn rubber the second the lights turn green, before racing a quarter mile to the next set of traffic lights. Sounds about right, doesn’t it? But this romanticised idea of ‘early’ drag racing is anything but true because the origins lie way beyond this post-war era.

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Dial it back a few more decades to the 1930s and the dry lakes of California and Bonneville would become the breeding ground for early racers. Out here, covering a particular distance in the shortest time wasn’t the aim of the game – it was all about top speed, and the ’30s rapidly saw vehicles regularly exceeding 100+mph on runs. So what about covering a quarter mile, where did that come from?

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The story goes that in 1949, Motor Trend magazine editor Walt Woron teamed up with Wally Parks (editor of Hot Rod magazine) and Otto Crocker (who was responsible for doing the timing at Bonneville) to test a new 1949 Lincoln’s acceleration over a quarter mile distance for a magazine feature. Word soon got around, and an Oldsmobile dealer by the name of Fred Davies turned up with a (then new) Oldsmobile 88 to directly compare against the Lincoln, intrigued to see which was fastest.

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By the end of the day, about a dozen cars had joined Walt, Wally and Otto with multiple cars often running down the quarter mile course together. And while this may not have been the first recorded instance of a quarter mile drag race, it would shape the world of drag racing thereafter with Wally being left inspired by the impromptu event, eventually leading to the formation of the NHRA (National Hot Rod Association) in 1951.

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One other contributing factor to this universal quarter mile length was down to the mass of airfields now out of use after World War II ended. What’s more, the West Coast may have had vast dry lakes and salt flats to race on, but over in the East Coast? Not so much, leading to a shift from top speed to covering a set distance in the shortest amount of time.

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The ’50s and ’60s are often considered the formative years of drag racing, but it was also a world apart from what we witness in 2024. Early cases of organised drag racing weren’t exactly organised at all. There were no specific classes; some people did rolling starts, and some people raced four to five cars wide. Many drag strips even opted for single-lane racing with a focus on top speed rather than head-to-head.

It’s worth noting that – while this particular story looks at the early history of organised drag racing and its origins – it doesn’t factor in that extra curriculum activity otherwise known as street racing. This isn’t a discussion about what’s right or wrong, but ultimately the need for proper organised drag racing was spawned out of necessity due to the speeds and level of tuning being exploited on public roads.

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Sometimes these races were used to settle disputes between two rivals; other times the street merely became a means of testing your car’s performance before hitting the track at the weekend. And with cars getting so fast, no longer could drag racing be treated as a free-for-all. Classes we know and love today like Pro Stock, Gassers, Pro Mod and Doorslammers were all created so that racers could continue getting faster while keeping the battles fair.

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By the ’70s and ’80s, the NHRA’s focus was now almost entirely on professional drag racing rather than those street-running hot rods of the decades before. By 1972, the first all-tube chassis drag cars were being built and raced, and with it came a backlash that pushed people back towards the underground world of street racing with street-legal machines, something which now felt overlooked by how competitive the NHRA had become.

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Hot Rod magazine noticed this trend in the early ’90s – particularly in the cities of Chicago, Detroit and Indianapolis which all housed some of the fastest street-legal drag cars in existence. Keen to give these individuals a proper home to battle it out, the ‘Hot Rod Fastest Street Car Shootout’ took place in Memphis Tennessee with competitors regularly hitting 8-second quarter mile times in street-legal machines… in 1992. Naturally, this only pushed racers to keep getting faster and faster, leading to a huge new industry boom for street car tuning in the 1990s and 2000s.

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Since 2004, Hot Rod magazine have held their ‘Pump Gas’ event as an attempt to keep those street-legal cars from getting completely out of control. Competitors had to travel 30 miles to the drag strip and could only run on 91 octane pump fuel… and yet still the cars continued to get even faster.

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Hot Rod magazine’s solution? The evolution into the ‘Hot Rod Drag Week’, which we’ve previously covered on Speedhunters. Over five days, competitors are expected to cover 1,000-plus miles between drag strips with no support vehicles and no trailers. What’s more, if you miss even one event or race through mechanical failure, you’re out of the competition altogether. And these are now cars running in the 6-second brackets…

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This is all very American and nostalgic, but what about the rest of the world? Well, truth be told it was the USA that first gave life to drag racing, and with the introduction of the NHRA established it as a legitimate sport which then spread globally. It wouldn’t be long until drag racing was depicted in films, print media and of course the world of gaming.

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We’ve kept this history fairly brief, but if you want to take a deeper look into the importance of people like Wally Parks, check out the awesome story Mike Garrett put together from the NHRA’s Motorsport Museum here.

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Street racing will always be a taboo subject, and while established outlets like the NHRA give racers a safe place to play as well as credibility, it’s the outlaw nature of the underground scene that often breathes life into the next generation…

Drifting: The Art Of Being In Control While Out Of Control

Given how rapidly drifting has exploded within the automotive world in the last two decades, you’d assume its origins would be nowhere near the depth of drag racing. Yet it is widely attributed now to have first existed as far back as the ’60s, which we’ll try and debunk in just a moment.

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First, let’s get one thing straight – we’re not just talking about power slides or balancing a car on the edge with a four-wheel slide – something early race cars (particularly with cross-ply tyres) have been doing since day one. We’re talking about deliberately provoking a car into a slide and holding it far longer than would be beneficial for any lap time.

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Keiichi ‘Drift King’ Tsuchiya is widely regarded as the pioneer of professional drifting. Over the last three decades he’s drifted hundreds of vehicles in hundreds of Video Option VHS tapes and DVDs, with footage spreading globally thanks to the introduction of a little thing called the internet. But Tsuchiya-san himself will always point out that he didn’t create the spectacle of drifting; rather he took inspiration from an individual called Kunimitsu Takahashi many years earlier.

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Takahashi-san started his racing career with motorbikes, winning multiple championships between 1958 and 1960 as well as becoming the first Japanese rider to compete – and win – in the MotoGP series. But in 1962, his motorcycle career came to an abrupt end after a huge crash in the Isle Of Mann TT. Rather than call it quits for good, Takahashi-san decided to simply switch his racing from two wheels to four.

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From 1964, Takahashi-san joined the Prince Motor Company (which merged into Nissan in 1966) and took control of the Prince Skyline, which ultimately evolved into the now iconic Hakosuka Nissan Skyline. In the first three years, he proceeded to win no fewer than 50 races.

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How does this translate to drifting? Well that all comes down to Takahashi-san’s driving style. Balancing the throttle and holding a slide had been a racing technique for decades already, but Takahashi-san’s approach took this technique and dialled it to 11. Any corner, any condition and at any speed, Takahashi-san would throw his Skyline in with total commitment provoking a slide way before the corner apex, which would then allow him to be much straighter on the corner exit and – in the process – carry more speed through the entire corner than his rivals. Fast? You bet, and as a handy by-product, it looked properly cool too.

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So much so that it captured the imagination of Keiichi Tsuchiya – who at the time was racing in open wheeled and other formulas – who then proceeded to apply it to his own race craft. At one point pushing it a tad too far, namely on the winding roads of Hakone, where footage of Tsuchiya-san sliding his racing car around somewhat illegally landed him in a fair bit of bother both with sponsors and the local police…

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But as with all displays of anarchy, the lasting (positive) effect was far greater than the initial negativity. During this time, drifting wasn’t considered a sport nor was it something you could go and do at the weekends like drag racing. But the sight of Tsuchiya-san making his car dance inevitably inspired a whole generation of young petrolheads to go and do the same, flocking to Japan’s mountain regions at questionable hours of the morning to hone their skills further. Just like drag racing, the relationship between street and track remains murky… but rarely do you get one without the other.

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By the late ’90s, drifting was now a fully-fledged discipline in Japan, and early footage of Tsuchiya-san skidding around even appeared on Jeremy Clarkson’s Motorworld which would unsurprisingly be one of the first times the West would witness it in action. And then, with the formation of the D1 Grand Prix by Tsuchiya-san and Option magazine founder Daijiro Inada in 2001, suddenly this new craze had a global platform to showcase itself on.

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If you’ve followed Speedhunters since 2008, you’ll know that drifting in particular has been a deep passion of ours and one, we’ve been proud to support since the very start. The mid-2000s would be crucial years for drifting; Formula Drift was still being established in the USA and other parts of the world, and die-hard drift fans were working tirelessly to have it taken more seriously as a sport and less of a gimmick.

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And it worked. Because the sight, sound and smell of drifting has properly captivated a whole new generation of fans, to the extent where, since 2016, it’s even become a highlight of Goodwood’s Festival Of Speed, which is arguably the epitome of established motorsport. And can you blame them? Turbo whistle, 5-foot flames and bellows of tyre smoke are usually only associated with a huge accident. But in an automotive world being strangled by a need for sustainability, the concept of drifting couldn’t be further from what the world needs right now. And that’s exactly what makes it so appealing.

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So If The Future Is Electric, What Next For Drift & Drag?

Admittedly that’s a bit clickbaity. When the motor vehicle was first invented, the horse didn’t go extinct, did it? And truthfully this is where the future of internal combustion heads in the coming years too. EV drift and drag cars already exist – in fact, you could argue that both of these motorsports benefit from EV as a means of power – neither require huge batteries, both require immediate deployment of torque and access to 1,000+ horsepower too.

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But drag racing and drifting are as much a spectacle as they are a sport. A quartz watch will always be more accurate than one with a mechanic movement, but that doesn’t stop Rolex from producing over a million watches every year.

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Hell, a Tesla Model S Plaid will demolish the quarter mile in 9.2-seconds with zero drama, and you have to applaud the engineering at work there. But would we sooner watch a K-series-swapped Civic scrabble, wrestle and screech its way to a similar time with no guarantee the engine will even last 1,320 feet? Every single time; because that human element of an individual tinkering away in a workshop for weekends on end with no guarantee of success is something we all want to root for.

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In this automotive world, all too often we’re guilty of aligning ourselves with a certain camp that requires the total disregard of any other ‘rival’ scene for fear of one being less legitimate or serious than the other. But in reality, the moment you use a car for anything beyond basic transport it loses all purpose and justification. And that’s something we can all embrace because whatever the future holds for the motor vehicle, you can bet there will always be those individuals hell-bent on making them do extraordinary things, because they can.

See you on the streets when Vol. 7: Drift & Drag launches in Need for Speed Unbound on May 21st.

The Speedhunters
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