A 1955 Ford Thunderbird competes against a 1934 Ford at the Hidden Valley Drag Strip (Alleghany County), circa early 1960s. Before the Hidden Valley Drag Strip was completed, drag races were held at the regional airport.

Howard Linkletter of Staunton roars off the line at the Roanoke Drag Strip, circa early 1960s. Linkletter's hot rod is a 1931 chopped Ford coupe with a Cadillac engine.

Dick Swecker's rail dragster, powered by a Chrysler engine, set the most top speed records in its class at the Roanoke Drag Strip.

American-made cars were not the only vehicles drag racing. Here a Volvo and a Triumph TR-3 compete at the Roanoke Drag Strip, circa 1960s.

The driver of "Dead Expense," a Fiat coupe, watches for the green light on the "Christmas tree" at Grayson County's Elk Creek Drag Strip, circa 2000. Electronic starting and timing systems replaced the flagmen of the early days. (Roanoke Times photograph)

A Model-T Ford roadster comes off the starting line alongside a 1932 Ford at the Roanoke Drag Strip, circa early 1960s.

The starting flagman watches a 1960 Ford and a 1961 Chevrolet race toward the finish line at the Roanoke Drag Strip, circa 1961.


Drag racing has never attracted as many fans as oval track racing, but it has long had a steady following in Southwest Virginia. Before organized drag racing came to the region, hot rodders from Southwest Virginia were towing their cars to compete in Burlington, North Carolina; Elizabeth City, North Carolina; and Manassas, Virginia; members of the Ridge Runners hot rod club in Abingdon (Washington County) sometimes towed their cars as far away as Chester, South Carolina.

In the late 1950s commercial, quarter-mile drag strips opened in Roanoke, Franklin, Henry, and Alleghany Counties. The Roanoke Drag Strip’s first race in 1958 drew over 100 competing cars (one-third of them hot rods, two-thirds of them unmodified stock cars) and over 2,000 spectators. The 1960s saw tracks open in Bedford County, Grayson County, and outside of Bristol, Virginia/Tennessee, and racers could compete on both Saturday nights and Sundays. A number of tracks were sanctioned by the National Hot Rod Association. Today local drag racers still compete at Grayson County, Rockbridge County, and Bristol tracks.

In the 1950s most Southwest Virginia drag racers were hot rodders who modified cars, drove them during the week, and raced them on weekends. Along with street-legal hot rods, Southwest Virginians built track-dedicated dragsters that had to be towed or trailered to the drag strip. Today’s young drivers race their “rice burners”—usually light, performance-enhanced Japanese cars—rather than American cars.

In organized drag racing, cars are classed for competition according to factors such as weight, motor size, and motor modifications. Winners in each two-car heat continue racing toward the championship in their class. In the years before drag strips installed electronic equipment, the cars roared off the starting line at a signal from a flagman standing in the center of the track. Flagmen were often showmen with dramatic styles. The flagmen were eventually replaced by “Christmas tree” starting lights, timing lights, and electronic signboards.

In the heyday of Southwest Virginia drag racing, track owners enlisted local hot rod clubs to help run the races. The owners also realized they could draw more people by having special events and bringing in outside “big name” racers to compete against local drag racers. Southwest Virginia drag strips featured national drivers such as Florida’s Don “Big Daddy” Garlits, California’s Tommy “TV” Ivo, Michigan’s E. J. Potter on his V-8 motorcycle, Ohio’s Art Arfons with his jet engine-powered “Green Monster,” and even North Carolina’s great oval track driver Richard Petty. When the Bristol International Raceway opened in 1961, Southwest Virginians were able to stay in the region and still watch a slate of nationally ranked drag racers.

Through the 1950s, dragsters, roadsters, coupes, and gas-class cars were the audience pleasers at the drag strip. However, in the 1960s audience tastes changed. On the dealer’s showroom floor, car fans could now find Ford, Chevrolet, Pontiac, Plymouth, and Dodge muscle cars with powerful engines and four-speed transmissions. Rather than build a hot rod, men could buy a brand new car suitable for the drag strip. The “super stock” drivers became the stars, and the “big three” manufacturers began sponsoring selected racers. Though fan loyalty went to drivers and drivers’ home regions, the brand of automobile was usually most important.

Of course, a great deal of drag racing has taken place off the organized track, and young men have drag raced illegally for over 50 years. Though street races sometimes start on the spur of the moment at traffic lights or from rolling starts, they usually follow a verbal challenge made in a cruising hangout. Drivers and onlookers then gather along a secluded straight road, and someone acts as the starting flagman. Illegal racers compete for bragging rights, money, and in rare cases, the title to the loser’s car. Be it the 220 straightaway in southern Henry County, Gratton Road in Tazewell County, or the airport road outside of Bluefield, nearly every Southwest Virginia community of any size has had—and probably still has—an illegal drag race site.

"Traveler," a 1961 Ford, lines up against a 1961 Chevrolet at the Roanoke Drag Strip. The "super stock" cars became the drag racing crowd pleasers after the 1950s.

To draw in a larger audience, drag strip owners sometimes paid nationally known drivers to compete at the smaller regional tracks. Stock car champion Richard Petty raced at the Roanoke Drag Strip in his Plymouth Barracuda, "43 Jr."


Acknowledgements | Ferrum College and the Blue Ridge Institute & Museum | Contact