Drag racers don't use the word "diversity." Most are more interested in how fast a car goes than in the color of the driver's skin or whether it’s a man or a woman behind the wheel. But the fact remains that drag racing is, by far, the most racially diverse motor sport in America and the one that includes the most women. Visit just about any dragstrip on any given race day, and you’ll find racers, fans, and track workers of all colors and both genders, working together as teammates, hanging out as friends, and mixing it up as competitors. (My long-term photo documentary project on drag racing, Democracy of Speed is a look at this subject. The photos below are all from Eastside Speedway, in Waynesboro, Virginia.)
Drag racing has been this way--open to all--from the very beginning of the sport. In southern California, where organized drag racing was born, white, black, Latino, and Asian men have been racing against each other ever since the 1930s, a time when baseball, for instance, was still rigidly segregated. By the early 1950s, the Bean Bandits, a multi-racial racing team, had become California folk heroes. Led by Joaquin Arnett, a Mexican-American, its membership included Hispanics, whites, African-Americans, Asian-Americans, and even an Arab-American. At about the same time, the NHRA (National Hot Rod Association) the largest and most important drag racing organization, was telling its members in no uncertain terms that there were no racial or gender barriers to membership. When organized drag racing came to the east coast, the spirit of the Bean Bandits and the NHRA came with it. For instance, in 1953, when Al Gore opened Old Dominion Speedway, in Manassas, Virginia, the first purpose-built drag strip east of the Mississippi River, he stood up against those who wanted to keep African-Americans off the track and out of the grandstands. He ran the dragstrip at Eastside Speedway along the same lines--open to all, right from the start. (That's Al on the right in the photo below.)
Al Gore, right, with two members of the Steppe family, long-time drag racers.
In the early days, acceptance by male racers and by sanctioning bodies didn’t come easily for female racers. But they ultimately prevailed. Women like Shirley Shahan were winning national events by the end of the 1950s. Shirley Muldowney won the first of her three NHRA Top Fuel championships in 1977, becoming the sport’s first female superstar. By that time, Carol "Bunny" Burkett, the 1986 IHRA (International Hot Rod Association) Funny Car world champion, was already a legend-in-the-making on the east coast. (Bunny's in the photos below.)
Carol "Bunny" Burkett, in her souvenir stand, Eastside Speedway, Waynesboro, Virginia.
Carol "Bunny" Burkett backs her Funny Car into the starting line, Eastside Speedway.
Today the racial, ethnic, and gender diversity of drag racing is apparent at every level of the sport, from the grassroots to the highest professional ranks. No other motor sport can make this claim. While Nascar’s diversity program is just getting off the ground, African-Americans, Hispanic-Americans, and Asian-Americans have been winning races and championships as drivers, owners, and tuners for over forty years. In IndyCar a woman has won a single race, while in drag racing dozens of women have won major national events and championships. Given the success of drag racing’s junior dragster programs, these achievements are sure to continue into the future.
See more photos from Democracy of Speed in my photo gallery. Click here or at the top of the page.