Natural Bridge Drag Racing Zooms to Life

Sign that says Speedway and Drag Strip

Photography by Rich Goode | Friday Night Nitro – Rockbridge area locals drive fast for a few seconds in the town of Natural Bridge.

By: Rich Goode, 3L
Managing Editor

Modifying cars is an American tradition as old as our national love affair with the automobile itself. A car is a symbol of freedom, and a fast car is a symbol of . . . fast freedom, I guess? I kind of lost the metaphor, but God Bless America, we do like our cars. And nearly as soon as Ford Model Ts rolled off the assembly line, daredevil 1920s types began tinkering under the hood or stripping-off weightier, arguably unnecessary, parts to see how fast the machines could truly go. By manipulating air intake and exhaust ports, with placements at times as questionable as the Death Star’s, and whittling the vehicle down to little more than an engine on a wheeled skeleton, the light and streamlined, albeit volatile, drag racer was born.

Old-timey street races were held decades before Vin Diesel was cool, often involving clashes with authorities (sometimes literally) and accompanied by moustache twirling and The Benny Hill Show theme (presumably). To increase safety and decrease jail time, the sport went legitimate, and the first official race occurred at an airport in Goleta, California in 1949. Within two years, 130 sanctioned drag strips were spread out around the nation as racing dominated the decade’s culture from its origin in the Golden State, not unlike the hippie movement or Pauly Shore in their respective decades.

By 1964, racers could reach up to 200 mph. By the early 90s, after years spent experimenting with multiple engines, slingshots at the starting line, and fuel alternatives like nitro methane – which needs only a tenth of the oxygen gasoline needs to ignite – dragsters could easily achieve speeds of up to 300 mph by the time they crossed the finish line. Today, by further streamlining and distributing weight and power as efficiently (and, at times, as recklessly) as possible, the fastest dragsters can reach up to 330 mph, running the distance in 4.5 seconds while roaring and spiting smoke and fire like a mechanical dragon or the furnace from Home Alone.

And so, on a cool Friday evening this September, the racers, lined up one by one along the starting line at Natural Bridge Speedway & Dragstrip, as well as the crowd gathered to cheer them on were part of a time-honored tradition, like pretty much everything else in Rockbridge County. Whether the drivers and the handful of onlookers in the stands were aware of this spiritual lineage is another matter, for it was with little pomp and even less circumstance that the races began. The opening drivers were seemingly all business, burning rubber up to the starting line then roaring to high speeds in no time, and the few dedicated spectators were content to internalize their joys privately, only occasionally letting fly a cheer and looking to fellows of the faithful for confirmation.

While a number of people were present, but the majority were there to race. And, if the first few racers set a tone of sobriety – perhaps fueled in part by the speedway’s prohibition of alcohol – several of the next contestants provided what I’d hoped for in a rural race. The drivers appeared to simply be seizing an opportunity to let loose and legally drive as fast as possible, unless pickup trucks, motorcycles, and station wagons are common competitors in official events.

In full disclosure, your intrepid reporter did not stay for the entire four-hour outing, but I can safely say that, throughout the night, many local cars and an assortment of other things with wheels and engines went very fast for a few seconds. And, as I left the parking lot and the evening breeze rolled in, it felt like the cool breath of God, sailing in to tell the racers, “Good work. Me bless America,” and approving of the proud American drag racing tradition that lives on in Rockbridge.

Categories: Sports