zMAX Dragway Builds on Rich Drag Racing Tradition in Carolinas
Not only is zMAX Dragway @ Concord the nation's newest racing venue, it's a creation that the pioneers of Carolinas drag racing could never have imagined when their sport began more than half a century ago. The Sept. 11-14 NHRA Nationals at zMAX Dragway is part of that once-inconceivable picture.
Races that once were started by flagmen long ago gave way to an electronic "Christmas tree." Debates over which car hit the finish line first are now settled by super-slow motion video and timing clocks that measure a run to within one-ten-thousandth of a second. Rudimentary drag strips are just as much a part of the past. At zMAX Dragway, there are four-yes, four-all-concrete lanes laid for racing; certainly a far cry from the dirt drag strips and abandoned airstrips that were drag racing's building blocks.
Defunct facilities such as Broadslab, Shuffletown and Spartanburg are part of an extensive two-state, straight-line lore that have produced a golden lineage of champions, with Bruton Smith's latest creation taking the sport to a completely new realm.
"We raced at some really interesting places," said Buddy Martin, half of the famed Sox & Martin team that won three NHRA championships. "We ran tracks where if you didn't get stopped in time, you'd go sightseeing through the trees on top of the mountain and you were just gone.
"We raced on dirt tracks and old airport runways all over the country in those days. Wherever there was racing and some money to be made, that's where we went."
Martin and driver extraordinaire Ronnie Sox, nicknamed "Mr. 4 Speed" for his shifting prowess and NHRA's first Pro Stock champion back in 1970, were to drag racing in North Carolina what Richard Petty was to stock car action. Those entities, in fact, were separated by about 30 miles-Petty in Level Cross, Sox & Martin in Burlington-and their exploits as frontline factory teams helped Chrysler to sell tens of thousands of Barracudas, Superbirds, Challengers and other muscle cars in the 1960s and '70s.
In those early years, drag strips opened in seemingly every Tar Heel county. Many, including one in Concord, have gone under, but others have survived. Piedmont Dragway, which was launched in 1957, is still in operation on the outskirts of Greensboro. Kinston Drag Strip and Roxboro Dragway both opened in 1960 and continue to operate, as do tracks that came along later-Fayetteville, Rockingham, Mooresville, Shadyside, Farmington, Wilkesboro and more.
Champions came along in non-stop fashion. Hickory's Barry Setzer fielded a fire-breathing Funny Car for driver Tommy Grove in the early 1970s, and Grove would later go on to help a pre-NASCAR Rick Hendrick with a supercharged drag boat. Greensboro's Dee Simmons was one of the first African-American drivers in the nitro Funny Car ranks, and another racer from the Gate City, Alan Starr, built and drove his "Starrliner" dragster in the Top Fuel ranks.
Like Sox, Lenoir's Don Carlton was a pioneer in Pro Stock. Carlton, a former textile plant worker in his hometown, won six NHRA national events before his 1977 death in a crash during testing. Rickie Smith, of King, who's still active in the Pro Modified ranks, won five IHRA Pro Stock championships and has notched multiple wins in NHRA Pro Stock action as well. His son, Matt, prefers two wheels to four-he's the reigning NHRA Pro Stock Motorcycle titlist.
Other top-notch racers who call the Tar Heel state home include chassis builder and Pro Mod racer Tommy Mauney of Shelby; three-time NHRA champion Bobby Warren of Clinton and his elder son, Jeff, an IHRA national champ; Burlington's Herb McCandless; King's Mike Boyles; Fayetteville's Chip Johnson and Dennis Hill, who won IHRA crowns; four-time NHRA titlist Jeff Warren, a native of Lumberton who has relocated to Floyds Knob, Ind.; Kings Mountain's Gary Bingham, the best in his IHRA ranks four times; Top Fuel racer and Wilkesboro Raceway Park operator Danny Dunn; current nitro Funny Car competitor Bob Gilbertson of Charlotte; and long-time retired Pro Stock aces Roy Hill and Harold Denton.
Two-wheel greats include nitro Harley racers Mark Cox, of North Wilkesboro, Ray Price, of Raleigh, and Jay Turner, of Whitsett.
The same golden legacy exists across the border in South Carolina, especially the Upstate area around Spartanburg. Spartanburg County, in fact, boasts 25 world championships among racers such as Scott Cannon and his son, Scotty, and Gene Fulton. Headed by racers such as Ray Head, Harold Gault and Michael Martin, the Palmetto state's list of standouts is just as long as North Carolina's.
Fulton's most memorable car was a 1964 Chevy II station wagon. While at face value a seemingly unlikely prospect as a great drag car, Fulton said it was actually the perfect such vehicle.
"That thing bought and paid for my business," he said of Fulton Competition, which is among the elite engine builders in Pro Modified racing. "A lot of those tracks we raced on after I got back from Vietnam didn't have a great deal of traction, but that car would go down them and it could run a multitude of classes."
The wagon was totaled at Bristol when a competitor blindsided Fulton near the finish line.
Fulton took the car home and buried it behind his shop on U.S. 221.
"You could probably find at least eight to 10 tracks within a hundred miles of Spartanburg," Fulton added. "I'd run four times a week in the early '70s-Wednesdays at Wadesboro (N.C.), then Friday, Saturday, Sunday at Spartanburg, Shuffletown, Shelby or wherever. You'd only win about as much as $300, but $300 then is like $1,000 now."
Time and urban sprawl, Fulton said, caught up with many of the early tracks in the Carolinas.
"A lot of places were smaller tracks and a lot of them got eaten up when cars began to go faster than the tracks could handle," he said. "And a lot of them were built just a little bit outside of town, and then the town over-ran them."
Fast forward a few decades and you have a totally different picture.
zMAX Dragway @ Concord has been described in the most-glowing terms by all who have seen it. Three racers whose teams are headquartered in the metro Charlotte area say the track means only good things for the future of drag racing in the Carolinas.
"I've always wondered why more of the guys didn't have their shops down here," said Top Fuel owner-driver Doug Herbert, who moved to Cherryville in 1991 from Southern California. "I think over the next few years we're going to see more of them move to the Charlotte area; No. 1, because of the drag strip, and No. 2, because of the racing technology, all of the quality people here that are racecar people, and the new wind tunnel in Concord."
Herbert believes zMAX Dragway will be a major boost to his business, Doug Herbert High Performance Parts in Lincolnton. He was one of the first to lease a suite at the new track, even though having an NHRA national event in his backyard ratchets up the pressure to win.
"A lot of our customers-and a lot of the people around here-have never been to a drag race because there wasn't a place that was convenient to them," he said. "We're going to entertain some of our business colleagues and customers and friends and try to show everybody how exciting this sport is."
Jeg Coughlin Jr., who won his third NHRA Pro Stock championship in 2007, couldn't agree more with Herbert's opinion that Charlotte is "the" place to be for racing. Coughlin and Dave Connolly compete in the same class for team owner Victor Cagnazzi, a native of New York City who chose Mooresville's Lakeside Business Park as the place to set up shop.
"It's a state-of-the-art facility with all the latest and greatest technology, engine development, chassis development-we're one of the few teams that build our chassis right there in the shop," said Coughlin, one of an elite 10 drivers to have won more than 50 NHRA national events.
"There are close to 30 folks that work in the organization, from running the shop day to day to running the teams on the 24-race NHRA schedule. We were already here, and now you add the drag strip and the wind tunnel. Pretty much everything you could ever need is literally within a 15-mile radius of our shop."
Concord resident and three-time NHRA Pro Stock champion Greg Anderson races out of Ken Black's KB Racing shop, also based in Mooresville.
Anderson echoes the sentiments shared by his rival Coughlin about the Bellagio of drag strips which is located just several miles from Anderson's back porch.
"I feel that the new dragway is going to make a huge impact in propelling NHRA to a new level in our community," said the current NHRA Pro Stock points leader. "We chose to have our shop located in Mooresville for the simple fact that the resources available in this area give us limitless possibilities. There is an awesome variety of talented employees and racing-related businesses that supply the best parts and services with easy accessibility."
Herbert's father, Chet, was one of the frontrunners in aftermarket drag racing parts manufacturing, and reportedly attended the first organized drag race in Southern California, held on the property that is now John Wayne Airport. For much of drag racing's early years, everything about the sport, it seemed, was tied to that part of the Golden State.
But the passage of time and the growth of NASCAR technology are starting to add fuel to a cross-country shift among all facets of racing, Herbert said.
"There's a lot of racing manufacturing still out in California, but because of the cost of property and manufacturing out here, I've got a feeling that in the next five to 10 years there are going to be a lot of them moving to Charlotte," said Herbert, who won at Norwalk, Ohio, earlier this year. "California isn't the racing capital of the United States anymore, Charlotte is."
Four-day tickets for the Sept. 11-14 inaugural NHRA Carolina Nationals at zMAX Dragway start at $99 for adults and $20 for children ages 12 and under. Individual day tickets are available for both adults and children.
Tickets can be purchased online at www.charlottemotorspeedway.com or by calling the Charlotte Motor Speedway ticket office at 1-800-455-FANS!