If David McGee's book, Bristol Dragway, contained nothing more than the foreword by Kenny Bernstein, it's still worth buying; his account is that good. Fortunately, there is so much more to learn and love about the storied times of Bristol Dragway.
Having been there for much of the ride, McGee is the perfect writer to scribe this track's epic history.
Living in Eastern Tennessee, and photographing and announcing at the strip since the early 1980s, McGee has a unique perspective on all things Bristol, also known as Drag City USA and Thunder Valley. Combining his personal collection with images from the historical galleries of Bristol Dragway and some of the most famous photographers in the sport has yielded a snappy, page-turning exploration into the world of drag racing at this most unique setting. As McGee describes, "This is such a special place with the exhaust cackles echoing throughout the valley."
The complex was built into a Tennessee mountain valley, surrounded by more mountains, valleys and forests. From the effort of enormous digging, blasting, and hauling along with great entrepreneurial dreaming, this drag strip rose, literally, from the earth. The result bestowed a distinctive crown of racing splendor on the grounds, a setting unparalleled on the globe for a race compound that also includes the famous Bristol Motor Speedway.
"(The drag strip) is not built on flat ground like the airport-type locations of most race tracks," McGee added. All of this is chronicled in the book along with stories like the real reason the special "curve" was originally built into the shutdown area.
Resembling a reverse shift in time, readers will recognize some of the top names in the sport as they looked and dressed back in the day. On one page there’s a side-burn toting Don Schumacher, looking younger while winning the 1971 Spring Nationals than his son Tony appears today.
Sporting a white shirt and skinny tie, a youthful Wally Parks, NHRA founder, is photographed just shortly after the announcement in the early 19060s that Bristol would become the NHRA's marquee event. The Bristol race, the third event on the original national tour along with Pomona and Indy, earned its spot as a significant historical event in the annals of drag racing.
Richard Petty (yes, THAT Richard Petty) is seen in a rare drag racing photo standing proudly with his hemi-powered Barracuda in the staging lanes in one shot.
Another favorite is a full-page classic of Linda Vaughn, "Miss Hurst Shifter," looking blond, bawdy, and beautiful in her trademark boots for the rapt 1970s race crowd. Still impressing throngs decades later, she was recently honored as SEMA's Person of the Year.
This is a breezy, entertaining volume for an enthusiast. Each page is packed with some of the best in black and white competition images. In all, there are nearly 200 photographs in the book, giving this edition one of the fullest collections of historical drag racing images available.
McGee selected each one, a tough job when having to filter through many deserving entries, so one knows these are top shelf.
"I can tell you I looked at between 8,000 and 10,000 images as the book evolved," McGee said.
Among McGee's favorites photographs is one of the "Vulcan Shuttle" jet-powered Volkswagen as it ran a lap at Bristol in what McGee remembers as "an amazing performance…the green fog it spewed out hung in the valley forever, it seemed."
He also liked the "Code of Arms" Camaro captured with its characteristic spinning, twisting start. "This car was very meaningful to me because I got to know the team so well back then," McGee said.
This volume includes many episodic events – every page has images to be relished and digested for the memories and information they include fashioned by McGee's street-level writing honed from years of print journalism at the Bristol Herald Courier.
Here's a factoid from the book that would make a great question on the NHRA Race Day broadcast from the Thunder Valley Nationals: What make Funny Car did Mike Dunn drive to a win and a national speed record of 270.27 mph at his very first Bristol appearance? (See the end of this article for the answer.)
It's enjoyable meeting teams and drivers at the races so readers should use this book as a guide to understand how each group evolved. Plenty of surprises are between the covers of Bristol Dragway like the photo of a lanky Conrad Kalitta standing in his front-engine Top Fuel dragster just after setting a national speed record at the first Bristol NHRA event.
This book was so packed with stuff it left no time for the reader to ever get bored as they anticipate what's coming next.
In the regular Media Matters column after each NHRA event, I always try to recognize the No. 17 qualifiers -- the first competitors NOT to make the 16-car field in each Pro class. Keeping that in mind, I asked McGee to provide the last two photos not making the cut in his book, narrowly getting bumped out of publication. His No. 17 qualifiers, if you will.
Here are his selections, shown for the first time: "The Richard Tharp-Blue Max vs. Leroy Goldstein-Ramchargers shot (accompanying photo) was probably the last image bumped out of the Funny Car chapter. Technically, it may not be a great photo, but the era it evokes -- from the first IHRA Spring Nationals -- and the fact those cars were so cool made it tough to kick out."
"The Warren Johnson shot (accompanying photo) lost out to an earlier image of him sitting on the ground waiting to make a run in 1989, primarily because this one was vertical and the earlier image fit the horizontal space. The vertical was to run on the opposite page, but I wanted to squeeze in the more recent photo of his son Kurt Johnson, given his success at Bristol."
Bristol Dragway: An owner's guide
A suggestion on the best way to continue enjoying this book long after reading the commentary and viewing the photographs -- bring it to the drag races with a Sharpie pen and get the drivers, crew chiefs, officials, and others shown in the book to autograph their pictures. I bet they will be happy to remember those earlier days reflected in the photos.
Keep in mind a portion of the proceeds fro the sales of this book will be donated to the Bristol chapter of Speedway Children's Charities, which supports child-centered programs at health and human service agencies in East Tennessee and Southwest Virginia.
The book is readily available at www.arcadiapublishing.com and many online bookstores. Fans attending this weekend's race at Bristol can get an autographed copy from the author at several different times throughout the weekend. McGee also is working on another project, still under wraps, with a timetable of 2011.
Now I'm off to get my autograph collection started...does anyone know where Linda Vaughn might be?
(Answer to Mike Dunn quiz: Defeating Mark Oswald in the finals, the Pisano Oldsmobile won the Funny Car title at the 1987 Spring Nationals.)
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