Sandlapper Society

Wanna Drag?

by Brian Patton  l  photos by Lynne Branham

South Carolina and fast cars have an intertwined history dating back to Henry Ford’s Model T. We all know the familiar story of bootleggers and the grudge contests that grew into NASCAR’s mega-events. Darlington Speedway is a global destination for fans of oval track racing.

There is another, less-famous venue for fast cars in Hartsville, on S.C. 151— Darlington Dragway. At this straight-line track, and several others around the state, homegrown competitors roar away at the green light in six-second bursts of speed.

The concept is simple: Two drivers ease up to a series of lights (the Christmas tree) and, as the lights flash to a final green, the cars launch down a straight quarter- or eighth-mile track. It is a sudden explosion of ground-shaking, ear-splitting, barely controlled horsepower. In seconds, it’s all over and elapsed times are flashed on a scoreboard.

On any weekend from March to November, race teams and fans can be found at 10 drag strips across the state. Greer Dragway is typical, built in the 1950s, originally as a Jaycee community service project. Now owned by the Mike Greer family, it’s a modern all-concrete track, complete with an FM radio station for race-day communications. By mid-morning, cars are idling in the pit areas and fans are strolling to take a closer look. A few thousand people are here, many with some connection to a hometown race team. With competition classes for pre-teen and older, some attendees are both racer and spectator.

The sport grew from post-WWII prosperity, with young veterans racing the new V-8-powered Detroit autos. Contests often were clandestine street races until drag strips were built. Organized competition became the norm in the 1960s. Orangeburg Drag Strip Manager Faye Allan says her organization is sanctioned by the International Hot Rod Association and follows their safety standards and technical rule book. “We want a family-oriented track and we have a great group of racers,” Allan says, noting that several classes of cars compete— Pro Modifieds, Junior Dragsters, and grudge or match racers. “The Pro Mods can reach speeds of 180 mph in a four-second, eighth-mile run.”

The race-day pace is leisurely, with drivers and spectators mingling to compare notes, tell tales and tune the dragsters for the next pass down the track. The owners, drivers and mechanics are local, like driver Robbie Matthews, a City of Columbia employee. “It’s a rush, over before you know it. We’ll make six runs on a typical weekend and I just think about winning. We have three nice tracks within an hour of Columbia— Darlington, Orangeburg and Carolina, in Jackson.”

On a blazing hot afternoon in Darlington, drivers such as Barry Norman of Chapin and Tisha Wilson of Charlotte turn wrenches and wait for their turns on the track. Norman pilots a modified Mustang with “449 cubic inches, alcohol carbs and Goodyear slicks. It weighs about 2,600 pounds, and runs the eighth-mile in about 6.3 seconds.” Norman competes in the “no-box” or non-electronic class. “This means I rely on my eyes and foot to race the car,” he explains. “Some classes use an electronic controller to help operate the car.”

Twenty-one-year-old Wilson— yes, women do compete— made the trip to Darlington for racing in the Top Eliminator class. “We race 30 or more weekends a year. My parents and brother help with the car— it’s a family thing. I’d like to race professionally, so this is a tune-up weekend for national races in Indianapolis. I figured I needed a little tune-up, too.” 

Curious about drag strips
in South Carolina?
Here’s where you can
catch some action:

Carolina Dragway
302 Dragstrip Road
Aiken, SC 29803
(But it’s closer to Jackson
and Augusta)

1.877.471.RACE (7223)

Silver Street Raceway
8497 Silver Road
Manning, SC 29102
(But it’s more in Silver proper)

Darlington Int'l Dragway
2056 E. Bobo Newsome Hwy.
Hartsville, SC 29550

Dorchester Dragway
213 Delee Circle
Dorchester, SC 29437

Greer Dragway
1792 Dragway Road
Greer, SC 29651
864.879.4634 -or- 864.877.0457

Jefferson Pageland Dragway
3167 Peach Orchard Road
Jefferson, SC 29718

Midlands Raceway Park
835 Whitehead Road
Lugoff, SC 29078

Orangeburg Dragstrip
194 Dragstrip Road
Neeses, SC 29107

Ware Shoals Dragway
17052 US 25
Ware Shoals, SC 29692

Track operators like Allan and Bill Wilson at Darlington run the tracks on a shoestring— stocking concessions, prepping the track and organizing the races via radio with a handful of personnel. “If you’re in it for the money, you’re in the wrong business,” Wilson explains, watching dark clouds roll in from the west. He closely watches weather radar and hopes to avoid the approaching thunderstorms. Rain wins out this afternoon in Darlington, but at Orangeburg, the show goes on.

In the Orangeburg staging lanes, car owner Kip Kauffman chats with track owner Buddy Boozer. “We spent $4.5 million to renovate this track,” Boozer says. “The only thing we left from the old track is the control tower, which was moved from the old CCI prison in Columbia. It was a guard tower.” Legendary racer Sonny Tindal helped with the track’s renovation. Boozer laughs. “Sometimes I wish I’d never seen this place,” he confesses. Working with drivers, “it’s always the track, never the driver. I glue the track”— coating it with a mix of VHT Trackbite and alcohol— “the same way for everybody.”

South Carolinians make a living supporting the racers. There’s car builder Tommy Mauney and motor builder Gene Fulton, both of Spartanburg, and Charles Potter of Cayce, who runs a shop and parts supply store. The state also is home base for traveling race teams, including Team Aruba, which campaigns a racer in Union. Originally based on the Caribbean island of Aruba, the team moved to Union in 2004 to compete nationally in the Pro Stock and Top Fuel classes. Driver Trevor Eman recently came close to breaking an eighth-mile Top Fuel record, with a pass of 6.26 seconds. Aruba’s 11,000-square-foot shop facility in Union has everything necessary to maintain their 1900 horsepower Pro Stock car and offers services to other race teams.

Back at Darlington, racers Norman and Matthews make their passes, working their way through elimination rounds toward prize money and bragging rights. “I’ve raced most of my life; started out in a street car,” Matthews says. “I raced a ’68 Camaro that tried to kill me— had it up on two wheels a couple of times. That’s scary!”

Those war stories are repeated weekly at tracks from Dorchester to Jefferson. As the motors cool down and the charcoal grills fire up, racers and fans laugh over wins and losses. A main topic for discussion? “Where’re we going next weekend?”

* * *

Columbia freelance writer Brian Patton quickly learned to find the state’s tracks after more than one local advised “Well, first you go to Dragstrip Road.” They weren’t kidding.

White Rock freelance photographer Lynne Branham is a frequent Sandlapper contributor.

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