Welcome to “Thread The Needle!” A weekly column that explores the rich history of motorsports by way of the thrift store t-shirt.
It’s hard for me to call drag racing exciting. Getting behind the wheel is one thing, Ghidora knows I’ve paid my twenty dollars and gotten smoked by a “stock” Honda Civic more than once. Watching can be a bit of a snooze though, which is why the NHRA has gone to such great lengths to make the crowd feel like part of the action. No 10k licenses here, if your car runs the quarter in less than ten seconds $75 is your annual license fee. Running a 10,000hp Top Fuel dragster? No problem, same price. Honestly, all you really need to be considered a part of the show is a subscription to National Dragster, which is why the NHRA is able to claim that 95% of all members are amateur drivers.
Rotary club boosterism notwithstanding, the appeal of an NHRA event can be abstract. Save for land speed record attempts, Top Fuel and Funny Car are certainly the fastest forms of terrestrial, wheel-centric racing; and that angle of appeal needs little explanation. The sound proffered is nausea-inducingly loud, something I imagine a certain type of person enjoys on principle, not unlike the lady or gentleman you see risking a distended stomach for the privilege of donning a t-shirt that reads “I ate the whole thing”. But the racing? Not much to see here, really. For all its bluster the business end of drag racing fails to deliver, which is why the NHRA goes to such great lengths to manufacture spectacle. That whole “Snake and Mongoose” thing? Hot Wheels product placement at its finest.
Today’s example purports to be a souvenir from the 1979 U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis, the de facto “most prestigious” event of the NHRA tour. The subject, a Top Fuel car mid run is surprisingly understated and demure. No shooting flames or billowing burnout smoke here. Look closer at the rear wheels though, and take note of the artist’s clever and surprisingly subtle use of negative space to illustrate the rubber bunching. The folded look is an effect of intentional under inflation of the tires intended to create more surface area contact on launch. Unlike last week’s subject, which tried as hard as it possibly could to convey action using every cheap trick in the book, this design manages to succeed with minimalist elegance. No strained suspension or impossible slip angles, just a simple design element that you wouldn’t have noticed if you hadn’t taken the time to look.
Maybe there is a lesson here? At first glance, today’s shirt seemed uninspired. A business as usual relic of a race I never cared about in a series I never thought much of. The automotive equivalent of an eating competition, a universally enjoyable act stripped of any semblance of pleasure in the single-minded pursuit of a higher number. But now I feel comfortable admitting I was wrong. Not unlike abstract expressionism, which often elicits shortsighted criticisms like “my child could do that” or “it’s just splattered paint”, drag racing requires the development of a certain set of sensibilities and an eye for new details to truly appreciate it.