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1955: Back to where it all began

Historic S.R.C.A. Drag Strip takes center stage

POSTED September 11, 2011 3:07 a.m.
Courtesy photo/

The Little Jewel raced in the first NHRA drag r...

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Great Bend’s historic Sunflower Rod Custom Association Drag Strip — smack dab in America’s heartland — is the birthplace of drag racing.

The year was 1955.

Abilene native Dwight D. Eisenhower was President, the Vietnam War was in its infancy, singer Elvis Presley made his first TV appearance and actor Cary Grant was in the height of his movie career.

And, on Sept. 29-Oct. 2, 1955, the first National Championship Drag Races (Now the U.S. Nationals) took place on the outskirts of Great Bend, a couple miles down 10th St., on a dusty, quarter-mile straightaway — the former runway for the Great Bend Army Air Corps base —­ where spectators lined the track.

Fifty-six years later, Hot Rod Magazine is recognizing the historic impact the S.R.C.A. Drag Strip has made on the sport, as Great Bend is a stop on this year’s Drag Week tour. An estimated 165 drivers in 11 classes will be trekking to Great Bend from Topeka on Monday before racing between 9 a.m. and 1 p.m. on Tuesday at the National Hot Rod Association member city-leased track. Admission is free for this event, and the gates will open at 8.

“We understand the historic significance that Great Bend has had on drag racing,” Hot Rod Magazine promoter Jenny Schmitz said. “Not very often does Hot Rod get to go onto the tracks that have had such an impact on the sport, so we are very excited about being at Great Bend.

“The whole premise of Hot Rod Drag Week is that these cars have to be street-able, they have to be road-worthy and they have to be able to race. That’s why we have 11 different classes.”

The racers actually drive their own cars on the tour, meaning on Monday they will be heading west down Interstate 70 from Topeka to the Ellsworth/Great Bend exit on 156 Highway to Great Bend, just like any other driver on the road.

The caravan of cars is expected to be arriving in Great Bend on Monday afternoon and then will be departing for Amarillo, Texas, on Tuesday afternoon after the races.

“The reason they picked Great Bend is because of its historical identity for drag racing,” said Hank Denning, S.R.C.A. president. “In 1955, Hot Rod Magazine actually took pictures and film of that first race.

“The publisher of that magazine came across an article in Sunflower Rod and Custom while he was out in Florida and he found out that (the S.R.C.A. track) was still open and that we still ran it. He told Jenni Schmitz that it was where he wanted Drag Week this year.”

Back in the early 1950s, Sunflower Rod and Custom, which consisted of a bunch of motorheads, got together and went to the city about putting a drag strip out west on 10th, according to Denning.

“It was because of all of the accidents that were happening on the highways and the streets during this time with the kids,” Denning said. “Everybody was hot-rodding. They decided to take the air strip and turn it into a drag strip and that’s really how it all started.

“Then they approached the NHRA to establish the first national event to be held in Great Bend, which they agreed to. To have Drag Week and Hot Rod to pick us (56 years later), that’s something to say for the city of Great Bend, the drag strip, and the organization that runs this. There’s over 280-some drag strips in the United States. Hot Rod only picks four tracks per year, and to be picked as one of those four is truly an honor.”


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