GLENDORA, Calif. - As the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) celebrates its 50th Anniversary in 2001, it can take pride in a storied history as motorsports' great melting pot. While other professional sports were making headlines in the 1950s...
GLENDORA, Calif. - As the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) celebrates its 50th Anniversary in 2001, it can take pride in a storied history as motorsports' great melting pot.
While other professional sports were making headlines in the 1950s and '60s for many complex minority issues, NHRA was becoming a leader in that area, establishing a tradition of opening its arms to competitors from all races and genders. So much so, in fact, that it has never been an issue. A wide array of multi-cultural competitors have achieved great success in NHRA drag racing over the years. Their path to success on the quarter-mile dragstrip was never questioned or highlighted due to ethnic or gender concerns.
Jackie Robinson, Jesse Owens, Babe Didrikson-Zaharias, Jim Thorpe and the '66 Texas Western college basketball team that defeated powerhouse Kentucky in NCAA competition all had one thing in common. Despite their tremendous achievements and fabled spot in sports history, they are all largely remembered for breaking down racial and gender barriers and having to overcome great prejudices to be accepted in their chosen sports. In NHRA drag racing, only performance has separated the masses. Over the last half-decade, a new awareness in society has eliminated these discriminations and brought about the realization of equality. But during NHRA drag racing's first 50 years, a standard rule of equality has always been the norm.
Several NHRA Winston champions have come from diverse ethnic backgrounds, including four-time Funny Car champion Don "The Snake" Prudhomme, who dominated nitro racing beginning in the 1970s and well-into the mid-'90s. During one of his first victories, he teamed with Roland Leong to capture victory at the '65 Winternationals driving the 'Hawaiian' dragster. Prudhomme continues to be active in the sport as a team owner, and one of NHRA's greatest ambassadors.
Cruz Pedregon, one of three Hispanic brothers who compete in Funny Car, claimed the Winston championship as a rookie in the nitro category in '92, overtaking category kingpin John Force during an amazing final stretch of races that included five straight victories. Pedregon earned his most recent national event victory last season, driving his Pontiac Firbird to the win at Englishtown, N.J. Pedregon's brothers, Tony and Frank, are also NHRA event winners, as Frank captured the 1999 U.S. Nationals, drag racing's most prestigious event. Tony is a 10-time national event winner, and drives a second Force-owned Ford Mustang.
Several African-American racers have also made a tremendous impact in drag racing over the years. Antron Brown, rider of the Team 23 Suzuki, has claimed victory at several national events and in '99 was named the Automobile Club of Southern California Road to the Future award winner. His most exciting win came last year when he was the dominant rider at the U.S. Nationals.
NBA superstars Tom Hammonds and Larry Nance are budding Pro Stock drivers. Atlanta-based Pro Stock Truck driver Sam Tompkins competes in the United Way Chevy S-10, while Pro Stock Motorcycle rider Reggie Showers, a double-leg amputee, is a top 10 competitor and great inspiration to all. Steve Hamilton will make his debut in 2001, marking the return of an African-American driver to Top Fuel since Maurice DuPont drove a dragster in the early '90s.
Jeff Gracia, Jose Maldonado, Ruben Celedon, Arturo Delgado, and Hector Arana are just a few of the Hispanic contingent whose success and popularity continue to grow in the NHRA Pro Stock ranks.
Both genders have been well-represented in NHRA competition since the sport's early days, beginning with Shirley Shahan's much-heralded Super Stock victory at the 1966 Winternationals. NHRA drag racing, one of the few major sports where female competitors go head-to-head with their male counterparts, features the only female champions among all of auto racing's major series'.
The most notable, Shirley Muldowney, was the first female champion in the sport's history, winning three Winston crowns ('77, '80 and '82) and 18 national events. While many females competed in NHRA competition during the organization's formative years, Muldowney was the first to be licensed to drive a Top Fuel dragster, the sport's most awesome vehicle, producing over 6,000 horsepower. In 1979 Amy Faulk became the second female to claim a NHRA driving title, winning the sportsman series national championship in Super Stock. In 2000, Pro Stock Motorcycle rider Angelle Seeling became the third female champion overall and second to earn a professional championship. She is the first to win a title on two wheels. Thanks to Muldowney's success, which was documented in the '80s hit move 'Heart Like a Wheel', the NHRA Winston Drag Racing Series has continued to see increased participation from females in its top two categories. Rhonda Hartman-Smith will compete for the 2001 Winston Top Fuel championship driving the full 24-event schedule in the FRAM dragster. Melanie Troxel was the recipient of the 2000 Automobile Club of Southern California Road to the Future award, which is presented annually to the NHRA competitor destined for future greatness. During the 2000 season, Troxel became the fastest female in NHRA history by recording a career-best speed of 326.08 mph, marking the fastest speed of the year and one of the top 10 ever recorded in NHRA history. Cristen Powell made her professional driving debut in a Top Fuel dragster and won the 1997 national event in Englishtown, N.J. She made her Funny Car debut in 1999, becoming only the ninth female to ever compete in the category.