Drag racing memorabilia has its roots dug deep into the rise of automobile and youth culture in post-war America. In the immediate post-war years, with suburban America providing the perfect landscape for long drives, teenagers augmenting their 'hot rods' flourished on the fringes. You could find high school kids working on "souping up" old car engines in order to improve power and performance for illegal drag races on the straight strips just outside of their towns. By the 1970s, drag racing had become a proper sport with official events and drivers, all of which partially funded their expeditions with merchandise sales. So, whether you're from Detroit or Charlotte, you can find remnants of this once hugely popular activity in rural collections and thrift stores across the United States.
Drag Racing Culture That Inspired the Memorabilia
In the early 1950s, mainstream media took advantage of this growing youth culture and created all sorts of monetizable media products focused on targeting these teens with loose pocket change. America's fascination with delinquency and rebellious teenagers converged with this movement, and pulp fiction, b-films, and the like romanticized fringe activities like theft, violence, truancy, and illegal auto racing. Media focus on these mostly rural activities suddenly propelled them into the spotlight and this exposure helped turn drag racing into a national phenomenon.
Soon thereafter, investors looking to profit from this growing cultural movement began building legal drag racing strips. These were simply made of a strip of asphalt stretching approximately ½-mile long. Races ran every weekend, and teenage mechanics would show off their "tuning" skills through head-to-head high power racing. The key for these teenage enthusiasts was always to reduce the overall weight of the car and increase engine power by any means necessary in order to cross the finish line first. Yet, these strips weren't the first of their kind, and organizations like the National Hot Rod Association, which was established in 1951, attested to the fact that this small-town form of entertainment wasn't actually so small after all.
Famous Drag Racing Drivers
For most collectors, some of the most valuable memorabilia are items that're connected to the life and career of some of its earliest racers. A few examples of these popular drivers include:
- "Dyno Don" Nicholson - Nicholson started racing on the dry lakebeds of El Mirage California in the late 1940s and went on to drag race for the next sixty years.
- Gene Mooneyham - Gene was a successful drag racer with a career that ran through the earliest days of the sport in the 1950s and 1960s.
- Arnie "the Farmer" Beswick - The most well known Pontiac drag racer in the world, Arnie utilized a series of modified Pontiac models during his career throughout the late 50s and early 60s, and quickly became known as "Mr. Pontiac."
- Leo Payne - A leading drag racer from the 1950s through the 1970s, Leo was the first to top 200 mph at the Bonneville Salt Flats in 1969.
- Shirley Muldowney - Nicknamed the Queen of Drag Racing, Shirley Muldowney was the most famous female drag racer of the 60s and 70s. She later became the first three-time Top Fuel world champion.
- Don Garlitis - Known as "Big Daddy" to the drag racing community, Don Garlitis was an engineer and driver responsible for spearheading the sport and creating such innovations as a top-speed rear engine drag car.
Common Types of Drag Racing Memorabilia
While drag racing was formalized in the 1950s, there wasn't as much of a merchandise machine operating at the time. With there only being a few dedicated organizations in operation during the decade, there just wasn't that much audience memorabilia released. Of course, this means that the collectibles that you can find which date to the earliest days of drag racing can sell for significant amounts. Subsequently, major automotive corporations' involvement in the sport in the 1960s and early 1970s propelled drag racing into a highly publicized sport and promoted well-attended events. With big names like Ford and Chrysler releasing specialty vehicles and with automotive innovations making American pony and muscle cars faster, drag racing became just another of the many popular auto sports of the 1970s.
From motorcycle stunts to Formula One races, the 1970s is considered by many to be the most desirable era for motor sports memorabilia. However, drag racing didn't come to an end in the 1970s, and you can still find lots of easy-to-find commercial drag racing memorabilia from the 1980s and later in the current market. Some of the most common types of this vintage drag racing memorabilia include:
- Buttons and pins
- Ticket stubs
- Commemorative t-shirts
- Photograph prints
- Crew gear like jackets, hats, coveralls, and so on
The Value of Drag Racing Memorabilia
Since drag racing as a sport stretches across so many decades, there's a vast amount of vintage memorabilia available for collectors and car lovers alike to find. In fact, you can find seasoned collectors with entire collections build around memorabilia of specific niches such as an individual driver, a car make/model, or region of the country. Thanks to drag racing never really evolving into a highly commercial sport (such as stock car racing, for instance), there's a lot of low-cost memorabilia out there for you to collect. This means that the barrier to entry for this type of collectible is incredibly low and can be a great starting point for someone interested in auto collecting who doesn't have a huge fund for buying and reselling memorabilia.
These are just some examples of the drag racing memorabilia currently available online and in-person at thrift stores and antique shops.
Magazines and Periodicals
When it comes to magazines and periodicals, there's a plethora of ones from the 1960s and 1970s available. From single-topic issues of LIFE to dedicated series like Hot Rod, there's more than enough paper ephemera related to drag racing to go around. These magazines are almost always going to have some degree of fading and sun damage, but ones with all of their pages and no significant water damage/tearing usually sell for about $5-$40 each. For example, these drag racing magazines recently sold on eBay within that range:
Although posters have great appeal thanks to their bright colors/graphics and their immediate ability to be used as a decoration, vintage posters can be a tricky thing to collect. You have to be careful to not accidentally buy reproductions of original prints as they aren't worth anything in comparison to the originals themselves. Especially when you're purchasing these posters online, you need to make sure that you're getting them from a reputable seller and that you ask for documentation if they have any as well as multiple pictures to verify the poster's visual age. Similarly, if you find large drag racing posters listed for twenty or thirty bucks, you definitely want to proceed with caution. Look for authentic drag race posters like these:
Some of the most valuable drag racing collectibles are those functional items from the sports' hey-day. Drivers and pit crew jackets, hats, and t-shirts are among some of the most valuable pieces of drag racing memorabilia on the current market. Generally, vintage clothing with a clear connection to a driver or organization and pieces that're entirely wearable will sell for around $100 each. Of course, there are exceptions, with specialty items potentially selling for higher amounts. Take these various drag racing jackets, for example:
Race Towards These Unique Collectibles
Even today, most drag racing memorabilia collectors are mechanics or car enthusiasts who've followed the sport for many years. However, there's always a place for a newfound fan and anyone can start collecting these cool vintage items if they've got a taste for them. So don't wait for someone to pull out the checkered flag to start racing off to find that piece of drag racing history that just has to be yours.