In the beginning there was smoke, noise, and power. Acrid smoke from tires that burns the eyes, noise so loud that it hurts, power as carefully modulated as it is explosive. Utterly enchanting for someone, like me, who has always been drawn to the art and science of making cars go fast.”
A professor at University of Virginia, John Edward Mason, 53, has taught for thirteen years, specializing in African History. An accomplished photographer since high school, he also teaches the history of photography. He’s had a dark room since adolescence, about as long as he’s been venturing out to tracks to fulfill his interest in cars. Author of “Death and Resurrection: Slavery and Emancipation in South Africa” (UVA Press), Mason is currently seeking a publisher for his motor racing photography.
“The real story out at the track is the people. I’ve been around motorsports all my life, but not drag racing. Most motor sports are pretty white. It’s not an integrated environment at all. But drag racing is different.
The first time I went, it looked like everyone was getting along. There were genuine friendships. There were relationships and a genuine community. And that’s what got me hooked. The competition is very important; don’t get me wrong. But there were many friendships. This is a very comfortable setting.”
A day and a night at Eastside Speedway (Waynesboro, VA).
“Staging Lanes at Night”
“From the time I first saw two cars launch themselves down the track at Eastside Speedway, I was sure that this would be a good place to make photos. The light, the smoke, and the cars brought me back to the track time and again.”
“Fans and Dragster”
“From its beginnings as an organized sport in southern California sixty years ago, drag racing has been open to women and to African-Americans and other minority groups. African-Americans have been racing at Eastside since the track opened in 1965, a time when segregation was still the rule in most southern settings.”
“I knew nothing about this when I first visited Eastside. The presence of so many black and women drivers, crew members, and fans surprised, delighted, and perplexed me. I’d been to many stock car and sports car races and knew that, in those series, black spectators are few and that black and women drivers scarcely exist at all. At Eastside, many of the racers are African-American and more than a handful are women. The situation, I’ve since seen, is similar at dragstrips nationwide. From the grassroots to the highest professional levels, women, African-Americans, Latinos, and Asian-Americans are familiar members of the drag racing community.”
“Larry Bowles, right, Johnny Dettor, left”
“Eastside, located just outside a small industrial town in the American South, is comfortably and unselfconsciously integrated. Many of the friendships between blacks and whites may have been formed at the track, but most of them extend off of it as well. Eastside, and drag racing generally, is far more racially integrated than most American churches, clubs, boardrooms, and schools.”
“Ashley Bowles after Win”
“The smoke, noise, power, and speed of drag racing suggest that it’s a macho sport. Most male drag racers are comfortable with their masculinity, to say the least. But they are also comfortable racing against women and, often enough, losing to them. This is as true in the professional ranks as it is at the grassroots. Admittedly, this hasn’t always been the case. Although women have been drag racing since the 1950s, they initially had to fight sanctioning bodies and male racers for the opportunity. At Eastside, such battles, if they happened at all, are long since past.”
“Fans at Eastside Speedway”
“What accounts for such racial and gender integration in a society that is still all too segregated? It may have to do with organized drag racing’s origins in post-war southern California, rather than in the Jim Crow South. Stock car racing, born in the South, was a white man’s sport. Drag racing wasn’t; it belonged to anyone who showed up to race.”
“The sport’s inclusion of women and minorities may also reflect drag racers’ open-mindedness. They could have closed ranks against blacks and women, but didn’t. Drag racers have never hesitated to experiment and to gamble on technologies that promised to make their cars faster and more consistent. Perhaps their ready embrace of technical innovation mirrors a willingness to accept social change.”