Mar 22, ‘08
Book review by Richard Parks and photographic consultant Roger Rohrdanz
7 out of 8 Sparkplugs
High Performance: The Culture and Technology of Drag Racing 1959-1990 was written by Robert C. Post. It is a very readable and entertaining history of drag racing and Dr Post is an eminent historian, researcher and writer. High Performance is a hard-bound book, measuring 7 ¼ by 10 ¼ inches and has 437 pages of photographs and text on acid free paper. The book was published by Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994, under the auspices of the Johns Hopkins Studies in the History of Technology. Merritt Roe Smith is the series editor. This is a scholarly history book that also serves to inform the average drag racing fan. The book has a high quality cloth binding and is meant to last. The cover is silver and black and comes with an interesting and distinctive dust cover jacket, which gives the book a finished and racy appearance. Take excellent care of the jacket as the book looks very ordinary without it. The ISBN number is 0-8018-4654-4, and there may be some copies left in bookstores or on the internet book stores. The footnotes are worthy of the finest university subjects and the 18 page index is the most thorough and comprehensive that I’ve ever seen. High Performance also has a 9 page preface, another 9 page introduction, 14 chapters covering 309 pages, appendixes covering 19 pages, 39 pages of notes, 13 pages of essays and sources and one page devoted to other books in the technology series. There are 3 color photographs, all on the dust cover jacket, and 143 black and white photographs with excellent captions. The photos are not on glossy waxed paper so the quality suffers somewhat. This book is meant to be read, pondered, studied, researched and argued over in a scholarly manner. High Performance is not difficult to read, even though it was written for a classroom setting. In fact, before you write your own book on your life in hot rodding or auto racing, buy a copy of this book and study how it was written, researched and published. It’s a first class work.
The chapters are written in a chronological sequence and for better or worse they have blue-collar names; Warming up, Staging, Gathering Speed, Power, Fame, Fortune, Competition, Hustling, Revolution, Finesse, Television, Men and Women, Enthusiasm and Choice. This is as far as Dr Post is going to go to be plebeian about drag racing. From the table of contents, the book opens up on a world that hot rodders know by heart, but the rest of humanity only cares about when there’s an accident scene on the 10 O’clock news. High Performance also has a knock on it, that it expresses the opinions of Don ‘Big Daddy’ Garlits and that it’s unfair to Wally Parks and the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA). The same has been said about The Fast Lane, that it is a picture book for high schoolers that puts down Don Garlits and hypes the NHRA. Both canards are false and both books are far better than their critics avow. My reviews on both books are open to the public. Both books have a story to tell and they do so based on the research that they worked with. Dr Post spent a lot of time with Don Garlits and the National Hot Rod Association and drew his own conclusions. Let’s look at some of the topics in the index. The American Hot Rod Association (AHRA) is mentioned 26 times, the International Hot Rod Association (IHRA) is mentioned 17 times, the United Drag Racers Association (UDRA) is listed 20 times. The NHRA is mentioned 164 times, about what you would expect considering that it was in existence for longer than the other groups and is the largest drag racing organization in the world. Let’s look at some personalities. Jim Tice is mentioned 11 times, TV Tom Ivo is listed 26 times, Connie Kalitta 19 times, Kenny Bernstein 19 times, Don Prudhomme 56 times and Wally Parks is mentioned 59 times. Don Garlits is mentioned 166 times, far and away the most celebrated person in the book.
However, Don Garlits is the Babe Ruth of drag racing. A number of drag racers have beat Garlits’ record for total wins and championships, but Don raced when there were only a handful of national events to race in and he was the dominant and most feared racer for a long, long time. Had Garlits enjoyed the sponsorship that is available today and competed in 23 national events over the same length of time that John Force has been able to, the victory count would very likely be higher than anybody else’s. The other complaint is that Garlits sees things differently than do other people. Well, Duh, that isn’t a unique observation. I’ve interviewed a lot of people and none of them ever saw the same event in the same way. Give me a thousand observers and I’ll give you a thousand observations, all different, yet basically telling you the same story. Nobody sees the same thing, remembers it the same events and writes it down the same as anybody else. I’ve seen some doozy accidents and each person is impressed differently. I’ve seen agents who insure the races and when the cars roar off the starting lines, these men quake and shiver. The only thought in their minds is “I hope there are no claims.” When a car goes up in flames or crashes, everyone on the scene reacts differently. The driver always seems to say, “My crew gave me a great hot rod that saved my life,” but what he’s really thinking is “damn, I’m a lucky bastard.” The sponsors are thinking, “Is this going to be on TV and will I lose my job for sponsoring drag racing?” The crew members are saying, “Those Safety Safari guys are fantastic,” but thinking, “The blinking idiot who didn’t tighten up the frachet is going to be kicked into the next state.” The owner is yelling, “That’s my guy,” but he’s thinking, “damn, there go the points.” The fans are simply stunned or screaming.
Yes, there are interpretations in High Performance that I don’t exactly agree with. But that doesn’t mean that Post got it wrong. He states that NHRA, and perhaps others, let their impartiality and fairness lapse in order to keep sponsors happy. If that’s so, then I’d like to see the receipts and under the table payoffs, because I was watching and listening and didn’t see any great wealth. In fact, the NHRA almost folded a few times and if it wasn’t for the dedication of honest and loyal men and women, there wouldn’t be any drag racing as we know it today. On two occasions, Barbara Parks took what little money she had in her savings account and paid salaries and kept the group together. Does this mean Post was mislead or wrong? No, it doesn’t, because I also have heard from many people how a promoter of a track could rig a start for a buck. It happened in oval track and drag racing. That’s one reason why the electronic Christmas tree came into being. You have to read High Performance with an open mind and understand that Post did an excellent job with the material that he had available to him. I’ve seen a lot of races and I couldn’t even begin to tell a well rounded story of the sport. It is huge and the number of people involved is mind-boggling. Don’t ever expect to find just one book that tells the whole story, not in a sport as large as drag racing. Post made an excellent start and his book should be the one that you build your library around. Did he get it all? Not by a long shot. He forgot Melvin Dodd and Dave Marquez, but he remembered Ollie Morris, Leroy Neumayer and Otto Ryssman. High Performance is a fine book and I give it a 7 out of a possible 8 spark plugs.
There are some still available at various bookstores. Go to www.amazon.com to order one now!