The very first automobile races in the first decades of the twentieth century were organized by the manufacturing companies, in order to promote their vehicles in Europe and America they sponsored and publicized their automobile, as it raced across the countryside to prove its durability and convenience. In reality these first cross-country treks exposed many weaknesses that were quickly remedied. Auto makers adjusted their designs shortly after and safety and technology have slowly been improving ever since.
Dirt track races were popular by the 1920s, when auto manufacturers began sending out their caravans across the nation to advertise and entertain potential buyers with races and stunts. It was just a matter of time then, before young adults began competing, one car against another, roaring down Main Streets and up hillsides all over America.
Informal street racing, dirt track racing, and then more formal drag racing had become wholly ingrained in the auto-culture by the 1930s. Drivers and mechanics were building and tweaking automobiles, trying experimental fuels, and eliminating any superfluous parts in order to achieve a lighter chassis (body), which, in the end produced faster cars. Drag races had entered the realm of American entertainment, where the noise, the danger, and above all, the speed drew crowds. By the 1950s the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) was formed, and would go on to organize the competitions at the Bonneville Salt Flats, the ‘Nationals’ in Great Bend Kansas, and then the 500 in Indianapolis, in which sponsors promote their technology and the savvy. To this day the NHRA is the largest body of sanctioned motorsports.
This segment of 16mm film, c. 1930s/40s from the Oscar Worthwine Family Collection, shows a drag event in Boise at the old polo grounds at Fort Boise. Some of the automobiles seen here feature sponsors, as they race and perform feats. Thanks to Ernie Hoidal, for access to this historic film collection and to the Worthwine Family for their help identifying the location.
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Post, Robert C. High Performance: The Culture and Technology of Drag Racing, 1950-1990 (JHU Press, 2001)
Radbruch, Don. Dirt Track Auto Racing 1919-1941: A Pictorial History (MacFarland, 2004). cited at http://winfield.50megs.com/sullivan.htm