Paul Wagenknecht had a confession to make. He and several other Furman professors had been making regular treks out to the Greer Dragway for their Thursday “Practice and Grudge Night.” He invited me to come along and bring my camera and audio recorders. How could I possibly refuse?
The Greer Dragway sits in a valley in the Appalachee community north of Greer. It opened in 1950 as a fundraising endeavor by the local Jaycees. Apart from a brief stretch in the early 1970s when the Jaycees disbanded, the Dragway has been in continuous operation under several owners.
The track is a 1/8 mile track with timers, spectator stands, snack vendors, and everything you need to hold a race. In addition to the Thursday night races, they hold regular IHRA events on Saturday nights.
Until the invitation from Paul, I had no real experience with the Dragway. Growing up I had cousins who were into racing of all sorts, but it never really appealed to me. I remember radio commercials for the venue – loud booming voices describing the events, and always ending with the phrase “…at the Greeeeer Draaaaaagway!“
We were to rendezvous at the home of David Bost, professor of modern languages and chair of the English Department at Furman. From there we would carpool/caravan over to Greer. To make sure we didn’t get beaten up, we weren’t going to let Paul drive his Prius, even if it did have a Dale Ernhardt #3 sticker on the back. I had been battling a headache all day, so I wanted my car there just in case I needed to leave. Also joining us from Furman were T. J. Banasaikas and Gretchen Braun, from Chemistry and English, respectively. Of this group, David and Gretchen were the real gear heads. Paul is a NASCAR fan. T. J. and I were the tagalongs.
We reached Appalachee Mill and made a left turn into the road leading to the raceway. Traffic was at a dead standstill as everyone was trying to get to the same place. Apparently the Thursday races are popular. Folks in mill village sat on their front porches watching the parade. One future racer sat in his current vehicle, looking as smug and cool as a young kid could possibly look.
A left turn brought us to a smaller road leading down to the track. Some of the cars and motorcycles in line would race their engines as they waited. You could tell that these cars would soon be on the track, or, at least, they wanted to be. Paul and I had the windows down, and we could hear the matches underway just over the hill. What hit us most, though, was an odd combination of smells – overpowering honeysuckle with a touch of diesel and racing fuel.
Traffic had backed up at the entrance, where a deputy was keeping order. There you pay your $7 entrance fee and sign a waiver saying that you won’t hold the track responsible should something weird happen.
Despite the line of traffic, parking was not a problem. We found places not too far from the stands, and I could easily get back it I wanted to swap out camera lenses, etc. For that reason I left the backpack I was going to carry, and just loaded up pockets with the necessities. Apparently prime parking is on the hill overlooking the track, and folks pull their pickup trucks are and have true tailgate parties while watching the races.
We made our way down to the stands and took a seat. The views of the track were excellent. We watched several matches pitting various cars against each other. Some were true race cars, and some were just street cars, of which their owners were especially proud. There were a few pros, but mostly it was just folks that wanted to get out and race. The time and speed were shown for each lane at the end of the track.
I climbed to the top of the bleachers to get a better view. The stands were…rickety, at best. There were boards nailed on top of boards to try to keep them from falling apart. I tried to step where there were metal braces so that I was sure I stepped on a place that would support my weight. It was a bit unnerving.
I did make it to the top (which was only a few rows above where we were sitting) and started taking a few more shots. I set the Nikon to AF-C autofocus so that I do some panning shots. I did manage to catch some panning shots.
I think I like drag racing better than NASCAR (not that I’ve been to one of those, either.) It seems that the variety of quick competition makes things more interesting. Rather than watch the same cars go round and round the same track, we see lots of different vehicles.
After multiple races a Corvette was matched against a Firebird. The Corvette started quickly, then stalled.
Unfortunately, the Corvette also leaked oil all over the track. Races were suspended until the track could be reconditioned. Paul and I took the opportunity to explore a bit. First we wandered toward the end of the track. This is where the tailgate parties are set up.
Paul mentioned that with all the testosterone, egos, and possible money exchange going on, it was a wonder there weren’t constant fights out here. While we did see some rowdiness out in the tailgate section, for the most part it seemed to be a family-friendly affair. I think that if this place had a reputation as a drunken brawl it never would have lasted as long as it has.
We walked on around to where the drivers were working on cars and prepping them for the next heat. Some of the drivers had simply driven their cars to the track. Others had elaborate trailers with mobile workshops.
Most amazing to me, though, was the fact that we could just walk between the cars that were lined up waiting to go on the track. We could even walk right up to the end of the track, or hang out under the race tower right next to the start line.
It was taking quite awhile for them to get the track back in shape for the next race. They had run a track cleaner down the right side where the Corvette had been. Now they were using torches to burn off any excess oil that might have leaked. There was lots of lost time, but you don’t want to run the risk of a car losing control at those speeds because of an oil slick.
Paul and I made our way back to our friends in the stands as the races were getting back underway. A whole batch of crotch rockets raced by. There was even a Mini Cooper running, but it wasn’t doing well.
The bout that had everyone comment was a challenge between a modern Dodge Charger and a modern Dodge Challenger. The Charger pulled ahead first, but it was the Challenger that won.
By this time it was dark, and I was wonder if I should switch to a prime lens. Also, I needed to change batteries in two of my cameras. Paul and I walked back to the car. When we returned, our comrades had gone. We figured that they had walked around down to the end of the track, so we set off in that direction. We spent a bit of time at the very end of the track watching more motorcycles run.
Soon we spotted our friends near some of the cars that were lined up to race.
We took up view spots under the observation booth where we could watch the cars up close. Until this point noise hadn’t been a problem. Now, though, I was glad I had a set of ear plugs. I got some amazing shots from this vantage point.
I had my GoPro with me and had been taking a few wide-angle still shots. Down here I decided to record some video. After all, this was a race.
The evening passed quickly, and as it approached the 10:00 pm closing time the races started winding down. We slowly walked on back to our cars. It had been a great evening.
So, am I now a drag racing fan? I had fun, but I don’t understand all the intricacies that make one a true fan. I like cars, but I’m not a gear head. As a photographer and social anthropologist I found it absolutely fascinating. There was so much to see and hear, and I found myself looking at and listening to people as much as cars. The movement, lights, and colors were overwhelming, and it was just enough of a challenge to make taking photographs fun. Overriding all of this was the fact that it was a beautiful spring evening with the smell of honeysuckle still breaking through the fumes of drag racing.
I took many more photos. Here’s the slideshow while includes all of them: