U.S. 30 Drag-O-Way: ‘It was a great way to spend Saturday nights around here’
Don ‘Big Daddy’ Garlits, right, was the big star at Musclecar Madness in 2006 at the York Expo Center. He also was the star driver at the old U.S. 30 Drag-O-Way when it operated from in the 1960s and 1970s at York Airport. Background posts: First York Airport’s administration building stands today, Vehicle crash ends life of former Indy driver, Museum exhibit brings back early days of high fliers and U.S. 30 Drag-O-Way, Part II: ‘The traction at York U.S. 30 has never been better’ and U.S. 30 Drag-O-Way, Part III: ‘We would watch the dragsters on trailers head for Thomasville’.
The seventh Musclecar Madness, a nod to the old Route 30 Drag-O-Way, concluded this weekend.
That dragway operated for about 20 years – from the late 1950s to 1979 – at the York Airport.
When the dragway was operating, the airport was shut down to air traffic and the dragsters took over. The events often drew crowds of 10,000 spectators or more.
The legendary “Big Daddy” Garlits and other drivers liked it… .
The airport afforded a 5,000-foot strip.
That gave a margin of safety.
Interesting, the only fatality in the memory of Musclecar Madness organizers at the old airport strip came when a mini-bike collided with a plane.
This York Daily Record/Sunday News story (7/8/06) brings readers back to those days when thousands headed west each weekend:
It was almost as if Terry Heininger’s mind had found another 500 horsepower on its journey to the past Friday afternoon. Sitting a few feet away from him was one of his heroes, drag racing legend Don “Big Daddy” Garlits.
Back in the ’60s, Heininger, 56, watched Garlits race at the old U.S. 30 Dragway, better known today as the York Airport in Thomasville.
“Thousands, and I do mean thousands, would come to the track to watch innovators like (Garlits) race,” Heininger said.
In the nearly four decades between 1955 and 1992, Garlits became to drag racing what Richard Petty has become to NASCAR: a living legend of his sport.
Many of those standing in line for his autograph at the fifth annual York U.S. 30 Musclecar Madness event at the York Expo Center rated him in the upper echelons of drag car drivers.
Many agreed with Heininger, who said Garlits is flat out the greatest of all time.
“If he hasn’t done it, it hasn’t been done,” Heininger said.
Heininger hung on every word as Garlits recounted several stories from his career, including many that happened in York.
“This was one of the most popular places to race in the country,” he said. “The average track is 60 feet wide and 4,000 feet long. In York, the tracks were 100 feet wide and 5,000 feet long. And you could race four at a time.”
Garlits said the extra room might explain York’s extraordinary safety record during its run from the late ’50s through 1979. According to Darwin Doll, Musclecar Madness’ co-promoter, only one death was reported during that time — and that involved a mini-bike colliding with a plane.
Garlits’ achievements in York include a speed record he set in 1960. Driving a dragster named the Swamp Rat 1B, Garlits ran the quarter-mile in 8.23 seconds.
Soon after, the Swamp Rat — an exact replica of which is on display at the show — became only the second dragster to surpass 200 mph on the track.
But times have changed dramatically, Garlits said. The record has been broken many times. Today, the record stands at 4.41 seconds.
Something else that changed is the purpose and expense of today’s racing teams. In the early ’60s, Garlits recalled a Saturday race that he was scheduled to be a part of in York. In the week prior, another driver on the team totally wrecked the vehicle they were to race here.
The team drove back to their home base in Florida and built a new vehicle from scratch. Garlits and his team left Florida in time to reach York just before their race was to begin.
Though the dragster was assembled, it had never been race tested.
“As our truck pulled onto the track, we could here the fans go nuts,” said Garlits as many fans who were there laughed around him in agreement. “They knew there was going to be a race.”
And not just any race; this was against an area hero of the day, Dick Belfatti of Philadelphia.
“We lost the first race, but took the next two to claim victory,” Garlits said. “We were paid $750, which was top dollar back then.”
Back then, Garlits said most anyone could build a race ready dragster for about $1,000. Today, a single race by a modern day team costs about $10,000 by the time parts, fuel, salary and benefits are figured in.
Of course, Garlits said there is also more money in the prize pool and sponsorships help, too.
“Racing was more about the love and friendships back then,” he said. “Anyone could — and would — help anyone else.”
But as Heininger continued listening to Garlits tell his stories, it was clear that for him at least, there’s still the roar of the engines and smell of burning rubber to love.
“I still come for the love of it all,” Heininger said. “This is the sport of my youth and the sport of my now.”