Gallery: Vintage drag racing invades Ohio’s Dragway 42

Cameron Neveu

Most metro high schools have a larger enrollment than West Salem’s total population of 1464 people. Even so, the town in rural Northeast Ohio has an impressive roster of local heroes, including Dean Chance, the youngest pitcher to win the Cy Young Award, at 23 years old; and Jacob Wilson Parrott, a Civil War soldier who received America’s first Medal of Honor for high-jacking a Confederate locomotive and escaping from imprisonment behind enemy lines.

West Salem is also the home to Dragway 42, a quarter-mile drag strip that dates back to 1957. Every summer since 2006 multitudes gather at the two-lane drag strip for the Rock-n-Race festival, temporarily inflating the municipality’s humble population.

dragway 42 ohio vintage drag racing
Cameron Neveu

Among vintage drag-racing events, especially in the Midwest, Dragway 42’s annual celebration of music and motorsport ranks near the top. Everyone from Tom Wolfe’s Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby grew up (and now has grandchildren), but they still know how to get down, just like they did when Kennedy was in office. Families, friends, veterans, and young guns join the fray, converging on West Salem’s strip for a weekend of fast passes—and one rather raucous burnout contest that most likely killed every mosquito in Ohio.

Dragway 42 is an absolute palace of speed, but it wasn’t always that way. Prior to its purchase by the current owner Ron Matcham, in 2013, the facility had fallen into disrepair. Under Matcham’s ownership, the facility underwent a $14 million renovation. The overhaul included flipping the direction of quarter-mile strip for a longer runoff area and laying an all-concrete surface. Beyond the freshly painted retaining walls, crew piled two large hills for spectators and lined a few hundred yards with aluminum grandstands purchased from Daytona International Speedway.

Where the seats end, fans erect make-shift campsites with easy-ups, beach blankets, and foldable chairs. Spectators watch from on high, as if in an amphitheater built for a troupe of speed-seekers both local and far-flung. “The track is smooth and is prepped well,” says Tom Kowal, who drove from Southeast Michigan to point his Dragmaster rail down the strip. “Between the surface and the bands, it’s always a good time.”

On the east hill, staff positioned a defunct trailer to house the bands that play throughout the day and deep into the night. Electric guitars and gravel-voiced singers scrape out covers of classic rock and punk favorites.

While the music and the ranks of carnival food trailers, which serve everything from hand-pressed lemonade to gooey nacho buckets, are proper window dressing for an old-school affair, the main attractions are the period-correct drag cars that line the paddock. Funnies, altered, gassers—Rock-n-Race welcomes a multitude of running classes, including vintage street cars. For three days, racers are ushered two-by-two through the staging lanes and down the drag way.

I spent an evening at the track with a Canon 1DX Mark 1 in hand, taking in the sights of Dragway 42’s vintage festival. After shooting some 1700 frames, I narrowed it down to about 50. Grab a nacho bucket and click through the scenes from West Salem. Smells and sunburn not included.

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