By William Hall. Photos by the author.
A new summer-long exhibit at Milwaukee’s Harley-Davidson Museum showcases vintage drag cars and motorcycles and celebrates drag racing pop culture from the 1950s to the 1970s.
“Drag Racing: America’s Fast Time” is the newest exhibition from Harley-Davidson focusing on competition vehicles. This display is the rare inclusion of automotive artifacts into the motorcycle museum’s galleries, and traces drag racing’s roots from street racing to its evolution as a professional sport.
As municipalities cracked down on street racing, the action moved to drag strips. Photo courtesy Harley-Davidson Museum.
Greeted by the improbable twin-engine Harley drag bike of AMRA founder Gary “Tator” Gilmore, the exhibit makes apparent The Right Stuff needed to be aboard these nitro-fueled monsters when the Christmas tree lights drop. The display walks us through a collection of quarter-mile racers, from the 1953 NHRA-winning ’41 Willys fuelie coupe Swindler B to “Big Daddy” Don Garlits’ last front-engine rail dragster, Swamp Rat 13.
Gary “Tator” Gilmore’s legendary Chrome Horse Racing drag bike.
Thirteen was indeed an unlucky number for Garlits, as a catastrophic driveline explosion in that car nearly crippled the legendary drag racer- but he recovered to develop the rear-engine dragster, transforming the sport in the process. The next decade would see drag racing go from an outlaw activity to a mainstream phenomenon.
The Swamp Rat 13 demonstrated the inherent dangers of front-engine dragsters.
Along with “Big Daddy,” the exhibit recalls those drag racing personalities who became household names in the 1970’s with colorful nicknames that added dimension to the sport. Names like Don “The Snake” Prudhomme, “Jungle Jim” Liberman, Tom “The Mongoose” McEwen, and Shirley “Cha-Cha” Muldowney. The latter also reminds us that from early on the sport was a meritocracy; both women and minorities were accepted, if not always welcomed, at a time when American society had yet to catch up in equality.
Drag racing’s influence on popular music and movies in the 1960’s.
An interesting section focuses on the unique marketing of professional drag racing. Who among us doesn’t recognize the unique radio promotions and the urgent chant of track broadcaster Jan Gabriel set against a background of blaring engines and burnouts? An audio loop vividly captures the vibe for those of us who remember where we were on “Sunday! Sunday! Sunday!”
Ornately decorated helmets turned into advertising space in later years.
Long before the era of sponsorship logos, artists like Von Dutch and Ed Roth used helmets, fenders and fuel tanks as blank canvases for their Kustom Kulture designs. Other graphic artists joined the movement, like Stanley Mouse, Pete Millar, Robert Williams and Gilbert Shelton. Together they created the bold fonts, groovy graphics and metal-flaked paint look that became synonymous with the 1970s, later used to great effect in advertising and product design.
Speed Sells: dragster shifters, racing stripes and white letter tires were just one example of drag pop culture.
This exhibit is one of a series of interesting shows that explore the cool fringes of moto-culture, and helps to make the Harley-Davidson Museum a vibrant place worthy of frequent visits. The Drag Racing exhibit runs until September 5th.
A tip to museum visitors- each Thursday night during the summer is “Bike Night,” with hundreds of motorcycles filling the museum campus along with live music and food at around 5pm. It’s a fun, dynamic compliment to your museum visit.
William Hall is a writer, collector and classic car broker based in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin.