Championship drag racing will come to within 70 miles of Spartanburg this weekend at zMax Dragway, and just under 100 next weekend in Atlanta Dragway. For nearly two decades, the straight line quarter-mile sport was a staple in Spartanburg County. Drag racing didn’t start in Spartanburg, but it was certainly perfected there.
The consensus is organized drag racing began in the 1930s on the dry lakes of California. While the straight line sport might have had West Coast roots, the apparent capital of the drags currently resides in a county of nearly 38,000 residents, some 2,000 miles away.
Let the record reflect, Spartanburg County in South Carolina, for now, and the unforeseeable future is the capitol of the drag racing world.
Consider this; there have been 25 world championships won by nine different drivers who reside in Spartanburg County. Additionally, there were another seven championships won by drivers in neighboring counties. Thirty-one championships were won by drivers who also raced at one time or another at the old Spartanburg Dragway, the defunct drag strip located in the southern part of town.
There are other counties in the United States with strong records but with fewer drivers. Orange County, Ca. has 20 series titles attributed to four John Force Racing drivers, while Monmouth County in New Jersey is home to 17-time NHRA champion Frank Manzo. Tied is Stokes County, North Carolina with 17 championships attributed to two drivers.
Gene Fulton became Spartanburg County’s first drag racing series champion when he won the IHRA Modified title in 1974. He would go on to add another four between then and 1982, before hanging up his firesuit in 1989.
“My racing days are way behind me, as far as driving is concerned, but those days of drag racing here in Spartanburg, and all over the country will be with me forever,” Fulton said. “I guess I never really looked at winning championships for the glory of it. I looked at winning as a way to pay the bills.
“In Spartanburg County, we had to win to keep racing. We were as blue collar as it gets. Nobody had a whole bunch of money laying around to go racing with.”
While Fulton might have been the first, it was a high-school dropout from Lyman, who earned his way from rags to riches, and stands today as the driver with the most championships of them all.
Scotty Cannon won six championships in the first nine seasons of Pro Modified before fulfilling a dream to race a fuel Funny Car on the NHRA series.
“It’s just an honor to have been able to do something you loved for a living like I was able to,” Cannon said. “That was the thing about Spartanburg County and its racers, we all respected one another, and we all understood the struggle and fight to make it. We might not have showed it at the time, but we were plenty proud when we saw one of us make it. We were all so competitive, but when it was all said and done, it was another one of us who made it.
“I will say this, if you wanted to win in Spartanburg County, whether you were racing Spartanburg Dragway or at Greer, you had better have your big boy britches on, and you had better had them on tight.”
Kevin Brannon is the most recent world champion to come out of Spartanburg County, but what sets his title apart from the rest is the second-generation drag racer won a sportsman title under the NHRA sanction.
Brannon, 31, won the 2015 NHRA Super Comp title after cutting his teeth as a pre-teen racing the Junior Dragster division at Greer Dragway on Saturday nights.
Brannon said it didn’t take him long to conclude if he wanted to win here, then he had better outwork the competition.
“One of the first lessons I learned in drag racing,” Brannon admitted. “It’s tough to win around here. I think we all grew up together and worked so hard, and pushed one another to the limit.”
Spartanburg’s drag strip was purchased and closed down in 1983 to make way for Carolina Country Club and its golf course, and community, ending nearly 20 years of championship drag racing contested in a city rich with championship roots. The land still holds a few relics of the strip, but is overrun with tree and briars.
For those who spent their lives building a career in the sport, they can still envision those days when the drag racing capitol of the world had its strip operating every Saturday night.
— Competition Plus (@competitionplus) January 4, 2019