There’s just something about a nostalgia race and reunion that I love attending. Even when I was a kid I had a certain elevated appreciation for all things nostalgia, and now that I’m something of an antique myself, the allure of vintage cars has only grown stronger.
One such event that’s been on my radar for a while now is the Dover Drag Strip Nostalgia Drags, held yearly at New York’s Lebanon Valley Dragway. Event founder Dino Lawrence has been inviting me to come up for this race for probably seven or so years now, but every year I end up being on the wrong side of the country on the weekend the Dover reunion is taking place.
[Editor’s Note: This column originally appeared in DI #179, the 30 Under 30 Issue, in November/December of 2022.]
Finally, for the 2022 running held last September I cleared my calendar and told Dino that nothing was going to get in the way of me attending this event, so I happily made the trek to Lebanon Valley, which is roughly 12 hours north of my native North Carolina, and three hours north of New York City. There’s going to be an in-depth story about the history of this epic gathering in a future issue of Drag Illustrated, but for this issue, my trip to the Empire State made for the perfect content for my column, which of course, is largely centered around my travels across the country.
So, as I began to dig deep into New York’s dragstrip history, I must confess that I was quite astonished to find no less than 47 dragstrips on record that have operated in the Empire State. Zoning permits and general expansion (as well as a host of other factors) haven’t been kind to drag racing in New York. If my research is correct, I was only able to find five remaining dragstrips still in operation, of which I’ve currently visited two.
It was 1994 when I attended my first New York drag race, back when I was working for photographer Bryan Epps and we drove up to Leicester, New York, for the IHRA Empire Nationals. It would be another 27 years before I returned to New York to once again visit Empire Dragway, this time for a Northeast Outlaw Pro Mod race in 2021.
That brings us to last September when I finally got around to visiting my second New York track, Lebanon Valley Dragway. Built in 1963, this scenic NHRA quarter-miler has stood the test of time and hosts some heavily-attended events yearly.
If you love hearing memories from people who grew up racing and spectating at various tracks, I encourage anyone to visit a website called DragstripList.com. They have a comprehensive list of dragstrips in the U.S. and Canada, and they also urge people to share their memories of these venues for others to read and enjoy.
As it relates to Lebanon Valley, I read comments from a variety of people who remember watching Shirley Muldowney race here during the infancy of her storied career. Others wrote about the six-car nitro Funny Car shows they’d book in. One fan remembers the time “Big Daddy” Don Garlits showed up at Lebanon Valley towing a small box trailer with a Cadillac. I especially enjoyed the memories from Neil Cline, who used to race his big-block 1967 Corvette during the “spectator races” as he refers to them. He even shared pics of the car, along with hand-written time slips from 50 years ago! “It’s a thriving track yet today!” he concluded. His assessment was spot on.
Obviously, the New York winters are brutal, but when the weather breaks, they try to get opened up in April with test and tune. A nostalgia series known as NODRAMA frequents Lebanon Valley for their points series, which begins in April, as well as the Division 1 National Open series later that month. May is jam-packed with NHRA Summit point races, as well as the Hemmings Muscle Car Show and Drag Race. The NHRA Lucas Oil series gathers in June for four days and packs the place out each year. The track even hosts some import racing in July, along with a huge schedule of other events. August features a two-day $10K Bracket Bash event, while September ushers in the aforementioned Dover Drag Strip Nostalgia Drags.
This month’s column photo features a pic I snapped at the most recent Dover reunion. Shoutout to the driver of this awesome slingshot dragster, who’s launching wheels-up alongside Steve Clukey’s gorgeous Plymouth Duster, a car he bought new in 1970!
Lebanon Valley Dragway is the 162nd different dragstrip I’ve been able to visit in my travels, and while I’m always happy to scratch another one off the list, it was rather disappointing to realize that there were once 42 additional tracks in this state that are gone forever. It’s a realization that should motivate each of us to get out and explore these treasures while we still have them.