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Orange, Massachusetts Dragstrip Reunion Highlights

Dragstrip Delinquents

By Steve Magnante, Photography by Steve Magnante

Drag race historians and veteran hot rodders call it “the airport era.” Decades before the arrival of mega-plex race arenas with air-conditioned observation suites rising five stories above the tarmac and manicured concrete launch pads and massive rows of stadium seating, hot rodders had but two places to run their machines: darkened side streets and borrowed airport runways.

Between 1950 and 1964, scores of military and civilian airstrips were opened to drag racers across the country, often as a means to combat illegal street racing and so-called juvenile delinquency. And while much has been written about the early drag meets in Southern California, airport drags were also happening simultaneously in virtually every state. Even in Massachusetts.

One such airfield that served both air- and land-based flying machines was located in Orange, where the New England Timing Association—with assistance from the Orange Kiwanis Club—held regularly scheduled quarter-mile weekend races between 1954 and 1970. Naturally, the racing was seasonal, with weekly action between April and October. The dormant months were a time for swapping slicks for snow tires—and building a quicker machine for next season.

Responsibility for getting the original Orange airport drags off the ground fell on many shoulders. Efforts began with the forming of the New England Hot Rod Association in the early ’50s. Consisting of members from five New England hot rod clubs (the Torque Masters of Rochester, NH, the Piston Pushers of Concord, MA—who soon became the Ty-Rods and are still active—the Lords of Lowell, MA, the No-Mads of Newton, MA, and the Cam Snappers of Newburyport, MA) the association politely lobbied the Orange town fathers for permission to use one of the airport runways for supervised acceleration trials. After no fewer than three years of gentle persuasion, slicks smoked the quarter-mile on July 18, 1954.

As New England’s first permanent drag race facility (the equally popular Sanford, Maine, track opened 12 months later), Orange airport attracted visits from many touring professionals, like Don Garlits, Jack Chrisman, Connie Kalitta, Tommy Ivo, and even the Ramchargers, who ran their altered-wheelbase Candymatic Dodge in 1965. New England–based stars included appearances by exhibition stockers from Tasca Ford, Bill Flynn’s Yankee Peddler Hemi match-racers, Ralph Ridgeway’s Deb’s Automotive Modified Production ’55 Chevy (sporting Ridge Runner tunnel-ram induction, the aftermarket’s first specifically-cast aluminum tunnel-ram intake manifold), Gus Zuidema’s Harr Ford sponsored Dragonsnake 427 Cobra, and others.

With such rich local and national history, it was just a matter of time before somebody aimed the nostalgia beam at the Orange airport for a dragstrip reunion show. This time, the ritual of approaching the town fathers for runway access was handled by John Durfee and Lance Ferrell, Massachusetts entrepreneurs with a deep passion for drag race history. They hatched a plan to celebrate the glory days of the Orange Dragstrip with a car show and swap meet. The first event ran in 2010 and was such a success that everyone agreed to do it again—this time with a 330-foot double-lane dragstrip for burnouts, wheelies, and hole shots.

Herewith are highlights of the Orange Airport Reunion show. Attendance at both events was staggering, creating Woodstock-style traffic jams in and around Orange’s narrow two-lanes. The long lines were worth the wait. Thanks to heavy pre-date publicity and numerous targeted invitations, veterans of the Orange scene heeded the call and rolled out an amazing assortment of vintage race machines, many of which were displayed for the first time in decades.

By the time you read this, a third reunion has already taken place in September 2012, but with a twist. The ’12 show moved to the airport in nearby Fitchburg, where there’s more space. So even with these changes, the 330-foot drag racing “airport-era” vibe will continue to thrive, To learn more about future Orange Dragstrip Reunions, dial into www.DragReunion.com.

By Steve Magnante
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