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West Virginia Drag Racer Hall of Fame to celebrate the 10th anniversary

Cooler than a 57 Chevy.

A 57 Chevy, in two-tone black and silver.

With enough chrome and shine to be spied by Sputnik, when the sun hits it right.

That’s how iridescently awesome the dudes were who manned the flag at the old Kanawha Valley Drag Strip in the late 1950s and through the early 60s, before the “Christmas Tree” start-lights went in.

There, the overseers stood, stock-still, with said flag poised overhead.

Keepers of the combustion, they were.

Of course, they could hear all from under the hood.

And, they sure as heck could feel it in their sternum — as two other guys they likely knew, each with their own modified or cobbled-together rides, steered into the staging area.

If a guy was lucky, he had his own dedicated “race car,” with maybe a sponsor whose name he could slap on the hood and sides.

Mostly, though, the same car he raced on Sunday was the same one he drove to work on Monday.

He torqued it for the big race. Then, he de-torqued it, for the rat race.

“That’s how it was back then,” Gary Jarvis said.

“No prize money,” he said. “Just a lot of love for the sport.”

That’s what Jarvis is thinking about this Labor Day: Love, and loud engines.

You drop the green flag and watch, careful to keep your feet firm and planted, as your buddies punch it into the red: Nuuur-r-r-r-RU-U-UN-GG-G-G-G!

Say hello to a big ol’ Detroit temper tantrum.

It’s a slow-motion dream and a sped-up movie, all at once.

If it had a soundtrack, it would be Chuck Berry, Link Wray, Bo Diddley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard, all at once.

Quarter-mile salvation — that’s 1,320 feet — in 10 seconds’ time, give or take a micro-turn of the wrench.

All at once.

“Pretty much,” Jarvis said.

Of racing and reeling in the years

Jarvis, who hails from Winfield, Putnam County, got together with a group of buddies 10 years ago to launch the West Virginia Drag Racer Hall of Fame.

That’s another enterprise formed from unconditional love and a youthful need for speed.

All of them, who still live in their hometown, used to come off the line themselves at the aforementioned Kanawha Valley track, which was built in 1958.

“My brother was there on that first day,” he said.

“I have a cousin who was there on that first day. And a couple of those flagmen are still around.”

He expects a lot of people to be around Sept. 22-23, for the hall’s 10th anniversary celebration.

The gathering is even going Hollywood, by way of four wheels. Make that, eight wheels.

More on that — but only after another peek in the rearview for history concerning a sport that was surprisingly popular in the Mountain State.

Build it (and they will race)

Other quarter-mile stretches unspooled across West Virginia after the Winfield track.

In north-central West Virginia, there was the famed Eldora Raceway, for example, which motorcar enthusiast and Monongalia County Board of Education member Mike Kelly considered his “home track” for years.

“I was there every weekend,” said Kelly, who was inducted in the West Virginia Drag Racing Hall of Fame in 2021 and spends his present-day weekends racing on tracks across Pennsylvania, Kentucky and Tennessee, among other high-octane locales.

The weekend is what transformed the Kanawha Valley Drag Strip into the racing epicenter it was, through its final runs in 1976.

Thank Ohio for that.

The Mountain State’s Buckeye State neighbor was race-crazy, too, but a decree put the brakes and parachute to a critical part of the enterprise: “Thou Shalt Not Race … On One Certain Day.”

“Everybody talks up California and the car culture and all that,” Jarvis said, “but for years, Ohio was second in the nation only to California when it came to drag racing.”

“You had 26 dragstrips in Ohio,” he said, “but there was one thing. They were all closed on Sundays.”
Which pegged the meter in Putnam, being only a couple of counties over.

For the shade-tree mechanics and other wrench-turners, racing was a weekend hobby, he said.
Guys wanted to run, before they punched the time clock for Monday.

“We were open on Sunday,” Jarvis said.

“We were the only one in the region, so all the Ohio racers just made us part of their weekend circuit.”

Meanwhile, through the mid-1970s, ABC’s “Wide World of Sports,” the Saturday afternoon ESPN of its day, made stars out of Big Daddy Don Garlits, Don Prudhomme and other guys who punched the quarter-mile in their futuristic-looking rail dragsters — going zero to 60 in about a nanosecond, or so it seemed.

Then, it all went away.

A handsome historical marker is now placed near Winfield where the Kanawha Valley track used to be.
Up here, Eldora was paved over for an industrial park.

American Graffiti — in Almost Heaven Memories, though, still peg the meter, Jarvis said.

That’s why he’s expecting a solid turnout for the Sept. 22-23 party.

A total of 31 more racers are going into the hall that Friday and Saturday.

Ex-pat Mountaineers from the Midwest and Sun Belt are coming in.

An Illinois car collector in possession of two Plymouths featured in the movies “American Graffiti” and “More American Graffiti,” will display the matinee machines during the proceedings.

Both of the coming-of-age car movies are also scheduled to be screened outdoors, providing the weather holds, Jarvis said.

That’s so people can be reminded of the cruising and doings of Steve, Laurie, Curt, Terry and Debbie — not to mention that disc jockey who turned out to be Wolfman Jack and the blonde in the Thunderbird later revealed to be Suzanne Somers.

Visit the Facebook page of the West Virginia Drag Racer Hall of Fame for full details.

It’s about cars, Jarvis said, but it’s also about the real-life characters who make the hall, and West Virginia’s drag racing history, what it is.

V-8 gladiators, they were, he said.

At least for 10 seconds on a long-ago Sunday afternoon in Putnam County.

“We do a lot of events down here,” he said. “And every time, it’s a family reunion.”