The Detroit-built V-8 engine is as big a chunk of American identity as the flag, the cowboy hat, and the jacked pickup with tires as big as Daisy Duke’s inflatables.  American-style drag racing squeezes a nation’s worth of sex and violence into this engine’s compact lump, and within its confines, hot steel shafts push oily pistons up tightly-bored holes, mad hot with the stroking, exploding every four thrusts.  It is powergasm on asphalt for all to witness; the earth-splitting bellow of crazy-revving engines, the flaming cannonfire of exhaust stacks, the steely whine of a supercharger, the rippling deformation of tire-skin under the wrenching torque of actually unmeasurable horsepower.  The V-8 engine is nearly ubiquitous in the drag scene (and NASCAR), like the Frenchman’s bread and the Swissman’s cheese…more like the goddamn air, because V-8s are everywhere. With hundreds of millions built since the 1930s, the foundation for outrageous power is as common as mud and weeds, and about as cheap.

Stacks: beautiful, erotic, raw, dangerous. [Matthew Porter]
The ‘rail’ dragster is a pure speed machine, as delicately realized as the finest European Formula 1 racer, but much, much faster. The chassis weighs nothing; a welded-up lattice framework of lightweight tubing, connecting a pair of bicycle wheels up front with enormously fat ‘slicks’ at the rear, between which the engine and pilot sit in an uneasy few seconds’ cohabitation.  The trellis frame is designed just strong enough to prevent an inconceivably powerful V-8 from ripping itself out of its cage, and grenading in death-freedom as a pinwheel of molten metal, bleeding hot oil, and flaming ejecta.  Superchargers force an explosive nitromethane mix into every cylinder, ignited 50 times per second (x8), running the ragged edge of any metal’s ability to absorb heat without deformation or liquification, which occasionally broaches even the stoutest of engine casings.  The result is instant chaos, and in the emergency, all moving parts – pistons, valves, crankshaft, camchain – discover their own escape routes in an energetic disassembly lasting less than a second.  The consequences most urgently affect the driver sitting a mere few feet from the unfolding catastrophe, doing his/her best to stop a disintegrating land missile from cartwheeling, and doom.

Chrome won’t get you home, but we aren’t going home, yet. [Matthew Porter]
It takes incredibly skilled labor to transform a 140hp sedan motor into a fire-breathing, nitro-swilling, 15,000 horsepower supercharged beast, and from these hands we find the poetry lurking within the vulgarity of the drag strip, and the pornography of speed. Drained of reference, these photographs might seem like ironic commentary on American powerlust and the fuel-guzzling, make-a-big-noise type of working-class pastime. The V-8 engine taken out of context hangs like a bomb from a chain, but is more accurately a package of patient obsession, attention to minute detail, and ambition.  In the glorious circus of motorized American speed competitions, the highly-tuned engine is the heart of it all, but there’s no reward bar aesthetic for making the engine beautiful – for chroming valve covers and superchargers and intake stacks, for making the blower scoop that particular shape of badass.  Success is measured only by the clock, so more is at stake here than victory, and chrome is the clue; like the occasionally disastrous blowups which bedevil them, these unseen greasy hands broach the confines of the functional, spilling molten passion into the realm of Art.  Let us exalt these mechanics into the pantheon of artists, and nominate the drag strip as our performance space; not ironically, but as a place where life explodes, and priapic wheeled missiles hurtle into the invisible womb of Time.

Explosions per second, barely contained at the limit of destruction. [Matthew Porter]
[This article was originally published in the Spring 2015 issue of  At Large magazine]



Paul d’Orléans is the founder of He is an author, photographer, filmmaker, museum curator, event organizer, and public speaker. Check out his Author Page, Instagram, and Facebook.
Related Posts

The Vintagent Selects: American Dream

There is a point in every person's life…

The Universal Racing Motorcycle

Dimitri Coste attempts the impossible:…

Legend of the Motorcycle Attire

It was an event that changed the…

Subscribe to Our Weekly Newsletter