Story and Photos by Ben Radatz from Dare Devil, Inc
There’s a little chaos in the air at Estranged Drag Show that’s palpable even before arriving at Riverdale Raceway, just a short drive up from Toutle, WA (pop.726). It’s the cloud of fine volcanic dust that hovers over the grounds, out in the middle of pristine Northern woods. It’s the gigantic prehistoric roar of dragsters warming up, echoing all around the river valley. And – maybe more dramatic in our social age, the lack of mobile service.
That sense of chaos only builds on entering the raceway grounds, where the dust covers deep rows of trailers and toy haulers, many with noses from performance cars in various states of disassembly sticking out in between. As more people arrive, these corridors transform into a self-sustaining hot rod village, with food trucks, vendors, and a swap meet. At night the improv canopy workshops become dusty light orbs floating in pitch black, the sounds of power tools and engine fire-ups mixing with scattered tailgates, and absolutely nothing else. And still no service.
By the time for the driver’s meeting on Saturday morning, the chaos settles into a casual start, with half the racers lurching up to the start line while the other half finish their breakfast. By late morning the drags are in full swing, cycling through 150-or-so vintage builds at an aggressive clip. Mobile service now comes in short bursts and people hurry to post updates.
Most vintage drags strive for an air of formality, starting early and grouping cars by class. This contrasts with Estranged’s program, informed as much by reading the room as by coordinating with strip officials. Races begin when racers are ready. Lunch is called when racers are hungry. The day is called when racers stop racing. That’s about as formal as it gets here, and it doesn’t need to be more – with three days to race, everyone gets a go.
This casual take extends to the matches themselves, with class pairings more of a suggestion than a hard rule. 4-bangers against flatheads, flatheads against gassers, gassers against dragsters – the former with no path to victory, but crowd-pleasing nonetheless, and all in the spirit of fun.
In fact “fun” is the mantra of choice at Estranged Drag Show, repeated often and almost on script by spectators, participants, and organizers describing what makes this three-year-old drag special. While “fun” is probably implicit at most races, elsewhere it’s more a desired outcome than a reason for being. Portland-based host club The Estranged CC instead puts up a big tent and brings everyone in, with a festive atmosphere that inevitably translates into livelier rounds and more spectator engagement.
But Estranged Drag Show is a rebel with a cause, and there is a method in the chaos. Specifically, it plants its roots in the early ‘60s “renegade”-style drags, at the dawn of supercharged performance but before bodies like the NHRA dominated race regulation – which, to some, zapped the fun from the whole thing in small but profound ways. It’s a more build-agnostic era when excitement about the potential of organized racing attracted everything from pre-war hop-ups to purpose-built funny cars.
Hearkening back to this small window of Wild-West, kitchen-sink drag racing taps into a breed of racer – and an attitude towards the strip – that isn’t as common at other similar drags. On one end of the spectrum are traditional grassroots drags like RPM Nationals and Race of Gentlemen with strict year cutoffs; on the other end are sanctioned vintage drags like Nitro Revival and Mooneyes, which bring out a similar cross-section as here but on an NHRA-sanctioned dragway – “zapping the fun.”
This makes Estranged Drag Show unique in its ability to sit on a powder keg while throwing matches right into it. The air of chaos felt even before arriving at the strip isn’t actually that but an awesome collective power, bottled up and consumed in full here at Riverdale Raceway over a long summer weekend (and shared once back in service.)
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