Driver L. S. Jamison and owner/builder Jake McVey had the first "dedicated" dragster in the Roanoke area. The 1932 Ford coupe turned a top speed of 112 miles per hour in the quarter mile in 1954.

The hot rod was just becoming an American icon when Jake McVey returned to Roanoke from California in 1950. Pictured here in 1953, his 1932 Ford five-window coupe was one of the first hot rods built in Southwest Virginia.

The hot rod and drag racing (a short, straight, side-by-side sprint between two cars) are closely tied in Southwest Virginia’s automotive history. Born in the late 1930s on the West Coast, the hot rod was soon recognizable even to people who knew little about cars, and it brought incredible straight-ahead speed to city streets and country roads long before the opening of Southwest Virginia’s drag strips.

Hot rodding in Southwest Virginia blended California trends and local innovation. The basic hot rod was a high-performance 1930s or ‘40s two-door Ford coupe or roadster stripped of all inessential parts. Much could be done with little money—remove the fenders; change to larger wheels and tires; add hydraulic brakes and a dual exhaust system; lower the car in the front, back, or all around; and, of course, install a stronger motor. In 1955, Chevrolet’s V-8 engine became the hot rodder’s choice, and Ford flathead, Oldsmobile V-8, Cadillac V-8, and Buick V-8 engines followed in popularity. Lacking local speed shops, early Southwest Virginia hot rodders used parts they found in junk yards or ordered parts by mail. (The regional mail-order “bible” for the region’s car builders was the catalog from Honest Charley’s Speed Shop in Chattanooga, Tennessee.)

As it did elsewhere, the hot rod culture of Southwest Virginia flourished through the 1950s. Numerous hot rod clubs formed. Some high school automotive vocational classes built hot rods as class projects. Magazines, movies, music, and television all added fuel to the hot rod scene. Yet at its heart, old-style hot rod building thrived on drag racing, and its decline would follow the changing nature of the drag racing sport.

In the 1960s the “t-bucket”—essentially a kit to build a hot rod—appeared on the West Coast. Across the nation people began building street rods, hot rod-style cars with the comforts of modern automobiles. Today’s street rod scene has several different groups within it: the many older street rod drivers who cruise and attend car shows, a handful of usually younger car builders interested in building traditional speed-oriented hot rods, and the host of young adults who modify the Asian and German imports for looks and performance.

Chapter 2 »
Regional Drag Racing

Acknowledgements | Ferrum College and the Blue Ridge Institute & Museum | Contact