I have a lot of respect for the sport of drag racing, partially because I believe there’s a lot more nuance and complexity to it than most people think, and also because I once almost crashed a dragster because I’m a moron. One thing I’ve never fully understood, though, is the name: why is called drag racing? You’re not dragging anything, at least ideally. So where’s the name come from?
It turns out that the answer is not really all that clear at all, but I think there’s a chain of words and etymology that makes enough sense to seem like a reasonable explanation.
I researched a number of explanations and speculations, which included things like challenges to race would be stated by asking someone to “drag your car out of the garage,” but I don’t really believe this explanation. I think the reality is much more convoluted, and the rough path I think is most likely is pretty close to what the website Phrases.org.uk came up with, so with that bit of corroboration, that’s the one I’m going to tell you about.
Let’s get started with the word “drag” itself, not in its form as a verb, but as a noun. Way way back in the 1500s or so, a drag was a sort of wheel-less sledge used to haul things or sometimes flatten roads.
Later, wheels were added to some drags and used to haul cargo; Phrases.org found that Samuel Johnson’s 1755 A Dictionary of the English Language has an entry for drag as a noun:
Here, it’s a “kind of car drawn by the hand,” like a hand-pulled wagon. A bit later, this definition seems to have evolved to include horse-drawn vehicles, which later seemed to become more specific. The Staffordshire Carriage’s A Guide to Interpreting Horse-Drawn Carriages in Museum Collections defines drag as:
Drag a sporting vehicle for private driving. Also known as a Park Coach or Private Coach. The roof seats enable it to be used as a grandstand at sporting events.
It appears that “drag” was also applied to vehicles used to haul things, the best example of which, automotively, is in the name of the very first real automobile ever, Nicholas-Josef Cugnot’s Steam Drag of 1769.
Sometimes it’s called a steam dray, sometimes a steam tractor, sometimes a steam car, but sometimes, yes, a steam drag. This use of drag to mean a number of different kinds of large vehicles seems to have remained in pretty common use, and by the 1850s the term seems to have been applied to the busiest street in a town where these vehicles would have rolled around on, which gives rise to the term “main drag” to refer to a busy or major street in a town.
So, from here, we see the term “drag” being used as a synonym for “road” or “street,” with the popularity of the term “main drag” growing in the early 20th century.
Right after the war, in the mid-to-late 1940s, when hot rods were first becoming popular and informal street races were happening all over America, the term “drag racing” as a synonym for “street racing” was becoming quite common.
Around this time we even see the first dedicated drag strip, the Santa Ana Drags, opening in 1950 on a Southern California airfield. It’s clear the term was well-established, at least within this particular community, by then.
It didn’t take long to get into mainstream use, as evidenced by this 1957 Life magazine cover story on drag racing, which even included a little glossary of drag racing terms:
So, what did we figure out? I think the etymology of drag racing works like this: “drag” started as a type of sled pulled by horses, then referred to a wheeled wagon, then larger wheeled horse-drawn vehicles in a broader sense, then got applied to the main roads where these vehicles travelled, then “drag” became a more generalized term for roads, which led to early hot rodder street races being referred to as “drag races.”
The one remaining question that you’re likely thinking of is “how does this relate to drag, as in the kind of thing RuPaul does so well?” The answer seems to be that the terms aren’t really related, at least not in origin.
The usual explanation is that the term “drag” for dressing in clothes traditionally reserved for the opposite gender comes from British theatre and gay slang called Polari. But that’s a whole other story.
OK! I hope that helps clear things up. I know I feel better.