Photos by Steve Banks

Those were the glory days of drag racing, the mid-1960s: Heart-stopping,
flame-throwing, fire-burning, pedal-to-the-metal days marked by the cataclysmic
shift from gasoline to top fuel nitromethane. Before that, when you ran gas, you
ran fast, but the switch to nitro — nitro, man — changed everything at Pomona
and Long Beach and a dozen other racetracks that pocked the landscape of Southern
California back then. When you ran with nitro, the engine did something strange
and wonderful; it shook with the angry disposition of Cerberus and provided as
much torque and horsepower as a Detroit Diesel. It gave you speed, speed and more
speed. It transformed the sport.

Steve Banks’ black-and-white photographsperfectly capture this cultural
shift. “In 1964, I moved to California,” says Banks. “There were only two things
going on at the time — cars and surfing. I used to go to Lions Drag Strip near
Long Beach, and I became hooked on photographing the drag scene. They always billed
the races something crazy like ‘The Snake vs. the Mongoose.’”

Dealt a limited (but beautiful) hand by the camera technology of the day, Banks focused on the moment of impact, as the dragsters shot off the line. “What I was interested in, to crib from Cartier-Bresson, was ‘the Decisive Moment.’ The drivers call it a ‘hole shot,’ when you try to outguess the Christmas tree and get those extra, extra moments off the line. You can lose the race then, or win it. You see the tires losing their shape and the smoke flying around.” And you can smell it from here, 40-some years out.

An exhibition of Banks’ photos, “Nitro: California Drag Racing in the
Sixties,” opens next month at MB Fine Art, 612 N. Almont Dr., in West Hollywood.
(310) 550-0050, In
the meantime, check out the real thing, in living color and scorching temperatures
(and times), at the Eighth Pomona Nitro Nationals, August 5-7, at the Pomona

LA Weekly