TIME Sports

See Photos of Fast and Furious Drag Racers from the 1950s

In the wake of last weekend's Daytona 500, LIFE looks back at the hot rods and drag racers of the Rebel Without a Cause era

The squirrel batched out past his competitors, nerfing an A-bomb and pruning a T-bone on his way to top eliminator, moments before the badge bandits arrived on the scene. So might have gone a description of a drag race in the 1950s, at least according to the “Dictionary of Drag Racing Jargon” LIFE published in 1957.

Drag racing has always been NASCAR’s rebellious cousin, Hollywood’s prolific mining of the sport for high-speed drama (Fast and Furious one through seven, for starters) would have outsiders believe. In its earliest years, races were held stoplight-to-stoplight, or until the sound of sirens prompted drivers to disperse. The sport LIFE profiled in the late 1950s, however, looked less like the revved-up teenagers of Rebel Without a Cause and more like a maturing young adult trying to be taken seriously.

The National Hot Rod Association and the Automobile Timing Association of America, founded just a few years after NASCAR in 1951 and 1956, respectively, were taking pains to distance themselves from the popular view of drag racing as “a postwar teen-age infatuation with souped-up cars in which speed-crazy kids raced surreptitiously at 80 or 90 mph over lonely roads.” Local clubs with names like the Dragons and the Road Lords divided their attention between perfecting hot rods for races and waging a public relations campaign to improve public opinion of their sport.

Drag racing clubs got involved with civic projects to curry good favor in their communities. They liaised with local police and disciplined drivers who practiced their lead-footed habits outside of officially sanctioned racing strips. They disapproved of illegal street racing as fervently as the law enforcement that aimed to shut it down, as it cast a negative light on the sport as a whole.

The future of the sport was in question, as national coalitions of police chiefs voiced disapproval and the National Safety Council announced its official stance against drag racing. Sponsors pulled out, and supporters found themselves grasping at statistics to try to disprove correlations between the sport and traffic fatalities.

The photos that accompanied LIFE’s 1957 cover story offered an antidote to the after-hours danger many people associated with drag racing. Held in broad daylight with sharply dressed drivers and support teams, the races were a far cry from the stuff of James Dean, helping to bolster the sport’s legitimacy among a skeptical population.

Sixty years later, the NHRA claims 80,000 members, 140 tracks and 5,000 annual events. Attendance and viewership pale in comparison to NASCAR, which is second only to the NFL in television viewership. But its adherents remain a dedicated bunch, and its box office potential nearly, but apparently not entirely, exhausted.

Liz Ronk, who edited this gallery, is the Photo Editor for LIFE.com. Follow her on Twitter at @LizabethRonk.

TIME Research

Why You’re Less Likely to Die in a Car Than Ever Before

Traffic
George Rose—Getty Images Heavy automobile traffic on the Harbor Freeway is viewed at sunset on Jan. 27, 2012 in Los Angeles.

'Motor vehicles are safer than they ever have been in the past'

The chances of dying in a car crash in a new vehicle have declined dramatically in recent years to their lowest point ever, according to a new study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). Improvements to vehicle safety technology since the mid-1980s saved 7,700 lives in the United States in 2012 alone, the study found.

“There’s all the bad news about recalls, which make it sound like vehicles are getting less safe,” says IIHS president Adrian Lund. “What these results show is that motor vehicles are safer than they ever have been in the past. This is a huge reduction of people dying as occupants of motor vehicles in crashes.”

The study, which looked at data on deaths in 2011 model year vehicles, found that no one died in nine vehicle models. The death rate per million registered vehicle years, a number that represents how many people died per the number of years a car is registered to be on the road, declined to 28 for 2011 model cars. That rate was 87 for cars made a decade earlier, Lund says.

The report attributed much of that improvement to changes in technology. Electronic stability control, for instance, has been incorporated into many vehicles and prevented deaths when vehicles roll over. The effect of the technology has been particularly noticeable in SUVs. Once among the most dangerous cars on the road, many SUVs are now among the safest vehicles. Six of the nine vehicles without a death were SUVs.

Lund says he anticipates that car safety will improve along with the introduction of new technology in the near future, but he also acknowledges that movements by governments and regulators to cut down on traffic deaths have the potential to reduce traffic deaths dramatically. In particular, Vision Zero—a movement adopted by various cities and countries aimed at eliminating such deaths—has the potential to save lives, he says.

“If we’re really going to get to zero, then we’re really going to need action on a lot of fronts,” he says. “We don’t have to wait just for vehicle technology to achieve Vision Zero.”

Nonetheless, Lund notes that car manufacturers are “closing in on their target” of making their cars free of death and serious injury.

The nine models that were fatality-free were Audi A4 (four-wheel drive), Honda Odyssey, Kia Sorento (two-wheel drive), the Lexus RX 350 (four-wheel drive), Mercedes-Benz GL-Class (four-wheel drive), Subaru Legacy (four-wheel drive), Toyota Highlander hybrid (four-wheel drive), Toyota Sequoia (four-wheel drive) and Volvo XC90 (four-wheel drive).

Three cars had more more than 100 deaths per million registered vehicle years: Kia Rio, Nissan Versa sedan and Hyundai Accent.

TIME Automobiles

Red Light Cams Linked to Increased Rear-End Collisions in Chicago

WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 7:   Speed cameras capture motorists on I
Daniel Britt—Washington Post/Getty Images Speed cameras capture motorists on I-395 near 2nd Street NW in Washington, DC on June 7, 2012.

New study casts doubts on the claims that cameras improve road safety

A new Chicago-focused study links red light cameras to a coinciding rise in rear-end collisions, casting doubts on claims that the mounted cameras improve safety at intersections.

The study’s findings, published by the Chicago Tribune Friday, found that while traffic cameras appeared to reduce injuries by 15% for collisions at right angles, where one car crashes head-on into the side of another car, those improvements were overshadowed by a 22% increase in injuries from rear-end accidents. Taken together, the study shows a statistically insignificant increase of injuries by 5%.

The results come amid Chicago mayor Rahm Emmanuel’s push to mount cameras on traffic lights city wide. The programs have attracted a growing backlash from critics who question its safety benefits and worry the program will lead to a swelling of ticket payments.

TIME Recalls

What You Should Do About the Massive Airbag Recall

Car Dealerships Ahead Of Total Vehicle Sales Figures
Bloomberg—Bloomberg via Getty Images Honda Motor Co. vehicles are displayed for sale at the Paragon Honda dealership in the Queens borough of New York, U.S., on Monday, Sept. 1, 2014.

Millions of cars from ten automakers are subject to an airbag recall. Here's what you need to know

Takata produces about 300,000 airbag replacement kits per month, possibly increasing to 450,000 or so. At that rate, it will take from 2 to 3 years to recall and replace the defective airbags in the 16-million to potentially 30-million affected vehicles in the U.S.

So what do concerned vehicle owners do in the meantime?

Takata is the only airbag manufacturer to use ammonium nitrate as a propellant for its inflators. Ammonium nitrate is affected by heat-and-cold cycling over time, plus humidity, that can cause it to become too forcefully explosive when ignited in a crash.

To fix this potentially lethal default the company says it has (1) changed the compression density force with new press machines; (2) rejected products that are not meeting quality standards; and (3) changed humidity control during production and assembly. Takata also says it also improved the hermetically-sealed package to minimize effects of moisture that would deteriorate the chemicals and make them less stable. Perhaps NHTSA should consider outlawing the use of ammonium nitrate in the first place, or at least use a safer chemical in the recall campaign.

But there are safer alternatives. It should be feasible to re-program the software in the vehicles’ airbag control modules (ACM). By changing the software, including the thresholds of activation and the control algorithms, the system could be made safer— as a temporary solution. The threshold to trigger the airbags could be raised so that it would take a crash at 30 mph, rather than 18 mph. In these low-speed collisions, the driver and passenger would still be protected by wearing their seat belts.

Since the driver and passenger airbags are dual-stage designs, they could be re-programmed to inflate only at the lower-pressure level to help ensure that the explosive force does not exceed levels that cause the metal canister to become lethal shrapnel. Because of the inherent instability of ammonium nitrate, such lower pressures in the canister cannot be absolutely guaranteed, but the risk would be reduced. (On the other hand, passenger risks would rise in a high-speed crash.)

To re-program your car’s Takata airbags, you’d drive over to your local dealership and download new software into your car’s ACM computer. It would likely take less than an hour, and then you’d drive away with a less-risky airbag system that could still offer protection in a crash. If the automakers and Takata cooperated, such software could be developed and tested and available probably within a month…. or maybe even a week.

I believe it should also be a requirement that each affected vehicle have a label attached permanently on the instrument panel, advising that the vehicle has been recalled and that a replacement airbag system has been installed. The date of such recall and replacement action should also be noted on the label.

Finally, I believe that all Takata airbag systems should have a “failsafe” pressure-relief mechanism to prevent any over-pressurization of the airbag. In the late-1970’s I became aware that too many pressurized beer kegs were exploding and propelling lethal shrapnel that injured or killed college students. I showed there was a solution, a simple device that would vent out any over-pressurization before it could cause the metal keg to explode. Lives have been saved by adopting such an inexpensive, simple device for beer kegs. Why not a use a similar device to prevent excessive forces from rupturing the metal canister that holds the airbag’s propellant? And yes, the canisters should be made stronger, too.

Byron Bloch has over 30 years of experience as an independent consultant and court-qualified expert in Auto Safety Design and Vehicle Crashworthiness. Over the years, he has inspected accident vehicles to evaluate how and why the occupants were severely injured, and exemplar vehicles to evaluate their structural details. He has qualified and testified as an expert in auto safety defect cases in Federal and State Courts coast-to-coast. He also lectures, writes, and appears on TV reports on auto safety design and vehicle crashworthiness.

TIME Environment

Your Electric Car Isn’t Making the Air Any Cleaner

Inside The 1st International Electric Vehicle Expo
Bloomberg/Getty Images A Nissan Motor Co. Leaf electric vehicle (EV) is driven for a test drive during the first International Electric Vehicle Expo.

Rich places get most California green vehicle subsidies—and the environmental benefits of rich people’s Teslas are canceled out by all the gas-guzzling clunkers still on our roads

This is a tale of two zip codes.

First there’s 94582: San Ramon, California.

Since 2010, the roughly 38,000 citizens and businesses of this prosperous Bay Area suburb, where the median household income is $140,444, have purchased 463 zero emissions vehicles. Such vehicles receive major state subsidies; nearly $1 million of these subsidies went to vehicle purchasers in San Ramon. But San Ramon doesn’t need the anti-pollution help. Despite being home to a large highway complex and a business park, the city scores in the cleanest 10 percent of California’s zip codes, according to the Cal EPA’s Enviroscreen Index.

The second zip code is 93640, the Central Valley town of Mendota, population 11,800, with a median annual household income of $28,660, which is less than the $36,625 sticker price of a Honda Fit EV. Mendota is in the top 10 percent of California zip codes for pollution and vulnerabilities such as childhood asthma, according to the CALEnviroscreen. And how many vehicles were purchased there under state subsidies? Exactly one, a lone car whose owner received $2,500.

California’s green vehicle policies have been successful enough to become a model for other states, fueling a movement that is electric, both literally and culturally. The state’s audaciously utopian vision has cajoled an initially reluctant auto industry into producing cheaper, better behaving electric cars, led by the media-savvy upstart Tesla. Since 2010, Californians have put more than 100,000 electric vehicles on the road. But those green vehicle policies contain a flaw that undermines their intent and magnifies the unfairness of California’s economy. These rebates—of as much as $5,000, funded by an extra charge on vehicle registrations—go mostly to affluent communities on California’s coast.

Of the $151 million in subsidies paid since 2010, people who bought zero emissions vehicles in the Bay Area, South Coast (Los Angeles) and San Diego Air Basins have gotten $132 million. Over the same period, people in the San Joaquin Valley have gotten $3 million, despite having the most intractable air quality problems in the state.

Go below the Valley’s smog, and the problem runs much deeper: Its cars are old—much older, on average, than the state’s vehicle fleet. Estimates suggest that the median vehicle in poorer Valley communities is from 1996. According to the Air Resources Board, a vehicle made in 1996 produces 29 times as much pollution per mile from its tailpipe as one sold in 2012.

Translation: The Valley’s stock of old gas guzzlers is wiping out the clean air benefits of the subsidies we’ve bestowed upon the wealthy parts of the state.

You can see the dynamic by looking at those two zip codes together. Every 1997 vehicle in Mendota wipes out emissions benefits of 29 electric vehicles in San Ramon. More precisely, it only takes 16 of Mendota’s finest clunkers to turn the benefits of nearly $1 million in subsidies for San Ramon into a pile of sooty particulate.

I am not making this point to advocate the end of the green vehicle subsidies, but to point out that these subsidies were created to target the state’s wealthy. And they succeeded.

Rebates, tax credits and HOV lane stickers appealed to the better off in parts of the state with thriving economies and traffic congestion. Now the state needs to come up with a new set of policies to target California’s many Mendotas. We need a suite of incentives—low interest loans, non profit auto leasing, and more accessible, appropriate rural transit—to get working families out of older polluting vehicles and into cleaner transportation (which doesn’t have to be electric).

Last year I spoke with a Mendota farmworker who drives a 1995 Ford Explorer. Mr. Hernandez drives twice as far to his skilled job every day—115 miles roundtrip—as the average driver of a Nissan Leaf. Last year he had to pay for two smog tests and repairs, totaling around $500, just to keep his car registered.

From Mr. Hernandez’s point of view, the car is a money pit, but it’s necessary for him to get himself to work and bring his daughter to high school. (Parents have to drive their kids to school when the Valley’s Tule fog delays school start times.) Because the car gets only 15 mpg, he spends $400 to $500 a month on gasoline, and often puts off paying other bills to keep getting to work.

Mr. Hernandez said he’d love to get “a little Honda.” Ironically, if he had access to credit, he could get a Ford Fiesta for $1,400 down and $194 a month, which would cut his gasoline bill in half. But such credit is not easy to come by: The percentage of families without a bank account in Fresno is 3.5 times the national average and used car dealers charge much higher interest.

A well-designed state program to enable families to finance or lease better cars would improve their financial situation and reduce gasoline consumption, and carbon emissions. Mr. Hernandez’s clunker is a big opportunity to make much more dramatic air quality gains than we’re currently achieving. Once they’re in place, these programs can be extended to make electric or other zero emissions vehicles accessible to more families and income levels. This will not be easy, but it is no more utopian than the dream of kick-starting an electric vehicle market.

And as it now stands, California’s air incentive policies miss the people who could use them, and sometimes even seem to work in reverse.

California’s air districts offer cash to owners who turn in old, polluting cars to junkyards, but these programs seem to pick up clunkers that are not driven much. In a survey of 164 vehicles scrapped in Southern California, 29 percent were incapable of driving 25 mph.

By contrast, Mr. Hernandez, with his high weekly mileage, got stymied when he went to his local scrapyard. He was offered a $400 incentive, but was told he’d need to pay $650 to clear up an issue in the title. The deal simply didn’t make sense.

“Now I own an antique!” he said throwing up his hands like a man who’s trapped. But he’s not the only one: California’s big green vision will be stuck in neutral until we figure out how to extend its promise to every zip code.

Lisa Margonelli is an editor at large at Zócalo Public Square, for which she wrote this. Her white paper on vehicles in the Central Valley is available here.

This piece originally appeared on Zócalo Public Square.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Automobiles

GM Lawyer Increases Death Toll From Recalled Cars

General Motors CEO Mary Barra Testifies Before Senate Committee About GM's Recalls
Alex Wong—Getty Images Attorney Kenneth Feinberg testifies during a hearing before the Consumer Protection, Product Safety, and Insurance Subcommittee of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee July 17, 2014 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. The subcommittee held hearing on "Examining Accountability and Corporate Culture in Wake of the GM Recalls."

The figure has now been raised to 19 and is expected to go even higher

A lawyer for General Motors has raised the number of eligible compensation claims for deaths related to defective ignition switches in millions of recalled cars.

The death toll from the recalled cars is 19, not 13, as GM had originally indicated. That’s according to an assessment released Monday by GM lawyer Kenneth R. Feinberg, who manages a compensation program for accident victims and surviving families.

The Detroit-based automaker in February recalled more than 2 million of its cars after it acknowledged that switches in the vehicles were prone to shifting, cutting the engine’s power and deactivating airbags and other safety systems. The company had previously said it believed that the faulty switches had led to 13 deaths.

GM has given Feinberg “complete and sole discretion over all compensation awards,” and has waived its right to disagree with his numbers, the company has said. GM said on Monday that it accepts the new, higher assessment of the death toll, Bloomberg reports.

“Ken Feinberg and his team will independently determine the final number of eligible individuals,” a spokesman for GM told Bloomberg. “What is most important is that we are doing the right thing for those who lost loved ones and for those who suffered physical injury.”

GM has so far received 125 death claims, and it is not known how many of those claims might be found eligible in the coming weeks or months. The auto giant is expected to receive even more claims before its Dec. 31 deadline.

GM has also received 58 claims for serious injuries, including brain damage, pervasive burns, double amputation, paraplegia and quadriplegia. Four of those claims have been deemed eligible. Another 262 claims have been received for lesser injuries that required hospitalization or outpatient treatment, eight of which have been accepted.

GM has said its compensation program has no cap and that it will pay any sum that Feinberg “deems appropriate in each and every individual case.” In July, it said it had allocated between $400 million and $600 million for the fund, though it has not yet said how much each individual claim so far approved is worth.

TIME Automakers

Chrysler Recalls Up to 800,000 Jeeps Over Ignition-Switch Problems

A 2005 Jeep Grand Cherokee rolls down the assembly line Wedn
John F. Martin—Bloomberg/Getty Images A 2005 Jeep Grand Cherokee rolls down the assembly line Wednesday, Aug. 25, 2004, at Chrysler's Jefferson North Assembly Plant in Detroit, Michigan.

Older Jeep Grand Cherokees and Jeep Commanders may have a faulty ignition switch

Around 800,000 older Chrysler Jeeps could be affected by a recall due to a problem with the ignition switch, the company said in a statement Tuesday.

The company said it is aware of one reported accident associated with the defect, but no injuries.

The recall will affect a still-undetermined number of model year 2006-2007 Jeep Commanders and 2005-2007 Jeep Grand Cherokees. In vehicles affected by the problem, contact with a driver’s knee or other outside force can move the ignition switch from on to off, causing the engine to stall and cutting power brakes and power steering.

The company said its investigation is ongoing but that around 792,000 vehicles could have faulty switches, including 659,900 in the U.S. and others in Mexico, Canada, and elsewhere. Newer models have been redesigned are unaffected, the company said.

Chrysler’s recalls come as rival automaker General Motors has recalled nearly 28 million automobiles worldwide for similar ignition switch issues. The GM problems have been linked to at least 13 deaths, and the company has faced federal investigation over its handling of the situation.

Chrysler also announced that 21,000 vehicles, including certain 2014 Ram pickups, 2015 Jeep Cherokees and 2015 Chrysler 200 sedans, will be recalled for inspection and, if necessary, have their shocks and struts replaced.

TIME Innovation

Ford President Says Aluminum F-150 Is All Engines Go

Ford

Ford says the truck will ship on time this year, despite analyst concerns that manufacturing plant retooling will impact availability.

Investment firm Morgan Stanley is publicly fretting the truck might be delayed, but Ford says its new lightweight aluminum Ford F-150 pickup is on track and we’ll see it later this year.

“Everything is on schedule and everything is going as planned,” Ford Americas President Joe Hinrichs told reporters, speaking at Ford’s headquarters in Dearborn, Michigan (via Automotive News), adding that he was “very confident in this vehicle.” Morgan Stanley’s analyst Ravi Shanker had said earlier that Ford’s planned factory retooling, which it has to perform in order to produce the new pickup, would result in “slow changeover, with tight supply.”

Ford has noted the planned retooling would temporarily deplete its production by over 90,000 F-Series pickups, reducing company sales and profits. Furthermore, margins are expected to be lower on the new aluminum-bodied F-150. But Ford views all of that as necessary back-stepping to be first to market with a truck that uses a combination of “military-grade aluminum and high-strength steel,” and that’ll weigh roughly 700 pounds less than the version it’s replacing.

Note that Shanker doesn’t say the launch itself is in danger of being delayed, only that supply is going to be very tight in 2014 given manufacturing constraints. If supply is at a trickle, that could mean higher demand-driven dealer pricing, of course, culminating in a scenario where the truck’s debut looks more like a paper launch, and buyers wind up having to wait to lay hands on one until supply catches up.

TIME Automobiles

This Is Why Nokia Is Betting on Smart Cars

No longer a cell phone manufacturer, Nokia is hitching its future on automobiles. The company announced today that it will invest $100 million in smart car technologies through its venture capital business, Nokia Growth Partners. Nokia already has a significant presence in cars thanks to its mapping services, which are used to power GPS systems in four out of five vehicles, according to Bloomberg. The new investment will help Nokia grow its influence in the auto industry as cars become Internet-connected devices.

Nokia is just one of several tech companies that are trying to chart the automobile’s future. Google’s self-driving cars are getting more adept at handling city streets, while Apple is rolling out a version of its iOS operating system made specifically for cars later this year. Car manufacturers themselves are also working to develop smart cars—General Motors plans to sell a mostly self-driving car by the end of the decade.

Nokia completed the sale its mobile phone business to Microsoft for $7.2 billion last month.

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