Hilo Drag Strip revs up for Labor Day
Here’s a way to play detective to uncover if someone is a Hilo Drag Strip car racing enthusiast: Ask what’s their favorite color and if they have a heavy foot.
If the answers are “Green and yes,” then there you go.
After all, the green light is when all the fun starts at the 36th annual Big Island Auto Club/Tommy Thompson Labor Day Drag Races.
Thompson was one of the original founders of the club, which traces its roots back to four decades, a history written by Geoffrey Laurer, another original founder. (He’s not related to Matt Laurer, NBC’s morning anchor.)
On April 17, 1968, more than 80 racing enthusiasts formed Auto Club Hawaii, later changed to Big Island Auto Club, and Oct. 27 of that year the county issued a permit for a single car, one-eighth mile blast down Kamehameha Avenue.
Laurer wrote on the website ahramotorsports.com/member-tracks.php that more than 5,000 spectators lined both sides of the street to watch the outlaw racers legally drive way over the speed limit on a public road.
Track manager Donnley Koga estimates the Labor Day drags draw about 2,500 spectators over the two-day event. It’ one of the most popular races for the BIAC, which also highlights May’s Memorial Day and April’s VW Bug-in races.
It goes without saying that prime seating always goes to the early birds. The gates open at 8 a.m. both days. Ear plugs and a good attention span for quick action are also handy.
Koga has been racing over three decades, and as a kid he remembers seeing Laurer at the track all the time.
“He’s one of the originals and I know he worked at BEI (a fertilizer and chemical company) for 99 years and recently retired,” Koga joked. “He’s been a supporter of the Big Island Auto Club when I was a kid. Geoffrey put in a lot of free time. Every day he would come down.”
Laurer and the golden-voiced Russ Roberts share tower announcing duties. Laurer also brings along his 24-year-old grandson Christopher to assist in the booth.
The Labor Day drags will feature door slammer dragsters, open wheel, imports (Honda, Toyota, etc.), junior dragster, motorcycle and normal brackets. The event will feature 60 to 80 cars, including some from Oahu and Maui.
Back in the day, drag racing took place on public highways, like Keaukaha’s four-mile stretch, Kalapana, Kapoho and Pepeekeo, a popular but illegal spectacle.
Even after that first legal permit, it was another two years before the club found a temporary home. On Nov. 29, 1970, the first legal drag racing event was held at the Old Kona Airport, and drew about 6,000 fans.
Laurer noted during that time drag racing showed it could be run in a safe manner, and wasn’t a passing fad, and in seven years at Kona there were no race-related injuries.
The Hilo Drag Strip was completed in 1978, and Laurer pointed out that the club’s goal and direction evolved into a community service organization with the purpose of promoting a safe yet exciting sport while helping local neighborhoods.
Hopefully the weather holds up because the BIAC will play host to an important visitor. (Hilo’s weather forecast calls for 20 percent chance of rain over the weekend.)
The Labor Day drags are being sanctioned by the American Hot Rod Association, and president Rod Saint, from Florida, will fly in with his tech and safety personnel.
“He’s coming to check the track. He’s never been to Hawaii. We’re happy we’re representing him,” said Koga, who added that Saint is bearing gifts. “He’s bringing the Ironman AHRA Trophies. He’ll present them to all classes of all winners.”
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