Wednesday, March 26, 2008

South Dakota's drag strips

Motorsports are alive and thriving in South Dakota. Tracks for dirt oval racing, motocross (outdoors and indoors), demolition derbies, and truck and tractor pulling are found all over the state. In this post we will concentrate on the straight-line stuff, drag racing.

If you are nostalgic about the good old days of hot rodding when customizing a car meant adding much larger tires on the back, a loud exhaust, and possibly a big hood scoop, check out a drag race. While you might not see those cars on the street much these days, they are still making runs 1/4 or 1/8 of a mile at a time.

The variety of machines at a drag race is amazing. Vehicles that you haven't seen in a long time, or maybe have never seen are transformed into screaming speed demons. And they make great photos.

For me, the basics of drag racing photography break down into several subject areas:

The "burnout," where drivers spin their tires until they smoke to heat them for better traction in racing.

The "launch," when racers get the green light and stomp on the gas pedal.

The "speed shot," where slow shutter speeds and a good panning technique can really show motion.

The "pits," where you can get closeup views of the cars, drivers and mechanics working, and the personalities of the sport.

Some of the faster cars will use a parachute at the end of a run, so even the slowing down can make interesting pictures.

Long lenses and fast shutter speeds are very helpful in a lot of cases while shooting drag racing. For your own safety, distances between your camera and the competing vehicles is going to be considerable, so a telephoto in the 200mm or larger range is usually your best bet for action shots. A polarizing filter can make a cloud of tire smoke really stand out from a blue sky and remove reflections from shiny cars.

The granddaddy of drag strips in South Dakota is Thunder Valley Dragways just east of Marion or 30 miles southwest of Sioux Falls on SD Highway 44. I don't know exactly when Thunder Valley opened, but it was one of my favorite places to go when I was a kid.

The schedule at Thunder Valley runs weekend events May through September, with three-day events stretching through Monday on the Memorial Day and Labor Day weekends. In 2008 they also have three races with funny car and dragsters on the schedule. More info can be found at

Sturgis Dragway is a 1/8 mile track approximately four miles east of Sturgis on Highway 79 that was originally built specifically for the annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally. It has expanded in recent years to hold a full schedule of races throughout the summer for cars, motorcycles and snowmobiles. Special events at the track include races held during the Black Hills Corvette Classic in mid-July and four days of All-Harley Drags during the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in early August.

Check out for more info.

South Dakota's newest drag racing facility is Oahe Speedway, 14 miles north of Pierre on Highway 1804 alongside Lake Oahe. Since opening in 2005, Oahe Speedway has been drawing racers on a regular basis from several surrounding states and Canada.

Along with weekly races throughout the summer, Oahe Speedway holds a National Open in September which brings in large numbers of race cars. More information is available at


Tim said...

Nice pictures. I love the sky in that last one.

Don't forget your ear plugs!

Chad Coppess said...

Yep, I forgot to mention that earplugs are a very good idea!

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