Greg Rourke’s story about the long lost Seneca Drag Strip in Illinois jolted my memory about some photos I took early this winter at the site of one of New England’s earliest drag strips, the equally long and lost Charlestown Dragway in Charlestown, Rhode Island. Like Seneca Drag Strip, Charlestown came to life on the grounds of a military facility, this time it was an active Naval Auxiliary Landing Field hugging the coast of Block Island Sound on the southern end of the smallest state in the union. In 1956 the Southern New England Timing Association held two test events at the facility using a closed runway. The events were a big success and “Charlie Town” as it came to be know was suddenly the third active drag racing facility in New England as races were being held at the Orange, Massachusetts airport and also the airport in Sanford, Maine (which had been holding races since 1950 and is the ancestral home for drag racing in the region). All three strips worked in unison for years with their schedules as to allow each strip enough dates to be viable.
Charlestown ran until 1964 and by the time it was all done, the place was definitely well known both in and out of the region. Coverage of the track found its way into many magazines of the day and their yearly running of the “Little Big Go”, which was a race held before what we now call the US Nationals paid winners enough money to travel to the biggest event in the world and compete. This was a significant meet each season as hot rodders in New England were always chomping at the bit to have a shot at showing the Midwest and West Coast guys they had the mettle to compete. As as testament to how popular the place was, Charlestown was part of the famous tour of the 1964 Dodge Chargers promotion vehicles that many consider the first funny cars. The supercharged door slammers were unlike anything most had ever seen to that point. They ran at places like US 30, Cecil County, Atco, and others on their nationwide tour with Jim Johnson and Jimmy Nix doing the driving.
I am not certain why they stopped racing at Charlestown in 1964 as the base was not shut down until 1974. Logic would say that the construction of Connecticut Dragway, which was a modern and dedicated strip just down the road in Connecticut had something to do with it. New England Dragway, the last standing quarter mile drag plant in the region did not open until 1966, so it could have been a dispute, government red tape, or the simple concession that a better facility was taking over the scene.
Today, the place is an expansive park. There was some early season snowfall before my visit so the full extent of the runways cannot be seen although I do think that they give an idea of the vastness of the place. I am not certain on which runway the hot rodders raced, but the tired old asphalt that is coming up in places sure must have some stories to tell.
Informal drag racing on airport runways is creeping back into the fold as events like Eagle Field, flashlight drags, and reunion races get more and more popular across the country. It was neat to stand in the center of what remains of “Charlie Town” and soak up the vibes for a few minutes with my sons. Maybe it was the wind, but I was almost sure I could hear full house flatheads, snotty nailheads with homemade zoomie pipes, and excited members of hot rod clubs madly wrenching on their stuff to make the next round or beat a rival club in a grudge race. To the rest of the world places like this don’t mean much. To gearheads like you and I, it is the most hallowed of ground.
Scroll down to see some photos of the former site of Charlestown Dragway -