Drag Strip roars into Oswego
Saturday afternoon in downtown Oswego, a voice came over the loudspeakers: "We're here to remember the Oswego drag strip, so let's make some noise. Gentlemen, start your engines."
Keys turned, carburetors got busy, and many of the 275 cars parked along Main Street roared to life.
They were all muscle cars and dragsters, hoods up and pipes quivering. Their unholy noise drowned out the doo-wop music, obliterated conversations about the good old days and rumbled up the street in a cloud of high-octane exhaust.
This year marked the fourth annual Drag Strip Days and Car Show in Oswego, an event celebrating the period in Oswego's history when the village was famous for drag races.
From 1955 to 1979, hot rod owners from across the state and sometimes across the nation would converge on the quarter-mile asphalt strip north of Route 34 to test their mettle and fulfill their need for speed.
Back then, the drag strip was the center of the universe for young men like John Hambly of Yorkville, who built a custom dragster with his brother in the early 1960s.
"We literally lived 'American Graffiti,' with the cars and the cruising and everything," Hambly said, referring to the 1973 film about teenagers growing up in the golden age of the car culture.
"Our week consisted of getting ready to race on Sunday, racing on Sunday and then getting ready to race on the next Sunday."
"There's nothing in the world like going 180 miles an hour," he said, although he gave up racing as he got older and automotive technology got ever more complex. "Racing got too expensive after a while. Unless you had sponsors, you just couldn't afford to do it."
He never lost his love of cars, especially street rods, and still spends most of his free time restoring them.
"I actually like building them now more than driving them. I like to be creative," he said, pointing out the elaborately curved exhaust pipes and modified body of his 1924 Ford 3W Coupe he brought to show off at Drag Strip Days.
And showing off is what it's all about -- that's one thing that hasn't changed in the last 50 years.
A big car with a massive engine is undeniably impressive, said Robert Berta, who raced at Oswego and now owns a garage in Seneca.
"They're just cool," he said. "I'd rather be seen in that '67 Camaro than a new Mazda."
Berta was selling shirts and memorabilia from the days of the Oswego drag strip, all the while sharing laughs with the guys who grew up adoring cars as much as he did.
He recalled race days where he'd sneak into the races by hiding in the spare tire compartment of a friend's station wagon because he couldn't afford the $2 ticket.
"We didn't have any money," he said, and what little he did have went into his own car. During their senior year in high school, he and a friend built a dragster that they raced for a few years at Oswego.
"Looking back, it was a death trap," he said, since the car's only safety feature was a roll bar. "It wasn't like it is today, where you really have to be safe. But we had fun."