Former dragstrip racers gather to remember ‘good old days’ in Helena

Published 5:35 pm Monday, August 20, 2018

MICHAEL J. BROOKS / For the Reporter

HELENA–It was like “American Graffiti” in the 50s and 60s when Shelby County residents and those from surrounding areas came to Helena to watch drag racing.

“It was every weekend in those days,” former drag racer George Blaylock of Pelham said.

“I lived in Chilton County at the time and looked forward to the trip to Helena and racing every weekend. I remember when Don Garlits made it to 200 mph at the Helena Dragstrip. It was the first time this happened, so the dragstrip is part of history.”

Blaylock said cars today can attain 300 mph in a quarter mile or less.

“That’s like being shot out of a gun,” he said.

The local fraternity of former drag racers met on Saturday, Aug. 18, at the Penhale Museum in Helena to share memories and updates.

Blaylock said things changed over the years, including a newer dragstrip north of Birmingham that took some of the clientele from Helena.

“Most of the old cars are gone,” he said. “They wore out over time and got junked or ‘lost in the shuffle.’ And we thought it was expensive in those days. Today an engine can cost $100,000 and some cars only get three or four runs out of a set of tires.”

Blaylock served in the U.S. Navy in New Jersey and Pennsylvania for about 10 years and found drag racing popular there, too, before he returned to Alabama.

“National events throughout the country are huge,” he said. “Someone with a good product can make a lot of money today. Some have multi-million-dollar deals, so it’s out of my league!”

Blaylock said Garlits has been an honored innovator in the sport. Garlits not only recorded speed records, but he first determined to put the engine in the rear. Known as a “top fuel” racer, this design affords better protection for the racer. Garlits lost part of a foot in a clutch malfunction, so he began to search for a better design. He was also an early promoter of the Nomex body suit to protect drivers.

Former driver Charles Portera of Jemison said he didn’t own a car now either.

“We tracked my old dragster to Texas, but there’s no place to store it,” he said. “In the day I used to buy, sell and build all the time.”

Portera said he was fortunate to only sustain minor injuries while driving.

“I broke my foot once and I got burned and scalded a few times, so I was lucky,” he said.

The Penhale Museum opened its dragstrip exhibit two years ago. Portera was among the former racers who contributed memorabilia to the museum.

According to the museum, the former Helena drag strip was behind what is currently Gospel Light Baptist Church in Helena on Roy Drive off Shelby County 58.

“I suppose the woods have taken over,” Blaylock said. “But in the day, we all enjoyed the dragstrip, our hobby and our friends.”

To view the latest happenings with the dragstrip alumni, visit