This is a rather etymologically mysterious term to most people today, but an examination of the changes in meaning of drag over the centuries makes it clear why we call racing for fastest acceleration drag racing.
In the 16th century, drag was a term for a sledge, a platform with skids, not wheels, that could be dragged behind a horse or ox. From an act of Elizabeth I of 1576:
Sleades, carres, or drags, furnished for...repairing...high wayes.1
By the mid-18th century, drags were sporting wheels. From Johnson’s 1755 Dictionary:
DRAG. n. s. [from the verb]
3. A kind of car drawn by the hand. The drag is made somewhat like a low car: it is used for the carriage of timber, and then is drawn by the handle by two or more men.2
By the mid-19th century, drag had transferred from the vehicle to the street. From Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor of 1851:
Another woman...whose husband has got a month for “griddling in the main drag” (singing in the high street).
By the 1930s, the word had also transferred over to automobiles. From R.T. Hopkins’s 1935 Life & Death at Old Bailey:
When the car thief knocks off a drag (car) from some West End car park.3
The sense of drag meaning a race and the term drag race can be traced to the late 1940s. From an ad the 2 May 1947 Marion Star in Marion, Ohio:
Mt. Vernon, Ohio. Drag Racing
Every Friday Night4
So drag racing gets its name from sledges and carts that used to be literally dragged behind horses. Along the way, drag made pit stops at the sense of streets and automobiles before settling into the most common 20th century sense of automobile acceleration races.
2Samuel Johnson, A Dictionary of the English Language (London: W. Strahan, 1755), DRA-RA.
3OED2, drag, n.
4Barry Popik, “Drag Racing (1947); Newspaperarchive.Com,” American Dialect Society Mailing List, 27 July 2003.
Copyright 1997-2013, by David Wilton