By Brent Kalwei
In 1967, The Beatles proclaimed that “All You Need Is Love,” the Kansas City Chiefs played against the Green Bay Packers in the first Super Bowl and Chevy introduced the first Camaro. 1967 was also the year that the Kansas City International Raceway drag strip opened on Noland Road.
For 44 years, two lanes of asphalt provided KCIR’s spectators with entertainment one quarter mile at a time. However, the track that thrived for so many years seemed to be taken away from us all too quickly. The track closed on November 27, 2011. If still standing today, KCIR would be celebrating its 50th year. Although the space once occupied by KCIR now essentially sits as an empty lot, there is no doubt that the track provided many highlight moments.
KCIR housed premier events such as the Summer Nationals from the 1960s-1980s that featured National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) legends such as John Force, Gene Snow, Shirley Muldowney, Bill “Grumpy” Jenkins, Tom “the Mongoose” McEwen, Don “the Snake” Prudhomme and “Big Daddy” Don Garlits, who was selected No. 1 on the list of “NHRA’s 50 Greatest Drivers.” My father, at 13 years old, along with a standing-room-only crowd, witnessed KCIR’s 1976 Summer Nationals.
Dick Harrell, known as “Mr. Chevrolet,” who owned Dick Harrell Performance Center located on Hickman Mills Drive, raced at KCIR the first year the track opened its gates. Harrell won KCIR’s King of Kansas City in 1968. He was also the American Hot Rod Association’s (AHRA) World Point Champion, and named AHRA’s “Driver of the Year in 1969” and “Driver of the Decade” for the entire 1960s. Harrell tragically lost his life in a funny car crash in 1971 in Ontario, Canada.
Larry Larson, who owns Larson Race Cars in Oak Grove, spent many years racing at KCIR. In 2014, Larson became the first driver to complete the quarter mile in less than 6 seconds in a street legal car. Larson did so in his 1998 Chevy S-10 truck.
I’ve been a baseball player for 22 years and since I began my career, I have enjoyed playing it more than any other sport. But I have to tell you, when it comes to being a sports fan, there is no better spectacle to attend than a drag racing event. There is a sense of thrill when you browse the variety of sweet rides in the pits, hear the sounds of the engines and take in the side-by-side action as the cars roar down the track.
My dad, Donnie Kalwei, took me to my very first drag race at KCIR in 1992 when I was just 2 years old. I would be lying if I said I remember any memories I had of the track at that age. However, that was the start of something special. Beginning in 1999, I enjoyed the many times my father drove me to the track in his black 1955 Chevy, similar to the one in American Graffiti, and in his blue 1971 Chevy Nova. But, he didn’t just drive his cars up to the track, he raced them too. He consistently attended weekly grudge nights from 1999-2011.
In the same way I gained interest in drag racing thanks to my dad, so did he from his dad. Before there was KCIR, my grandfather raced at Kansas City Timing Association Drag Strip located on Front Street from 1957-1967. My dad also watched his dad race his 1962 409 four-speed Chevy Impala at KCIR in 1967.
One of my other favorite memories was getting the opportunity to watch racers like DeLon Joseph, Terry Murphy, Willie Brumitt, David Schorr, Mike Bodine, John Hocking and my cousin Justin Kalwei compete in the Kansas City’s Fastest Doorslammer race. Joseph, who created and raced in the inaugural KC’s Fastest Doorslammer race in 1992, was a five-time winner of the event. Joseph, Murphy, Hocking, Brumitt, Jack Schorr, Edgar Wright and Dwayne Robinson competed in the inaugural doorslammer race. For more than 15 years, the KC’s Fastest Doorslammer race was KCIR’s premier event. The event featured pro modified cars that reached speeds of over 200 miles per hour. To this day my favorite drag racing class to watch is pro modified.
I think I can speak for the many drag racing fans and drivers of the Kansas City area when I say that a part of us is missing without KCIR. Earlier, I mentioned why drag race events were so special to me, and I would be remiss if I didn’t say that the track connected all who raced and attended as fans.
“The drag strip was just like a big family,” said Joseph, who raced at KCIR on the very first day the track opened. “There were hundreds of people that were down there that you knew. You saw them once a week and that’s how you got to know a lot of people. I have people stop in my shop all the time and say, ‘we used to watch you race down there.’ The drag strip closing is one of the most destructive things that has happened to this city in a long time.”