NHRA pioneer Durham dies
By News-Argus Staff
Published in Sports on June 27, 2006 2:27 PM
Malcolm Durham, one of drag racing's first black superstar drivers, died June 22 after a bout with cancer. He was 66.
Durham, a Goldsboro native, was recently bestowed a Lifetime Achievement Award at the NHRA's Hot Rod Reunion in Bowling Green, Ky. In 2001, he was included on the NHRA's list of the 50 greatest drivers.
Raised on a family farm in Wayne County, Durham gained his initial mechanical experience working on tractors. He began racing in 1957 as a teenager at Easy Street Dragstrip in Newton Grove with a 225-horsepower 1956 Chevy.
"Driving those tractors was my first exposure to mechanical things," Durham recalled in a recent interview. "It created my interest in vehicles and such. I raced a '56 Chevy (in Newton Grove), and was pretty successful."
Soon after moving to the Washington D.C. area as a young man, Durham was drag racing a series of his own machines sponsored by Hicks Chevrolet in the early 1960s, a time when factory-backed drag racing was coming into its own. A loyal Chevy campaigner throughout his career, Durham soon began making a name for himself in a series of Super Stocks dubbed "Strip Blazer."
Though times were tough at times for black racers, Durham said he enjoyed the ride.
"We encountered some problems in the South because those people didn't want to accept us," Durham said in a 2001 interview. "But for me, being black was actually a plus because it made me unique, and I tried to capitalize on it as much as possible. During the late 1960s, I averaged $800 per appearance, and that made me one of the highest paid drivers in the business."
Chevrolet dropped out of racing at the end of 1963, prompting Durham to drop the '63 Chevy Z-11 engine into a midsize '64 Chevelle, which he called "Strip Blazer II."
Durham kept pace with the Funny Car revolution of 1965, updating the Chevelle with 1965 sheet metal and adding injectors and nitromethane; those changes netted bests of 9.56 and 150 mph. In 1966, Durham switched to a tube-frame Camaro, which took him to a win at the UDRA Nationals at U.S. 30. After he extended the wheelbase another 10 inches, he dropped into the eight-second zone.
Around this time was when Durham was given the nickname "The D.C. Lip"
"That was my PR guy, Monk Reynolds (who came up with the name)," recalled Durham, saying Reynolds was making an effort to capitalize on the success of Mohammed Ali, then known as Cassius Clay. Durham, however, was very soft spoken and let his accomplishments do the talking for him.
The addition of a supercharger in 1967 made Durham as quick and fast as 7.98, 178, and Durham spent the off-season completing a new Logghe-chassised Camaro that proved to be one of his best rides. He clocked 7.5-second elapsed times on a regular basis in 1968 and broke the 200-mph barrier in 1969.
Durham also competed in Pro Stock with a '73 Vega that clocked a 9.17 best. He later quit racing for a while so that he could send his eldest son, Bernard, to college.
Durham returned to racing with a 1984 Pro Stock Camaro, but after he crashed the car in Rockingham in 1985, he retired. Durham made a brief comeback in 1989 with a nostalgia version of his '65 Chevelle, and Bernard began campaigning in Super Gas with his father's former Pro Stock Vega. Durham has two other sons, Raynard and Byron, who build racing engines for a living.
The NHRA is celebrating its 55th anniversary in 2006, and has emerged as one of the most popular spectator sports, highlighted by 24-event, nationally televised tour. The NHRA has developed into the world's largest motorsports sanctioning body, with more than 80,000 members nationwide, and more than 140 member tracks.
"When I started, one or two guys could do it themselves, but it's certainly not that way now," Durham said earlier this year. "Drag racing has sure come a long way since my career began."
The NHRA contributed to this report.
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