No. 48: Malcolm Durham
Malcolm Durham

 

In 1947, Jackie Robinson broke Major League Baseball's color barrier when he became the first African-American player to sign a Major League contract. In the 1960s, a drag racer by the name of Malcolm Durham accomplished a similar feat, establishing himself as the sport's first black superstar.

"We encountered some problems in the South because those people didn't want to accept us," said Durham. "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."

In the mid-1960s, Durham was given the nickname "D.C. Lip" in an attempt to ally himself with the controversial Muhammad Ali, then known as Cassius Clay. But Durham was actually a soft-spoken, hard-working individual whose storied match-race accomplishments were the result of many long hours of hard work.

Raised on a family farm in Goldsboro, N.C., Durham gained his initial mechanical experience working on tractors. He began racing in 1957 at Easy Street Dragstrip in Newton Grove with a 225-horsepower '56 Chevy.

After moving to Washington, D.C., Durham took automotive courses at a technical trade school and campaigned the '56 Chevy at Aquasco Speedway with great success. In 1962, while working as a mechanic for Hicks Chevrolet, he began campaigning a 409-cid '62 Chevy with Z-11 heads, winning nearly 90 percent of the races he entered.

After moving from the repair department to car sales, Durham was able to devote more time to racing. He campaigned the first 427-cid Z-11 '63 Chevy available in Washington, D.C., under the name Strip Blazer I and improved from his 409 best of 12.26 to 12.01 his first time out at 75-80 Drag-A-Way. Later that year, he defeated both Dave Strickler's A/S Chevy and Bill Jenkins' A/FX entry, and before long, Durham was regularly booked at match races on the East Coast, campaigning against Don Nicholson, Sox & Martin, the Ramchargers, Hayden Proffitt, Strickler, and Jenkins.

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. "It was my answer to Ford's 427 Thunderbolts," explained Durham. "We had the engine moved back eight inches from the stock location, but we did it in a way that few people could detect."

Ronnie Sox and Buddy Martin won the A/Factory Experimental title at the 1964 Winternationals, but Durham's Chevelle beat them on consecutive evenings at 75-80 and Cecil County, then defeated them three more times at a New York match race.

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.

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 converted the car to B/EA, then 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 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 builds racing engines for a living.

Though Durham keeps busy with his nostalgia programs and his sons' racing efforts, he still has dreams of returning to Professional racing. "But we'd have to have the resources to do it right. When I started, one or two guys could do it themselves, but it's certainly not that way now. Drag racing has sure come a long way since my career began." -- Steve Waldron