The theories are almost as many and varied as the machines that have populated its ranks for five decades. Explanations range from a simple challenge ("Drag your car out of the garage and race me!") to geographical locale (the "main drag" was a city's main street, often the only one wide enough to accommodate two vehicles) to the mechanical (to "drag" the gears meant to hold the transmission in gear longer than normal).
The first "dragsters" were little more than street cars with lightly warmed-over engines and bodies chopped down to reduce weight. Eventually, professional chassis builders constructed purpose-built cars, bending and welding together tubing and planting the engine in the traditional spot, just in front of the driver; the engines, and the fuels they burned, became more exotic, more powerful, and, naturally, more temperamental.
Like almost all racing cars, they have undergone tremendous evolution as racers upgraded, experimented, theorized, and tested their equipment.
Safety and innovation paved the way to rear-engined Top Fuel cars in the early 1970s, and once drag racing legend Don Garlits - himself a victim of the front-engined configuration when his transmission, which was nestled between his feet, exploded in 1970, severing half of his right foot - perfected the design, the sport never looked back. Today's Top Fuel dragsters are computer-designed wonders with sleek profiles and wind-tunnel-tested rear airfoils that exert 5,000 pounds of downforce on the rear tires with minimal aerodynamic drag.