The world of hot rods and drag racing has its romance, but it has its dark side as well. Recent high-profile incidents—such as one involving football star Jalen Carter—show that the pastime is one which courts peril and even death.

The thrills and the dangers were both acknowledged when LIFE took a deep dive on drag racing in a 1957 cover story. The photos capture the charm of a sport in which people take cars and soup them up and see how fast they can go. It’s the essence of an age in which people were deeply connected to their cars, seeing what they drove as an expression of self and of a newfound mobility, rather than just a way to get from point A to point B. Many of the photos in this gallery are by the great Ralph Crane, but it also includes other drag racing images from LIFE photographers Frank Scherschel, N.R. Farbman, Grey Villet and Loomis Dean are either from that story or other instances in that decade when LIFE sent its photographers to document the hot rod life.

The 1957 magazine story was headlined “The Drag Racing Rage: Hot-rodders Numbers Grow But Road to Respectability is a Rough One,” and the nine-page package talked about how drag-raching was going to backroads amusement/hazard to a controlled sport, with a growing number of fans clamoring to see these races that lasted as little as ten seconds.

But not everyone was happy about it. “Safety groups and some police officials feel that the glorification of speed on the strips infects the teenagers with a fatal spirit of derring-do on the highways,” LIFE wrote. The story reported that police chiefs had voted to condemn drag racing at a gathering in Chicago, as had the National Safety Council.

Despite the dangers, the sport carried on, and it still does. These photos are a monument to a time when drag racing was born, and car culture was at its peak.

Competitors sitting on top of cars during drag race in Santa Ana, California, 1957.

Ralph Crane/Life Picture Collection/Shutterstock

People watching cars drag racing in Santa Ana, California, 1957.

Ralph Crane/Life Picture Collection/Shutterstock

A drag race competition, Santa Ana, California, 1957.

Ralph Crane/Life Picture Collection/Shutterstock

A team of men push a car at a National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) sponsored drag race held at the Orange County Airport, Santa Ana, California, 1957.

Ralph Crane/Life Picture Collection/Shutterstock

A team of men push a car at a National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) sponsored drag race held at the Orange County Airport, Santa Ana, California, 1957.

Ralph Crane/Life Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Two uniformed men stand beside hot rods at Santa Ana Drags, the first drag strip in the US, Santa Ana, California, 1957.

Ralph Crane/Life Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Scenes of drag racing (and drag racing cars) in Minneapolis, 1957.

Frank Scherschel/Life Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Scenes of drag racing (and drag racing cars) in Minneapolis, 1957.

Frank Scherschel/Life Picture Collection/Shutterstock

A hot rodder tuned up his Model T Ford before a race at a drag strip in Santa Ana, California, 1957.

Ralph Crane/Life Picture Collection/Shuttertstock

It’s a concern that carries on today. Even as it’s hard to deny that the photos of the world and its enthusiasts all looks pretty cool, as it takes you back to a place and time when car culture was at its peak.

Men praying during drag racing in San Francisco, California, April 1957.

Nat Farbman/Life Picture Collection/Shutterstock

A man prepared his hot rod for large drag race, California, March 1957.

Ralph Crane/Life Picture Collection/Shutterstock

In the parking lot of a drive-in, an unidentified carhop serves a tray of food to hot rod owner Norm Grabowsky, who sits with a friend in his customized Ford with a Cadillac engine, as a large group of other admire the car, Santa Ana, California, 1957.

Arthur Schatz/Life Picture Collection/Shutterstock

A drag race begins, 1957.

Hank Walker/Life Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Hot Rodders drag raced in the L.A. River, 1957.

Ralph Crane/Life Picture Collection/Shutterstock

A drag race, 1957.

Hank Walker/Life Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Men working on a chromed roadster in preparation for a drag race in California, 1957.

Ralph Crane/Life Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Men cleaning their hot rod, 1953.

Loomis Dean/Life Picture Collection/Shutterstock

From a 1953 story on hot rods and hot-rod accessories.

Loomis Dean/Life Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Drag racing in Moline, Illinois, 1957.

Grey Villet/Life Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Drag racing in Moline, Illinois, 1957.

Grey Villet/Life Picture Collection/Shutterstock

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