By Jason Cruz
Northwest Asian Weekly
Al Young’s ascension to the top of the drag racing world is unique, especially for a Chinese American with Attentional Deficit Hypersensitivity Disorder (ADHD) and in a sport that is dominated by the blue collar, white Americans.
Nevertheless, he is a drag racing hall of famer and still races to this day. Young’s race car is proudly being displayed at the Museum of History and Industry and his story is an example of overcoming stereotypes and finding your strength.
Young was not diagnosed with ADHD until he was in his 50s. Growing up in San Francisco as the youngest of three children, Young had trouble keeping still as a youth and had problems in school. His two older sisters were good students, but Young had issues in school and with academics. Young said that he could not read while in school. As a result, in high school, he took industrial arts classes rather than college prep courses as Young did not believe college was in his future. Young chose to go into the industrial arts to his father’s chagrin.
“I was put in with blue collar white guys,” Young recalled about his instruction in industrial arts classes. “I really liked building engines,” he said of working on automobiles. The concentration on working on cars helped with his ADHD.
His mother understood and encouraged him to build model cars and airplanes as an outlet for his enthusiasm. In fact, Young secretly purchased an old car for $25 and hid it around the corner from his house. He would tool around with it without the knowledge of his parents.
His father, a Stanford alumni and officer in the military, was worried about Young’s future and feared that his son would either drop out of school or not graduate. Young’s father offered him a compromise if he finished high school.
“If you stay in school, I’ll get you an apprenticeship,” Young recalled. He was able to work at an auto repair shop where he learned the craft.
At 16, Young confessed to racing on the streets of San Francisco until he was 19. Street racing, of course, is illegal.
After the apprenticeship, Young left his home in San Francisco and found a community college in Longview, Washington. He felt the need to leave so that he could attempt to focus. While at community college, he discovered that he was able to read while walking around the block. He went on longer walks to do more reading. As he discovered the ability to walk and read, his academics started to get better.
Young did well enough that he was accepted to go to school at the University of Washington (UW). He majored in English Literature and received a Bachelor of Arts in 1968 and a master’s from the UW in English Literature in 1972. He went on to be a teacher in the Seattle Public School system for 37 years and founded one of the first Alternative schools in Seattle in 1973.
Young taught a variety of subjects in school, including auto shop. In the class, he actually showed students the basics of drag racing.
Although he had raced illegally in San Francisco, Young had his first legal race when he was 27. “My first legally sanctioned drag race was in 1973 at Seattle International Raceways, [now known as Pacific Raceway].” Being the only Chinese American on the track, he decided to lean into his ethnicity and painted a Chinese Lion on his car. Young noted that he did not experience outright racism at races, but there were times when he was the only person of color at the track. “I get ribbed (made fun of) a lot because of the stereotype that Asians can’t drive,” joked Al Young. But Young has proven to be a champion drag racer, breaking the mold that Asians can drive. He recalls one time that he and his friend, who is Black, were the only two drag racers of color at a race in Bristol, Tennessee.
“32,000 spectators attended the event and we only saw two people of color in the stands.” Young stated that they came over to the pits to shake their hands.
“Auto racing is a sport for the rich,” explained Young. However, sponsorship deals and Young’s passion for cars helped Young make do on the racing circuit as a source of help with auto parts, supplies, and more. The key sponsor for Young was Seattle-based Bardahl oil.
Young has racked up the prizes and awards over the years, including being the American Hot Rod Association World Champion and the National Hot Rod Association Division Champion. He was inducted into the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) Hall of Fame for the Northwest Division in 2018. The NHRA has an overall fan base of over 78 million, according to Young, and is the largest motorsports sanctioning body in the world.
In addition to racing, Young maintains a kung fu practice which helps with his ADHD. He has been taking part in the martial art for 49 years and is the oldest member of the Seattle Kung Fu club in the International District.
Young donated his car, which he won at the World Championships, to MOHAI in 2007. It was recently returned to the main floor of the museum after being in storage for 9 years. The Dodge Challenger will be on display through the Spring of 2023.
He holds the distinction of being the first and thus far the only Asian American World Champion in all of Motorsports.
“Hopefully this will change,” said Young.
Young still spends his weekends at the race track as he continues to actively race. So far this year, he’s been in 12 separate events in two different classes of races. He is currently in 7th place in his division out of 140 racers.
Jason can be reached at email@example.com.