Appreciating drag racing
As a budding journalist attending a John Force match race at a small Canadian dragstrip in 1996, I recall asking Austin Coil how much quicker he thought Funny Cars could go after Force set the E.T. record in June that year, going 4.88 seconds at Topeka. His answer? “Well, it’s still a long way to zero.”
This year at Phoenix, Tony Pedregon set the current fuel flopper record to 4.65 seconds. Still a long way from zero, but incredible nonetheless. And of course, Tony Schumacher’s 4.42 from “The Run” last year continues as the even quicker record-setting mark for the Top Fuel ranks.
That a car can accelerate from a standing start and cover a quarter mile so quickly never fails to amaze me. It’s not so much the massive power that does it, though I’m certainly suitably impressed, it’s more so the fact that a tire can actually grip a racing surface and transform that brute force to forward motion.
As the year comes to a close it has me thinking about why I actually enjoy drag racing. I mean, how many times can you watch a pair of cars blast down a strip and still find something interesting about it? I don’t know, but I’ll let you know if I ever reach that number.
It’s more than just about the speed, though. There are dozens of little things at every race that I just get a kick out of. For instance, I love that moment when the drogue is released behind a speeding car, but the chutes are not yet out. Not really an easy thing to appreciate live, but those finish-line TV cameras have turned it into routine enjoyment.
And where else can you literally feel the competition? The launch of a pair of nitro burners will “tickle your innards,” as the old advertising folks at Mountain Dew liked to say. Or what other sport attracts fans with gas masks, the better to witness those close proximity warm-up sessions in the nitro pits without looking like someone just told you that Fluffy died? Of course, what other sport even requires such drastic measures from its most ardent followers? It takes a special breed.
How about the smell of exhausted race fuel? Nitromethane, alcohol or just good ol’ high-octane race gas, nothing else on this earth smells quite like a racetrack. Mix that with the scent of burning rubber, traction compound, and just a hint of barbeque smoke and I’m in drag racing heaven. Or something like that.
I like watching crew chiefs give their drivers that final thumbs up before sending them down the track, or wives and girlfriends watching anxiously from the starting line, partly in fear for their loved one’s safety and partly in hoping he does well enough to go on to the next round. They have a lot vested in this racing thing, too; you can see it if you care.
Then there’s that moment at every race when the first car of the day fires on the line. It doesn’t seem to matter whether it’s a Top Fuel legend or just a local bracket bomber, that first bleat of racing exhaust signifies the fun’s about to start. It’s a fleeting moment to be sure, but a moment noticed by everyone each time it happens.
Then there’s the unpredictability. From index racers on the eighth mile to wicked Pro Mods with little or no rules to the titans of the sport, you just never know what’s going to decide each pairing. Redlight starts, wheels-up launches that go a little too far, nitrous explosions, broken blower belts, getting nipped in the lights. No doubt, the favored car typically prevails, but it’s never a given and that’s the way I like it.
But I especially love the finality of drag racing. No provisional qualifying spots, no making up for lost time in the pits, no seemingly endless laps of follow-the-leader. Follow the leader in a drag race and that’s a very bad sign—you’re going home early.
Without question, drag racing is the most visceral of motorsports and there’s still a lot for me to see, to hear, to taste, to smell, to feel. There’s still a lot to enjoy and experience, a lot of records to be broken, a lot of reasons to come back and do another year. After all, it’s still a long way to zero.