Gentlemen, start your engines…
What sport spends millions of dollars in pursuit of a foot-high trophy by following a groove, avoiding wheel spin and watching a Christmas tree?
It’s not a trick question. The answer is Drag Racing and for this article specifically the top end of the NHRA, the National Hot Rod Association. There’s a $3M dollar purse. Spread that out and it barely covers the fuel bill. There must be something deeper at stake here.
Classes include Pro Stock, Motorcycles, Top Fuel and Funny Cars. Some of this will be revealed as it can get overly complicated. Top Fuel and Funny Cars are the most dominant, noisy, clearly un-environmentally friendly but the biggest crowd pleasers, home to the sport’s big names.
Capable of well over 300 mph at the finish stripe with acceleration figures akin to a rocket ship; 0-100mph in under one second, pulling 5G like a fighter pilot. If a race lasts four seconds, something broke. The track is measured at 60 feet, 330, 660 and the end, 1000 feet from the tree, this is highly specific though for reasons known only to information fanatics and TV.
CH3NO2, better known as Nitromethane is the reaction between propane and nitric acid. A potent brew that burns nose hair and gives breathing a hard time also helps that Chrysler Hemi develop 10,000+ bhp. Other engines are available. Gas masks can be seen worn around the paddock. Torque is massive.
Watch the burnout, that second or two of full throttle clutch dumping action to heat and clean the rubber. Then a crew member has donned special mitts to rub off any collected detritus. Some wear ear defenders, don’t pity those who don’t; they can’t hear you anyway.
To the line. Staging is set by inches and turns on the blue light. Roll seven inches further and you’re deep staged – closer to the finish line but also to a red light foul. Gamesmanship. Cahones.
The tree. Before you realise, it’s green and the two protagonists (sometimes four – mind blowing) are gone with a sheet of flame and terrifying roar. And three point six five seven seconds later, the commentator drives the crowd crazy on announcing the victor.
If it’s close at the stripe, a photo finish picture reveals almost cartoonishly elongated vehicles literally inches in front. Heady stuff. The driver then pops the lid or shimmies out of the cockpit and even if the loser has a smile on their face. The winner’s is bigger, mind but hand shakes, fist pumps and hollerin’ occur.
Between races an army of mechanics swarm over the engine replacing almost every possible part. Countless hours preparing, checking, testing tuning, repairing. Cylinder problems are rife: detonations devastating. The well drilled crews begin again, be that routine maintenance, or crash damage. This rigmarole continues for 24 races across the US. Do not drop that wrench.
Competition is fierce yet appears on TV as friendly. Most teams know each other, been around the (engine) block together. Current chap atop the Top Fuel ladder is Steve Torrance. Classing himself a true “ Hill-Billie”, his a-whoopin’ an’ hollerin’ have been extensive this season. Funny Cars has the hard staring Robert Hight but he faces stiff competition from his team boss and owner, 70 years old John Force. Competing since 1979, Force is a force to be reckoned with. He’s just won his 150th race. His teeth are Daz White. His daughters compete too, yes, girls are allowed, often showing the men-folk who’s boss.
Dismissing drag racing as a “quarter mile dash” is an injustice. Egos the width of Wisconsin, budgets to make countries weep, mind games, deep staging, reaction time and that all elusive Wally(r) Many drivers state “outdoor activities “ for their downtime away from the strip. Rarely are they as svelte as the more typical racing driver. More steak than salad, here.
But there really is something quite compelling about the game. Earth shattering, violent cacophony. Camaraderie. Entertainment. Rooting for your favourite. Enormous rear tyres that appear to buckle. Hoping he/she doesn’t loose it as the tyres smoke. That particular way America deals with heartbreak.
As for Wally (r) the trophy, he’s named after Wally Parks, the NHRA founder and dished out to the “winningest” driver and has been since 1969. Made from a blend of zinc and “aloonimum” on a walnut base, Wally (r) is held aloft with pride, shown to the heavens, the cameras, the fans.
“As real as a glass of water. As hard to get as a million dollars” Steve Johnson, Pro Motorcycling racer states after twenty years effort without one.
Tony Schumacher, a noteable pilot of recent times points out “Not so much what it is but what Wally (r) represents.” Personal goals, teams, families, pride. Prosaic stuff from Hill-Billies. Every ticket allows access all areas, fans up close and personal, totally unlike those Formula One luminaries hidden behind veils, fences and management.
These guys and gals flaunt it but in an oh-so wonderfully American way. Filthy lucre and sponsorship deals always make life sweeter for the chosen few. Long may the Wally (r) be searched for.
Editor’s note: Top Fuel drag racing engines are derived from the Chrysler Hemi, and not the Chevy V8 as originally stated. This has since been amended in the text [21/08/19 18.23 GMT].