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The complete idiot's guide to drag racing

Fri, 11 Apr 2014

First, get yourself a car. A 550-hp dragster will do nicely. Sure, you could run what you brung, but a Miata's stock 1.8-liter would look mighty silly making a pass, and we don't have all day anyway. Wouldn't a big-block, high-compression Chevrolet 720R crate engine fed by a two-barrel Holley carburetor sound way better reverberating off the walls?

Then, get yourself a venue -- street racing is for chumps. C'mon, you know that. Auto Club Speedway recently reopened its Dragway after a two-year hiatus. A new settlement with the neighbors, million-dollar sound wall, and a return of NHRA drag racing to Fontana, Calif., is keeping the place busy. On some nights, you can even run what ya' brung.

If it's your first time drag racing, you should bring a guy who knows what he's doing. During his 30-year drag racing career, Frank Hawley won two NHRA World Championships - in 1982 and 1983 - and nine NHRA National events, in addition to wins in both Top Fuel Dragsters and Nitro Funny Cars. He was inducted into both the Canadian Motorsports Hall of Fame and, this year, the Drag Racing Hall of Fame. On the NHRA's list of Top 50 Drivers of All Time, Hawley placed 43. Hawley first got hooked on drag racing at the age of nine and decided he didn't want to do anything else. When he turned 16, he made good on this threat; aside from writing books on drag racing and commenting on drag racing, he hasn't done anything else.

Hawley founded his Drag Racing School in 1985 and has spent the past 28 years listening to people say, "Yeah, I could do that." He recently set up shop in Fontana when the Dragway reopened, after spending years in Pomona, where Hawley's school and Autoweek's testers sometimes vied for the same track time. "You can race dragster SIDE-BY-SIDE!" proclaim the banners at Fontana; for $399 and half a day of your life, you can do just that. Hell yeah. Bring a friend.

Hawley brought some friends. "Fast Jack" Beckman overcame cancer in 2004 and went on to win the 2012 NHRA Funny Car World Championship. When Hawley went back to Nitro Funny Cars in 2007, "Jack whipped me, twice. So I went back to teaching." Robert "Top Gun" Hight also won the NHRA Funny Car championship; his came in 2009 for John Force Racing. Hight is currently second in FC points standings -- behind only his eponymous teammate. Occasionally, the two take some time away from driving 8,000-hp funny cars to help Hawley teach. "I don't know why Frank picked me," said Robert. "I've helped my daughter with Junior Dragster, and she doesn't listen to a word I say."

By the end of the day, we hoped to earn a cool nickname.

Blake Z. Rong
Sean looks snug, moments after demonstrating the proper way to wear a dragster as a suit.

Climbing into the tube-framed, fiberglass-bodied dragster is an exercise in expert contortion. Grip the rollcage, put your legs over the fragile windshield, step onto the floor, squat into the seat, and do not under any circumstances bruise your genitals on the butterfly steering wheel, which looks like a thing to grip while shooting down Messerschmitts.

In front of you is everything you'll ever need for a successful drag-racing career: oil pressure, brake and water pressure, battery voltage and a bright red kill switch, right in the middle of the "wheel." No speedometer or tachometer--those are useless. The only speed you need to know is how fast you're going at 1,320 feet. Don't hit the curved hook on the left that deploys the parachute -- "Don't put the chute out for a photo op," Hawley warned. Got it. The shifter says PNR21 and features a reverse lockout in the form of a big-ass bolt. You see a lot of big bolts in drag racing.

These cars are governed to around 130 mph, two speeds and 5,000 RPM. Fancy engine management trickery? Fuel cutoff switches? Nope -- Hawley and friends stuck a big-ass bolt under the throttle, so you can't push it any further down. Brilliant. To concerned fathers of teenage boys, may we recommend a trip to Home Depot?

Blake Z. Rong
Jesus built my car. It's a love affair. Mainly Jesus, and my hot rod.

Here's how to drive a dragster. First, it helps to have a guy in back start the car for you. Our dragster came equipped with a laconic man named Sean who primed the car from the back (and who we nearly backed over after missing reverse-gear lockout. Sean, thankfully, remained calm). Then, hit the starter button. Feel that big-block rumble; it's right behind your head. Crank the "wheel," ease the car over toward the dragstrip -- in first gear with no throttle, the dragster can move at a brisk pace -- and stomp on the gas for three seconds for the customary, time-honored, all-American burnout. This does two things: 1.) It clears the meaty rear Mickey Thompsons of debris, heating them up for more super-sticky traction, and 2.) It looks positively bitchin'. By now, the car will have upshifted. Put it back in first gear. Click. Creep slowly to the lights and prepare to stage, a concept fine-tuned by smarter, more patient minds than us distilled it down to a science. It's a delicate balance of a racer's own reaction times, their vehicle's reaction, and the distance its tires move to exit the starting line. "There's something odd about drag racing," said Hawley. "A lot of good racing is done at 0 mph."

Blake Z. Rong
Nobody with a good car needs to worry about nothin', do you understand? Nobody with a good car needs to be justified.

When the lights go off, it's not 0 mph for long. Three amber lights flick on at the same time, also known as a Pro Tree. Hit the throttle and don't let go under any circumstance. The resultant whoosh is scary, exhilarating, not unlike a roller coaster. It takes your breath away, then rearranges your organs in patterns Picasso might have found interesting. All the fretting and fear about steering angles, all the late nights spent watching dragster crashes are for naught -- the dragster tracks straight and true, and there is no cause for concern whatsoever.

You don't realize how long a quarter mile is until you do the eighth mile first. By the time you get to the scoreboard, you should be doing something close to the advertised speed of 130 mph. But speed is ultimately an intangible unrestricted by human measurement. Ultimately, it's easy to see how this is addicting, how someone could make a career out of this. You're a one-man missile, you're Bullet Bill, you're tearing ass toward the finish line, but it's not quite coming soon enough -- you gotta go faster, you gotta add nitromethane and a blower, you gotta measure horsepower in four figures, and all of a sudden you're 9-year-old Frank Hawley sitting on your father's lap in London, Ontario, watching the dragsters streak from one side of your eye to the other and thinking, "If it looks this fast from the grandstands, how fast is it from the driver's seat?"

"On my tombstone," Hunter S. Thompson once said, "they will carve, 'IT NEVER GOT FAST ENOUGH FOR ME.'"

Final result: 10.848 @ 123.23 mph. RT was .228, which, allegedly, "wasn't bad." Astronauts and ninjas would make good drag racers, but Sparco doesn't make SFI-approved shinobi shōzoku yet, so maybe not.

We're still open to nickname suggestions.

By Blake Z. Rong