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Deja vu at the drag strip

A visit to the NHRA U.S. Nationals rekindles an old passion

Published: September 10, 2012, 10:00 AM
Updated: April 29, 2018, 12:29 PM

Funny Car Burnout - John Force - US Nationals - 2012

It was like deja vu and a high-decibel video game all blended together in a psychedelic blur. But it was real.

It had been several decades since I'd attended a big-league drag race. I won't say just how many but if you're a drag-racing fan and I tell you the headliners at that event were Connie Kalitta, 'The Bounty Hunter', and Kris Karamesines, 'The Greek', you'll pinpoint the era.

My youthful devotion to the drag strip, nurtured by the pages of Hot Rod magazine, soon succumbed to the siren-song of the road-racing track as issues of Road and Track replaced them in my mailbox.

But every form of racing maintains its allure. So when fate found me in Indianapolis for a family visit on the same weekend as the replay of the rained-out 2012 NHRA U.S. Nationals, the result was inevitable. I just had to go.

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The NHRA (National Hot Rod Association) is the primary sanctioning body for drag racing, both amateur and professional, and the U.S. Nationals is its big-daddy event – its Daytona 500 and Indy 500 all rolled into one. And it has been since 1955.

Back then there was only one Nationals event each year, where the winning racers from regional divisions around the U. S. and Canada (there are now seven NHRA-sanctioned tracks in Canada) competed against each other for national class championships, much like the SCCA Runoffs in amateur road racing.

Although it moved around in its early years, the U.S. Nationals has been held in Indianapolis at what is now called Lucas Oil Raceway (formerly Indianapolis Raceway Park) since 1961.

Originally called just The Nationals, it added the U.S. prefix in 1972, when national events began to proliferate. Now it's just one of 23, but still the richest and most prestigious.

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Regional winners still get to compete at the Nationals, but the 244 individual classes that NHRA sanctions are pared down to manageable numbers by running cars off against each other on a handicap basis, determined by performance indexes for each class.

By the time they get to Indy, they're grouped together into fields of disparate qualifiers under the umbrellas of Stock, Super Stock and Competition classes, as well as Top Alcohol Dragster, Top Alcohol Funny Car (both running on alcohol fuel) and Pro Mod.

While the majority of competitors in those classes are highly professional operations, and many feature big-bucks sponsorships, the stars of the show are the so-called Pro classes: Top Fuel and Funny Car, both of which are powered by nitromethane fuel, Pro Stock cars and Pro Stock motorcycles.

Those are the classes you're likely to see racing on TV. And they're the performers I went to see.

So much was the same as I remembered but, oh my, so much had changed as well.

The muddy parking lot was familiar, as was the long, muddy trek to the track itself. So was the acrid odour of burnt rubber and the sound of big-bore engines as I got closer.

But inside the gates, the comparison was like that of Disney World to a country fair.

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I hadn't been oblivious to the progress the sport had made over the years. I knew that it, like Formula 1 and IndyCar racing had become highly professional and market driven.

Nevertheless, I wasn't prepared for the degree to which sponsorship and marketing have encompassed it now and the sheer cubic money it takes to drive it.

As with other forms of racing, long gone are the days of hauling your race car to the track on an open trailer behind the family station wagon. Even the few amateurs in attendance had enclosed fifth-wheel trailers with covered awnings to work on the cars and the latest heavy-duty pickups to tow them.

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But the pros! Their multi-tractor-trailer rigs, mobile workshops and hospitality setups surpassed anything you'd find in the IndyCar ranks these days, coming closer to Formula 1 levels in their lavishness.

Of course drag racing remains the sport of the common man and woman (women topped the qualifiers in two of the top four classes when I was there), so there were none of the barriers that isolate F1 from the fans that enable it.

A general admission ticket ($50 for the day) gets you access to almost everything except the inside of the racers' motorhomes.

The paddock area was a kaleidoscope of colour and activities, all attacking the senses, competing for attention.

There were as many people there as in the stands, it seemed – scores of them lined up at the multitude of vendors' booths in the Manufacturers' Midway, which were selling everything from T-shirts and model cars to hard-core racing parts.

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Rather than being locked away in seclusion, the drivers were front and centre, with big-name stars like the ageless veteran, John Force walking the line of fans at his encampment, signing autographs and grinning for pictures with their kids.

I soon had to desert the paddock for the grandstands, driven out by the membrane-searing assault of nitromethane fumes as crews fired up the engines for various Top Fuel dragsters and Funny Cars.

The permanent stands lined both sides of the track for at least half its length, and they were nose-bleed high. No more wooden bleachers or temporary structures for drag-racing fans.

Likewise, the control tower and administrative offices were modern multi-story edifices, adjacent to the staging area.

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But it was the cars that were the centre of attention. First the alcohol funny cars and dragsters, then the Pro Stock bikes and cars, Funny Cars and Top Fuelers, all vying for a spot within their respective 16-vehicle qualifying fields.

Their qualifying positions would be determined by their elapsed times (ETs) through the quarter-mile, whether or not they won their races, and would determine their competitors for the elimination round that followed.

The alcohol and Pro-Stock races were impressive, with cars launching at impossible rates, it seemed, and top speeds much higher than back in the day.

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But even that prelude didn't prepare me for the nitro-powered missiles that were the climax of the show. Nor did the spectacular burnouts they performed, to heat up the tires, obliterating themselves in smoke in the process.

The cars are much different now, of course. The dragsters I remember were called "slingshots," with the driver sitting at the very back, behind the rear wheels, and the engines in front.

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Now, the driver is ahead of the engine with the tires bringing up the rear. And the needle-like nose is even longer and more pronounced.

The Funny Cars, in their current flip-top-body guise, didn't even exist the last time I was at a major drag race.

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Nothing had prepared me for the seismic impact that ensued when the starting light went green and that first pair of Funny Cars launched in unison. It was like being inside an explosion. The ground quite literally shook!

I'd been warned to wear ear protection – something I've never felt necessary at a racetrack except when I was inside a race car itself – and fortunately, I heeded that advice.

I thought a standing start with a full-field of big-block Can-Am cars was loud – but those cars were pussy-cats compared to these monsters.

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It wasn't just the noise. I could feel the combined percussion of the engines' exhaust pulses and the tires flogging the tarmac throughout my whole being.

After another 30 passes or so, it was a non-event. But that first initiation to modern-day drag racing at the highest level left an indelible memory.

The point wasn't lost, either, that today's Top Fuelers are going almost twice as fast in a little over half the time as the ones I remember. Such is the pace of progress.

Not everything has changed, however. Connie Kalitta, one of the stars of my long-ago memory, is still a car owner. And he was at the starting line at age 71, helping stage the car for his nephew, Doug.