Octane
By Henry Phillips
on 2.10.14
Photo by Henry Phillips

D
rag racing at its core isn’t a complicated sport. Two cars line up. Their drivers hit the pedal on the right. A thousand or so feet later someone wins. It’s simple, it’s quick, and it sounds like it would lose its appeal after the first couple runs. And yet even a century after the automobile’s propagation, people (on this side of the Atlantic, at least) are still lining up at lights across the nation and dropping the hammer. Many more are paying to watch.

It stands to reason that there must be something more to this sport, something visceral that has kept people interested in pure, unadulterated speed for so long. With that in mind we headed to the first race of professional drag racing’s pro circuit, The NHRA Winternationals at the historic Auto Club Raceway in Pomona, California.

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Even pulling up to the raceway at 9 a.m. on Friday morning — a day whose action and attendance pales in comparison to the packed weekend portion of the race schedule — parking lots were full and hundreds of cars that would have excited any American car fan were waiting for their turn to speed away from the quickly rising sun.

The first groups of cars that morning were the Stock and Super Stock classes, which had been out since 8:15 and were some of the most beautiful cars of the entire schedule. The first race saw a Mach 1 Ford Mustang from 1969 face off against a similar-vintage Chevrolet Camaro. Needless to say we were hooked.

The first pair of 10,000 horsepower nitromethane funny cars had rolled to the line. What followed was a 150-decibel, 4-second, 315 mile per hour 1000-foot drag race.

The day progressed like a running history of the dragstrip arms race that has engulfed the world of drag racing since the NHRA’s inception in 1951 (and well before in more illegal and public venues). The mostly reasonable and recognizable (though thoroughly tweaked) Stock and Super Stock cars (usually running somewhere between 10-12 second quarter miles) gave way to heavily modified Super Gas (9.9 second quarters), Comp, and Super Comp (as fast as 7 seconds at about 190 mph). Beyond these classes, any similarities to cars on the nearby Pomona streets ceased to exist.

On came the alcohol-fueled funny cars and dragsters (5.1-5.4 seconds at about 270 mph). At this point in the dragster’s progression, a driver has to pick which side of the sport he or she is going to pursue. Option one is the dragsters, which resemble what most of us would imagine when we think of a drag racer — long wheelbase, no extraneous body paneling, huge rear tires and a big engine bolted to the back. Funny Cars are another beast entirely. Matt Hagan, the 2011 Funny Car champion described them as “a man’s car”, with a much shorter wheelbase, a downforce-producing body and the same engine as the top fuel dragsters dropped in front of the driver (not an ideal position, as driver Ron Capps found out later in the day).

We were raving about the incredible speed and eardrum-hammering roars of the alcohol-fueled cars when a group of proper NHRA fans flashed some shit-eating grins and told us we were in for a treat: the first pair of 10,000 horsepower nitromethane funny cars had rolled to the line. What followed was a 150-decibel, 4-second, 315 mile per hour 1000-foot drag race that immediately answered any lingering questions about drag racing’s visceral appeal. Bigger was better.

This sport is the very definition of that greatest of American mantras. Sixty years have passed and each race has been part of an evolution to increase one single variable: speed. This is racing distilled. The only way to properly experience it is to be in the stands as two of the most impressive pieces of machinery in the world line up at the lights, waiting for their drivers to hit the pedal on the right.

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