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(Photo: Marc Gewertz/NHRA)

Beside the Rising Tide: Kind of a Drag

Back in an era when lift kits and bull bars consumed a great deal of any mental exertion I managed daily, our tribal wisdom told me that when you find yourself continuously stuck in a rut, raise your rig up higher and get bigger tires.

Nowadays, it’s not as easy to escape the comfortable little ruts that we allow to define our life path as much out of inertia as habit. Drag racing, the legal sort and the sort that plays itself out on public roadways, has played a large part in the misspent decades that make up my life. That’s even though it’s been NASCAR oval track racing that paid the bills and consumed an inordinate amount of what I jokingly refer to as my free time.

So Thursday, when my good friend and neighbor Andrew approached me about heading to the dragstrip on Friday, there weren’t any good excuses to stay home. Maple Grove is about 20 miles from my home. The drive is about a half hour, even less if you’re not one of these mindless sheep that think Google Maps knows the shortcuts. Friday was also a spectacular day, very warm and sunny after an unusually cool and damp August. So we set out for what for years was the NHRA Keystone Nationals but now goes by some corporate name.

While I’ve been to the drag strips for old-timer events and grudge nights, it’s been a long time since I’ve been to an NHRA National event. My full-time gig involves working every Sunday watching the NASCAR races. Thus, I was interested to see how much the NHRA had changed compared to stock car racing over the last decade or so.

First off, while drag races used to be a bargain as far as admissions, that’s not so much the case anymore. We were there on Friday before eliminations began, comparable to practice and qualifying for a Cup race. The drivers in various classes were running time trials that would set up the ladder of the top 16 who would compete for a class win and points later in the weekend.

A general admission normally costs $47, but if you bring along a can of Mello Yello (the NHRA’s title sponsor) you could get eight bucks off. That seemed a bit steep to me, because I recall qualifying day tickets as once costing under $20. (Of course, I also remember a case of beer going for $12, a pack of smokes for $1, a new Mustang GT selling for $10,000 and being able to live in a $50,000 house without having nuns knock during the holidays to offer you a free Thanksgiving dinner.)

A general admission ticket this weekend got you anywhere right up to about the 200-foot mark on the strip and out the big end of the track if you wanted to see what 330 mph looks like. That’s 330-plus mph from a standing start in 1,000 feet (the pro nitro classes no longer run the 1,320-foot quarter mile.)

We wandered in around noon after facing minimal traffic heading in, but maximum headaches trying to park thanks to the teenage rookies trying to keep things organized in the parking lot. Yep, a handicap placard is so rare these days you can’t blame them for not having a clue what one is and expecting you to walk a mile from your parking spot to the track. (Just like a NASCAR race!)

I did see some older fans clearly in distress trying to make the hike and that was on an afternoon in the mid-80s. Hopefully they were able to make it on Sunday with temps in the mid-90s and much higher relative humidity in these parts.

Arriving when we did, we were able to catch the end of the Pro Comp classes, the alcohol funny and dragster entries, Pro Stock bikes, Pro Stock cars, Fuel Funny Cars (my soft spot in drag racing) and the Top Fuel rails.

Again, it wasn’t Sunday, the big day of the event. But I’d say by the time the Pro Stock bikes were rolling to the line, the grandstands were about three quarters full, and I’d say there were about as many fans on hand as there were for the last Cup race I attended at Dover International Speedway. It’s tougher to get a read on a NHRA crowd because a lot of people are over wandering the pit area getting autographs from fan favorites like John and Courtney Force and Tony Schumacher. Yep, your general attendance ticket gets you into the pits and up close and personal with the stars of the sport. Try that at the next Cup race you attend.

Another thing I immediately noticed about my fellow fans on hand is it was a much more culturally diverse group than I’ve seen at any Cup race I’ve ever attended. The crowd in general was of a much younger average age than at a stock car race, though perhaps I only noticed that because I am now on the elder side of the dividing line.

There were plenty of us gray hairs on hand, of course, guys who could remember back to Grumpy Jenkins, the Snake and the Mongoose Hot Wheel Funny Cars, and Don Garlits. An old friend, Lee Jackson, who is a lot more passionate about drag racing than I am, was able to fill in some of the blanks once Andrew and I found him in the grandstands.

I will say a few things to folks of my generation who were there Friday. First off, no guy over 50 should wear short pants, particularly not when paired with dark-colored socks and white athletic shoes. You look like you arrived on the short bus and are wandering around looking for your free ice cream or your comfort animal. The battle is long since over; Mom or Dad is no longer going to drag you to the barber. Once you’re bald on top and the rest has gone gray, accept it and get a haircut.

A gray ponytail doesn’t say, “party in the back,” it says, “too damned senile to remember to get a haircut.” Perhaps you intend the coroner to use your belt loops and ponytail to lift you into a pinebox in the near future? (To be fair, there was one bunch of what looked like high school kids wandering around all day, and one of them had the long, straight, lifeless shoulder length hair like the ‘do I constantly argued with my parents over back in the day. No wonder. That style does, in fact, look like hell.) There were also a high percentage of “Wild Brunch”-style, upscale, would-be bikers. Hey, guys, a real devoted motorcyclist will have heavy scuff marks on the inboard side of his left boot from shifting. And if you insist on temporary tattoos, get the good ones that don’t start peeling off when you sweat.

One benefit of a younger crowd is that they tend to bring along younger women (or perhaps the younger women are bringing along their boyfriends). There were some real beautiful ladies on hand Friday at the Grove. The crowd also had a much larger percentage of minorities than you see at a typical stock car race. Sure, some of their hair styles and wardrobes seemed a bit odd to me, but we all had at least one thing in common: it was a fascination with fast, loud cars, and the faster and louder the better. Perhaps the diversity in the fan base also reflects a more diverse set of heroes for whom to pull. Many women and minority drivers have enjoyed great success in drag racing including numerous championships. Overall, I found the crowd at the Grove more laid back and polite than at any stock car race I’ve been too lately outside of Richmond Raceway.

Another bonus is that there were actually adequate restrooms and port-a-potties, and there was never a long line when nature called. For informational purposes, I took a glance at the ladies’ rooms as well. There were no lines there either, which is seldom the case at a stock car race.

Straight line fans and circle track devotees can expect the same extortion at the concession stands, though. A hamburger was $8, and it was the size of a half dollar. A Coke, meanwhile was $5. Yes, you are allowed to bring your own cooler to an NHRA race, but like the Cup tracks it can’t be any longer than 12 inches. So unless you were mentioned in Scrooge McDuck’s will, bring your own refreshments.

Much like stock car fans, many of the folks on hand I talked to on Friday aren’t real thrilled with the latest generation of Funny Cars and Pro Stocks. In the door slammer class, it was once easy to tell Ronnie Sox Hemi Cuda from Grumpy Jenkins’ Camaro or Dyno Don’s Mustang.

The Pro Stock cars looked pretty much like their street counterparts but with huge hood scoops. The Funny Cars bore at least a passing resemblance to some sort of street car be it a Mustang or a Camaro. (Though oddly, for many years, both Fords and Chevys typically ran blown Mopar Hemi engines.) With the diminished greenhouses of contemporary Funny Cars, they look more like some sort of Transformer stuck halfway changed. I couldn’t tell one Pro Stock car from the next though I’m told almost all of them were Camaros. Some of the Funny Cars were said to be Toyota Camrys. (The less said about that, the better. NHRA fans aren’t thrilled by Toyotas competing either.)

Even on qualifying day, there was a heavy TV presence at Maple Grove, and it was clear they were ready for Sunday’s big event. Like stock car racing, TV is essential to keeping the sport alive. But for professional drag racing, TV coverage is a double-edged sword. There’s no way around it, but there’s just too much downtime between races in drag competition. Two cars will roll to the staging area and do burnouts to half-track. They reverse back to the starting line, and the drivers typically play head games, with each other trying to force the other driver to stage first. Once the green lights illuminate, a typical funny car or rail run is over in less than four seconds. In the Pro Stock ranks, their runs last around six-and-a-half seconds. Even folks with the worst cases of ADD can stay focused that long.

But then the next pair rolls to the line and the dance starts all over again. Between classes, the track sends out equipment to soak the lanes in a gooey substance similar to what was used at New Hampshire this weekend. (The NHRA has been using the stuff for years before NASCAR ever decided to try it on oval tracks.) Then Tire Monster machines built off trackers go out to lay down some rubber from the starting line to about mid-track.

Next, all the crew chiefs get to walk the length of the track, studying its surface and occasionally calling for improvements to make sure both lanes are equal as far as traction. In the interim, another 15-20 minutes is lost. TV can tape the whole event, then just show the highlights, the runs and an occasional interview. That means an event that takes three days to run can be broadcast in three hours without fans missing anything of consequence. But live drag racing, as in full coverage flag-to-flag, is never going to work and never has worked, to be frank. So the televised version is what will keep the sport growing or let it fade away to obscurity.

But just as the time compression factor TV allows is vital to drag racing, TV can never capture fully the sounds, sights and smells of live drag racing, particularly not the sounds. I don’t care how expensive your surround sound system is or how many amps you have, you can’t capture the noise of a pair of Top Fuel cars making a side-by-side run at home. If you tried, you’d blow out your windows and likely crack the sheetrock in your home.

A pair of fuel cars making a run isn’t as much a noise as it is an explosion. We were at the 200-foot mark of the track and even while the cars were just warming up, conversation was impossible even when you removed your hearing protection. Standing in the aluminum grandstands I could feel the aluminum slats trembling under my feet as the cars approached the line. The noise was so overwhelming that it echoed off the buildings behind the stands and made it sound like there were another two racecars preparing to run behind you.

When the lights went green, the noise wasn’t just something you heard, it was something you felt. The shock waves of sound pushed you back so hard you had to lean forward to keep your balance and you could feel your ribs compress. Your eyelids were blown wide open. Four seconds later, it was over, though even with hearing protection your ears ached another minute or so.

Like I’ve told you, this wasn’t my first trip to the drag strip, and I ran a bunch of different cars myself when I was younger. As such, I played cowboy and left my ear plugs in my pocket for the door slammers and alcohol cars. I only inserted the plugs for the nitro machines.

But it’s only now, nearly 36 hours later, that I am still regaining my normal hearing. (The nice ladies at the Sunoco convenience store seemed baffled as to why I was yelling when I stopped in this morning.) My eyes didn’t hurt, but watching a solid object like a racecar travel from 0 to 330 mph in such a short distance wasn’t just amazing, it was confounding, like some sort of magic trick the drivers played time and time again.

So if you call yourself a drag racing fan, or even if there’s just a National event within reasonable driving distance of your home, you owe it to yourself to attend live. How well you respond to an afternoon of long aural and visual mugging will determine how often you’ll attend future events. (Hint: Seriously wear your hearing protection from the moment you get to the track. If you can afford it, get a pair of the headphone type, rather than the rubbery plugs like you might wear at a gun range firing off a few clips. They don’t give medals out in the grandstands for being a moron, or I’d have left with a bunch of hardware pinned to my chest Friday.)

It would seem the folks in charge of the NHRA are doing a good job of attracting a younger and more diverse crowd to their events, something that to date can’t be said about NASCAR. Will the NHRA ever land a hugely expensive and comprehensive TV contract like the current one NASCAR has with NBC and FOX? My guess is that that won’t happen, and in fact, there’s about to be a major correction in the cost of obtaining broadcast rights not only in auto racing but in other sports as well.

That trend would play out in the NHRA’s favor as a network can bank on a younger, more diverse crowd that’s growing rather than contracting at a dramatically lower price. Still seem unlikely? In my youth (and I may be old, but I’m not ancient) interest in IndyCar-style open-wheel racing dwarfed interest in NASCAR. The blame for the shift can be placed on the shoulder of open-wheel series management. They made dumb choices, to be brutally honest, and were badly out of tune with the wishes of their fans.

Sound familiar?

One Final Note

Obviously, over the weekend the sport of NASCAR racing got dragged into center ring albeit almost accidentally. It’s almost ironic that after increasingly desperate attempts to get back in the headlines NASCAR fell into the limelight based on comments by President Donald Trump and a couple of car owners followed by tweets from the sport’s most popular driver.

Yeah, there are some things I could say about it all, but I’m choosing to spare you, gentle readers, a CAT 5 tirade unless I get really pissed off. (And what are the odds of that happening to your mild-mannered scribe?) As I see it, sports are where fans like you and I go to escape political debate a few hours and seek some entertainment. Mixing of the two seems not only ill-advised but also reprehensible.

As always, in confusing times we can turn to the Book of Bruce for enlightenment. It stands written:

That flag flying over the courthouse,
Means certain things are set in stone,
Who we are, what we’ll do, and what we won’t….

-The Long Walk Home

About Matt McLaughlin

Matt McLaughlin
Matt joined Frontstretch in 2007 after a decade of race-writing, paired with the first generation of racing internet sites like RaceComm and Racing One. Now semi-retired, he submits occasional special features while his retrospectives on drivers like Alan Kulwicki, Davey Allison, and other fallen NASCAR legends pop up every summer on Frontstretch. A motorcycle nut, look for the closest open road near you and you can catch him on the Harley during those bright, summer days in his beloved Pennsylvania.

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3 comments

  1. In keeping with the drag racing theme, before he started racing ovals, Richie Evans was a drag racer (legally) for a few years. One of the drivers he came up against was a female driver trying to make a name for herself. Shirley Muldowney.

  2. Thanks Matt, for almost making me want to go to Atlanta next spring. Almost! Thanks again for the kind and gentle closing. I’m close to the point of pouring bleach in both eyes and ears.

  3. Nice read Matt.