Rocket on Wheels 

Funny car driver Whit Bazemore engages the g-forces

Funny car driver Whit Bazemore engages the g-forces

Drag racing is uniquely American. For one, the sport was invented here, but it also has the feel of a nostalgic high school Friday night or of James Dean in Rebel Without A Cause or of that urge to dust the guy in the other lane at the light at Meridian and Kessler. Stereotypically-speaking, the drag racer is the mechanic who in his spare time creates an engine made for pure speed and power, welds together a frame and builds a body, then hauls the rig to a track for a weekend of trials and tribulations. NHRA funny car racer Whit Bazemore is not so different in his love of speed and power, but his race is exponentially more intense.

Currently ranked third overall in the NHRA Powerade Championship point standings, Bazemore is one of the elite in auto racing. He has recorded the quickest elapsed time (4.713 seconds) and fastest speed (333.25 mph) for the NHRA funny car division and, over Labor Day weekend, Bazemore will be competing in the U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis, an event he has won twice so far in his career. Wearing Oakley shades, a black polo shirt, cargo pants and a pair of Pumas fit for auto racing, Bazemore seems more like a fighter pilot than a funny car driver. The comparison is apt: Able to go from zero to 300 mph in less than five seconds, what Bazemore drives is basically a rocket on wheels.

Speed is everything

The shop at the Schumacher Racing Team headquarters is cleaner than some hospital emergency rooms. No dust bunnies hover across the floor, there isn’t a drop of oil or automotive liquid anywhere. The average mechanic would either be terrified or collapse on the floor in reverence.

Back in the day, speed-junky mechanics would take a car like a Dodge Dart and move the rear end forward for better weight transfer. The bumpers would be long and overhanging — funny-looking — and, thus, the funny car breed was born.

Today, the cars have chromoly frames and super-aerodynamic shells. They look cool.

Hovering around the uncovered chassis, crew members prepare to transport the car Bazemore drives. It’s a simple vehicle — engine, frame, body and wheels — and it looks completely harmless, sitting bare, motionless, cold and quiet. Then Bazemore starts talking about acceleration and reality warps. “It’s not so much the G-force,” he says, “it’s the acceleration and the rate of acceleration.”

The G-force is there — 4.5 to 5.5 (more than the space shuttle exerts) — but picture an automobile, a Honda Civic, for instance, blasting across a football field in less than 3 seconds from a standing start. If the average commuter gunned a funny car, it would travel the length of two football fields before they even knew they had moved.

The numbers are staggering: 265 mph in 3.2 seconds, zero to 100 mph in less than a second. During racing, the sound the cars make can be heard 8 miles away, and they register 1.5 to 2 on the Richter Scale. The engine has 6,500 horse power — nearly 30-times that of a normal street car and is designed to either idle or run wide open.

There’s a clutch, a throttle, a brake and a parachute release button. The car won’t go half throttle down the track, Bazemore says, because the engine is likely to blow up. Winning a race comes down to tenths of a second, and there are two ways to lose: driver error or mechanical failure. The most common driver error is to “smoke” the tires or to let the clutch out too fast, causing the wheels to rotate so quickly that they loose traction, slowing the vehicle down considerably.

Mechanically, engines are pushed to the absolute edge — and over. Dangling air intake valves, flames shooting from the exhaust pipes, sparks and clouds of smoke, as well as crackling cylinder heads are not unusual as the crew attempts to tune the car for the constantly changing conditions of the track.

Drivers qualify by fastest times, and then pair off for elimination rounds. The intensity increases as the drivers advance toward the final. There is an immense amount of psychic stress as drivers anticipate the green light. The team most likely to win has both a fine-tuned car and a fine-tuned driver.

The impetus

When he was a sophomore in high school, Whit Bazemore’s grandmother gave him a Leica camera. Bazemore was living in Atlanta and, at about that same time, the Atlanta drag way opened. His parents drove him to the track, and he spent the entire weekend photographing the races. “He really had a great interest in photography,” says Chuck Bazemore, Whit Bazemore’s father.

The Bazemores are not a racing family. Bazemore was born in Manhattan, and his father is a semi-retired marketing consultant. Where many successful racers have fathers who were champions in the sport, Bazemore is a self-starter. Shooting photographs at the Atlanta drag way connected him with the people involved. The Atlanta race was a National Hot Road Association (NHRA) event and, after developing the film, Bazemore showed the track owner his pictures and was immediately offered the job of official track photographer.

Through his job at the drag way, Bazemore attracted the attention of large companies who hired him to do commercial photography work. R.J. Reynolds, Ford and Toyota, among others, paid him to photograph rodeos, golf tournaments and auto racing events, and this was before he had graduated from high school. “Photography was more than a hobby for him,” Chuck Bazemore says. “It gave him income.”

After graduating, Bazemore went to Frank Hawley’s drag racing school and, not long after completing a two-week course, was behind the wheel of an alcohol funny car. That was 1986.

“When I was starting out I was really jealous of golfers,” Bazemore says. “If you want to be a professional golfer you can go out and practice every day.” The gear is relatively inexpensive, he adds, and driving ranges and courses are easy to access, but race cars require a hefty initial investment, on the order of $1 to $2 million. “You have to not only be a driver,” Bazemore says, referring to his sport, “but a salesman, a mechanic, a spokesperson — all that stuff.”

The first team Bazemore drove for was tremendously under-funded. They raced on small, obscure tracks, and the car was a $40,000 kit car, but it was a way to learn the ropes. “I quit my job,” Bazemore recalls. “Stayed at the car owner’s house on the sofa. He fed me, and I worked on the car.”

That commitment and determination helped Bazemore get to where he is now — 18 years later — one of the fastest men on the planet, holding the funny car speed record of 333 mph (in 4.713 seconds).


Drag racing is similar to tossing a thread through the eye of a needle. Everything has to be totally precise, and an entire event may consist of only 20 seconds of race time. This is the irony of Bazemore’s profession: The hours of preparation, the years of experience lead up to a five-second make-it-or-break-it run. “You have to be perfect from the get-go,” he says.

Very few drag racers are successful early in their careers because gaining experience behind the wheel takes time. Steering a car as it races like a bullet down a narrow strip of pavement is no easy task. The cars are not long-term investments and, for self-starters early in their careers, one blown engine or devastating crash can end the season.

“Your brain,” Bazemore says, “speeds up to slow down the car.” Einstein declared that time is relative, and drag racing demonstrates this concept better than any other sport. Tenths of seconds determine winners.

Instead of driving the car, drag racers react to the car, something that distinguishes this from other auto sports. “The car is accelerating so hard,” he says, “that the back is always trying to pass the front.”

The 6,500 horsepower engine is a monster, and the idea of being strapped into the belly of the beast should be terrifying. Then the realization hits: Despite his casual street appearance, Whit Bazemore is not an average human being.

Sharing a common sponsor — Oakley — Lance Armstrong stopped by Bazemore’s pit several seasons ago in Houston. The six-time Tour de France winner loved it, Bazemore said, but Armstrong looked at the car, then at Bazemore, and asked, “Dude, aren’t you scared?” Most people would be and, having been in several accidents and fires himself, Bazemore is not immune to fear.

This season he had to endure the loss of a good friend, Daryl Russell, who died in a tragic accident early in the season. Russell raced top fuel dragsters, the long skinny cars that look like rockets. “It makes you realize that if someone like Darrel Russell dies,” Bazemore says, “then, it can’t be all that bad because he was such a good, good guy, the best kind of person. It’s kind of made me not afraid of dying.”

Motivating factors

“I’ve always been determined to try to be the best I can be,” Bazemore says, “to create opportunities, to get opportunities and to make the most of them.”

Bazemore’s extreme desire to succeed, his father concurs, is what has made him so successful. “The only thing that got him there was his desire,” Bazemore’s father says, “and I’ve got to hand it to him. Not many people could have survived and achieved that goal the way he did.”

Lee Beard is the crew chief for Bazemore’s team. Beard has worked with many of the sport’s finest. He has immense respect for Bazemore. “Whit’s certainly not a good loser,” Beard says, “but we like that because we know that we’re getting 110 percent out of him to be a winner.”

Every member of the crew is dedicated to being No. 1. Assistant crew chief Ronnie Thompson agrees about Bazemore. “He’s definitely very driven and motivated to do what he does. He’s somebody you want in the car for you.” Thompson adds that Bazemore often speaks his mind, something that gets him into trouble sometimes, but it doesn’t bother Thompson.

At 40, Bazemore says he is in the best shape of his life. In his spare time, he follows the stock market, and he’s an avid bicycler. His wife Michelle, a sometime NUVO contributor, is a semi-pro cyclist.

Living in Indianapolis, Bazemore finds urban sprawl and air pollution frustrating problems. “I’m probably one of the few green drag racers,” he chuckles. Being too vocal about environmental issues can be problematic because people in his sport don’t really understand, but, Bazemore says, compared to daily automobile traffic, the environmental impact of drag racing is minimal.

The purse at most of the races is somewhere between $40,000 and $100,000. The winner of the national championship gets $400,000. Sponsorship proliferates throughout the sport. Without exception, racers don the baseball cap of a major sponsor before facing the cameras, and they make sure to plug products in every televised conversation.

Bazemore says that the money is not quite as good as it is in other forms of racing, but that in other auto sports, like Formula One, the cars don’t go 300 mph. It comes down to a decision about making more money or going faster. “There are a handful of us,” Bazemore says, “who have decided to go 300.”

WHAT: 2004 Matco Tools U.S. Nationals
WHEN: Sept. 1-5
WHERE: Indianapolis Raceway Park
TICKETS: For tickets, call (800) 884-NHRA, or visit Ticketmaster’s Web site, The ticket price for the elimination rounds is $46 for adults, but less for the qualifications, or buy a six-day pass for $130. Parking is $5 per day. Unlike other auto racing events, spectators are allowed into the pit areas. So, get a hat or shirt autographed and watch the mechanics “twirl the iron” as they race to get the cars ready for the track. Drag races are all-day events, so be prepared to spend some time at the track. Also, bring ear plugs. This stuff is loud!

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