I know I’m getting close as I’m driving south on Raceway Road, past the trailer homes and the big fuel tanks, because I can hear the noise. I’ve pulled myself out of my cozy abode, fighting a cold, because drag racing is happening this Sunday. The NHRA Nationals are underway at Lucas Oil Raceway, not 20 minutes from my home.
I pull into lot 3A, and the attendant, who looks to be constructed entirely out of ancient shoe leather and nicotine, saunters over to my car. He leans into my window, then turns to his cronies taking shade under a small open tent and announces: “Here’s the 91st media sticker we’ve seen today, boys!” He taps my car and I rumble along a dirt patch to find a space. The lot’s really a field, maybe something rented from the guy with the corn crop adjacent to the rows of cars lined up outside Gates 2 and 3. It dips and rolls — I’m trying to find a relatively flat space for my ride. Seriously, this is the hilliest field in the state of Indiana, and I’ve never been one to trust a parking brake.
Now I'm on foot and the sound is getting louder. I’m approaching the stands, ready to grab a little space in the metal bleachers in the General Admission stands two-thirds of the way toward the finish line at Lucas Oil Raceway. I’ve got street cred — I’m wearing a T-Shirt from Kenny Hirata’s Lowell, Ind. Speed Shop, a shirt that was handed to me two days ago by Hirata’s own daughter, my friend Joann. The old geezers nod and mumble their approval as I walk by. I pass an autograph tent, and there’s Don Prudhomme, the Snake himself, signing merch.
The NHRA Nationals are running for the 60th time this weekend, and the royalty of the previous generation has turned out.
I’m hacking and coughing as I warily eye the sky. The rain’s been falling — not just this weekend but all bloody summer long here in the heartland, and today’s bit of precip has just made the proceedings that much steamier. The humidity seems to be egging on my virus, but luckily, nobody can hear my distress. Between the announcer and the roar of the funny cars, some sneezing dude off by himself in the cheap seats might as well be in a soundproof booth.
I stop by the fence for the end of the Traxxas Funny Car Shootout. I look down the track at the signal tree and it flashes green. Suddenly I’m a six-year-old kid again, watching this on a black and white TV set on a Wide World of Sports replay, cross-legged and slackjawed, marveling as these men and women struggle to hold a straight line as more torque and horsepower than you can ever dream of tries to chatter the car all over the strip. Bob Hight blows by Courtney Force and the sound, the goddamn sound — the sound is literally staggering.
IndyCar? Nothing. A jet engine? A mere whisper. This is painful, actually painful, the sudden multi-frequency bellow and shriek that wails by me. I actually take a step back from the fence.
The crowd roars its approval. Hight’s going to be racing against his teammate and his father-in-law, John Force, to try and take home a trophy and $100 grand in just a few hours. (Force will be the ultimate victor. At 65, he’s not only been on earth for every U.S. Nationals, he’s still one hell of a competitor. The rest of the family clearly doesn’t slouch much, either.)
With the rain, we’re running late today. The Pro-Mods will be up shortly, 34 drivers gunning for 16 slots. This is the beauty of drag racing — there’s always something happening. First, we’re treated to a little old-school, gasoline powered hot-rod exhibition race as the next series lines up behind the tree. You don’t have a moment to be bored before two more cars are burning ‘em out, smoking their tires to get the grip they need, then backing the nose of the car behind the start line.
Sure, you can spend your years learning the minutia of all the different classes and engines, learning the tricks that each car’s mechanical tuner applies to his ride, or you can just take the thing for what it is: vehicles, usually two at a time, hurtling down a short chunk of asphalt, a straight line of pavement that the announcer describes as sticky even though the thing gleams like a sheet of ice from all the tire rubber that’s been laid on it.
The Pro-Mods are nowhere near the fastest cars Luca Oil will see this weekend. It doesn’t matter — as with every class of car, the matchups are exciting as hell. The tension’s palpable: the "bump" time drops from 6:01 to just a shade over 5.99 seconds — these cars are pushing well over 240 mph down a quarter-mile track.
The Pro-Mods are a class that hasn’t really been around that long. The bodies have doors that actually open — they’re modified stock cars with hood scoops, often juiced with nitrous oxide. Funny cars can blow these things out of the county: Force’s winning run will check in over 317 mph — slower than one of Courtney’s earlier passes, but enough juice to take down Hight later in the day. Top fuel cars, the long “rails”, can smell 330 mph.
As the Mods keep rolling, a driver with the legendary name of Glidden finds himself in dire straits — the man on the bubble has to wait and watch after his ride malfunctions on the start line. Eric Latino, the last man who can knock Glidden out of the round of 16, has a solid run — but misses moving on by just 3/1000 of a second.
Three one-thousandths of one second. And you thought last-second field goals were dramatic.
My cold’s getting the better of me. I trudge back to my car, past the big displays of engine parts and classic rides. Hopefully I can shake off some of this crud make it back for some more racing te following day. If not? I’ll sit on the floor in front of ESPN, crosslegged and slackjawed, maybe with a big-ass bowl of sugary cereal, watching these lunatics try and outrun their adrenaline addiction for yet another day.