Before watching the fastest and loudest cars on the planet, an NHRA event begins with the sportsman category. The sportsmen are amateur drag racers who convert former street cars, such as Chevy Camaros and Ford Mustangs, to race cars. Drivers wait their turn to race down a straightaway at speeds around 130-160 mph. Many of the cars pop wheelies at the starting line, and cover a quarter-mile in close to 10 seconds.
While the sportsmen are duking it out, most of the people attending an NHRA event are milling around the pits because every ticket is a “pit pass.” This means you can see the teams building and tuning the cars while the drivers sign autographs in between media obligations and getting prepared for runs.
Each driver has his or her own way of getting ready for the race. Ron Capps was mentored by legendary drag racer Don Prudhomme, who once told Capps, “A lion that hunts is a lot better.” Prudhomme was referring to being weighed down by a big meal, which can affect one’s reaction time.
Alexis DeJoria also spoke about not wanting to feel weighed down in addition to collecting her thoughts in the driver’s lounge before racing (each team has a truck with a lounge area for the driver to relax and prepare for races).
All of the drivers practice their reaction time on a practice tree, which simulates the countdown lights at the start of a race. A better reaction time may allow a driver to win with a “slower” car.
A “slower car” is a complete understatement since both the Top Fuel and Funny Cars travel at speeds over 300 mph, and cover 1,000 feet in about four seconds. At the Toyota Summernationals in New Jersey, Doug Kalitta secured the first Top Fuel qualifying position with a speed of 327.66 mph and a time of 3.748 seconds. Richie Crampton hit 326.95 mph and a time of 3.750 seconds for the second qualifying position. The NHRA is truly the fastest sport on earth.
Watching the cars race is an unbelievable experience. Ron Capps said it takes six guys on the crew to start the car, and when the engine is revved, it shakes your body. The racers then give the crowd a brief introduction to the awesome power of their car by doing a burnout. A burnout is “spinning the rear tires in water before a run to heat and clean them and put rubber on the track for better traction.”* Basically, the engine roars and the wheels create a lot of smoke, which signals the race is about to begin.
When both cars are behind the starting line, they wait for the lights, aka the “Christmas tree,” to countdown from the pre-stage to stage lights, which are the yellow lights that signal both racers are ready to race. Then, three amber lights signal “set,” and a green light signals “go.” A red light will flash below the green light if a racer goes before the green light is illuminated.
If you watch the race in person, you must wear ear plugs and cover your ears once the light hits green. The power coming from the engine shakes your body, and the sound is unfathomable. Somehow, the crew members are standing 10-20 feet from the cars when they blast off down the racetrack, and leave nitro exhaust that burns the nostrils.
Drag racing is an awesome spectacle that must be on your list of things to do. The cars race at eye-popping speeds, and the drivers have tremendous skill (and guts) to get behind the wheel.
Turn on ESPN2 (4-7pm ET) to watch the final day of the Toyota Summernationals at the historic Old Bridge Township Raceway Park in Englishtown, NJ.
*Definition of a burnout is provided in the 2014 NHRA Fan Guide.