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Bliss in a Quarter Mile

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— April 15, 2019

Bliss in a Quarter Mile

  • People have been riveted by the concept of speed since a foot race kicked off the first Olympic Games nearly 3,000 years ago. But nothing has captured the human imagination like the automobile. Here’s how today’s creative car drivers are pushing the limits of horsepower in inspired ways.
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Bliss in a Quarter Mile

People have been riveted by the concept of speed since a foot race kicked off the first Olympic Games nearly 3,000 years ago. But nothing has captured the human imagination like the automobile. Here’s how today’s creative car drivers are pushing the limits of horsepower in inspired ways.

You’ve just picked up your first “go fast” vehicle. You want to put those power numbers to the test. You want to show the guy with the muscle car down the street what’s up. You want to experience the horsepower, the thrill, the “fast” that your car is promised to deliver. Local laws allow for none of that fun—what do you do?

You go to your local drag strip. If you have never been to a drag strip but have seen drag racing on television, you might think it is a sport reserved for 10,000-horsepower cars that are only slowed by parachutes. Nope.

The vast majority of vehicles racing every night at one of the hundreds of tracks around the country are unmodified or slightly modified streetcars. Th at means you can participate in the same format of the sport—on the same track, and prompted to press the pedal to victory by the same sets of lights—as professionals. Best of all, it will probably cost you less than $50 for a night of safe, legal, high-performance fun.

In 1951, the National Hot Rod Association was founded as the first sanctioning body for the sport. What had long been an underground hobby—racing on deserted airstrips, dry lake beds and, of course, the street— led to early drag racers being looked at by society as outlaws. The introduction of the NHRA and the spread of sanctioned tracks around the United States brought drag racing and drag racers into the world of mainstream motorsports.

The popularity of sanctioned drag racing boomed in the 1960s and 1970s, as American automakers rolled out countless cars that shined brightest on the drag strip. In addition to creating a professional racing league, the NHRA put together a set of rules for all tracks around the country, bringing uniformity and regulations to the sport.

Over time, a second sanctioning body, the International Hot Rod Association, or IHRA, was founded, sparking more growth.

“It has never been easier to go drag racing at a local strip, especially in a late model car, than it is today. Anything newer than 2008 requires only a cursory safety inspection, and the driver to have a helmet on, to have fun on the track,” says Brian Lohnes, who late last year was appointed lead announcer for NHRA TV. “It is the safest and most awesome way to gauge your car’s performance and your ability to drive said car. NHRA sanctions over 120 strips, the IHRA 100 more and there are other tracks out there as well—get on the strip and have some fun.”

Lohnes was practically born on the track; his father was a hot-rodder and racer. “We followed the sport when I was a kid and we were always doing car stuff. I never had a junior dragster or anything but I could not wait to get my license and drive my own car to New England Dragway in New Hampshire,” says Lohnes, who grew up in southeastern Massachusett s. “When that moment came for me it was in a four-speed truck that ran 19-second quarter-mile times with a tired, old, small block. It felt heroic and it was fun. It sunk the hook into what would become my life in drag racing that continues today.”

Most tracks around the United States operate under NHRA or IHRA rules to this very day. Most NHRA tracks are a quarter-mile, though many are an eighth-mile.

A Quarter Mile of Pure Power

Philip Baglieri, 34, a Los Angeles district sales manager for a beer distributor, races at four NHRA California tracks: Auto Club Dragway at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana; Auto Club Famoso Raceway in McFarland; Auto Club Raceway at Pomona—each a quarter-mile—and the eighth-mile Irwindale Dragstrip in Irwindale. Baglieri says he likes the diversity of driving experiences at the different tracks.

“You get different climates, different temperatures, different race environments,” he says. “Then, for instance, Irwindale is a local track so it’s a smaller venue; some of the others are a little bigger. It’s like the difference between
playing a high school basketball court and the Staples Center in LA.” Baglieri prefers taking his heavily modified, cherry-red 1967 Chevy Nova out on quarter-mile tracks because the longer distance lets him reach faster speeds—on a recent quarter-mile run he hit 156 mph—versus speeds roughly 30 mph slower on an eighth-mile track. “For a driver, you really get to see what your car’s made of,” Baglieri says of a quarter-mile run. “Once I get past the eighth-mile point I have no more shifting to do. It’s a matter of holding on, keeping the car straight and enjoying the ride.”

The shorter tracks involve a lot more work on the part of the driver, he adds. “With an eighth-mile, you’re shifting, you’re making sure you’re keeping the car straight, and at the end of that you’re releasing the parachute and slowing down. There’s a lot going on in an eighth-mile, and everything happens really quickly.” “From an owner standpoint,” Baglieri adds, “I prefer the eighth-mile track because it doesn’t hurt the car as much. There’s less stress on the car because it’s so quick.”

His Chevy Nova touts a body of fiberglass and high-tensile strength Chromoly, or “chromium-molybdenum steel,” a material that is easily welded and considerably stronger and more durable than standard steel. It is also one of the lightest metals, Baglieri adds, meaning he needs less horsepower to go faster. Baglieri’s car has a 1,000 horsepower engine, “a big block 498. It’s all motor, so no turbos, no nitrous, no pro-charger—it’s powered just by the motor. It’s a disadvantage, to be honest because it takes a lot of money to make a lot of horsepower just with the motor. But there’s a sense of more accomplishment. In the racing community, if you run a decent number with an all-motor car, it’s got a little more clout than if you’re assisted with nitrous or any power adders.”

Tackling the Track

Some pointers—almost all tracks require racers to wear long pants, a shirt with sleeves and closed-toe shoes. You can’t run in shorts, a tank top or sandals. Your vehicle has to be safe. Every vehicle has to undergo a tech inspection, and, in most cases, an unmodified daily driver will have no problems passing that inspection. The inspector is using guidelines set forth by the sanctioning association of the track. Your car can’t leak fluids or have worn tires—and needs to be roadworthy.

You might think you need a helmet, but NHRA rules state that only drivers running the quarter-mile in 13.99 seconds or less need a helmet. Many tracks have loaner helmets available, but loaners are the drag racing equivalent of rental bowling shoes…so they might be a bit, well, used. If you plan to keep going to the track, those loaners make buying your own helmet that much more attractive. Note that some tracks may require all drivers to have a helmet, even if your vehicle runs in the 14-second range or slower.

On an average race night at most tracks, there will be hundreds of cars, trucks, SUVs, and motorcycles on hand. At first, there won’t be much action as the racers go through tech inspection, but when the staging lanes open, the venue becomes a carnival for the senses.

The racing field is like a rolling car show, with a collection of machines that will wow you based strictly on their appearance. When the racing begins, all of these vehicles roar to life, filling the air with a soundtrack that will excite any automotive enthusiast. What first-time racers don’t expect is the unique smell. The mixture of tire smoke and the fumes from copious amounts of gasoline being burned creates a scent that every racer comes to know and love, as it is a smell that can only come from the drag strip.

Those sights, sounds, and smells are present from the second that the vehicles hit the track, as action at the strip continues non-stop.

You will wait in the pits until the cars are called to the staging lanes; this is where the cars preparing to run line up, and you’ll want to stay with your car as the vehicles continually move towards the track. Track officials move quickly; when it is your turn, you will be instructed to pull into the burnout box, where you will spin your tires to remove dirt and debris in addition to heating up the rubber, all of which leads to the best possible launch traction.

After your burnout—meek or spirited, you decide—pull forward to the starting line, which is a trio of lasers projected across the width of the track. The first two beams are the pre-stage and stage beams, which trigger the first two sets of lights on the “Christmas tree” that starts the race. Once both vehicles have lit the stage bulbs, the amber lights that signify the start of the race light up. Each of three yellow bulbs lights in sequence, followed by the green light. On green, you hammer down, propelling your car down the track.

After crossing the finish line, you turn off and head down the return road, where you will get your time slip. You are now a drag racer. This first run will create a passion that can only be satisfied by more trips to the track, and over time, you will learn how to get your car down the track in less and less time.

With many drag races over within 15 seconds, a track can run several pairs per minute, leading to literally hundreds of side-by-side races in the course of a few hours.

Despite the huge crowds of enthusiasts, the ultimate thrill is between man and machine. “What do I feel in the car? It’s funny to say this but once I’m strapped in, I’m relieved,” says Baglieri. “I’m in my comfort zone. It’s like everything around me is nonexistent at that moment. The adrenaline, the excitement, the accomplishment of winning a race—I feed off of all that stuff.”

For a listing of NHRA drag strips around the country, visit https://www.nhra.com/member-track-locator.

Racing Against the Law

Post-World War II, Wally Parks was the editor of Hot Rod magazine when he saw young men coming home from the war, tinkering with engines and finding new ways to modify their cars. With no place to race their more powerful machines, the young men took to the streets to race their cars illegally.
Before long, they were getting a reputation as bad kids when in fact they were innovators and had engineering mindsets; Parks didn’t want them punished for that. So he scoured the country for airstrips and other available land to create drag strips where the young men could race in safe, controlled environments, giving birth to the National Hot Rod Association.
Jessica Hatcher, an NHRA spokesperson, said she has no statistics to show whether the rise of legal drag racing has put a crimp in illegal drag racing, also called street racing. But she said that anecdotally, street racing has been shown to be on the decline where there are legal race strips. Those legal strips can’t be everywhere, however, and more than six decades after Parks put his vision into practice, street racing seems to continue to flourish as illegal racers become savvier about evading police.
Consider Suffolk County on New York’s Long Island. Arrests and summonses issued for what the police call illegal speed contests have dropped dramatically over the past five years, from eight arrests in 2014 to one in 2018 and 16 summonses issued down to four issued over the same time period in the county, except for the easternmost districts, according to the police. But police are unsure what to attribute the decline to and whether street racing has declined along with the drop in arrests and summonses.
“We find that many of these [street races] are very impromptu. They’ll go to different locations, they’ll have a flagman many times, they’ll race, and they’re out of there,” says Deputy Inspector David Regina, commanding officer of the Suffolk Police Department’s Highway Patrol Bureau. “They’re very quick.” Social media and the age of cell phones have let the racers communicate and set up quickly, Regina said. “I would imagine that’s probably affected our enforcement ability.”
Further, local laws mandate that police must catch the racers in the act in order to issue summonses or make arrests. “We have to see someone engaged in this,” Regina adds. “It’s not the easiest ticket to write.”
As of mid-March, the last street race in Suffolk County for which arrests were made was on Sept. 23 last year. Some 100 cars were on hand at the race, which police happened upon on routine patrol.
John Cozzali, 60, a Long Island sheet
metalworker who has been drag racing since he was 14, says illegal street racing is “pretty rampant” on the Island because it has no legal drag strips. New York National Speedway in Center Moriches closed in the late 1990s, and Westhampton Dragway closed in 2004.
So Cozzali founded Long Island Needs a Drag strip two years ago. He has identified two locations, in Brookhaven and Riverhead, but faces opposition from area neighbors concerned about noise. The other obstacle is that Long Island property is expensive. He said he has employed a firm to do an economic impact study that will show the benefits of having a Long Island drag strip; the study is due out shortly.
In the meantime, Cozzali and other racers head to drag strips in Pennsylvania and New Jersey when they feel the itch. “We shouldn’t have to give New Jersey and Pennsylvania our revenue,” Cozzali says. “That revenue should stay here.” Avid racer Billy Swinford swears by legal drag strips. “Although street racing when you’re young can be kind of exciting, the risk-to-reward is too high,” says Swinford, 39, who runs the Lonestar Elite Automotive Shop in Fort Worth, Texas, and operates the DFWSpeed YouTube channel, featuring all of his track driven streetcars.
“Jail time, fines, putting yourself and other at-risk—it is much safer and cheaper to keep it on the track in a controlled environment,” says Swinford, who has made at least a few trips to the track each month for the past 22 years. “Instead of paying fines and legal fees, you can spend that money on your car and, most importantly, you can see real results through improved track times. Set goals for yourself and your car. Stay focused on those goals. Learn your car and setup, and more than anything, have the proper safety equipment.” –Allan Richter

 

 

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