After issuing a stern warning, the man in the uniform and mirrored sunglasses slams the door and walks away from my car. He isn't a policeman, and he wasn't scolding me for speeding. Quite the opposite. I was chewed out for going too slow.
It's the first day of qualifying at the National Hot Rod Association Mile-High Nationals at Bandimere Speedway in Morrison, Colo. I'm nervous and confused in front of 6,000 restless spectators. The 1978 black Plymouth Volare station wagon I'm driving sits idling in a one-inch-deep water puddle just behind the starting line because I forgot to execute the "burnout." Had things gone right, billows of crowd-pleasing smoke would be enveloping the car. Instead, the Plymouth looks as if it were simply parked in a mall lot after a rain shower. Before slamming the door, the NHRA official tells me, in what seems a threatening tone, to "put it in gear and get going."
Aha. When I hear the word "gear," I realize that I failed to shift out of neutral, which explains why there was no smoke when I stomped on the gas pedal and the needle on the tachometer rose to 5,000 rpm. Once I put the car in gear, the tires spin and smoke fills the rear wheel wells, signaling that the tires are sufficiently heated to get a good grip on the asphalt in the pending race. I move to the starting line and manage to leave just as the green light comes on. Later, my crew chief, Jay Sanders, and others congratulate me. They say the race announcer proclaimed it a "perfect light." But as I leave the starting line, every window in the car is rolled up tight and I am wearing earplugs and a crash helmet, so I have little chance to savor my moment of glory.
It's a pity, because it is one of the few times I would do something right during the competition. As I head down the quarter-mile straightaway during the first pass—dragspeak for a run down the quarter-mile-long track—I again forget to shift gears, until the engine screams so loudly that even I hear it. After crossing the finish line at 90.95 mph and slowing down, I notice that the engine temperature is 240°. Oops. I also didn't turn on the fan as I crossed the finish line, which keeps the engine from overheating after a run.
I have a legitimate excuse for being so inept. I don't own a car and rarely drive. I do have a license, but I live in New York City, where being a car owner and driver is an expensive frustration. So I usually travel by subway or taxi. What's more, I can't be called well-versed in the finer points of drag racing. This is the first time I have ever been to such an event, much less taken the wheel of one of the cars. I am in this contest through the generosity of car owners Judy and Jack McCormack—and with the permission of the NHRA—to get a firsthand look at the sport.
Drag racing is an expensive sport that is more business than hobby for most participants, though it seems to be politic for car owners not to say they make any money from their sport. The majority of cars competing in national events are custom-built, carefully engineered machines. However, at the other end of the spectrum are relatively inexpensive cars like the one I drove, known in drag racing parlance as "grocery-getters." Mine has a fairly tame 318-cubic-inch, 240-horse-power V-8. Wipe off the sponsors' decals and the car would look at home in any suburban driveway. Jack McCormack, an auto parts representative from Milford, Mich., who owns a fleet of race cars, says he spends only about $1,000 a year maintaining the Volare. He picked up the car in 1978 for $5,400 and put in another $25,000 turning it into a racing machine.
Prices for preparing cars for even the NHRA "stock" classes start at about $10,000, according to Bob Kammer, the Dayton high-performance engine specialist who did much of the work on the Volare. Each time a Funny Car or a Top Fuel vehicle—the fastest and most expensive of all dragsters—goes down the track in five seconds or less, it works out to cost the owner $4,500 in used-up parts and other expenses. Larry Minor, a 50-year-old potato farmer and cattle rancher and a former drag and off-road racer from San Jacinto, Calif., figures it costs $940,000 a year for him to maintain the Top Fuel car driven by three-time world champion Shirley Muldowney.
But drivers in the pro categories have endorsement contracts and can earn between $7,000 and $25,000 per event in prize money, excluding sponsor bonuses. Racers in the lower tiers must be either personally wealthy or highly resourceful, because expenses, which typically run between $1,000 and $1,500 a race weekend, usually eat up whatever prize money they win.
"A lot of times, the families are the pit crew," says 41-year-old Mary Jean Hale, standing outside the Hales' big red combination race car transporter-motor home parked in the pit area. She keeps the two Super Stock-class race cars looking sharp, organizes the pit, changes spark plugs and makes sure her husband, Jim, has the tools he needs for engine repairs between runs. The Hales own a truck body shop and a speed-equipment business in Van Buren, Ark. The NHRA doesn't keep statistics on the gender of its 70,000 members, but the sport includes many female drivers, mechanics, crew chiefs and officials.
Judy McCormack and I race the Volare in the stock eliminator category, one of the lowest non-professional drag racing classifications. Judy is a 47-year-old bookkeeper and grandmother of two who has been competing since 1963 and has set eight NHRA speed records. Pam Sanders, 38, is a secretary who is married to my crew chief, Jay, and has won several regional drag racing titles since 1971.
However, drag racing definitely isn't for the fainthearted, or the tender-eared, both of which I am. All weekend, I wear earplugs and keep a pair of shooters' ear guards nearby to cope with the din of high-revving engines being raced, tuned and, occasionally, blown sky-high. Although I will drive my car as fast as 97.44 mph and get down the track in 14.024 seconds during the competition, I am hardly ready to step into the Funny Car class.
To be a successful racer, you must not only be fast but also quick. After my first pass, crew chief Sanders and Judy advise me not to bother with the burnout and go straight to the staging lights. They incorrectly assume my perfect start shows that I have mastered the seven tiers of lights in the starting line system—it's called the Christmas tree, because that's what the array resembles. The way it works is that both drivers must turn on individual sets of the two top yellow lights by inching the cars up to the starting line; when those lights come on, it means that both cars are dead even and exactly a quarter-mile away from the finish line. Then, the starter activates three pairs of larger yellow lights that flick on in rapid succession, followed by the green light. The trick is to be quick and to get the car moving precisely when the green light flashes. Lingering too long can mean the difference between crossing the finish line first and watching your opponent's back end for the entire quarter-mile. But you can't be too quick. Leaving just a fraction of a second early activates the red light at the bottom of the tree, disqualifying you from the race. "It's over before it begins if you red-light," says Gene Mosbek, the bearded owner of an auto-repair shop in Elk River, Minn., who is pitted next door to me in a dusty field overlooking the drag strip. "You have to give yourself a chance at the other end."
While I was happy to be spared the water torture for the next run, I knew the perfect light of my first attempt had been a case of beginner's luck. Sure enough, in subsequent qualifying sessions, I failed to duplicate the feat. But at least I qualified.' During the first round of the single-elimination competition I not only did the burnout successfully, I also drove smoother and faster than I had at any time. However, I left the line two hundredths of a second too soon. I was disqualified, as the Christmas tree's shining red light informed everyone. Back at my pit, I lamented that I was "just starting to feel comfortable out there" and wished out loud for "one more shot."
The McCormacks and the Sanders contend I'm hooked. Highly unlikely. Although I improved as a driver after my helpless moment in the puddle, I prefer to leave the driving to the New York City Transit Authority. Then again, how do you account for the fact that later in the summer I spent one of my two free weekends at a drag strip?
With all the logos, Steptoe appeared to be a hot-rod hotshot.
A perfect start the first time out was not an indicator of races to come.
The adrenaline was flowing fast as Steptoe pointed for the NHRA's Mile-High Nationals.