Motorsport comes in many shapes and sizes and, despite having had the opportunity to experience many of them over the years, I have never previously been to drag racing. The NHRA’s Northwest Nationals were taking place at Pacific Raceways in Kent, just south of Seattle, and I went to experience what drag racing is like in person. Sure, I had seen this on TV before, but I wanted to know what it was like to attend an event in person. Does the TV coverage give you a full feel for an event or does it just skim the surface? I won’t keep you in suspense. The intensity of being there in person is hard to describe but my goal is to try and give you some understanding of it if you have not been yourself.
Pacific Raceways is located in the city of Kent, approximately 15 miles southeast of downtown Seattle. It is a great racing circuit that holds regular events throughout the year. The circuit encloses the drag strip with access to the stands south of the strip by walking across the circuit. The stands and the pit areas are very open and exposed on a sunny and hot day like those over the weekend of the competition. However, the area is surrounded by trees including some of the parking area and many of the fans were set up in the shade of the trees when away from the action. When walking from one side of the track to the other, you are walking across the holding lanes for the next vehicles to race so you can get great access to the vehicles and the crews as they wait their turn.
Organization of the competition
As with any form of motorsport, there are many classes of vehicles taking part. As a newcomer to this type of racing, I was unfamiliar with the nuances of the different classes but, as the competition unfolded, it wasn’t difficult to distinguish between the performance levels of the different cars. I say cars but there were also bikes taking part and they demonstrated phenomenal performance too. The competition was spread over three days with various levels of qualification and knock out racing. The announcer team did a good job of keeping everyone up to speed with what was going on while the TV crews were also hard at work as sections of the event were being broadcast live.
Some of the cars were very recognizable as modified road vehicles. Modified is, of course, the important addition there. They had been significantly beefed up in the power stakes, but they also had modifications to the wheels and tires and often to have stabilizers on the rear to counter the tendency to pitch up as the large amounts of torque go through the rear axles. As I mentioned above, there were also bikes although these were the lowest and widest bikes I had ever seen. They also had rear supports to keep the front wheel on, or almost on, the ground.
Then you get the long-nosed cars that fit the image of what a dragster might be. These do come in various classes, of course, and it took me a while to get what a difference in performance there was between some of the lower-class vehicles and the highest class. These are the Top Fuel dragsters. The performance difference between them and the lower classes is like night and day. Finishing things off is the Funny Cars. Again, phenomenal performance but in a more conventional looking body shape albeit one that hinges up at the rear to access the internals of the vehicle (and the driver).
One of the great aspects of motorsports is the access to the pits. Drag racing is no different and the crews were quite closely packed together but managed to still allow good access for those wanting to watch the teams busily at work pulling apart and reassembling their machines. For the high-end vehicles, it was clear that they were stripping things down to basics between runs. Given the incredible power that the highest performing cars produce, it is no surprise to find that they will strip them down each time to check that everything is in top condition. As you walked through, the blocks would be out on stands with the heads off being checked and worked on. There was a flurry of activity for the leading teams. Even the smaller entries had a lot happening in their space.
The pits also provided space for a little of the hospitality side of things. For the smaller entries, this meant having some chairs out to relax on in the downtime but the bigger entries had extensive space for guests and team members to sit in and enjoy themselves when racing wasn’t underway (or even if it was!). The sponsorship that comes with the high end of any sport means taking care of the sponsors and they could spend time here consuming a little of what they had paid for!
Besides the competitors, the pits also had large trucks in support of the tire demands of the competitors. Goodyear and Hoosier were parked up next to each other. I peered inside these vehicles to see what they were carrying. Racks of tires of all sizes were loaded up and the tools for mounting them were out on the ground ready for use. Some tires – new and used – were stacked by the trucks and you could get a closer look at the size and nature of these tires.
There are many important aspects in a drag racer, but the tires are the point of contact when trying to accelerate so they take phenomenal stresses. As they accelerate, the tires deform as the rotational speeds pull the tread out from the center of rotation. These loads require complex engineering to give the grip, performance, reliability and confidence that the racers need. When you look at image of the tires as the vehicles accelerate, you see how the sidewalls deform as the wheel rotates and the surface grips the track. This is both amazing to look at and indicative of just how much the tires have to be designed to accommodate.
The supporting entertainment
With so many people coming to view the racing, there is a need for lots of side activities to keep everyone entertained either while the racing is at a low ebb or if they are just looking for a bit of a change. Nitro Alley was the place to visit if you were looking for the personal appearances either by current stars or some of the legends of the sport. There were also competitions to generate side interest for everyone. Plenty of sponsor stands were available too so you could check out anything from food to ride on mowers if you were interested. The vendors were also out in force be it the official merchandise or supporting suppliers of racing related (and non-racing related) stuff. If you wanted to get your souvenirs from the day, you were taken care of. You also didn’t need to starve…
Something that I had not previously thought about when it came to drag racing was the conditioning of the track. When massive amounts of instant acceleration is the name of the game, it is all about how well you can put that force into the track and that means grip. The NHRA staff is constantly monitoring the state of the track surface. They are carrying a variety of specialist tools which I found both fascinating and baffling to watch. If they hadn’t been so focused on doing their job, I would have loved to spend some time talking to them about what they were measuring and how they were doing it.
The teams are also interested in track condition since it is pivotal to their own performance. It was not uncommon to see crew members with their own gauges checking out the start area to see what the track temperature was and to feel the condition of the surface. This surface was periodically enhanced by the track crews. They had a pair of what looked like road sweepers that went up and back on the course. Mounted on the back of these vehicles was a set of tires which were connected to a drive shaft that rotated them slowly in the opposite direction to that which they would have if they were rolling on the surface. This meant that they were constantly scrubbing on the track and laying down more rubber to enhance grip. Competitors and staff would then walk the track to inspect it and the sound their shoes made on the rubberized surface was indicative of just how sticky the ground was.
Comparison between seeing the whole process and seeing it on TV
Being at an event in person gives you the insight into how things actually happen in a way that TV coverage never does. The transition from one race to the next is actually pretty rapid but the appetite for waiting around in TV coverage is limited so the TV crews will be switching to interviews with racers or pieces to camera between runs. The result is that you only see the cars for the brief periods when they are racing. You miss out on the whole process of getting the car from the holding lanes to the end of the track and back again.
As the previous cars depart, the next ones are already lining up to take their place. As the cars approach, the track crew will hose down an area at the beginning of the track with water. This provides a location with low grip so the driver can spin up the tires and generate some heat in them. Spinning tires, lots of smoke and a brief burst of acceleration follow and the car will run through the start area and brake. Then it will back up to get into position.
For the Top Fuel cars, at this point, the crew will descend on the vehicle, run their hands across the tires to make sure they are pristine for the run and the driver will be checked one last time. Then the car will be guided up into position. From here, the electronic systems take over staging the cars with the “tree” of lights ahead of the drivers showing how close they are to the start position. As they get closer, the lights change in stages with both drivers progressively getting into place. When they are both on their marks, the lights indicate this, the engines are revved up and the lights go green. Then it is on as the cars hurtle forward and down the 1,000’ of the track.
Something I found quite surprising about this whole process was just how many people were close to the car while all of this was going on. Various members of the team will be standing close to the vehicle albeit behind it as it prepares to launch. Some might be filming this for future debriefing. It is a difference to other operations I have witnessed in the past where the areas are kept relatively sterile. Clearly this is something that has been going on for years and they have, no doubt, assessed the risks involved so I am not being critical of what is the norm. Instead, I am just unused to seeing things like this normally.
The competition itself
All of this has been a precursor to the main event. The racing itself. Large amounts of preparation from many people have all been in aid of the short and intense burst of acceleration 1,000’ down the track. The first thing you will appreciate in person is the sound. Even for the lower classes of car, the sound is intense. When the light sequence starts, the engines rev and then, when it goes green, it is full power with the engine wailing. The more powerful the engines become, the more intense this is. For some of the lower classes, I was able to make do with in ear hearing protection. However, when things got more serious, I had ear defenders over the in ear protection.
The Funny Cars and Top Fuel cars are an assault on the senses. What I want to do is convey just how dramatic they are but it is really difficult with words to express just how intense this is. Even when up in the stands, things are brutal. I was amazed to see how many people were watching without any form of protection. I kept in ear protection in even while watching from the stands.
The closer you get to the track, the more the sensory overload kicks in. The sound obviously increases but now the smell of the burnt fuel is more apparent. However, the pressure waves from the passing vehicles are what I found most impressive. The cars launch away so quickly, they are only briefly near you but, in that short moment, you get pulsing pressure from the engines that is almost overwhelming. I was standing next to the track for many runs during the course of the event but I think it is important to be honest and say that every run left me feeling startled. Yes, I knew what was coming but that didn’t matter. The sounds and the pressure of a vehicle going from a stand to incredible speeds in almost no time at all are beyond anything I have experienced before and I would include in that standing alongside a runways as a fighter jet takes off in full afterburner.
Am I a convert to drag racing and will I be going again? I don’t know. It was a fascinating change of scene from the other types of racing I have experienced and I am very glad to have done it. The intensity of it and the process were all great and would be good to do again. Whether I shall search it out to cover in the future, I wonder. To do it justice, I would have to become a lot more familiar with the details of the classes and the nuances of the teams. We shall see…
Article and photos by Rob Edgcumbe, Speed and Sport Journal west coast correspondent.