Fans of big-time drag racing “” among them many motorhome owners “” get their thrills by watching some of the fastest, loudest, most powerful machines in the world cover a quarter-mile in seconds.
By Tony Wiese, F178480
My wife, Barb, and I had the opportunity to attend our first National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) event, the O’Reilly Spring Nationals, at Houston Raceway Park in Baytown, Texas, March 31 through April 2, 2006. Baytown is near Houston, our hometown.
NHRA events are extremely fan-friendly and fun for all ages. And, with 23 events scheduled across the United States this year, ample opportunity exists for FMCA members to check out one or all of them.
Another of the big drag strips is located at Fairplex in Pomona, California, the site of FMCA’s 2006 International Convention. It is home to the NHRA’s season-opening Winternationals and the season-ending NHRA Finals. It also is where you’ll find the Wally Parks NHRA Motorsports Museum. Longtime drag-racer and current FMCA Rocky Mountain Area vice president Duane Pindell, F105443, is recognized with a picture in the NHRA Hall of Fame for his contributions as one of the original national tech directors. Duane and I served several years together on the FMCA Governmental and Legislative Affairs Committee.
In NHRA events, teams must qualify for one of the 16 slots in each of their respective classes. Qualifying lasts day and night both Friday and Saturday, with the final heats on Sunday. After we figured out the different classes, Friday’s and Saturday’s qualifying events were incredibly exciting to watch.
We were told that evening racing under the lights is extremely exciting. At night the air is cooler and denser, allowing the finely tuned engines to create more horsepower. Plus, the track is cooler so the tires get better grip. Unfortunately, we were so worn out from a full day of racing action and exploring the pit area under the hot Texas sun that we did not attend any of the evening qualifying heats.
Had we brought our motorhome, as several thousand fans did, we could have taken a break in the air-conditioning, eaten a homemade meal, and been ready for the night racing both Friday and Saturday. Next year we definitely plan on bringing our motorhome.
Many of the drag racers also have their own motorhomes at the track, because it makes being on the road much more enjoyable. And having their motorhome in the pit area is extremely convenient for them. A number of teams also use motorhomes as VIP meeting areas.
Although the NHRA sanctions many different types of drag racing classes and divisions, the four major national classes are Top Fuel, Funny Car, Pro Stock, and Pro Stock Motorcycle. Cars in Top Fuel and Funny Car are equipped with 7,000-horsepower engines. Competitors in these classes run in the 325- to 330-mph range, shooting down the 1/4-mile track in an incredible 4-1/2 seconds. Pro Stock competitors drive vehicles that produce about 1,200 horsepower and run in the 205- to 206-mph range and take a little less than 7 seconds to complete the 1/4-mile run, while Pro Stock Motorcycle pilots zip down the track at approximately 190 mph with times in the 7.2-second range. Taking photos of these racing machines as they thunder down the track is a fun challenge. (See sidebar for photo tips.)
The racing on each of the three days was very different. On Friday the sky was overcast and the temperatures were not quite as hot. As a result, most of the teams got in some great runs and there were very few who “smoked the tires.” This is a term used when the driver floors the accelerator at the start of the race and the dragster’s rear tires spin rather than grip the track. Typically this results in a slow run.
Saturday was the opposite of Friday. The sun was out and the track was extremely hot. Many of the teams, in their attempt to qualify or move up in the qualifying standings, spun their tires, which ended up bringing down the speeds.
To help gain better traction before each race, competitors will purposefully spin the tires for several seconds during what is referred to as a “burnout.” The burnout helps heat the tires to give them better grip, and it also puts some additional rubber on the track. The object is to do the burnout at the same time as your competitor, so that your tires are at least as hot as his or hers. Some teams do short burnouts; others long ones. All generate lots of smoke. Then spotters help them back up their dragsters to the starting line. Since all drivers (except the motorcyclists) are in roll cages, they are unable to see behind them.
Qualifying was very exciting. Because of my previous involvement with the Lucas Oil offshore power boat race team, the teams Barb and I rooted for included Top Fuel drivers Brandon Bernstein in the Budweiser/Lucas Oil dragster and Morgan Lucas in the Lucas Oil dragster. Bernstein, the son of team owner and NHRA racing legend Kenny Bernstein, finished the 2005 season seventh in the NHRA Top Fuel POWERade point standings. However, entering the Houston event, he hadn’t made it out of the round of 16 in the season’s first three races. Lucas is the son of Lucas Oil founders Forest and Charlotte Lucas. Last year he finished the season fifth in the NHRA national standings.
We also kept our eyes on 22-year-old Houston native Erica Enders in Pro Stock driving the Slammers Ultimate Milk car. In 2005, as a rookie, Enders became the first woman to compete in Pro Stock since 1993, finishing 15th in the final standings. She began drag racing when she was 8 years old in the Jr. Drag Racing League and earned 37 Jr. Dragster wins in eight years of competition. She also was the subject of a 2003 Disney Channel movie titled Right On Track.
In Top Fuel, both Bernstein and Lucas advanced to the quarterfinals for Sunday’s racing. In Pro Stock Enders also made her way into the final eight.
Bernstein and Lucas were slotted to face each other in the quarterfinals, and Bernstein laid down the fastest speed of the season to date, 332.10 mph, to take the win. In the semifinals, Bernstein again broke 330 mph with a 331.77 mph run to knock off top qualifier Cory McClenathan.
In the Top Fuel finals Bernstein faced series point leader Melanie Troxel, who was making her fourth straight finals appearance since the start of the year, which included the championship at the season-opening CarQuest Auto Parts Winternationals in Pomona, California. However, this was Bernstein’s weekend, as he made a 329.83-mph pass to defeat Troxel’s 323.35-mph speed.
The victory was sweet for the Budweiser team, because later in the week the group was scheduled to go to Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth to honor Brandon Bernstein’s father, Kenny, as he was inducted into the Texas Motor Sports Hall of Fame. The Bernsteins are originally from Dallas.
In Pro Stock, Enders did extremely well, making it to the semifinals. But it was not to be her day, as she narrowly lost to Jim Yates. Despite posting a higher speed “” 205.88 mph to 205.72 mph “” than Yates, her reaction time at the starting line was a hair slower, costing her the heat win.
Besides the racing excitement and high level of competition, two things stand out to make NHRA drag races great for fans of all ages. The first is that all tickets to an NHRA event allow access to the pit area. Thus fans have an opportunity to view and take photos of the teams working on the race cars and motorcycles. Occasionally drivers will take time to mingle with their fans, pose for pictures, and sign autographs. Fans also can see the team trucks, equipment, and transporters. These are rolling billboards for the many sponsors that make the racing possible.
One thing that really got my attention while in the pit area was seeing the Top Fuel and Funny Car teams completely rebuild their motors “” except for the block “” after each race. The block is replaced only if it is damaged. According to the rules, teams are allowed 75 minutes to rebuild the motor, change the monster Goodyear tires, repack the parachute, etc., and be ready to race again. It was amazing to watch four expert technicians work on an engine while other team members prepped the rest of the car. There’s not a lot of talk among the crew; it all just flows like a fine-tuned Swiss watch. As in all kinds of racing at the top level, there is absolutely no room for error.
In the pit area, the NHRA groups the various racing classes together. This allows fans to compare competing teams in the same class. And, for spectators like us who are new to the sport, it helped us to better understand the various classes as well as to figure out the different teams in those classes.
A transporter that carries the dragster, and all of the parts and equipment necessary to field a competitive team, can be seen in each team’s area. Typically a passenger-side awning from the transporter is extended to shelter the team work area.
Many of the top teams also have a second transporter, this one with a driver’s-side awning that is extended and lined up adjacent to the team work area. This area usually serves as the team’s VIP area with tables and chairs. This allows folks even closer access to watch the teams work on their race cars. Several teams also had motorhomes in the area for personal convenience and VIP hospitality.
Also in the pit area you’ll find sales and display spaces for many of the teams’ sponsors. Some of these are extremely elaborate and incorporate multiple semi-transporters. Some also include simulators and rides. Others provide various giveaways and souvenirs. Vendors offer everything imaginable, including enclosed trailers and super type “C” motorhomes with semi-truck cabs. And, of course, there are various NHRA collectible items, along with the requisite T-shirts and hats. We spent a considerable amount of time walking the pit area and still didn’t get to see it all.
Qualifying days are the best times to take in all of the extras of attending an NHRA event. Because of the various classes, and the fact that teams are trying to qualify on Friday and Saturday, there were some large blocks of time between the class heats that we wanted to see. Fans who come to the race in their motorhomes can figure out the racing schedule (do buy a program) and head back to the coach during the downtime to enjoy the comforts of home. Or, as we did this year, you can explore the pit area some more. On finals day the schedule is much tighter, and the racing takes center stage.
All in all, we had a blast and are already planning on attending next year with our motorhome to have even more fun.
About the author: Tony Wiese and his wife, Barb, F178480, reside in Houston, Texas, with their three Yorkshire terriers. Last year as part of the Lucas Oil offshore race team, Tony participated in the filming of the upcoming Miami Vice movie starring Jamie Foxx and Colin Farrell, to be released July 28. Depending on what happens in the editing room, Tony might appear in the dock scene after one of the two races in the movie, wearing his Alcoa hat and Lucas Oil team shirt and briefly talking to Foxx and Farrell.
Important Things To Bring
Quite simply, NHRA events are big and loud. So to make sure that everyone has a pleasant experience, come prepared.
Bring ear protection: Inexpensive little silicone-ribbed earplugs reduce the noise.
Pets? Since drag racing is so loud, if you do bring your pet, park as far away from the track as possible, as the sound dissipates quickly. I would not recommend that you park your motorhome up front on the fence line.
Use sun protection: Events take place all day long, so a good hat and sunblock are highly recommended. We found that children’s sunscreen with an SPF 50 rating works when you’re in the sun all day. Since it is designed for kids, it tends to stay on better.
You should always bring at least one set to a spectator event such as an NHRA drag race. Our binoculars allowed us to watch from wherever we were seated in the grandstands as the teams prepared for the start of the race. A good set of binoculars also allows motorhome owners and their guests along the fence to watch the teams get ready for each start. Choose a set with great optics but one that is not too heavy or bulky. That way you’ll use them more often and hence get more enjoyment from them. We brought two pairs “” a compact Nikon 12×25 ProStaff ATB and a Nikon 10×42 LXL Premier. The LXL Premier is Nikon’s top bird-watching binocular, and when you look through them, you feel as though you’re actually standing in the spot you are viewing through the eyepiece.
Tony’s Photo Tips For High-Speed Events
The following are some suggestions for taking photos at NHRA events.
For shots of people and the pit area, a wide-angle lens is an absolute necessity. In 35-millimeter film terminology, a 50-millimeter lens is considered standard, and anything less than that is wide angle. Most pocket cameras (film or digital) have a 35-millimeter lens or the equivalent. A great wide angle is in the 25-millimeter range.
The reason I say equivalent is that on most digital cameras the image sensor is half the size of a standard 35-millimeter negative, so you have to multiply the lens size by 1.5 to get to the equivalent.
We brought a 17-to-70-millimeter Sigma f2.8-f4.5 lens that on our digital SLR (1.5 magnification factor) equates to a 25-to-105-millimeter lens, which provides a terrific range for shooting.
A mid-range lens in the 70- to 150-millimeter range is great for following the cars in motion. This size lens is better than a telephoto lens, because it gives you a broader view. You can then crop (determine which part of the photo you want) later when the photo is being printed. With the 6- to 8-megapixel digital cameras available today, this works well, because the whole image has pretty good integrity.
The third choice is a telephoto lens (200 to 400 millimeters in length). Using a telephoto lens requires the photographer to hold the lens steady and to be adept at panning (following the dragster) very, very quickly. It also requires a totally unobstructed view so that you don’t knock down other spectators. Some of the new digital cameras have image stabilization. I’ve used several cameras with this feature and they work great. Lenses for SLR camera bodies also are available with image stabilization, and they also work well.
We brought a 300-millimenter Nikon f4 lens, and it was very good for taking launch shots, but people kept standing up in front of us, so panning shots were very hard to execute without taking out a couple of spectators. If we had stayed in one spot, we could have had an unobstructed view in front of us. But we chose to roam around and explore the pit area numerous times. The 300-millimeter lens on our digital SLR is equivalent to a 450-millimeter lens when you add in the 1.5 magnification factor.
Next is a super telephoto lens. When it’s in the right setting, you can get absolutely exceptional photos. But you have to realize the drawbacks of using such a large lens. With a super telephoto you are focused on a very specific and limited area. These lenses are very expensive and can be quite heavy.
Also, any lens over 400 millimeters is very difficult to hold steady and will typically require a good tripod. The heavier the lens, the better the tripod needs to be. For Sunday’s finals I brought an 800-millimeter Sigma f5.6 lens, a large carbon-fiber tripod, and a gimbal head for the tripod. I set it up Sunday morning adjacent to the press center, which was behind and off to the right of the starting area.
When I put the 800-millimeter lens on our digital SLR with the 1.5 magnification factor, it is equivalent to a 1200-millimeter lens. Unfortunately, this year, because of the limited locations available for me to shoot from, the lens was just too big. Folks with motorhomes parked along the fence line have an ideal vantage point for using such a large lens.
Whichever lens(es) you try at a high-speed event, to get the best results, you need either high-speed film or a high-speed setting on your digital camera. This is to keep up with the fast pace of the racing action. If you have a digital camera, it’s advisable to have a memory chip that has fast read-and-write times, typically advertised as 60x or 133x normal speed.
We normally use 200-ASA film speed for national and international high-speed boat races where the boats are running in the 90- to 150-mph range. So for the NHRA event we bumped up the film speed or ASA rating in the digital camera to 400. We also have used both 200- and 400-ASA speed settings with great success at NASCAR races.
Another thing that helps when taking photos at an NHRA event is a fast lens. I try to stay in the f2.8 to f5.6 range to get the best shots of the racing action. With a slower lens, you will have to focus more precisely on that fast-moving object. With a slow lens you can compensate and use faster film, such as 800-speed, or a faster setting. The drawback to faster film or a higher setting is loss of quality in the photo. In the end, the 17-to-70-millimeter Sigma lens was the most versatile of the lenses we brought.
Remaining 2006 NHRA POWERade Drag Racing Series Schedule
July 14-16 “” Mopar Mile-High NHRA Nationals Denver, Colorado
July 21-23 “” Schuck’s Auto Supply NHRA Nationals Seattle, Washington
July 28-30 “” Fram Autolite NHRA Nationals Sonoma, California
August 10-13 “” Lucas Oil NHRA Nationals Brainerd, Minnesota
August 18-20 “” O’Reilly Mid-South Nationals Memphis, Tennessee
August 30-September 4 “” Mac Tools U.S. Nationals Clermont, Indiana
September 14-17 “” Toyo Tires NHRA Nationals Reading, Pennsylvania
September 21-24 “” O’Reilly NHRA Fall Nationals Ennis, Texas
October 6-8 “” Torco Racing Fuels NHRA Nationals Richmond, Virginia
October 26-29 “” ACDelco Las Vegas NHRA Nationals Las Vegas, Nevada
November 9-12 “” Automobile Club of Southern California NHRA Finals Pomona, California