Author: Burgess, Phil
Date published: April 16, 2010
Even though I've covered this sport for three decades and been an extreme fan of it for four, I'll be the first to admit it: I could never be a racer. As much as I enjoy seeing cars go fast and as much as I marvel at the science behind it all, I don't think I have the determination it takes to be a topflight competitor.
I look on with a mixture of horror and admiration as racers go to incredible lengths to not only field a race car, but a competitive one to boot. The cost goes far beyond the checkbook. It takes its toll on the mind, the body, and, in some cases, the family.
I can't fathom what it's like to spend hours on the dyno, tweaking a setting here and there to find one or two horsepower or, in the old days, laboriously grinding cylinder heads by hand in hope of picking up a little better flow. I can't imagine myself hot-lapping a car while making tiny, incremental changes to suspension settings or carburetor jetting, knowing that an A to B test is only as good as the consistency of the driver and the track and weather conditions.
Even though I've done it, I can't see myself spending hard-accrued vacation time driving back and forth across the country to the next race. I can't envision putting off fixing the washing machine because the race car needs a new torque converter. I can't bear the thought of all-hours thrashes in the garage to build a new engine only to have it possibly expire within a few seconds.
It's not that I'm not good with tools I worked facility maintenance (electrical, carpentry, plumbing, etc.) for four years at a huge plant before I came to work at NHRA but nowadays, I limit myself to basic home repairs, computer updates, and boxed-furniture construction, and even then, I seem to have a relatively small tolerance for projects gone bad. If it's the computer, I can usually undo whatever damage I've done, and if it's the construction of some fiberboard wundercabinet with instructions written in five languages none of which appear to be English the worst impending disaster would be a door that doesn't close quite right and not, say, having an engine implode under me at half-track.
So, now that I've confessed my shortcomings, let me say this to everyone who has lived any of the above: Thank you. Where would we be without you?
It's not that I mind working hard to become better at something or for the carrot at the end of the stick the chance to do something you really enjoy but, man, racing is just so fickle sometimes.
This recurring thought oh, I've had it plenty of times came to me again this week after spending time on the phone with Dan Fletcher, who won Comp at the NHRA Four- Wide Nationals. Dan's back again this week with his semi-regular from-the-road column, in which he talks about the trials and tribulations of his young season (see page 28), so I won't rehash all of that, but just listening to him talk about the Charlotte rain delay and the hassles and unexpected expenses of dealing with it sent a shiver up my spine. Sure, I was there, too, and the rain affected my travel plans, but I didn't have to unexpectedly reach into my wallet or get on the phone to rebook flights (thanks, Debra and Cheri!).
As successful as Fletcher is - three championships and 66 wins in 99 finals it always cracks me up to hear him talk about how ridiculous the fortunes of racing can be.
This year, he's had three national event outcomes in Comp decided by a thousandth of a second. He red-lighted by that margin in the semifinals in Pomona, gave up the finish line in the second round in Gainesville by one-thou, and was one-thousandth of a second from red-lighting in round one in Charlotte but escaped with a perfect .000 light, or, as Warren Johnson would say, "a bad job of red-lighting."
"For one-thousandth of a second, I could have won in Pomona and moved on in Gainesville, and in Charlotte, but for one-thou, I'm beaten in the first round. One-thou of a second has changed all three of my national events from California to Florida to North Carolina. And you're talking to someone whose mortgage payment hinges on it. What a moron I am. I was just tremendously lucky in Charlotte. Here you are on the phone with me, and if I come up a thou red, I don't know who you're on the phone with, but it ain't me. What a retarded sport. And I went to college for this?"
To top all of that, he was three-thousandths too quick in Charlotte in Super Stock, redlighting to an opponent who had a normally disastrous .191 light. "I was looking for a new rope from Home Depot and a sturdy tree," he admitted. "Oh my god.
"After we won the final, we had to race to the airport in Atlanta to make our plane; I didn't even get to the winner's circle. I went straight to the trailer, had to put away scooters, golf carts, two race cars, haul ass out of there, dump the [toilet] tank on the way the glorious task that that is and bust ass to get to Atlanta. I drop the rig at Valvoline's plant, and my wife and I are waiting for the cab, and I'm shaking my head and said to her, 'Certainly not the normal nine-to-five, is it?' You can't script the way it goes out here. You've got to make it all happen yourself. It's an interesting existence."
All of this frustration from a guy with a couple of good sponsors in K&N and Mickey Thompson who regularly finds the pay window a guy who reached the final in the first national event he attended (1991 Montreal) but what about all of those along the way whom he has vanquished, racers hitting it just as hard at every event and still looking for that brass ring? Racers whose expenses don't come close to being covered yet stay after it race after race, hour after long hour on the road, busted knuckle after busted knuckle in the garage? I can't fathom how they do it.
But maybe that's simply because I've never done it. Maybe all of those long hours pay off the second you strap yourself into that race car and fire the engine. Veteran drag race journalist Jon Asher, who for a short time was a car owner, explained it best in a Car Craft magazine story in the 1970s with a quote from former Top Fuel racer (and NHRA VP) Carl Olson: "After you get all through thrashing that thing back together and everything has been checked and it's right, the first time that car fires for a pass, you're going to feel a sense of accomplishment like you've never had before."
I'm not sure what it is, but I'm thankful that it is. Racers are a special breed, and without their dedication and sacrifices and drive and desire, I'd probably be better off building cheap furniture for a living.