Author: Waldron, Steve
Date published: September 10, 2010
It was an affecting scene at this year's Bakersfield, Calif., March Meet when an emotional Adam Sorokin stood in the Auto Club Famoso Raceway winner's circle to accept the Top Fuel trophy. Sorokin had just won one of drag racing's longest-running and legendary events, the same event that his late father, Mike Sorokin, driving the fabled Surfers Top Fuel dragster, won 44 years earlier.
"Before I was even driving a car that could compete at the March Meet, I was thinking about it," said Sorokin, 43, who was just a year old when his father was killed in late 1967 at Orange County Int'l Raceway. "I was very aware of my dad's career and what the March Meet meant to him. It was a huge deal for him, and to be able to duplicate that feat was a dream come true."
Driving the Champion Speed Shop/Van Dyke Motorsports dragster, Sorokin defeated Howard Haight in Monday's Top Fuel final after frigid track conditions forced the postponement of Sunday's final two rounds.
"It had been cold and cloudy all weekend," said Sorokin. "Then, right before we fired our cars for the final, the clouds broke and the sun came out, and it made me think that maybe somebody was up there watching me. It was like a scene out of a movie."
Completed just a week before the event, the team's new Hemi-powered Retroliner, owned by Brian Van Dyke and tuned by co-crew chiefs Bob McLennan and Tony Bernardini, went quicker and faster with each pass, culminating with a 5.76 against Haight's 5.93 for his first win in 13 Top Fuel finals.
"It shook a little, and I drove through it, and at about 1,100 feet, it blew the supercharger off the motor," said Sorokin. "I didn't see the win light, so I didn't know if I'd won. As I was rolling to a stop, I could see the safety workers clapping, and at that point, I started to lose it. It was all I could do to keep from hyperventilating when I got out of the car because it was just so much to take in. It was the first win for us as a Top Fuel team, and for it to come at the March Meet was just huge."
In 1966, Sorokin's father, along with partners Tom Jobe and Bob Skinner, scored the biggest win of his all-too-brief Top Fuel career at the March Meet, which at the time carried the same weight as an NHRA national event. Sorokin outlasted a field of 102 Top Fuelers with a thenrecord performance of 7.34.
"My dad had a very special group of people around him when he was racing, and those people were the real deal," said Sorokin. "Even though the car wasn't this spectacular-looking piece of art, it was fully functional and probably one of the best built cars out there, and it hauled ass, and it did because of Tom Jobe and Bob Skinner. They gave my dad a car that he could really flourish in, and he did."
In late 1966, while still at the top of their game, Jobe and Skinner decided to call it quits. Sorokin's father went on to drive for Ed Pink, Roland Leong, Blake Hill, and Tony Waters, and it was in Waters' Top Fueler that he was killed.
"A lot of changes were happening in drag racing," said Sorokin. "Lighter clutches were coming in, and people were doing some crazy things to get those to work. Some of the chassis weren't put together real well back then, and guys were getting hurt, and unfortunately, my dad was one of those guys."
Though he only raced for four years, his father left a legacy that was hard for Sorokin to ignore.
"The motivation to drive a front-engine Top Fuel car in a big part came from what he did," said Sorokin. "I wanted to experience those same things, and it's kind of a way for me to get to know him. I grew up with pictures of him driving these front-engine Top Fuel cars, so it was kind of a natural thing. If you psychoanalyzed me, a lot of it is kind of like chasing the dragon that killed your father at first. Then you put the firesuit and the helmet on, and you get it, and you develop your own love for it and a determination to be good at it. I love it on some many different levels."
One of the biggest upsides of nostalgia racing for Sorokin, and one of the reasons he's so good at it, is that he's able to connect with many of the guys who knew and raced with his father.
"I've had access to guys like Bill Alexander and Pat Foster, who were my dad's peers," said Sorokin. "Pat was a huge influence on me. I would call him after races and just talk about things. Pat was the real deal. He could build them, tune them, and drive them, and he did it all equally well. To have someone like that telling you what you should and shouldn't be doing, you're stupid if you don't listen.
"Tom Jobe has been a huge influence on me as well. He'd always been in my life, but we really became close after the Surfers were inducted into the International Drag Racing Hall of Fame in 1997. He's been very much a father figure to me since. He's been involved in every type of racing and with winning teams, so I really respect his abilities."
Despite his pedigree, Sorokin didn't become involved in racing of any kind until his mid-20s.
"As I was growing up, my mom would take me to the drags to show me what my dad did, but she absolutely, positively did not want me involved in racing," said Sorokin, whose 10-year-old son, Mikey, is more interested in football than drag racing. "She knew I wanted to race, but she just wasn't going to support it. She ended up getting stomach cancer when I was 18, and on her death bed, she basically gave me the green light to follow my passion."
But racing would have to wait.
"I kind of had to go around the long end to do it," he said. "I had to quit college and get a job, and I did all kinds of things to support myself. I eventually got into the entertainment industry, and it wasn't until I was about 25 that I really started to invest in myself. I enrolled in the Jim Russell Racing Drivers School at Laguna Seca [Raceway] and took a road-racing course. I really thought that's what I wanted to do, so I got my SCCA [Sports Car Club of America] license and drove road-racing go-karts. That's what I could afford to race, so that's what I did."
After attending various schools and driving everything from Late Models to Legends dirt cars, Sorokin decided to stop turning corners and, in 1997, attended Frank Hawley's NHRA Drag Racing School.
"When I drove that Super Comp car, I kind of felt like this is what I should have been doing all along," said Sorokin. "I really enjoyed it. There was a love there from the start, and that's what I really wanted to put an effort behind."
That effort paid off in a big way for Sorokin while he was working on Dave Smith's California Independent Funny Car Association (CIFCA) Alcohol Funny Car.
"I wanted a ride, and I thought that by getting a crew job I might put myself in a position to get one at some point, and that's what happened," said Sorokin. "I'd worked on the car for like two days when something happened with their driver. Dave said, 'Get your firesuit, you're going to drive the car.' "
Aside from the Super Comp dragsters that he drove at Hawley's school, the only other drag car Sorokin had driven was family friend Hank Bender's front-engine Junior Fueler.
"Going into an Alcohol Funny Car was a huge jump," said Sorokin. "I called Hawley's school and said, 'Hey, I can't take your Alcohol class, but can you send me your class manual?' I wanted to learn as much as I could - how to perform the burnout, how to shift, all that stuff - and they were kind of enough to do that. I read it over and over and made hundreds of runs in my head before I ever tried to drive that car. It's always been important for me to be good at it and not just do it. Maybe some of those pressures come from who my dad was, but I've always wanted to do well, and it was important for me to know all I could know about it."
In 2001, his first full season driving for Smith, Sorokin was voted CIFCA Rookie of the Year, and he won the championship the following season.
"I drove that car for another year before Dave sold it, then I drove for Jim Broome's two-car team with Mike Savage," said Sorokin. "I drove the CIFCA car, and Mike drove the Nostalgia Funny Car. I drove that car for about a year and half until Jim decided to go back to one car. Right about that time, I was offered a test in John Blanchard's Top Fuel car, which was a pedal-clutch car, and I was used to pedal clutches and had done pretty well. I met them in Bakersfield and drove that car, and they liked me enough to let me get my license in the car."
Sorokin drove for Blanchard for a year and a half before being offered his current ride in 2005.
"It's been great," said Sorokin. "I've been able to drive cars for 15 years and not had to pay somebody to do it. But that's kind of how it's done nowadays. You can't get mad about the way things are, you just have to deal with it. If I could find somebody that wanted to put up money for me to drive, I would surely take it. I recognize how fortunate I am to have had the opportunities that I've had. When somebody thinks enough of you to put you in their car, that's the ultimate compliment."
Including the NHRA Hot Rod Heritage Racing Series and NHRA Hot Rod Reunion events, Sorokin runs anywhere from six to 10 races a year.
"Driving a front-engine Top Fuel car is the ultimate as far as I'm concerned," said Sorokin. "You have 3,000 horsepower and a 12-inch tire, and when it blows up, it blows up all over you. It really sucks when it happens, but when it's over and you've survived, it's the greatest feeling in the world. The sensation of the motor being in front of you and seeing the header flames when you drive at night, all of that is just unreal. I'm a big fan of everything, but I'm a dragster guy when it comes to the nostalgia stuff. My dad might turn over in his grave if I was driving a Funny Car."
Still, Sorokin wouldn't turn down the opportunity to drive one, especially in the NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series.
"I would love to drive an NHRA Funny Car or Top Fuel dragster," said Sorokin. "I'd love to compete at the top of the food chain. I made six runs in a late-model fuel Funny Car and was on my way to doing that in 2006 when the deal imploded. I needed just one run for my license, so I didn't get to pursue that dream. That was tough because I really wanted to do that. I still do."