Getting a feel for drag racing

February, 9, 2014
Feb 9
12:01
AM ET

POMONA, Calif. -- I have friends in the media who have ridden in a Shadow Can-Am car and a two-seat Indy car around Laguna Seca, and others who have been a passenger in a DTM car with Bernd Schneider at Hockenheim or in "maximum attack" mode next to Markus Gronholm through a rally stage.

But not too many of them have run an 8-second pass at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona like I did Saturday morning.

Mind you, I wasn't driving. The NHRA, in partnership with legendary drag racing instructor Frank Hawley, occasionally gives media members rides in a custom two-seat rail dragster with a 720-horsepower Chevrolet engine.

Hawley pilots the side-by-side special while the lucky press hack just tries to relax and take in the sensory overload that is part and parcel of drag racing.

Apart from actually taking the wheel, it's the best way to learn about what a drag racer experiences. Noise, vibration and harshness -- it's all there on vivid display when you're riding along. And it gives you even more respect for the guys and girls who wrestle those 10,000-horsepower nitro-fueled cars in the top classes down a 1,000-foot strip in less than four seconds as many as eight times in a race weekend.

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Oreovicz/Hawley
Courtesy NHRA John Oreovicz, left, gets some advice about running a dragster down the line from drag racing instructor Frank Hawley.

Hawley and his assistant explained how to operate the safety equipment in the unlikely event of an accident, and strapped me into the surprisingly spacious auxiliary cockpit. After being towed to the staging area by a golf cart driven by NHRA PR supremo Scott Smith, it was time to flip down the visor and go.

Riders are treated to the whole sequence of events leading up to a run, including a full burnout. Oddly enough, until we actually staged for the pass, my sense of smell overrode everything else. I remember smelling BBQ chicken during the tow through the paddock, and the strong waft of burned rubber as we pulled into the water box.

I was wearing earplugs, and this wasn't a nitro car, so the sound wasn't all that overwhelming to someone who has spent most of his adult life at racetracks. The physical force that hit my body once Hawley dropped the throttle seemed to be on a delayed reaction, the sensation reaching my brain only a second or two down the line. I've driven some reasonably fast cars in my time, but I've never experienced the rush of accelerating to 150 mph that quickly.

Of course, 8.666 seconds passes before you know it, and by the time my mind slowed down to start to pay attention to what Hawley was doing, we were already in coast-down mode, having crossed the line at 154.33 mph.

From my vantage point in the media center directly behind the start line, I've been struck this week by how much the nitro cars in particular move around during the course of a 1,000-foot run. But from inside the car, "my" run looked comparatively smooth and serene.

Hawley, who has taught drag racing techniques to thousands of students during a 30-year career, said that many drivers tend to over-drive the car.

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Kristy Swanson
Albert L. Ortega/Getty ImagesWhen it comes to rolling NHRA-style, actress Kristy Swanson says check it out.

"The steering movements you need are very, very small and very, very precise," said the man who trained professionals ranging from Antron Brown to Tony Schumacher. "It's very easy to overcorrect."

Hawley has operated a drag racing school for years from a base in Gainesville, Fla., and he is expanding to offer a West Coast option at the newly reopened drag strip at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif.

Just $399 gets you a half-day Dragster Adventure course in a 700-horsepower single seat dragster similar to the two-seater I rode in. The $599 Dragster Adventure challenge gets you a full day with numerous quarter-mile passes, including side-by-side racing in an Eliminations-style competition.

It's often said that drag racing doesn't translate well on television. That's true to some extent, though the format (and frequent delays) of the events are made-to-order for edited highlights packages.

What TV doesn't get across are the sights, smells and ground-shaking sounds of the sport. Sitting in the grandstands as a spectator certainly checks all those boxes, but riding (or driving) a dragster is an even more effective way to experience everything drag racing has to offer.

But don't just take my word for it. A couple hours after my quick trip down the famous Pomona asphalt, Hawley gave a ride to actress Kristy Swanson of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" movie fame.

"If you've never done this, you need to go do it," she enthused. "I just struck that off my bucket list. It's really incredible."

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