Oh what a difference eight years makes. Drag Week has certainly come a long way from the quaint little get together it was in 2005 when less than 40 cars pulled out of the now dead Kansas City International Raceway and rumbled off on what seemed like a suicide mission to most anyone who had even a passing knowledge of the event. The good news is that the general population still believes that all of the competitors are completely out of their minds, but the number of racers has swelled to nearly 200, with 187 brave souls going through tech at Tulsa this year.
When I was telling people that I’d be serving as the announcer for the event this year, lots of dudes were curious as to what exactly it was. Going through the explanation was a fun exercise because even some of the guys who should have “gotten it” didn’t. Pretty hard core racers were perplexed as to why anyone would want to subject themselves to the potential terrors of the road, the grueling schedule, and the sheer physical strain to spending more than 1,000 miles in cars that most people don’t spend more than a few minutes in at a time. That’s what makes the event so great, it really is a gathering of hot rodding’s lunatic fringe…and in our experience, those are the most fun guys to hang out with.
Here’s a random smattering of thoughts, observations, and memories from Drag Week 2012 -
International contingent – One of the more amazing things about Drag Week is the fact that people go to incredible lengths from all over the world to show up and compete. We take for granted that there are hundreds of drag strips in operation across the USA where countries like England and Australia don’t have anywhere near that. There were several competitors from Australia including Russell Brodie and his mates, John Farone in the wild Aussie Charger, and Mark Arblaster in a Chevy truck that they purchased over here for the event. From England, Mick Wilkes showed up in his bad ass little 1970 Beford Van. With a turbo four and five speed manual transmission, he ran down into the 11s, lived out a bucket list dream and made such a positive impression on everyone that he won the coveted Spirit of Drag Week award.
Torture chambers – On Sunday, I worked in tech, looking at cars and checking for class legality. That was a great opportunity to see many of the competitors and learn about their cars so I would have stuff to talk about while announcing the week. It also gave me a great chance to see the conditions that most of the racers would be riding in. Ergonomics was not a word I thought of much. As I said to one competitor, the only thing missing from the inside of the car were the whips and chains because it looks like some sort of a dungeon. He laughed and told me to talk to him on Wednesday, which I did. He and his co-pilot were still happy as clams and loving life. You’ve gotta love these guys.
Never give up, never surrender – Of all the various aspects to this event, the sheer force of will exhibited by competitors in the face of stupid odds is one of my favorites. I called the event drag racing’s equivalent of an untethered space walk and I think that description is accurate. Once you get several hundred miles into this thing, you’re literally on your own and you have (a) the smarts in your head and (b) the smarts in the heads of your fellow racers to rely on. Between the stories of guys literally setting up tents on the side of the highway to perform surgery on their cars to competitors stopping by the dozens to mend cars, to the Aussies chewing up nearly a half dozen PowerGlides over the course of the week and trouping on every day, it makes you proud to be associated with the group of people involved.
Did Gilliam Get Its Groove Back? - Of all the tracks we visited this year the one “wildcard” (if you will) was Thunder Road Raceway Park in Gilliam, Louisiana. I had last visited this track in the early 2000s when it was an IHRA national event facility. At the time, the original owner was still in charge of the property. He was an older gentleman and a successful business man who ran a tight ship. Employees were all in uniform and the place was as neat as a pin. I had heard that recently, management turmoil had not been good to the place and it had not continued on the same track I saw it on back when I was last there. Upon our arrival, I saw signs of struggle, mainly large sign boards with no sign panels in them and a place that looked kind of tired as compared to the vibrant strip I remembered. The tower also showed some signs of neglect and ill effect from lazy previous management. My eyes about bugged out of my head when I looked down from the announcing deck and saw a track that had an extremely narrow groove and by that I mean it was about a car and change wide. I texted DF and told him to wander over and look at the track just so he could see. It was not the most confidence inspiring thing I’d laid eyes on at a drag strip…I’ll leave it at that. The positive side of this story is that when cars started heading down the track, it appeared to be hooking good and as faster and faster cars went down, they were running the best times they had run all week. The cool air and improbably sticky track were a great combo. When Lutz launched a titanic 7.002/212mph run down the the track, it was on like Donkey Kong.
This was a very good moment for a track that has been scuffling along for a while. I am sincerely hopeful that the right person will get the gig of running that place and take it back to where it once was. Like kids cramming for a test, the staff at Thunder Road worked all nighters for a couple of days before Drag Week got there and the work was rewarded by a track that held onto some big time runs. Perhaps that was a boost the new leadership can work off of. I hope so because it is a good track with a casino town 20 miles away in Shreveport. Here’s to positive thinking.
Highways but mostly byways – The meandering routes from track to track are part of the blessing/curse nature of the event. On the one hand, seeing the country by rolling through small towns and cities is fantastic but on the other, racers are just dying to get to the next track with their cars in one piece, so the extended miles of the secondary roads doesn’t do much to help those iron butterflies in their stomach when the motor starts ticking in the middle of nowhere. In some backward way, the small roads may have helped a couple of competitors who experienced issued when locals pulled over to help, offer a welder, or at least a tip as to where parts could be found. When people are flying by a 70mph on the highway, that stuff doesn’t happen often. I will freely admit that driving the route was a personal highlight of the trip for me. I love this country and seeing it up close and personal is one of the joys of being a gearhead.
Road Food – Like most of the competitors, we were not on a gourmet meal plan during the week. I know that my year long weight loss campaign, which has seen me drop 30lbs took a hit on Drag Week but frankly, it didn’t worry me a whole lot. That being said, there were a couple of meals that stuck out as being local and very good. The first was on the way from Gilliam to Memphis and it was a roadside fried fish stand. A couple of locally caught and fresh cooked catfish fillets with fries, hush puppies, and green tomatoes (plus a Dr. Pepper) was as fine a sitting of literal roadside dining as I have had in some time. The second spot was during the marathon 400+ mile drive from Memphis to Tulsa for the last day and we pulled over at CJ’s Butcher Boy Burgers in Arkansas. This place made the best cheeseburgers I have ever tasted and I consider myself a bit of an expert on the subject. The grind up steaks right in the place and the burgers are all cooked from softball sized lumps of beef. Add on thick slices of bacon and some onions and there’s a party in your mouth. I may drive back to Russellville, Arkansas just to eat at this place again. It really was that good.
Let’s say hello next time – I was driving the rental car on most days from place to place so DF and whoever else was in there from the magazine could shoot car to car photos or get work done. One night it was photographer Wes Allison in the passenger seat when we came up on Geoff Dugopolski a two time Daily Driver champ on the highway in his 12-second Malibu. Wes wanted to shoot some photos so he told me to get up good and close and pace the car so he could get the shots. I asked if we should maybe let him know who we were and Wes instructed me to drive, so I did. Well, Geoff didn’t think a whole lot of this weird van full of guys tailing him at very close proximity so he started to slow down, so I started to slow down. Once that happened, Geoff decided that he had had enough of this game and just laid into that thing, leaving us in the night. We caught up to him at a toll booth and he looked relieved to see that we weren’t a couple of rogue locals stalking him. Moral of the story: If a mini-van is pacing you on Drag Week, chances are someone is shooting photos.
The Larry and Jeff show - I tried hard all week to pay attention to every class and not make the whole event about the Unlimited class. Certainly those beastly creations put on an amazing show and run the big numbers but they are but one part of the Drag Week story every year. One thing made totally balanced announcing coverage tough and that was the all-time battle waged between Larry Larson and Jeff Lutz this year. Both are fine men with a hearty respect for one another and both just happen to own the two quickest and fastest street legal cars on this continent. There has never been anything like it in the history of drag racing. Two guys, racing at all these tracks, doing it every day for a week straight, and coming into the last day the separation was in the hundredths of a second. I’ll repeat this again because I feel like I have to: THIS HAS NEVER HAPPENED IN THE HISTORY OF DRAG RACING. There wasn’t a guy in the house that was openly rooting against one or the other, but everyone had a rooting interest. Jeff Lutz has been Larry’s foil for a few years now, back in 2010 he took Larry to the mat in virtually the same fashion he did this year, but it was the silver Nova on both occasions leaving with the ultimate prize. While 2010 must have been good, the 2012 battle was an amazing series of haymakers thrown back and forth by the two proven heavyweight fighters in this genre of racing.
Both men had their ups and downs, but it was Gilliam, Louisiana that nearly proved to be Larson’s undoing. It was the most trouble fraught, tension filled, frustrating span of hours that Larson has ever experience at Drag Week. Larry attempted four runs at Gilliam, something that he had never done before in his many times of Drag Week competition. There were issues to the point that the car would not do a burnout on one attempt. It was looking like hope was going to be lost because when the car was running, it wasn’t hooking up and when it wasn’t having the traction issue, it sounded awful and was making no power. Larson could only manage a 7.27/175mph lap while Lutz had ripped off a 7.002/212 moon shot in the morning and was already on the road while Larson was trying to defy the drag gods and actually get a number out of the Nova. He left Gilliam trailing someone in average elapsed time for the first time since his championship run began years ago. In Memphis, he closed the gap by running 7.04 to Lutz’s 7.14 and the two came into Tulsa’s rain date with nary more than a few hundo between them. With his normal last day flair for the dramatic, Larson ran 6.940/208 to set the all time single lap Drag Week elapsed time record and cement the victory for himself.
The tears flowed freely at the awards ceremony and for good reason. No two street legal door cars had ever done what these two guys did during the week. It sucks that only one of them could be crowned champ.
BangShift Pride – I’m not going to lie to you. Maybe it was the lack of sleep, hunger, whatever, but it was on Thursday at Memphis that it struck me that almost every car on Drag Week had a BangShift sticker on it and I might have had a little leak out of my eyes for a second when no one was looking. I consider myself very lucky and truly honored to know many of you out there in reader-land. Meeting so many BS readers, lurkers, and forum folks on Drag Week was humbling and great for the soul. Chad and I wake up every day and work to make this place informative, fun, cool, and successful. It has been a long road, with lots more twists to come, but I can’t say enough about how great it was to see those stickers and meet so many of you on the road and share in a very small part of your accomplishments at this event. You should all be very proud of what you achieved just by being there and we’re sure thankful for your flying of the BS colors on your cars, trailers, etc. It really means a lot to us on many levels. Big thanks to Danny Morrison for being the chief dude of dudes out there during the week. You rule big fella.
Inspector Clouseau – For those of you wondering how order is maintained and how rules are enforced on the road, I can say pretty simply that the road has eyes. Several times during the week we were on what I called “Inspector Clouseau” duty following up on potential tips of cheating, concerns we had with potential weirdness, and just general stake outs. We were hiding behind buildings, parked in a nondescript fashion on the side of the road, sitting in parking lots, and following people at loose distances and we weren’t the only ones. Fact is, if someone wants to cheat, they will probably find a way to do it, but on the other side, there is real effort going into trying to prevent that. It was fun, although it resulted in a absolute minimum amount of sleep on most nights. DF thinks I am the worst stake out driver in the world so hopefully I’ll get more practice next year.
Finally – The end. I just wanted to thank everyone for the kind words at the close of the event. It was my mission to be the narrator of the Drag Week story this year and I believe I accomplished that. Lending a consistent voice to the event was what DF, Jenny, Michelle, and the SI people were looking to do and I worked hard to be that guy. It was without a doubt the coolest announcing gig I have ever had and I am pretty sure they’ll let me come back and do it again next year. It was really an honor to watch so many great hot rodders get after it as hard as they did for a week. There was nothing left on the table, guys were literally gluing beer can shards to their motors to finish the event (and in that case win class!), and it highlighted the fact that the gearhead culture is populated by people who do stuff and don’t just flap their gums about it. As a reader in our forums recently said it isn’t a contest of racer VS racer, it is a competition of everyone against Drag Week. You’ll never suffer more, laugh harder, or appreciate this culture and country more than after spending a week on the road with the freaks, geeks, greasers, weirdos, and heroes of Drag Week.
I wish the next one started tomorrow.