NEWB: We Sent Tony Sestito To His First NHRA National Event With No Direction And A Camera – Here’s His Report

NEWB: We Sent Tony Sestito To His First NHRA National Event With No Direction And A Camera – Here’s His Report

As you’ve probably seen by now, the NHRA brought their rolling tour of mega horsepower to New England Dragway in Epping, NH for the New England Nationals last weekend. It was an action-packed event through and through, and in a New England rarity, the weather cooperated (mostly) all weekend.

For me, this event was a return to the drag racing scene, and a return to my old stomping grounds. Growing up as a gearhead in Massachusetts, New England Dragway right across the NH border was THE place to prove your car’s worth (legally, of course). On Wednesday and Friday nights, you could bring anything up there and race it on “Street Night” as long as it passed a simple tech inspection, and there, I got my first taste of the ol’ 1320 behind the wheel of my old 2002 Subaru WRX wagon. I’ll never forget how nervous I was pulling up to the line, with some punk in a modded, ratty early 90’s Honda Civic in the other lane, talking trash the whole time in the staging lanes. I’ll also never forget said punk obliterating a CV axle on that same starting line, eating his own words, and me sailing down the left lane to a blistering 16.6 ET! For a while, my gearhead friends and I were obsessed with going to New England Dragway. Hell, one of them even moved up to New Hampshire so he (and my friends by default) could be closer to the place and use his house as a base of operations. He made the decision to move back to MA a few years later. With that in mind, the last time I ever made it up there was in September of 2011, behind the wheel of my ratty 1979 Pontiac Trans Am, which has been off the road in Project Car Purgatory since 2012. My friends and I have been exploring other types of motorsports, like Autocross and low-buck, crapcan endurance racing. As a result, my interest (and attendance) at drag racing events had taken a hiatus of sorts.

That is, until last weekend’s New England Nationals.

I showed up to the event to take in a beautiful, sunny Saturday, looking to stir up some old memories of my friends and I blasting down the track, and perhaps make some new ones. Furthermore, this was my first “Nationals” event, and I had no idea what to expect. Our very own Brian Lohnes told me this: “This is your first time at the Nats? You are in for a treat!”

He wasn’t wrong, that’s for damn sure!

In true BangShift form, I’m going to post some shots I took during the day that will sum up my experiences at the New England Nationals. I’m just warning you now: this is a long one. Enjoy!

When I first walked through the main gate, there was a small selection of sweet vintage funny cars to greet the fans, and from what I can tell, these are cars from the New England era that have some historic significance. This one, the Country Girl, was built in the mid-70’s and campaigned by Rodalyn Knox and her husband, John. We actually ran a feature on this one back in 2012! Still as cool as ever.

I’ve heard of the old Boston Strangler funny car before; it’s legendary around these parts, so seeing it there was a welcome treat. Well sort of: This one is a recreation of the original, but it is nearly as gnarly as the original was in its heyday. I mean, just look at that thing! Recreation or not, I’ll take it!

Continuing with the vintage New England theme… here we have the Boston Challenger! It’s a lot cooler to see cars like this at the drag strip than sitting on a fairground somewhere.

This old timing trailer, owned by the New England Hod Rod Council was a very cool thing to see and a part of history. These guys birth New England Dragway after racing in places like Sanford, Maine since the 1950’s.

When I used to hit up New England Dragway on the regular, this area was basically a parking lot for spectators to park their cars, or a spot for an impromptu thrash fest to make your street car go a bit faster. Last weekend, it turned into a motorsports midway, filled with professional drag racing teams, vendors, and more. This picture was taken early, just after the gates opened. Later in the story, you’ll see how packed this gets!

And while the pros were set up on the nice, flat pavement with their million dollar mobile shops, the die-hards were set up in a nearby lot that was akin to a fairground parking lot. As a spectator, I spent just as much time weaving my way through this labyrinth of horsepower as I did walking straight up and down the midway! There were some really cool rides, like this one you see here, hiding between the weeds and trailers.

If it had four wheels and you could stuff a V8 in the chassis somewhere, chances are it was there! This E30 BMW 3-Series sounded mean and a far cry from what the Bavarians intended when it left the factory to be some yuppie’s chariot.

Now THIS is what I’m talking about! As a kid growing up in the 80’s and 90’s, cars like this 1990’s Oldsmobile Cutlass were the cars I was reading about in the magazines. I grew up in an Olds family, so cars like this one were hero cars to me. While the civilian versions were tame, front wheel drive road loafs, the OEM’s were campaigning doorslammers like this one with honest-to-goodness V8 power driving some very large slicks out back. These Malaise-Era drag cars have trickled down into the hands of amateur and semi-pro racers, and can be seen blasting down tracks all over the place today. To quote Lohnes: “Drag Racing recycles!”

Another old GM W-Body look -alike, this time a Chevy Lumina, was getting prepped out in the dirt. Love it!

And another! This one appears to be a real mid-80’s Cutlass Calais converted to rear wheel drive. The hottest version of the Calais was the Quad 442, which was powered by the DOHC Quad 4 four cylinder, making somewhere around 180hp. While impressive for its day, this one impresses me a lot more!

If you thought GM was the only company re-powering their FWD rides with V8’s and RWD power back in the Malaise Era, you would be wrong! Mother Mopar even went as far as offering a kit to transform cars like this Dodge Daytona into dragstrip terrors. Some of them even snuck their way onto the street!

Aside from all the formerly FWD freaks, there were plenty of pony and muscle cars running around, like this rad-as-hell early 80’s Camaro. Depending on the class, some of these guys are locked into using the engine the car came with, right down to the original carb.

There were also plenty of traditional rides waiting to make passes in the pits, like this sharp 1957 Chevy that looked plain evil devoid of it’s typical signature side trim.

Also in attendance were a fair share of Musclecar-Era rides, like this 1968 Chevelle. I love that paint job!

In talking to Lohnes before the event, he told me that I was going to love the Stock and Super Stock classes. Just to be clear, I was (and still am!) a bit rusty on my NHRA classes, but when he told me that these guys are running stuff with correct factory blocks, heads, and induction, and on smallish 9″ slicks, I immediately thought that the Musclecar Era stuff would be PERFECT for this type of thing. There were plenty of classic rides prepping in the pits, like this 1971 Dodge Charger R/T. These cars can be worth hundreds of thousands now, so it’s great to see them still getting used as was originally intended. Ten times out of ten, I’d rather see cars like this blasting down the track than crossing a stage at an auction!

It was also fun to see stuff like this Super Comp dragster idling around the paddock. The pits and the return roads were jamming all day. One could almost sit there and watch the traffic and be wholly entertained without watching a single pass!

After wandering around in the grass for a bit, I started hearing really loud noises coming from the midway area, so I ran over to see what was going on. Here, you see the guys from the CatSpot Racing crew warming one of their Top Fuel engines. They basically backed the thing out of the tent and let it rip, and the crowd was LOVING it. Toward the end of the warmup they whacked the throttle which made the entire crowd jump back! Not gonna lie here, it got me too!

Walking around the midway, it was hard to ignore the fact that the racers I’ve seen in magazines and read about online for years were right here, just feet away from where I was standing. The Schumachers, the Force Family, The Jegs and Summit crews that we’ve all bought parts from over the years, and New England’s own Tascas were all there.  This kind of access is seldom seen in any other professional sport or competition these days, and the fans were eating it up.

Like I mentioned earlier, I’ve been away for a while from the sport, so seeing a Toyota Racing Development trailer in the midway was a surprise. Toyota’s factory backed racing teams date back decades, and seeing as they have been involved with other “American” motorsports like stock car racing, it makes total sense that they were here with purpose-built drag racing hardware. But what were they campaigning here? The only V8-powered vehicles they make are full sized trucks and SUV’s. Maybe a Toyota 86-flavored funny car?

It was a Camry. It’s always a freaking Camry. I can tell you this: unlike that gold-colored one you were probably cursing at on your daily commute recently, you’ll be getting to your destination plenty fast if you are stuck behind this one in the left lane. This one runs under 4 seconds in the quarter!

As you can tell from this shot with everyone blocking their ears, the Scrappers Racing crew was test firing an engine in their Top Fuel car. One thing I learned early on was that you need to have ear plugs for this event. In fact, bring two pairs and maybe a set of earmuffs too! Put it this way: in my former life, I used to play drums on stage in a band playing heavy music. We were really, really loud, and sometimes we got shut down by some venues because of that. Well, that was nothing compared to the volume these beasts belt out! Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

As I mentioned before, this event gives just about anyone unfettered access to things you just won’t see elsewhere. If I wanted to, I could have sat here all day watching this team tear down and rebuild this car over and over, leaving no bolt unturned. It is nothing short of amazing. It also makes me feel extremely inadequate as a gearhead, as my project Trans Am has been sitting unfinished since I took it off the road in 2012 for some “light restoration work”. I need to get these guys to show up to my place for an afternoon!

One of the coolest things about New England Dragway is how close spectators can get to the action. I’ve been to other tracks across the country, and outside of the demo derby pit at my local fairgrounds, none of them let fans get this close! Watching launches from the fence next to the starting line never, ever gets old. Beautiful Cutlass, by the way!

Being a member of the press, I was given access to a deck on the top of the tower. Ever since I first starting going here, I’ve wanted to get up there. Naturally, I jumped at the chance to take some shots from this unique vantage point. Also of note: almost every single door slammer did wheelies! The 5 year old in me was extremely pleased to see this.

A sunny afternoon, a quarter mile of straight asphalt, and the rich sound of V8 Pleasure in the air… It does not get better than this, folks!

Another unexpected surprise: professional drag snowmobiles! Every once in a while at a test and tune event, I saw people blasting down this track on these treaded terrors, which swap out the skis up front with inline wheels and mount rubber belts instead of their winter setups. I honestly thought people were trotting these out during those events for fun. Pro Stock Sled is an exciting class, and competitive teams are running low 8’s on these things!

One thing I was not prepared for was the unbelievable power of the Top Fuel Dragsters and Funny Cars. Every time they passed through the water box, every car alarm in the parking lot would start blaring. And when they launched… oh man, YOU FEEL IT. Not only do you feel the blast, but as the nitro fumes waft through the air, your eyes will burn, your nostrils will sting, and your throat and lungs will roast. If it’s that crazy for spectators, it must be insane for the drivers!

The moment the tree drops and the green light is lit, it feels like these things are displacing space-time to warp themselves down the track. And like I just said, you feel every bit of it. I have never been to any type of motorsports event where the sheer power of the cars in the contest can physically affect you like this in the stands. It’s addictive, impressive, and something every gearhead should experience.

Between class runs, the track crews would come out and make sure the burnout box and the starting line was good to go. With tens of thousands of horsepower passing through these lanes, one slip of a tire could spell disaster, and these guys made sure that the track was clean and ready. I remember many times going on Street Night and having stuff blow up so bad that the track is shut down for over an hour. Here, even when parts scatter, they aren’t down for more than 5 minutes! Impressive!

Speaking of the unsung, the press guys that had direct track access were right up close to the action at the starting line all day long, breathing in nitromethane and exhaling rubber dust in order to get you the best coverage out there. Here’s our very own Dave Nutting on the job, shooting away while these things blasted him at point blank range!

I’ve watched Top Fuel bikes on TV before, and it always amazed me how anyone could wrangle one of these things down the track without ending up as roadkill. Seeing them in person was all the more amazing. Most of them essentially ride the rear slick and the wheelie bar down the length of the track, with competitive bikes turning low 6’s for E.T.’s.

In speaking to both fans and track staff during the day about the best places to view the action, nearly everyone I spoke to told me the same thing: “You gotta check out the hill!” This hill, well past the stands and the midway, is sandwiched between the track’s parking lot/campgrounds and the far end of the track. Not only did it serve as a great vantage point to take in the action, the people up there were hardcore, salt-of-the-earth fans, many which had been coming here to see events since they were kids. These were professional bench racers, old-timers, and all around great people having the time of their lives. Between passes, I listened to people reminiscing about their old cars, talking about long-closed tracks that used to dot the New England landscape, and more. Yeah, these were my people! It’s a completely different experience than hanging out in the stands, but equally as fun. Highly recommended!

If you have a decent camera or a pair of binoculars, this is what you’ll be able to see from up on the hill. Me and another guy were up there among the fans, trading positions and getting some amazing shots like this. Simply put: the hill RULES.

This shot from the hill shows just how packed the place was. The stands on both sides were elbow-to-elbow jammed, and the fences were at least five deep for the entire length of the fence. One of the most interesting things from viewing up here is that you’ll actually see the cars launch silently, and then hear them about a second later, followed by a chorus of car alarms in the lot behind you. It takes some getting used to!

Hey, remember those vintage funny cars from earlier? In another surprise, those “show cars” faced off toward the end of the day! This was awesome to see, much like seeing an old band from the 70’s tour again, still being able to rock like they did back then. I live for stuff like this!

As I climbed back into my car and pointed it south at the end of the day, I just couldn’t wipe the smile off my face. Even though I was tired, sunburnt, and smelled like I took a bath in race fuel, the New England Nationals ended up being one of the coolest racing events I’ve ever attended. This may sound funny, but even when I closed my eyes to sleep that night, all I could hear and see in my head was flame-throwing mega horsepower machines defying physics as they pounded their way down the track, much like that feeling when you go to the beach and “hear the waves” in your head later on. And it didn’t end there: I went on to annoy my poor wife, family, and friends in the coming days, telling them all how amazing this full-tilt “Nationals” event was and how everyone needed to see it for themselves. And all that talk must have triggered something: my friends are thinking about hitting up the upcoming Street Night events in the coming weeks.

Being away from the sport so long, I’ve never seen New England Dragway sell out; hell, I didn’t even know it COULD sell out! And every one of those sell-out fans that spent their weekend there probably felt just like I did. Most importantly, Drag Racing is alive and well, and everyone from small children to old guys are as into it as ever. As I’ve said over and over in this story, there’s no other event that I’ve been to that’s like this. Between the direct accessibility to the teams and crews, the intense action on the track, and hanging out with thousands of like-minded car people, this is one event that I will circle on the calendar every single year.


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4 thoughts on “NEWB: We Sent Tony Sestito To His First NHRA National Event With No Direction And A Camera – Here’s His Report

  1. Cliff Morgan

    You did good Tony. These are exactly the kinds of shots that show what drag racing is about. Every photo showed stuff I’ve seen many times. Even scraping the track is part of it. Wish we had a hill like that at Wild Horse in Phoenix. Also made me wish I was at the drags.

  2. Bret Kepner

    Since Tony Sestito has (rightfully) no clue to the name Clifford Morgan, it should be noted Cliff is one of the most prolific spectators in drag racing history. He has been attending drag races, (and recounting his exploits), for more than sixty years and his missives have appeared in dozens upon dozens of publications. For an assignment like Tony’s, a glowing review from Cliff is the ultimate congratulatory reply. Well done.

  3. David Gay

    Tony, that was an outstanding job. I think the best part is when you are not a regular at these events, you enjoy it more when you do go.

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