Fire Breathing Monsters

As a journalist that has spent time around a lot of different forms of racing, I thoroughly enjoyed my maiden voyage into the realm of drag racing. I would best describe the tone of the NHRA Drag Race Nationals as amusingly eccentric.

The car/sponsor regalia is as loud as the cars themselves. The drivers openly make quips at each other during grid interviews and the announcers were at an impossibly high energy level all day long. No one takes themselves too seriously.

That is not to the disservice to the drivers or crews who are focused and working really hard, or to the fans that are passionate about this form of the sport. I mean to describe the feeling in the air. This event was fun. All of the fans – and there were a lot of them – had smiles on their faces and truly enjoyed every minute.

The Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals held in Indianapolis are the biggest six days in the drag racing world. “This is our Super Bowl. This is our Daytona or Indy 500,” said a fan that drove from three states over for the weekend. “I come every year! We can tell you everything that y’all need to know.” In a thick southern drawl he did his best to explain the ins and outs of the event and series to me. Here is what we learned:

 

» The Mello Yello NHRA series includes a couple breeds of cars; Top Fuel, that are shaped long and skinny, and Funny Cars, that are shorter and are meant to resemble street cars. Both are considered the elite of the drag racing pyramid.

» Top Fuel cars and Funny Cars produce an estimated 10,000 horsepower each — which is more than ten current NASCAR Cup cars combined.

» Success is measured in absolute speed and how quick drivers can complete a ¼ of a mile. Both variations comfortably break 300 mph.

» Top Fuel and Funny Cars burn nitro methane, at roughly 11 gallons per second and produce G forces similar to a space shuttle launch. Bright flames shoot out the sides of the car. It’s visually spectacular.

» Lastly, and most importantly, always always always bring earplugs. The mere sound of the engines produce decibels so loud that they can only be measured on the Richter scale. That’s right, each run that these dragsters make are roughly equivalent to an earthquake. To further illustrate this point, my new drag racing friend told me to watch closely during the next drive by. About 100 yards from the racing surface, the unobstructed sound waves rattled his full beer cup about four inches across the metal table. I can see why people are hooked on this stuff.

 

 

“You know how you know the real fans?” he drawled. (I shook my head) “The Nitro eyes.” Evidently, it is a common practice for the more committed enthusiasts to rush up to the pit entrances when the teams fire the cars up. They then stare deep down the fiery throats of the beasts, the breath from the engine ripping the caps off their heads. A bluey haze burps and engulfs the fans, burning the air they are breathing. As the engine is cut and the roar dies, everybody coughs until their brains retract from the edge of asphyxiation. I tried it once. It was not my favorite aspect of the sport. The true diehards go from tent to tent performing this ritual until their cheeks are blistered, facial hair scorched and matted, and their eyes are a (Mello) yellow color.

The races themselves are run in short bursts, two cars at a time. The Nationals determine who is in the chase for the championship; so all teams aim to make a strong impression. After five rounds of qualifying, the eighteen Top Fuel competitors were matched up for the ‘elimination’ rounds. Each round narrowed the field; eight cars, four cars, two cars. The final showdown was between Steve Torrence in the CAPCO Contractors car in the left lane and Kebin Kinsley in the Road Rage Fuel Booster racer on the right. Off the line, Kinsley lost his grip and Torrence was crowned the weekend champion for the Top Fuel guys. “We have had a lot of success at Indy but have never been able to close the deal” said Torrence after. “It was one of the proudest days in my career.”

On the Funny Car side of things, fourteen competitors followed the same format. The last round of two starred J.R. Todd in the DHL car on the left and Ron Capps in the NAPA Auto Parts car on the right. They battled off the line and down the strip. Todd prevailed by .0297 seconds over Capps, equating to roughly 14 feet of victory. “I knew we were going to go out there and throw down,” said Todd. “I could not believe that win light came on.”

I went home from the event with my head in a daze and my ears ringing, trying to wrap my head around what I had just experienced. How could the family of motorsports have such variation from one discipline of racing to another? In debriefing my roommates (who are utterly unfamiliar with the racing world) of this event, they asked what the cars were like. The true description from the track announcers rang clear in my brain. “Well,” I said, “These cars are fire breathing monsters.”

 

A Whole Other Animal

“How do we describe Global Rally at it’s simplest form? Crazy cars that drive over jumps, handle gravel, dirt and pavement sections. A lot of action.”
Oliver Eriksson driving the RedBull sponsored Honda Civic.

Those words rang in my ears as I looked around the Lucas Oil Speedway- Red Bull Global Rally cross hybrid track. What exactly was I looking at? The guest sanctioning body took the basic .686 mile pavement oval and made some additions. Instead of turn two, the Rally cars would cut through a dirt chicane out in the infield and over a large gravel jump laid adjacent to start/finish, and loop around in a mud puddle before rejoining the pavement course between turns three and four. Sitting on a grassy knoll, surveying the scene in front of me I realized that this adaptation of auto racing was both vaguely similar and completely different.

In this version of racing, a fast start is key. Each race lasts roughly 10 minutes depending on the course. The race weekend schedule is littered with a bunch of these short sprints, each finish designating points to set up the main event. That being said, the race weekend is extremely laid back. Two days of racing equates to maybe six or eight shorts bursts of competition by the title series, called ‘Super Cars’ followed by a development group referred to as the ‘Lights.’ In all, there is a lot of flexibility in the schedules, fostering a laid back and casual atmosphere around the track.

The only the pit crews seem to be flung into a frenzy. This style of racing is so rough on the cars that a lot needs to be cleaned, replaced and monitored between each bout. Once the car comes zipping in off of the track, it is immediately propped up on jacks, the hood is flown open, and a little army of technicians descend on the race-fresh vehicle. Quick engine changes are common and each crewman has to have hustle in their job description.

The Red Bull Global Rallycross series has twelve races, most of them in the United States. Each course is made- to order for race weekend, each having a completely different layout and challenges. A few elements are consistent. The track must have pavement and dirt, all must have a jump of some kind and all must involve what the series refers to as a ‘Joker.’

A Joker is an addition on the racecourse that every driver must take once in each race. They are not allowed to take this route on the first lap, but they can take it only once per round. Sometimes the course is designed so that the Joker is a short cut, and sometimes the Joker is the long way around. The key is taking the Joker lap to strategy.

In the main event that I attended, the Supercar winner, Scott Speed driving the Olberto sponsored Volkswagen Bug for Andretti Autosport took the Joker when he was comfortably out front so that the long lag time did not affect his position. His teammate, Tanner Foust in the Rockstar Energy Drink Volkswagen Bug finished second and Steve Arpin in the Lorenbro motorsports Derive Efficiency Ford Fiesta rounded out the podium.

Upon celebrating in Winner’s Circle, it was clear that the series focused on the younger fans. After the traditional podium pictures and champagne fight, the drivers invited all of the kids to come up on stage and have their photo taken. Shortly thereafter, each of the podium winners spent as long as needed in order to sign every autograph and take every picture requested. This time is not a luxury in other styles of racing and I personally think that this attention to the younger demographic is what is fueling the sport’s popularity. Admission cheap, the racing is fast and the pits are open to anyone that bought a ticket to the show. The drivers are diverse, young and often very accessible.

“Global Rallycross is so different to what usually comes around here.” Commented Sebastian Eriksson (no relation to Oliver Eriksson) driving the other Team Red Bull sponsored Honda Civic. “I think it is fun for the fans to see something different. They seem to enjoy it very much.”

The Brickyard 400 in Pictures: A cultural phenomena

NASCAR and Indycar are two very different worlds. The fans, the cars and the whole spectacle of it all is like comparing apples and oranges. Working around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, that difference is striking when comparing the Indianapolis 500 and the Brickyard 400.

Trying to integrate a younger crowd into the race weekend, there was a large two day concert festival called ‘400 Fest’. Main attractions included Major Lazer, the Chainsmokers and other electronic ‘dance’ type music.
The race itself was a feat of endurance. Withstanding a rain delay and 14 yellows, Kasey Kahne prevailed as the winner in the No. 5 Farmers Insurance Chevrolet.

Walking through the hallowed grounds of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, there was something interesting to capture around every corner. This is: The Brickyard 400 in pictures.

Orange is the New Fast

Bruce McLaren was born in New Zealand in 1937. Early in adolescence, he was plagued by an unusual illness that affected the growth of his legs. Bedridden for stints of his childhood, Bruce was restless. By age 13 he was enrolled in a technical college and assisted in his father’s racing endeavors. Blazing through Formula 2 in his early twenties, no limp could slow the ‘Flying Kiwi’ down- even if one leg was longer than the other.

At age 22 he was the youngest driver to win a top tier Formula1 race in 1959. A short number of years later, McLaren started his own team christened with his namesake, thus creating one of the most successful cross- discipline racing teams of all time. With Bruce at the helm, the team conquered in the Canadian-American Challenge Cup- or CanAm series, while developing a significant Formula1 program.

All the while, external pressures tried to lure Bruce’s attention to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. In the early to mid 60’s, the top drivers from around the world looked at Indy as an ultimate testament to one’s ability and engineers came to play with their newest and best innovations. This was the era of the great ‘Tire Wars’ when Goodyear and Firestone were locked in eternal battle to establish superiority. Seeing Bruce’s talents and innovations, Goodyear urged McLaren toward the Greatest Spectacle. Driver and fellow Kiwi, Denny Hulme added to the whispers, asking Bruce to build him a competitive car.

So in 1970- a month before Bruce’s fateful death, the team rolled in three M15 cars for Hulme and Chris Amon to drive. Bruce himself was supposed to pilot a Carroll Shelby turbine, but the builder would pull it from qualifying- citing safety concerns. Early in the month, Hulme’s ride caught fire and he sustained burns on his hands and feet. Amon reportedly came out to see the famed Speedway but was shaken by its speed and magnitude, and thus backed out of his driving obligation. Carl Williams and Peter Revson then filled the M15s. They would finish 9th and 22nd respectively and Team McLaren would win the prestigious Designers Award.

While shaking down a CanAm car in Goodwood, England a couple of weeks later Bruce McLaren suddenly crashed and lost his life- but the McLaren team did not die with him.

Flying the trademarked ‘Papaya’ Orange, Team McLaren would carry on in all racing fronts- winning USAC and CanAm Championships.

In 1974 and again in 1976 Johnny Rutherford drove a McLaren into Victory Lane at Indy. He publicly states that those chassis were some of the best he has ever piloted.

Only after Bruce’s death did McLaren’s Formula1 program write themselves into the record books. To date, the program has twelve championships, second only to Ferrari with fifteen. Some of the greatest drivers in history have raced with McLaren including Niki Lauda, James Hunt, Alain Prost, and Aryton Senna.

The new era of McLaren Formula1 has seen some problems. Mika Hakkinen was the last to bring home the bacon in 1999 and since, McLaren has fallen from grace. The sport has changed, the engines have evolved and current McLaren pilot and two-time World Champion, Fernando Alonso decided that it was time to make a new statement.

On April 12th of this year, Alonso and team announced that they would be withdrawing from Formula1’s biggest race of the year, the Monaco Grand Prix, to race at Indy. Shock, awe and criticism ensued but Alonso stuck with his decision to drive the orange no. 29 McLaren Honda with Andretti Autosport for the month.

“We came out here to unite the two worlds of racing” explained Alonso “and I think we did just that…” Fans from around the world made a special trip to see Alonso on racing’s Greatest Stage and Indycar.com reported that over 2 million people tuned in just to see his rookie orientation.

The Andretti guys took him under their wings and after a month of being at the top of the practice leaderboard, Alonso was ready to qualify. He lined up 5th for the race and spent the majority of the day up front. After slipping down to 6th at the start, Alonso came roaring into the lead on lap 37. A crowd of 300,000 came to their feet to see the rookie take point.

Alonso and the other Andretti drivers would command most of the race—but after a triumphant fight, Alonso coasted to a smoky stop with 20 laps to go. A disappointed crowd applauded him for his heroic efforts, and it was clear that the abrupt end hurt the Spaniard.

“I can say that I found a new family here”…Alonso said afterward, “I need to tell the F1 guys, you have a good thing going here.” Though he was scored as finishing 24th, Alonso’s efforts rekindle a historical relationship—one uniting Formula1 with Indycar and resurrecting a team’s pedigree at Racing’s Greatest Spectacle.

All in the Family

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Racing has a specific smell, my first NASCAR race at Chicagoland Speedway the weekend of September 18th was no different. The hot metal, burning race fuel, and mass of sticky people make a magical mixture that could never be replaced by any court or field sport.

Like the smell, the atmosphere at a professional motorsports event is distinctly laced with an electric excitement like no other. It is no wonder that race fans are fanatically energetic.

I mean, who wouldn’t stand up in their chair when a field of 40-some cars come rolling past like thunder?

Leading up to the event, I could not help but notice the differences in NASCAR culture compared to other sporting events. The emphasis around the facility was clearly geared toward families. This race was christened the ‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle 400’, a tactic that was clearly to attract a younger audience’s attention and provide a unique atmosphere at the race track. All weekend long the characters of the show were taking pictures and posing amongst the fans. Some of the Xfinity and Sprint Cup cars sported special livery in honor of the Heroes in a Half Shell so that you could not only root for your favorite driver- but also for your favorite character. Is this traditional motorsports marketing? Not in the slightest, but like it or not it is becoming more challenging to attract a younger audience and hold their attention- this was an excellent way to do so.

Besides the families in the stands, there was a distinct theme of drivers that were sporting the ‘family man’ image. Walking into the driver’s meeting, during driver introductions and even on the pre-grid, drivers with families were never without their child and/or wife by their side. This phenomenon may be applicable to other disciplines, but in tandem with the Nickelodeon cartoon theme, this presence was noticeably prevalent.

This familial emphasis found its way into the garages as well. The crews working on the cars naturally seem to form their own band of brotherhood. Before the race, there were prayers, huddles, back slaps and good wishes. Comradery can take many forms. Some teams even have a BBQ set up right outside their hauler with a crewman cooking up a hot meal for their guys. One took me through the day’s menu of grilled pineapple and teriyaki chicken.

It was a beautiful, clear afternoon in Joliet, IL when the Sprint Cup cars came down for the green on the 1.5mi bull ring. The race itself was relatively yellow free. Due to rain earlier in the week, the grid was set by accumulated season points. Last year’s Chicagoland champion and defending Sprint Cup Champion, Kyle Busch in his No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota started from the pole. He was quickly under siege by the second place starter, Brad Keselowski in the No. 2 Team Penske Ford. It would come down to tire strategy and a late yellow brought on by No. 98 of Michael McDowell that would reshuffle the field. Second generation fan favorite, Chase Elliott in the No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet would have to come in for fresh rubber. Frontrunner Martin Truex Jr. in the No. 78 Furniture Row Racing Toyota would beat Elliott off of pit lane. Coming down to the green, Truex used the advantage of fresh tires to take home the win. Joey Logano in the Team Penske No. 22 would finish second and Elliott would roll home third.

In the thick cloud of burnt rubber and the aroma bacon encrusted nachos, Truex rejoiced in his win with his wife and crew by his side. Moving forward in the Chase rounds, it will be interesting to see who advances.

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An Interview with Lyn St. James

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Lyn St.James is more than a retired racecar driver. While other previous Indy500 participants fade into obscurity, Ms. St.James tours the country giving talks, encouraging the next generation to join the circus of motorsports and tells tales about her career.

Ms. St.James has quite a few stories to her impressive resume. She started racing in 1974 with a Ford Pinto (that she immediately drove into a lake). By 1979 she competed nationally as a professional driver. Ford had faith in her talent and she worked her way up into bigger and faster road racing divisions. Her top accomplishments include winning the 24 hours of Daytona twice (1987, 1990) and the 12 hours of Sebring (1990). This road led her to competing famed racecourses like LeMans and Nurburgring. In 1992, eleven years after visiting the most iconic race in the world, St. James competed in her first Indy500. She would win the Rookie of the Year title, finishing 11th- the first woman to hold that honor. She has competed against legends Mario Andretti, Nigel Mansell and Rick Mears, all while facing the adversity of being a woman in a male dominated sport.

This last summer Ms.St.James came out to speak at the World of Speed motorsports museum in Wilsonville, Oregon to promote their impressive Heroes and History Indy500 display. I had the wonderful opportunity to interview my idol further about the centennial Indy500, her training habits, and even politics. What continues to impress me about Ms. St. James is her quick and candid frankness when answering my inquiries. This is a sampling of some of my favorite answers.

The last time we talked was out at Indy, I saw you just before you got behind the wheel of a vintage Indycar. Tell me about that experience. How did that all come about?

That actually came as a result of the IMS museum. They organized that exhibition. Some were museum cars owned by the museum and some were independent owners. I was asked if I wanted to drive one and I said ‘certainly’. The car that I was driving was the 1935 Pirrung that Wilbur Shaw finished second in the 1935 Indy500 and it is actually owned by a woman…It was really lovely, I didn’t know what to expect, those cars are not that easy to drive!…Two things she said to me, one was to be careful as we got out onto the track because that was a fairly tight turn, almost a U turn. She said that if you turn the steering wheel too tightly it will override the steering box and you will lose your steering. The other thing was that there was this handpump that she had to use to pump oil into the engine. She wasn’t just a passenger!

It has been 24 years since you won the Rookie of the Year at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. In those years how have you seen the sport change?

It has gone through a number of changes. The most significant are the improvements in safety, both the tracks as well as the cars. The demands of the increased downforce and physical capability that is needed to drive these cars has demanded that these drivers be amazingly fit athletes. The technology has taken leaps. The equipment itself has  changed. I look at those cars, and I talk to some of the drivers, and I read about what is like to drive them and I scratch my head. I know that it is well beyond what my skills are able to do. I admire and I am in awe of what those competitors are doing right now.

If you could have anyone as your teammate, who would you want and why?

Rick Mears. Just because his driving style and mine are probably what I can tell are the most similar, and he is very open and willing to share. He is one of my idols and that would be my choice of teammate.

In your opinion, who is the most underrated female racer (and yes you include in that pool)?

(long pause) That is a tough question. One of the things that I learned a long time ago was to never expect, anticipate or judge other people’s opinion of my skills because if you do, you are down a downward spiral. We have enough challenge to control our own self doubt, our own internal thoughts. When you allow other people’s thoughts to penetrate your brain and process those, you are in dangerous territory. There are some people that overrated my driving and those that have underrated it. I don’t value that… the key people that I really regarded was the respect that I would get from my teammates and from my owners, my crew.

If you had one piece of advice, one takeaway from listening to your speech and your stories, what would it be?

You have to have the confidence and believe in yourself. If you rely on lap times and external opinions, whatever. If you rely on external information to feel good about who you are, then you are in quicksand. You have to figure out how to have that confidence in yourself, and it ain’t easy. It comes from lap times sometimes, but if you rely on that you are really set up for failure.

8th Annual Rust O Rama

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There are many flavors of car enthusiasts. Some devote their loyalty to Model A pristine vintage, some like the new souped-up imports and then there are hot rodders. Some hot rodders pledge allegiance to traditions while others create their own frankenstein dream kustoms. Events like Rust O Rama put on by the Cherry City Bombers car club feature their own niche of hot rodder that should not be overlooked.

The cars and the people at the 8th annual Rust O Rama are a mix of eras and style. Some are clean and polished with a little detailing that sets them apart, others go for the extreme rusty and rough look. Each car and their driver has no shortage of personality showing, and it is interesting to walk the rows of vehicles and observe just how different people’s tastes can be.

The car club makes it a point to have ongoing entertainment throughout the day. Music, a mobile tattoo parlor, vendors of clothing and jewelry, pinstripers, a hairstylist, and the ever-entertaining pinup contest. Each year, the Bombers pick a charity to feature. This year the foundation of choice is called Magic Wheelchair who make Hollywood- grade costumes for children bound to wheelchairs. The pinup contest- like the car show itself- helps gain awareness for the cause. This year I personally dressed up and participated as one of eleven pinups. Dawning my hair sprayed curls and extreme eyeliner was well worth the $173 that we girls collectively raised for Magic Wheelchair.

As the finale to the day, two members of the car club got married right on the rockabilly stage, all while celebrating and welcoming anyone that wanted to be present. I could not ask for a more unique grouping of cars and people to be around for an afternoon. So when this event rolls around next year, come on down to Salem to support charity, get a tattoo, or simply people watch. It is never short of entertaining.

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