When Wally Parks started the National Hot Rod Association in 1951 there was no way he could’ve foreseen the sport’s mainstream appeal. The NHRA started out as a small organization that gave pistonheads an outlet for legitimate hoonage, bragging rights and a trophy. It has since become the largest motorsports sanctioning body in the world, offering some $50m in annual prize money. The original national events held twice annually have given birth to a 23 race North American series.
As BBC Top Gear presenter Richard Hamond will attest, things get pretty interesting when you’re moving over 325mph. Consider this: the Bugatti Veyron will hit 60mph in 2.5 seconds. A “flopper” hits the century mark in less than a second and doubles that less than a second later. To put that into perspective, take that same Bugatti, put the cruise control on at 200mph and watch a “digger” blow by you from a standing stop over the quarter mile. Pulling the chutes to bring the 30’ rail back to a comprehensible speed generates enough G-force to detach driver’s retinas. The raw power is mesmerizing.
If you’ve never attended a drag racing event, change that, if only for 4.5 seconds. Every motorsport aficianado should experience the sensual experience of 8000 horsepower first hand. It starts with six foot tall belches of nitromethane flame dancing above force fed V8 headers. Utter discombobulation follows. The thrust from that exhaust, coupled with the sonic wave that is two parts Odin’s fury to one part gut punch, makes insides liquefy, eyeballs shudder and lungs… stop. If the race lasted any longer, spectators would explode. The aftershock is a healthy waft of burned nitric acid/propane and methanol vapors that curl nostril hair and make trackside snacks taste chemically charred. Formula 1 cars seem like coffee-canned hot-hatches in comparison.
Nobody personifies the utter insanity of this sport better than Top Fuel Funny Car driver John Force. The fast talking California native is to the NHRA what Michael Schumacher is to Formula 1. After notching his first win in Montreal in 1987, Force has gone on to holeshot the NHRA record books. Force currently sits with an unprecedented 13 championship titles (ten successive fingers got rings between '93 and '02). He's qualified in just fewer than 350 consecutive events and posted 120 career victories. He also owns the top speed (333.58mph) and elapsed time (4.665s) records. AutoSport Magazine has recognized Force with the John Bolster Award for lifetime achievement. Force currently sits No. 2 behind legend “Big Daddy” Don Garlits on the NHRA top 50 drivers list.
As good as drag racing has been to John Force, John Force has been good to drag racing. The excitably loud former truck driver commands droves of loyal fans, who crowd any event where the man does his thing. Force fans litter the stands sporting event sponsored T’s whenever John takes to the staging beams. They cheer madly during his eighth mile burnouts. For those few seconds of racing, it's standing room only.
After a run, the pit area surrounding the Force Racing trailers looks like a shot from Woodstock 2 (without the stage fires). Fans clamber to score handshakes, autographed pictures, cracked crankshafts, pummeled pistons and melted tires from their Mustang-driving blue collared hero. On the rare occasion that John gets beat, the fans begin to leave. The A&E reality TV show, Driving Force, has illustrated Force's effect on the sport, and gathered new devotees to his combination of humility and ambition. OK, that and the fact that the program also chronicles his four daughters' racing careers, and they're not all that hard to look at.
Anyway, at this year's Indianapolis NHRA Funny Car nationals, the sport once again felt the Force. Despite having the fastest car in his class, the 52nd annual "Big Go" saw Force falter in the first round of eliminations. John took home a paltry $100k bonus bucks, and the benches at O'Reilly Raceay Park soon thinned. But none of the fans walked away disappointed. As always, the NHRA nationals provided the kind of adrenal hit that makes the sport addictive to drivers and fans alike.
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