My buddy, Mike Pardue, who I’ve known since junior high school, introduced me recently to the wonderful world of drag race competitions. A slice of Americana, the blacktop parking lot is piled high with built-to-last hunks of metal made in the USA.
Irwindale Dragstrip is open to all types of racing and street legal vehicles. All vehicles that participate are either full bodied cars, roadsters, dune buggies, jeeps, trucks, 4-runners, or motorcycles.
The heavy duty vehicles queue up two at a time in a surprisingly organized fashion in a race to cross the finish line first. Stadium concert loud, the screeching tires and throaty sound of revving engines scream testosterone. I refrained from inhaling too much air in fear that I might actually grow a pair of balls.
The race follows a straight course from a standing start over 1/8 mile. High tech electronic timing devices and speed sensing systems record individual results. When I asked Pardue why he drag races, he smiled and said, “for the science of it.” You have got to be kidding, I thought.
Before each pass (race), each driver performs a burnout. Surprise! This is where the “science” kicks in. The burnout heats the wide bald tires and lays rubber down at the beginning of the track to improve traction (not to impress the chicks). Who knew!
Each driver then dons personal protective equipment and stages at the starting line.
Races are started electronically by a light signal called a Christmas tree (sweet Jesus). The tree consists of a column of lights for each driver/lane, one blue, three amber, one green, and one red. Once the driver trips the beam, the tree is activated, and the opponent will have up to seven seconds to stage or a red light and automatic timed-out foul occurs instantly (ouch).
When both drivers are staged the tree starts the race by illuminating first the amber lights, then the green one. If the front tires leave before the green light illuminates, the red light for that driver’s lane flashes instead, indicating a foul. When a driver redlights, the other driver can still produce a foul start by leaving the line too early and still win, because he left later. If both drivers leave after the green light illuminates, the one leaving first is said to have a holeshot advantage.
To allow different cars to compete against each other, the Irwindale racers dial-in and compete in bracket racing. A dial-in is the time a driver guesstimates it will take his car to cross the finish line. The times are written on the windshield of each car, so the starter can situate the cars appropriately. The slower car gets a head start equal to the difference in the two dial-ins, so if both cars perform perfectly, they cross the finish line at the same time. If either car goes faster than its dial-in (called breaking out), it is disqualified regardless of who has the lower time.
If both cars break out, the one who breaks out by the smallest amount wins and three bright lights illuminate as the finish line is crossed. The goal of the bracket racing rules is to place a premium on consistency of performance of the driver and car rather than on speed alone. Victory goes to the driver able to precisely predict elapsed time, whether it is fast or slow and makes the win more dependent on skill. There is science behind these predictions.
At the end, drivers collect their ticket with time breakdowns. The losing car and driver are removed from the competition, while the winner advances to race other winners, until only one remains.
All sorts of folks compete in drag racing. Some competitors like the science of it and others enjoy living life in the fast lane. People like Steve Bolstad races his modified car with the gears near the steering column.
Paralyzed from the chest down since 1986, Bolstad did not not give up going fast. He conceptualized hand controls (made from a Harley Davidson motorcycle steering wheel) to replace foot pedals.
A cable reaches through to the engine giving Steve control where he needs it–at his finger tips. Bolstad’s pit crew precisely measures, reads, makes recommendations, fuels then sends him off to the starting line.
Bolstad is a good natured character with a blaze of glory background. Preparing for a motocross race on his 1985 Honda motorcycle, “the back tire hit a rock at about 60 MPH. The crash sent me flailing over the handlebar into two trees then landed me in a concrete ditch.” Since that accident, Steve has had several other “close-calls” including one in a dune buggy. The broken back healed just the way he likes it…fast.
Next time you’re in Los Angeles, swing by the Irwindale Dragstrip for a slice of Americana. Say hello to Bolstad and Pardue. Tell them the redneck girl in the cowboy hat sent you.