Friday, May 9, 2008

Drag racing sees no race just who can

The National Hot Rod sees no color, only speed and as a result has more successful minority racers than any other motorsport.

In January during the twelfth annual Urban Wheels Awards held in Deroit, Mich. NHRA was awarded the Urban Wheel’s 2008 Diversity in Motorsports Award honoring diversity and excellence in the automotive industry.

“Drag racing has always been a diverse sport,” Michael Vaca a La Verne resident and dedicated NHRA fan and follower said. “The stands, the pits and the tracks are full of people from all sorts of backgrounds, races and religions.”

Today racers come from many different backgrounds and ethnicities thanks to those that dedicated their lives to the sport and broke the so-called color barriers.

“The drags aren’t about race, they are about who can race,” Christopher Santana a La Verne resident and dedicated NHRA fan and follower said.

African-American racers have been a part of NHRA’s Top Fuel and Funny Car classes for over five decades beginning with nitro-fueld racers such as Malcolm Durham, John Kimble, Rodney Flournoy, Clarence Bailey, Leon Cain and Barry Kelly. Racers such as Tony MacCallum, Maurice DuPont and Steve Hamilton followed them.

Today there are two African-American competitors in the Top Fuel class. J.R. Todd who drives the Torco/Lucas Oil dragster, became the first African-American to win an NHRA Top Fuel race at the 2006 Mopar Mile-High NHRA Nationals at the Bandimere Speedway in Denver, Colo.

“J.R. has always been one of my favorite drivers,” Santana said. “When he won (2006) everyone was just so excited that he did it. He made history.”

Antron Brown, driver of the Matco Tools dragster became the first NHRA driver to win both Top Fuel and Pro Stock Motorcyle with his first Top Fuel victory at the 2008 O’Reilly NHRA Spring Nationals at Houston Raceway Park in Houston, Texas.

“Brown is just a great competitor and a great role model,” Vaca said. “It doesn’t matter that he is colored, he is good and everyone loves him.”

NHRA’s Pro Stock classes have also features multiple African-American competitors. Some of the competitors included former NBA players Larry Nance and Tom Hammonds. Others include Ronald Lyles, Paul Gant, Stacy Shields and Clarence Thomas.

African-American’s have excelled the Pro Stock Motorcycle class more than any other NHRA class. Brown had collected 14 wins and 27 final-round appearances in the Pro Stock Motorcycle class before switching to Top Fuel this season. He also won the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals in 2000.

African-American competitor Reggie Showers, a double amputee below the knees won the U.S. Nationals in 2003.

Other African-American Pro Stock Motorcycle racers include Redell Harris, Michael Phillips and Peggy Llewellyn.

Today Harris and Llewellyn are the only African-American Pro Stock Motorcycle competitors.

In 2007 at the O’Reilly Super Start Batteries NHRA Fall Nationals at the Texas Motorplex in Dallas, Texas Llewellyn won her first career final round appearance, becoming the first African-American woman to win an NHRA POWERade event.

Hispanic racers have also played a major role in diversifying NHRA beginning with Joaquin Arnett. Other Hispanic competitors included Frank Pedregon Sr. whose three sons followed in his footsteps. Today Cruz and Tony Pedregon compete in the Funny Car class.

“They (Pedregon’s) display how closely knit Hispanic families are. One and off the track,” Vaca said.

Diversity has always been a part of NHRA and will continue to help the sport grow in the future. Although it does not have a formal diversity program it is very much a part of the sport.

Race the strip not the street

When there are cars on the road there is a desire for speed, which often times results in serious injuries and even death. Illegal streets racing has been a growing problem in the United States and although there is no database tracking the number of street racing related deaths, they are too common. Even one is too many.

“I lost a friend in high school to a street racing accident,” Kristina Carone a La Verne resident said. “It is just stupid because it could easily have been prevented.”

“I just wish people would think twice before getting involved,” Carone said.

Law enforcement officials and street racing experts say that there are three types of drag racing challenges. The first challenge is a spontaneous contest between drivers who wind up at the same red light or stop sign on public roads. The second challenge is between two different groups where racers and followers take over the highways. The third challenge is a planned event where racers stage contests for money or even pink slips.

“They happen everywhere,” Louie Sevilla a La Verne resident said. “People of all different age, sex and race are involved.”

Although the need for speed will never diminish there are some alternative forms of street racing. Legal and regulated forms of racing can be a valuable outlet for those who feel the need to go fast.

When Wally Parks created the National Hot Rod Association in 1951 it was an attempt to get drag racing off of the street and onto the strip. He worked with law enforcement, car clubs and hot rodders to create a safe and organized form of drag racing. Today NHRA POWERade series is the second most popular form of auto racing in America behind only NASCAR.

“I do watch the legal racing from time to time,” Carone said. “It still scares me but at least they are in a controlled environment and there are professionals and paramedics nearby.”

There are 140 NHRA member tracks around the country that offer NHRA Street Legal Drags presented by AAA. Some of the NHRA POWERade Series drivers recently produced a video to help promote the tracks and remind people to “Race the Strip Not the Street.” The video will be shown on media outlets such as YouTube.

NHRA, law enforcement officials and other legal drag communities urge people to think about the potential danger they can cause to themselves and other people and to race responsibly.

For those who insist on racing illegally, there are serious repercussions. Laws tend to vary but some general penalties include: being arrested and having your car impounded for 30 days, if convicted of street racing or aiding a street race you can be imprisoned for up to three months and fined up to $1000, your drivers license can be revoked and your car insurance may drop you or significantly increase.

“I used to have a lot of friends that street raced for fun and it never ended well,” Sevilla said. “I’m just thankful they never hurt themselves or anyone else.”

Spectators may be subject to penalties as well and cars near or around illegal street races are often issued violations.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Funny Car legend strikes again

National Hot Rod Association icon John Force has plenty of records under his belt and is now only four round wins away from another. With 996 round wins currently, the driver of the Castrol GTX High Mileage Ford Mustang needs to win this weekend at the Summit Racing Equipment NHRA Southern Nationals at the Atlanta Dragway in Commerce, Ga.

Atlanta might also be the site of the legendary funny car driver’s 500th race, which makes for a very exciting weekend for NHRA fans.

“We all knew he would do it, it was just a matter of time,” said Jeff Benson La Verne resident and dedicated NHRA fan and follower. “There is nothing that guy can’t do.”

Force began his drag racing career in 1978 and made his first career final-round appearance in 1979 where he lost to Kenny Bernstein. Force realized that if he was going to be taken seriously as a Funny Car driver he would have to be surrounded by a good team. In 1985, Force borrowed enough money to hire former Chi-Town Hustler co-owner Austin Coil as his crew chief and filled the remaining positions on his team with the best talent he could find.

A year later Force earned his first career victory in Montreal beating Ed McCulloch in the final round. A few years later in 1959 Force won his first race in the United States when he prevailed at Columbus. During that year he also earned his first home track win at Pomona 2 where he beat Kenny Bernstein.

In 1990 he began his trend of NHRA world championships when he won his first by 43 points. He secured his second consecutive world championship the next year. Force lost the championship to Cruz Pedregon in 1992 but regained it the following year.

Force became the winningest driver in Funny Car history in 1994 when his 10 season victories boosted his career total to 42, seven more than the legendary Don “the Snake” Prudhomme.

“John is so dedicated to the sport…I think he eats, sleeps and breathes drag racing,” Benson said.

Over the next ten years Force made NHRA history by winning ten consecutive POWERade championships. In 2002 he earned his 100th career victory and was only second to Richard Petty for wins in all major motorsports.

In 2004 he won a 13th championship and joined his daughter Ashley with her Top Alcohol dragster in the winner’s circle. Force won his NHRA POWERade series-record 14th world championship in 2006.

In 2007 things took a turn for the worse when Eric Medlen, member of the John Force Racing team blew out a tire on his Castrol Syntec Funny Car and crashed into the outside concrete barrier during testing at Gainesville Raceway.

Medlen remained in critical condition throughout the week but the time came for his family to take him off life support. Force thought of Medlen as the son that he never had and was greatly affected by the loss of his friend and teammate.

“That wreck really seemed to shake up the whole team,” Jane Hill a La Verne resident said. “It was a horrible loss for the team and the sport.”

Unfortunately the 2007 season did not seem to get much better as Force was involved in a nasty top-end collision at the O’Reilly NHRA Fall Nationals in Dallas, Texas with fellow NHRA legend Kenny Bernstein. Force suffered a left broken ankle and severe abrasions on his right knee. He dislocated his left wrist and sustained some severe abrasions and slight fractures on several fingers.

“It was bad…really bad,” Benson said. “I knew that John would be back behind the wheel in no time though. He has to race. It’s who he is.”

The 2008 CARQUEST Auto Parts NHRA Winternationals marked the return of competitive drag racing after the collision. Hopefully Force will soon get back into the swing of things and continue his collection of NHRA POWERade Funny Car world championships.

Force also holds the record NHRA POWERade Series record for wins with 125 and his daughter, Ashley Force who currently drives the Gastrol GTX Ford Mustang is following in his footsteps.

“Ashley is just like her daddy,” Hill said. “She has his blood. She was born to do this.”

At the NHRA Nationals held on April 10-13, Ashley became the first woman in NHRA history to lead the POWERade points in the Funny Car class. His two other daughters Brittany and Courtney compete in the Super Comp class.

Girls can do anything guys can do...

Contrary to what many may think there are several significant women drag racers in NHRA history that have broken down barriers and paved the track for women in a primarily male dominated sport.

In fact two weeks ago at the NHRA Nations held in Las Vegas, Nev., Ashley Force, daughter of NHRA icon John Force, made history by becoming the first woman to lead the POWERade points in the Funny Car class.

“She represents more than just the Force family, she represents women everywhere,” said Christopher Bowman an Upland resident and a dedicated NHRA fan and follower.

“NHRA has been a benchmark for diversity in motorsports for years,” said Karen Stoffer, a Pro Stock Motorcycle racer, in an emailed statement.

In the 2008 season there is a total of nine female competitors in each of the four pro categories.

“This might be the most women ever to compete in a pro season,” Bowman said. “I think it’s great these girls give the guys a run for their money.”

In the Top Fuel class driving the KB Racing dragster, Hillary Will is the only female competitor.

As for the Funny Car class Melanie Troxel and Ashley Force bring the estrogen to the track. Troxel who switched classes from Top Fuel to Funny Car this season is currently driving the Pro Care RX Funny Car. She is the quickest and fastest woman in NHRA history, clocking a time of 4.458 seconds (Oct. ’05, Dallas) with a career-best speed of 332.51 mph (Feb. ’07, Pomona 1). Troxel (TF) also holds the record for most consecutive final round appearances for a woman in a professional category, at six (’05 Pomona 2 – ’06 Las Vegas 1). She also holds the record for most consecutive final rounds by a Top Fuel driver of any gender to start a season in NHRA history, at five in 2006.

As for Force, she can be found behind the wheel of her Castrol GTX Ford Mustang and was the first female driver to advance to a final round in Funny Car (’07 Las Vegas 2); She advanced to her second career final at Houston 2008 and third at Las Vegas 1. After her performance two weeks ago, Force is on the right path to becoming the first female driver to ever win a Funny Car event.

“She just keeps getting better and better,” Bowman said. “I think it’s in their blood.”

Erica Enders has been drag racing since the age of eight and is currently the only female Pro Stock competitor in her Enders Racing LLC Dodge Stratus R/T. Enders became the first woman to advance to a final round in Pro Stock at the 2005 Ameriquest Mortgage NHRA Nationals at Route 66 Raceway near Chicago and advanced to her second career final in March 2006 at Gainesville, Fla., where she posted a runner-up finish. She became the first woman to qualify No. 1 in Pro Stock history at the 2006 O’Reilly NHRA Summer Nationals at Heartland Park Topeka, Kan. and is the only female to ever qualify for the K&N Horsepower Challenge, a special bonus event for Pro Stock drivers.

For the 2008 season, the Pro stock Motorcycle class has a total of five out of 35 female competitors. These women include Connie Cohen riding atop of the Buell V-Twin, Peggy Llewellyn with an undetermined sponsor, Angie McBride with her Smith Racing Buell, Angelle Sampey and her Rush Racing Products S&S Buell and Karen Stoffer with her Geico Motorcycle Suzuki. Sampey is the first female to win a championship in Pro Stock Motorcycle (3-time champ-- 2000, 2001, 2002). She is also is the female pro competitor with the most victories, 41. In 2007 Llewellyn won her first career final round appearance, becoming the first woman to win an NHRA POWERade event.

“It is no longer a man’s sports but that’s not a bad thing,” Bowman said. “They work hard, go fast and know what they are doing.”

Although these may be the names that come to mind when people think of women in drag racing but in reality it started long before them in the 1960’s. In 1964, Barbara Hamilton became the first female to receive an NHRA license but it was Shirley Muldowney who proved that women could do anything they wanted, including driving a 200-mph racecar.

“NHRA also had some great women that successfully broke down many barriers years ago, allowing the continued growth of diversity within our sport,” Stoffer said in an emailed statement. “The most popular being Shirley Muldowney.”

Nobody including NHRA and the fans wanted a woman to race Top Fuel or Funny Car at this time. Reguardless Muldowney followed her dreams and opened up a whole new world of opportunities for women. Shirley Muldowney was the first woman to get her license in Top Fuel and became the first woman to clock a four-second run 1989 at the NHRA Keystone Nationals in Reading, Pa. (4.974 seconds). She was the first female to advance to a final round in Top Fuel, 1975at Columbus, Ohio. She earned 18 career victories, second all-time for females behind Angelle Sampey (41). Muldowney was the first female to qualify No. 1 in a pro category in 1976 at Columbus, Ohio, with a performance of 6.031 seconds, 229.00 mph. Additionally she was the first driver of any gender in NHRA history to repeat as Top Fuel champion after her initial title in 1977 ('80 & '82). Muldowney was the only female driver to be included in NHRA's list of top 50 drivers as part of its 50th anniversary celebration in 2001. She was ranked No. 5 on the prestigious list.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Frank Hawley Drag Racing School goes far beyond the racetrack

Frank Hawley, two-time NHRA Funny Car world champion drag racing driver, created the Frank Hawley Drag Racing School in Gainesville, Fla., in 1985 with a mission to build the finest racing instructional program in the country. In 1997 a second school was opened in Pomona, Calif.

The classes have been developed to not only teach students how to properly drive a racecar but for students to gain a stronger understanding of themselves, their minds and their bodies. The training goes far beyond the racetrack.

“The classes deal with how the brain stimulates basic emotion…what it controls and how it effects people,” said Gary Stallone, an eight-year sales representative for Frank Hawley Drag Racing School.

The instructors have studied psychology, human behavior, physiology and neuropsychology and have combined this research with what they have learned from years on the track to create a program that will not only improve students driving performance but quite possibly their outlook on life.

Each student progresses at his or her own ability and pace, no one is rushed or held back by the progress of the classes. Students receive the same careful instruction whether they are pursuing a professional driving career or are just there for a one-time experience.

More than 15,000 students, ages 16 to 85, have graduated from Frank Hawley Drag Racing School since it opened.

Frank Hawley Drag Racing School offers nine different classes including: Super Classes, Alcohol, Dragster Adventure, Pro Stock Motorcycle, Bring Your Own Car, Race Tech Alcohol, Classroom Only, Reaction Time Clinic and Remote Classes.

The Super Classes include Super Comp and Super Gas cars and cost $1,795. The Super Classes include two days of classroom instruction, runs down the strip, video review of your runs and the opportunity to earn your NHRA Competition Driver’s License. This class requires no previous racing experience.

“The super class deals more with mental preparation,” Stallone said.

My sister, Devon Steff took the Super Comp Class in 2002 as a part of her senior project at Bonita High School in La Verne, Calif.

“It was a never forgetting adrenaline rush,” she said. “I would recommend that class to anyone who has any interest whatsoever in drag racing.”

The Alcohol class cost $6,995 and a strong racing history is recommended. The alcohol cars are considered to be one of the most difficult cars to drive because of their explosive power and acceleration. The course includes classroom instruction, driving equipment and safety instruction, warm up procedures, several runs down the track, classroom reviews and the opportunity to earn your NHRA Competition Driver’s License.

The Dragster Adventure is one of the most popular classes and costs only $495. This class uses the same cars as the Super Comp classes, however they are slowed down quite a bit to enable affordable yet still fast fun. The class includes classroom instruction, two eighth-mile runs and two quarter-mile runs. This class requires no previous racing experience.

The Pro Stock Motorcycle class costs $2,495 and is only open to individuals who have high performance motorcycle riding experience and a valid motorcycle license. The class includes classroom instruction, equipment fitting and safety instruction, an introduction to the motorcycles and their controls, burnout practices, runs down the track and classroom reviews.

The Bring Your Own Car class is provided to give racers some seat time in their own car and costs $995. This class is taught by Frank Hawley and includes classroom lectures, runs down the track, video reviews and the opportunity to earn your NHRA Competition Driver’s License.

The Race Tech-Alcohol Program costs $995 and is designed to help those with good mechanical skills get an overview of all the components and their functions of a Top Alcohol Dragster or Funny Car. The class will guide students through a complete assembly of a blown alcohol Brad Anderson Hemi engine, a 3-speed Lenco transmission and a Crower 3-disc clutch. Students will see how the run data is downloaded from the Racepak data acquisition system and view actual sample runs from Top Alcohol cars on the computer screen.

The Classroom-only courses are often considered the best part of the program because of the emotional impact they have on students. The class covers the fundamentals of racing but moves on to much more significant topics which expand the minds students and the way they think.

“The classroom portion is extremely important and people often come back for a refresher,” Stallone said.

The Reaction Time Clinics teach students the psychological and physiological aspects of mind and body that will enable students to improve both their reaction time and consistency. It also gives students information on how their car responds to the timing system.

The Remote Class schedules vary and students must contact Frank Hawley Drag Racing School for more information.

In order to participate in any of the classes a detailed medical certificate must be completed by a medical physician and the applicant.

“The school offers an opportunity of a life-time for drag racing fans or people who just like to go fast,” Devon Steff said.

American motorsports history at its finest

The Los Angeles County Fairplex in Pomona is not only home of the Auto Club Raceway where the first official NHRA drag race took place, but also home of the Wally Parks NHRA Motorsports Museum presented by the Automobile Club of Southern California.

“It was Wally’s dream and we are proud that he was around to enjoy it,” Greg Sharp, the museum curator said.

The 28,000 square-foot facility was opened to the public on April 4, 1998 to celebrate the impact of motorsports on our culture. The museum allows NHRA enthusiasts and novices to experience American motorsports history firsthand.

“There is just so much history preserved in that place,” said David Savadra, a Claremont resident and dedicated NHRA follower. “I could spend all day in there and never get bored.”

The museum showcases famous winning cars from more than 50 years of drag racing as well as cases full of helmets, trophies, uniforms, newspaper clippings, magazines and photographs. There are also stories and biographies about several different drag racing pioneers including Wally Parks, Buddy Garner, “TV Tommy”, Mickey Thompson and Jack Hart.

“People like all of the memorabilia and photos in the cases,” Sharp said. “That is what makes us different from other museums.”

“My favorite display would have to be about the dry lake bed races,” Savadra said. “They are what started it all and not many people know about them.”

The museum also has several unique displays including Wally’s Garage, which is an interactive area that allows visitors to watch while actual cars are being restored, a fuel flow display and a hands-on Christmas Tree operating display.

And there’s a gift shop for visitors to pick up a souvenir after a fun-filled day of drag racing history.

The first Wednesday of every month, April through December, the Cal-Rods Car Club hosts a “Twilight Cruise” on behalf of the museum and invites all 1970 and earlier hot rods, customs, classics and muscle cars to the museum parking lot for some fun. Admission is free and everyone who attends may visit the museum free of charge. The cruises feature the Budweiser Celebrity Picks, a 50/50 drawing, food and drinks.

The museum also produces 2 annual Hot Rod Reunions, the California Hot Rod Reunion in Bakersfield, Calif. and the National Hot Rod Reunion held in Bowling Green, Ky. The reunions feature drag racing, car shows and entertainment.

The Wally Parks NHRA Motorsports museum is located at Fairplex Gate 1, 1101 McKinley Ave. in Pomona. It is open year-round, Wednesday through Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Current NHRA members receive free admittance. Admission for non-members is $6 for adults, $4 for seniors 60 and older, $4 for juniors 6 though 15 and children under the age of 5 are free.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Christmas Trees...not just for holidays

To most people a Christmas Tree is something that they decorate once a year, put some presents under and throw out when they are done but to other people a Christmas Tree is an electric device used to start a drag race. The device is called a Christmas Tree because of its multicolored starting lights.

“The Christmas Tree is a legitimate invention that replaced flag starts and brought drag racing to another level,” said Brad Wilkins, a La Verne resident and dedicated NHRA fan and follower.

A Christmas Tree looks similar to a stoplight but has seven lights on each side of the tree. Two light beams cross the starting line and connect to photocells along side of the track which are wired to the Christmas Tree and electronic timers in the main control room.

“I remember going to the drags when I was little and asking my dad why there was a Christmas Tree,” said Shannon Talbot a La Verne resident and NHRA fan. “I thought there was an actual tree so my dad sat me down and explained that it was a different kind of tree and how it worked.”

The lights on the tree are arranged in a column starting with the pre-stage indicator lights. These round amber bulbs light up when the front tires cross the first beam approximately seven inches from the starting line and warn the drivers that they are approaching the staged position.

Once the front tires roll exactly onto the starting line the stage indicator lights are lit indicating that the car is ready to run. These bulbs come on when the front wheels of the racecar interrupts the beam from a light source to the photocells.

When both cars are properly positioned the starter will activate the Christmas Tree and the drivers will focus specifically on three amber lights on their side of the track.

NHRA replaced incandescent lights with the use of LED amber lights on the Christmas Tree prior to the 2003 season because the vibration from the Top Fuel and Funny Cars caused the incandescent light bulbs to burn out.

In Top Fuel, Funny Car, Pro Stock and Pro Stock Motorcycle, all three amber lights flash simultaneously before the green light comes on. In the sportsman classes the three amber bulbs will flash consecutively before the green light is lit.

The green light is the one light that makes all of the action happen. Once the green light is lit the driver in that lane is free to make a run. Anytime that it is lit, indicates that a fair start was accomplished.

“As soon as that light turns green the race begins and not much else matters,” Wilkins said.

When a car leaves the starting line before the green light is lit, the red light will flash in that lane. It indicates that the driver in that lane has been officially disqualified. During a competition, only one red light will flash for the purpose of indicating the elimination of the first offender in the case of both drivers leaving before the green light or staging too late into the staging beams.

The elapsed time and the speed are monitored for each run. Once a car passes the staging beams, it activates an elapsed-time clock, which is stopped when it reaches the finish line. Each lane is timed independently.

“Sometimes a car can win with a lower E.T. [elapsed time] and speed than their opponent,” Wilkins said.

This is because the winning driver had a quicker reaction time to the green light at the starting line and that advantage was greater than their opponent’s advantage on the track. A perfect reaction time is .000.