2016 Toyota NHRA Sonoma Nationals: Our First Trip to the Strip
A few years ago, long before we were the media elites you're familiar with, we had a discussion in the car on the way home from a race. One of us brought up the issue of drag racing and the NHRA. The subject of our discussion was that even as rabid racing fans, we'd never witnessed, first hand, an NHRA drag race in person. While not normally our go-to form of automotive entertainment, we decided that one day, in effort to polish our racing bona fides, we would witness an NHRA event in person.
Fast forward to the present day, now, as big media players, the opportunity finally arose. Last weekend, we made our way over to Sonoma Raceway for the Toyota NHRA Sonoma Nationals. The sum total of our experiences that afternoon is that we'll never be the same. No bluff, no B.S., it was a game changer.
Oh, we thought we knew what to expect from our first drag race. We don't live in a vacuum. We have buddies who go all the time, and love big blown 'Murican muscle cars and bikes like we love open-wheel and bougie European style endurance racing. We have TV's. Yeah yeah, the cars a really fast and make a lot of noise and occasionally explode or wreck in a flaming catapulting nightmare ride. Based on what we knew, I think we both (at most) anticipated that enjoy watching the teams rebuild drivetrains between heats, and maybe we'd even like the straight line racing, at least a little.
Well...we have only two words to sum up our experience...they are "mea" and "culpa." We were 100% dead to rights ignorant and absolutely WRONG about NHRA drag racing! We came, we saw (smelled, cried and almost suffocated) and drove away completely gobsmacked. We weren't (hell, still aren't) sure what was going on around us at all times, but what we experienced was a complete assault on our senses that we absolutely must have again....and preferably with a gas mask next time. We have a new found respect for our brothers and sisters in racing, even though they "only" race (more or less) in a straight line. We might even go so far as to say that anyone willing to strap themselves into a top fuel car or funnycar, deserves to be witnessed by one and all at least once. Neither of us is made of the stuff we saw on display. At no point in the day did it ever pop in to our heads that we "might" or "could" drive one of those cars as that level. On top of all that awesome, the atmosphere of the event was open, inviting and family friendly. While we are still no experts about drag racing/racers or the NHRA by any stretch, we learned a lot, saw a lot and won't soon forget the day we tried something new and basically had our minds blown.
Periodically, each of us may have tuned into television to see an NHRA event. As with any sport, television doesn't give the full story. You see the speeds posted on the screen, you see the fire shooting from the open pipes, the disturbance in the air as the cars reach speeds over 300 MPH in a mile. But television can't prepare you for actually being there...not even a little.
The thunderous sound and fury of a top fuel drag or funnycar is somewhere on the scale between an astroid impact and a Kraken emerging from beneath the sea. You will redefine your definition of loud and discover that the crazy knob goes well past 10 (or even 11). We arrived early in the morning not knowing what to expect, or more accurately, we had fairly low expectations. At the end of the day we felt that we had witnessed something not meant for mere human consumption. Its the kind of fury that makes dubstep seem like elevator music.
On the drag strip or in the team garages one finds something that wobbles the mind. For instance, the guy who starts the engine in the garage wears a bleeping gas mask because the exhaust is so toxic that it feels like you’ve been sprayed with mace. Its an odd sight to see fans, faces lit up like Christmas morning, coughing and choking, wiping tears out of their eyes as they get a dose of exhaust vapors. Honestly, it was the happiest chemical attack ever!
The crews rebuild the engines and clutches between runs. This ain't F1...those lumps wouldn't last several events, let alone several passes. All day long, the paddock is alive with the sound of air guns, metal fabrication and torque wrench clicks. Watching the crew working on the engines was all we'd hoped it would be and more. Still, days after the event, we still can't get over how much time and effort goes into getting these beasts ready for action.
And speaking of engines...When these engines "let go," they can go out with a big, big bang. The straps, displayed below attempt to ensure that the blower stays in place as all the other bits and pieces go flying in a thousand different directions. We can't even imagine the physics involved to blow a racing engineered blower off. Insane, right?
Massive respect to the drivers. Anyone that would willingly strap into one of these things is either truly brave or fit for a straight jacket. A lot of gear heads have the fantasy of driving their favorite race cars, but in this case its safe to say that neither of us have any desire to ever be behind the wheel of these savage brutes. As these cars launch off the line, the turbulence and heat haze is so strong that sometimes it doesn't look like a drag car, but a pure ball of energy hurtling down the track...something fired from a barrel. Honestly, it may not heat haze at all, it may actuall be tiny tears in space and time (but we can't prove it). How else does one explain the youth of John Force?
Watching a Top Fuel dragster or a Funny car would be more than enough, but NHRA has multiple classes of cars and motorcycles. The stock classes have drag cars that look more like something one might see in reality. A Mustang, a Pontiac GTO, a Corvette, and others, and the more modified classes are altered to their limits to resemble almost cartoonishly exaggerated fire breathing low flying spacecraft.
The weekend provided an added bonus as the garage section of Sonoma Raceway contained retired drag cars from previous eras. For noobs like us this was a perfect way to see the evolution of the sport, particularly in the safety department. The early top fuel dragsters were front engined with the driver's, how can we put this, naughty bits sitting right over the differential. In the words of the late Chris Farley, "What could possibly go wrong?"
So, we obviously had a helluva good time. We couldn't have overstated that better. The takeaway is that we learned a lot and that we have a lot to learn...and we can't wait to learn it. The NHRA puts on one of the greatest shows on earth. We waited far too long to get to our first drag race...that we know for sure. We hereby encourage those of you who've never been, or thought you're "not into it," to give the drags a try. Drag racing is good for you! It will take your breath away (literally) and show you speed and fury like you never thought possible.