Becoming a Speedhunter has really opened my eyes to all different types of car culture. It is so easy to be narrow minded about what cars or racing one likes or dislikes. I have realized that I am a fan of motoring in general. If it has four wheels, then I want to know about it. I want to see it, touch it and smell it.
Which brings us to the California Hot Rod Reunion. I am new to the drag racing scene and it really is an honor to be able to experience such a historic event up close. Up until a few years ago I knew absolutely nothing about drag racing. I still consider myself a newbie, but I wanted to touch on what goes on from beginning to end for a single run down the strip. I called up a few of my friends including Justin Banner from Motoiq and we chatted a bit about drag racing. He gave me some interesting insight I would have never known about, as I usually just walk around the track aimlessly looking at the pretty cars that go vroom vroom.
I brought my old Leica M6 film camera and a roll of Ilford XP2 film along with me. This was the way drag racing was photographed for over 70 years, so I thought to myself, why not?
It presented some interesting challenges. When the cars would launch they would send out a shockwave of sound and wind which actually vibrated my camera. I could not actually feel when the shutter was going off, I just pressed the button and hoped I captured the right moment.
Luckily, fellow Speedhunter Mike Garrett was there to catch the moments I missed with my archaic camera. Ilford XP2 is not a true black and white film. It is actually a color film(C-41 process) made to look black and white. My roll was developed and scanned in color, hence the real sepia color.
The action started off in the pits. Most of the cars were pushed or towed to the staging lanes.
The rails are usually towed by either a golf car or a truck. It’s always a real pain to maneuver them around tight corners.
Of course there is always someone in the driver seat to steer the car while it is being towed. This is always a challenge as the paddock is usually very crowded. There are hundreds of competitors all packed into a tiny parking lot.
While on the hot grid everything is checked and re-checked. Slowly but surely the cars get pulled closer and closer to the front of the line.
Depending on the specific tire and of the class they run, the tires are inflated to run very low psi figures. Of course that is one of the variables depending on the track condition and temperature.
This is also the perfect time for the driver to suit up and check all of his or her safety gear.
There is no turning back now. At this point the race ahead has already made their pass and the track is now empty. It’s go time.
The driver is buckled in and this is the last moment where they get to pause and go over the run in their head. It’s just a few seconds of racing, but so much is on the line, and finishing the race safely is the number one priority.
At this point one of the crew members squirts in fuel through the intake. Because these motors run off a mechanical fuel pump this is the easiest way to prime them with fuel.
If they squirt in too much the motor wont start so they have to turn it over a few times to clear out the fuel.
The top fuel rails and funny cars use external starters to save weight. Most of the cars that resemble actual street cars have a starter on-board and they can drive to the staging lanes themselves.
If it is a funny car this would be the time to lower and secure the shell.
At the same time all of this is happening, the track workers are very busy keep the track in top notch condition. They are constantly cleaning up oil spills all day long.
After every run the cars kick up a bunch of dust and marbles as well as some water from the burnout. Nothing a good old mop can’t take care of.
The burnout box was always kept soaking wet as it makes it easy for the guys to light up their tires after they drive through the water.
This is the calm before the storm moment.
The car slowly rolls through the water and just a minuscule amount of throttle input is given.
This is the best way to heat up the tires to make them really sticky for maximum traction.
I definitely think this is the coolest part of drag racing.
It is the most visually appealing. That is the one thing I really miss when I’m shooting standing mile events. Generally speaking they don’t get to do a fat burnout before their runs.
The goal is also to lay down a fresh sets of rubber on the track.
Ideally, when you launch you drive right over the rubber that you just laid down for the best grip. Also the length of the burnout is mostly personal preference. John Force is famous for doing one that goes halfway down the track. It’s not going to make him go any faster, but it puts on a hell of a show and it is a pleasure to photograph.
The pure unburnt nitro methanol shoots straight out of the headers right into the surrounding area. Most of the teams run the cars very rich during a burnout to keep the motor cool and also so they don’t blow it up.
This is when I do a little dance of pain. My eyes involuntarily shut as they tear up and it gets hard to breath. I don’t want to look like a newbie, so I just kind of walk it off with my eyes closed hoping I don’t run into anyone or anything.
What always interests me is how good these guys are at backing up. They can’t see a damn thing, but they can backup very quickly and relatively straight with the help of their spotter. I know I would hit the wall and roll over if I were to attempt this kind of maneuver.
The team then guides the driver exactly on the staging lights and at the same time they brush off whatever marbles or debris the sticky tires picked up while reversing.
It’s interesting because I saw this more at the Hot Rod Reunion than at the NHRA Winter Nationals. Maybe the pro teams don’t see the benefit in this practice.
The tow vehicle sits just a few feet away, family and crew members anxiously watching as their car prepares for take off.
Staging looks very simple to an outsider who does not know much about drag racing, but there is just so much going on. There is just a few inches of play where the car can actually sit at the line. The top set of lights is the pre stage light, when the car inches forward just a bit more both set of lights come on. Then if the car moves forward just a little more, the top lights go out and the bottom lights stay on. That is called deep staging. If you go any farther both lights will go out, and if your opponent is already staged the red light will come on and you automatically get disqualified. However, if the opponent has not lined up yet the driver still has enough time to reverse to get back to a proper staging position.
This is where the mind games come in. If one of the drivers stages the other can just wait a little bit before they stage, basically putting them in control of when the race can begin. The guys who run a solid block with no water have a very limited amount of run time, so it’s very easy for them to overheat. This was more of a problem early on in NHRA drag racing. Today the drivers follow a gentlemen rule and they try not to hold up the race. Of course if you wait too long you get disqualified. Once both drivers are staged the starter (guy in red shirt) pushes the button to start the Christmas Tree.
There is not a set time when the starter has to begin the race, but it is at random so the drivers can’t predict when the race will start. This particular tree had LED bulbs for the amber colored lights, but the green light was a traditional filament bulb so it came on much slower. Then again if you actually see the green light turn it is already too late.
To me the launch is the second coolest thing about drag racing.
Every car acts differently, and it is a crazy amount of power and noise that gets released when these things launch.
Some stay perfectly flat when launching, but either way it just gives me the jitters just thinking about it. The Top Fuel and Funny Cars makes my whole body shudder from their intense vibrations from the ears out. It feels like someone is tickling the inside of my head with a feather.
Some of the gas powered cars pull massive wheelies. It is just so incredible to see when they do it side by side. I bet it’s an interesting feeling when the drivers see just the sky out of their windshield.
The way the tires crumple up is just mental. All of that horsepower and all of that torque is transferred into this rubber balloon.
It seems everyone always stays perfectly still during the length of the race. Almost like they would effect the outcome if they moved just a tad. It’s kind of like when we used to watch Shaquille O’Neal shoot free throws. You just have to stay perfectly still when watching him on TV because you don’t want to disturb him and his free throwing abilities.
Many of the cars never made it to the finish line. There are just way too many variables and the motors are run at such a high threshold that anything can happen.
The tow vehicle is always standing by just in case this happens.
The drag strips that I have been to usually don’t allow me to photograph the finish line due to safety reasons, but the run-off at Famoso Raceway is super long so it was not a problem.
This allowed me to get up close and personal with the cars as they cross the finish line.
It is absolutely nuts when these cars release their parachutes. The nostalgic funny cars were going around 245mph and one of the teams reaching as high as 253mph.
The use of a parachute is the best way to slow down these drag cars and it is required for any car going over 150mph. Dual chutes are required for any car going over 200mph. They are driver activated, but there are cars that have remote systems in case a driver is not responding or are unable to pull the chute for whatever reason.
This Nostalgia Funny Car was literally lifted off the ground when his first chute was deployed.
The chutes produce a -5 G-force when they are deployed.
Many of the cars did not deploy chutes at the end of their run, even if they went over 150mph. I figured it was a thing for the slower classes.
But then these two guys both did not pull their chutes. I assumed the run off area is long enough for them to stop with just their brakes.
There are generally two kinds of parachutes. This one is a cross type which is much harder on the driver and chassis as it opens up very quickly and stops the car with a very hard impact when released. The design was originally for dropping cargo from airplanes.
Then there is the ‘Stroud Safety’ parachute which was actually designed specifically for drag racing. It has a much softer and gradual stop. It is also much easier to pack and can be done in a few minutes by just one person. The cross type chutes usually take much longer to pack and require two people.
Once the run is over the car is towed back to the pits.
It’s interesting because whether the run went well or bad, it seems like the team stares at the slip like the numbers will change if they look long enough.
Then they do it all over again and again, until the winner is decided. It was just a ear bleeding day of fun if you ask me.
I have to hand it to Famoso Raceway. They really gave me the access that I’ve always yearned for at the drag strip. It allows me and the other photographers to capture this awesome racing through our vision.
Drag racing has been around for so long, but it is never too late to jump on the bandwagon and enjoy a day at the strip. After all, they won’t be around forever. Next year will be the last year Firebird Raceway in Arizona will be in operation after 30 years of drag racing and road racing. Maybe It is a sign of the times, so no matter where you live, make sure you don’t wait any longer to enjoy this awesome motorsport.