Drag racing never really appealed to me.
I was born and raised in a country where there isn’t even as much as a single drag strip, so I guess that’s played a big part in it. Instead, we made the most of what was and remains around us; twisty and technical backroads that force a focus on cornering dynamics rather than outright horsepower.
I’ve never been naive enough to consider drag racing as easy, over-simplified, or anything like that; I’ve just never had enough exposure to the sport to have it grab my attention. My experiences had been limited to re-runs of NHRA events on Extreme TV in the early hours of the morning, and even then it seemed like a whole lot of waiting around for five seconds of action. I would quickly get bored and change over to pretty much anything else that happened to be on.
However, I’ve always had a peculiar fondness for American muscle and vintage cars, something that peaked late last year when I was in Sweden of all places. Since that opportune weekend, I’ve been trying to learn more about this particular side of Americana, and it seems that drag racing is intrinsically linked.
When I visited Qatar last year, the very good people at Qatar Racing Club were adamant that I should come out for a round of their drag racing series. At the time, I sort of brushed it off, but as their season approached, it just happened to coincide with my rise in interest of all things America. Where as their drifting setup is still very much in its infancy, drag racing is really what these guys and girls are about. In an incredibly generous offer, they arranged the flights and accommodation so I could come and see the Arabian Drag Racing League (ADRL) for myself.
Something you should know about ADRL is that their season is incredibly short due to the high heat in the desert. As such, the championship takes place over four consecutive weekends in January and February, but this window also provides absolutely perfect conditions for racing. For the third round, which I would attend though, the weather had its own plans…The Winds From The East
I’ll save you the details of my travels, but you might want to know that it’s approximately 17 hours door-to-door from Ireland to Qatar. It’s not the worst journey in the world, but it does play with your head and body a little bit. I’m going to jump straight in to when I arrived at the track on Wednesday morning…
Wednesday was the designated test day for the third round of ADRL, with qualifying and racing due to take place on Thursday and Friday. The last time I visited these workshops they were relatively empty, but on this morning they were home to a lot of horsepower.
For me, it was the perfect introduction to drag racing in the Middle East as I could spend some time with the cars that would be competing and talk to some of the teams involved.
Regular NHRA fans will no doubt be aware of Al Anabi Racing. Despite their departure from NHRA last year, Al Anabi still retains strong links with the United States in the form of team members, tuners, and builders etc. From my short time working around them, they take their drag racing incredibly seriously.
Their most recent project – wearing the newly established Al Anabi Performance branding – has taken the drag racing world by storm. The KH Series V6 Corvette is a 10.5 Outlaw car which broke the Outlaw record two weekends in a row on practically its debut. Its current best 1/8th mile pass is a 3.87 at 199mph, and tuner Steve Petty reckons they’ve not even reached the car’s full potential yet.
Prior to my visit, I was aware of this Corvette and its potential, but I still couldn’t get my head around the idea of a car accelerating so quickly. In the space of a little over 200 metres, this thing is going from a standstill to just under 200mph – in less than four seconds! It’s insane. It just so happened that it was one of the first cars that ventured out for testing, and the first car I’ve ever witnessed doing a proper run. I’m not going to lie, it scared the absolute sh*t out of me.
And I loved it.
With conditions ideal in the late afternoon, the full Pro Modified and Outlaw grids took to the strip. January is the height of Qatar’s winter, but even on this overcast day, the temperature was somewhere around 21c (70f) during daylight. Considering it comfortably reaches 52c (127f) in summer, you can see why they choose to run in January.
There’s no Top Fuel or Funny Car categories, although there are one or two dragster classes. As such, the Pro Mods and Outlaws are the quickest cars running at the event.
There’s also Street 6-Cylinder and Street 8-Cylinder classes, which featured a lot of cars that I was certainly more familiar with.
I have to admit that I did have a big silly smile on my face when I realised that all of the Skylines I saw competing were running Toyota 2JZs. I guess some things are universal, although I don’t ever remember seeing a turbo this big strapped to a drift car.
With the sun setting, the numbers lining up increased. This was still just a testing session, but the ferocious nature of the launches had me hooked.
What was probably my highlight of the event was coincidentally one of the slower cars in attendance. Driving a half-scale dragster was a small girl aged no more than 7 or 8 years old, with the support of who I assume were her parents.
I want to live in a world where this, right here, is a normal sight. The half-scale cars are specially designed for kids to go drag racing, but can still put down pretty quick numbers all thing considered. They only race 1/8th mile in this particular class, but it’s impressive nonetheless.
By this point I was growing in confidence, but had also become acutely aware of something.
That is, that no photo or video could possibly convey what I was experiencing. It’s not so much about what you hear or see, but all about what you can feel. These are just snapshots of moments in time, but they do no justice to drag racing.
Video is marginally better at sharing the experience, but even still, it’s missing that visceral punch in the chest that you can only feel by being there.
That’s not a cop out either. Everyone I spoke to, most of them drag racing veterans, said the very same thing.
There’s the smell of fuel and rubber constantly lingering in the air. There’s a sense of atmosphere that whilst friendly on this particular evening, was quite focused too.
These often intangible elements are what make drag racing so impressive, especially at this level. What felt boring when waiting for each run on TV, were simply times where you could try and get your breath back.
I never once looked at my watch in frustration due to a lull in the action, and I was honestly surprised by the time when a halt was called to the day’s proceedings. I’d spent six – maybe seven – hours trackside and it felt like minutes.Safety First
I’ve had to take a breath between these chapters because I know I’m getting carried away with myself, but I was genuinely so hyped by the event. I’ll try to maintain at least a sense of restraint going forwards.
This is Thursday, day two of the event and the first day of proper competition. I had big plans for this day, shooting-wise, and really wanted to capitalise on what I had learned from the day before.
Drag racing is probably a little bit more difficult to shoot than I had imagined. It’s quite confined and it’s very, very fast. Trying to convey things accurately and finding those little details always take time.
I was trying to talk to as many people as possible too, to get the best insight as I could as to just why drag racing is so popular here.
I couldn’t really feel it near the start line, due to being protected by the grandstands and control tower, but the wind had picked up quite considerably. I knew that QRC were on edge about the wind all week, but I hoped it might not be as bad as forecast. I was wrong. Quite understandably, the last thing you want to deal with when accelerating from 0-250mph in a matter of seconds is an unpredictable crosswind.
For the safety of the competitors, the trackside marshalls and the media, the event was postponed.
Whilst I 100 per cent agree with the decision, it still didn’t change the fact that I was very disappointed. It was a tough decision to make and absolutely the right one, but I really wanted more.
The event was postponed until after the weekend, by at which point I would be back in Ireland. With the teams packing up and hitting the road, I only had maybe an hour to extract all I could from the event.
There were many nationalities competing, nearly all of which originated from the Gulf countries of Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman and the UAE, plus a few US drivers amongst others. Most would store their cars at the track and head home for the traditional weekend in the Middle East, which runs from Thursday to Saturday.
This gave me a tiny window of opportunity to check out the cars of ADRL – in particular the Super Street classes – and talk to a couple of drivers too.
I don’t think I saw a single non-2JZ car competing in the SS6 class. The teams’ dedication to compete is pretty admirable when you consider that there’s practically zero access to parts locally. If something breaks or an upgrade is needed, parts typically need to be imported at extraordinary cost.
Don’t make the mistake of thinking that all of these guys and girls competing are super-rich millionaires because of their nationality either; the majority are ordinary folk who make big sacrifices to race, just like the rest of the world.
I would probably go as far to say that it’s often a disadvantage in certain regards to be Qatari or whatever, as the price of anything seems to be jacked up once an outsider knows you need to import a part, due to this misconception of all Arabs being oil barons or what not.
At the end of it all, I was still trying to figure out just what attracted so many to drag racing in Qatar and the Middle East as a whole. There’s obviously a huge love for American cars here, but upon asking some of the competitors and staff, the reason is actually far more obvious.
Like all motorsports, it started on the streets. Living in a desert country, there isn’t exactly much in the way of physical geography, so nearly every street out here is straight as an arrow. People started drag racing on the streets since it was all they could do, and it simply grew from there. QRC’s strip – which I’m told is the flattest in the world – was finished and first used in the winter of 2008/09, and the rest as they say is history.
In a relatively short time span, the Gulf has produced several notable drag racing teams. There’s Al Anabi in Qatar and also the likes of EKanoo Racing in Bahrain – both of whom are putting it down on the world stage. It’s very impressive.
It was a bittersweet few days for me. I got to shoot and see things I never thought I would, but I was definitely left wanting more. There’s still cars I want to hunt down – like that 240Z drag car which seemingly vanished when I sought it out – and I certainly want to experience the Pro Mods and Outlaws running in full anger and head-to-head. I’ve got the bug and for the first time in my life, I can really see the attraction to drag racing. I only have one question:
Is it January yet?Cutting Room Floor