There aren’t many motorsports that I haven’t seen live, but if I could choose only one form to introduce someone to racing, it would always be Top Fuel.
Watching drag racing on a screen can often seem boring, but when you’re at an event in person and the Top Fuel cars come out, well… it’s hard to explain in words.
One of the best drag strips in Europe is situated in the middle of a Swedish forest around an hour’s drive from Stockholm. Tierp Arena is huge a 165-hectare facility with a perfect quarter-mile drag strip and a horseshoe-shaped grandstand for 20,000 guests. Last weekend it played host to the penultimate round of the 2019 FIA Drag Racing European Championship.
This event marked the fourth time I’ve photographed Top Fuel dragsters in action; once you’ve been baptized by nitromethane you just want to come back time and time again. I don’t think I’ll ever get used to the punch that comes with them.
I’m not talking about their speed, but the noise, vibration and pressure their 10,000hp engines produce. Imagine an explosion or a jet plane flying by just a few meters from you and you’ll have some idea, then factor in itchy eyes and trouble breathing with all the nitro fumes in the air.
I love it.
Before the first Top Fuel pass of the day, I had to remind myself not to be scared and to keep my eyes open – no easy feat. As soon as the power is unleashed your brain blacks, your internals organs shake, and you take an ‘air punch’ to the face. Before you can really comprehend any of this the run is over.
But as long as I’ve kept the shutter release firmly pushed I’ll have some shots. Usually blurry shots.
Wearing earplugs and earmuffs helps to save my ears from bleeding, but that’s about it. The experience is brutal yet always very enjoyable, which is kind of hard to explain. Many experienced motorsport photographers have said that there’s nothing like drag racing, even though it’s only a short race in a straight line.
European drag racing is vibrant with many classes ranging from junior dragsters and street cars to the FIA supported disciplines: Pro Stock, Top Methanol, Pro Modified and Top Fuel. The Tierp Arena event had it all, so when I wasn’t keeping my ears safe, I was trying to catch a perfect panning shot or a wheelie.
Short breaks in the racing and track clean-ups gave me the opportunity to explore the pits and see first-hand how teams were rebuilding their engines before making another run on the strip. Many teams were already packing up, others still in a position to get the trophy.
Then I stumbled on this truck with a jet engine, and had to take a closer look. It’s actually a normal truck that uses the heat from the jet propulsion to dry out the strip surface if rain arrives.
While I do enjoy the racing itself, following the pre-stage sequence is a real joy. It’s interesting to see the way different teams signaled to their drivers.
You can really see the differences in these relationships; some are family, while others take a more professional approach; a few may be nervous, others are so eager to win.
There was no shortage of girl power in the top class of the event with the all-female final between the soon-to-be-crowned Rookie of the Year, Maja Udtian, and Anita Mäkelä, an experienced driver who’s currently leading the championship. It’s the first year in a Top Fuel dragster for Maja, while Anita has been racing since 1987 and has three Top Fuel championship titles under her belt. When she’s not racing, Anita is a modest chicken farmer in Finland.
Before winning the event with a 3.88-second ET versus a 3.91, Maja stormed to a mind-boggling 3.816-second ET at 509.43km/h (316.54mph) pass to reset the European elapsed time record set one day prior by Jndia Erbacher, another female in the European Top Fuel championship.
European fans have the chance to experience Top Fuel cars for the last time this year at Santa Pod Raceway in England where the championship title will be decided on September 8. If you’re local, here’s your chance.