I never knew how much I liked drag racing until I knew just how much I like drag racing.
Because watching two cars race each other in a straight line for a few seconds on a little laptop screen with speakers the size of peanuts is not very exciting. Not in the same way as watching a car tackle Japanese mountain roads or the streets of Monte Carlo. Nor is it as nail-bitingly-thrilling as watching a swarm of F1 cars wind their massive wings through the bends of Suzuka.
So while I probably won’t start following drag racing championships on YouTube, I will definitely be back to Central Circuit in Hyogo Prefecture for next year’s Drag Festival. Here’s why…
Unlike other forms of competitive motorsports in Japan, drag racing is very niche. Once upon a time, Option magazine and Video Option VHS releases were all about zeroyon – both sanctioned events and slightly more questionable ones – but what Japanese drag racing lacks in a following today it more than makes up for with diversity.
Not every letter of the alphabet was represented at the Drag Festival, because unfortunately all the Prius, Qashqai and Lada drivers were busy. We’ve still got more than enough to play with though, starting with K and the coolest thing from the kei car class, the Suzuki Alto Works.
Then there was this tire-smoking Volkswagen Bug. I didn’t get to check under the rear hood, but whatever was pushing it along worked well, because it kept up with the Z car it was matched against in this particular race.
From across the Pacific Ocean, American muscle was represented by quite a few letters, the Camaro being one of the coolest. There were a couple of Camaro generations running on the day, their aggressive demeanour and Chevy V8 chug easily recognisable from a quarter mile away.
Now, still on the letter C, this is where I started to moisten my pants slightly. As I plucked up the courage to get closer and closer to cars like this Toyota Chaser warming up its tyres before rolling into the staging area, the appeal of drag racing was becoming very, very clear.
Probably because it was being screamed at me by some very angry, very powerful, and completely unhinged cars.
The noise that these cars make is like nothing else I’ve experienced before. I’ve had F1 cars howling beneath my feet under the pedestrian bridge at the Goodwood Festival of Speed, and I touched cloth then. Drag racing took it up a notch.
Noise-wise, the GT-Rs racing were actually surprisingly tame. That’s not to say they weren’t fast as some of them were running in the low 8-second zone, not bad considering the white Jet Wake R35 above is road registered too.
Halfway through the day, one of the cars went off the end of the track. Luckily, the driver escaped unscathed, but his car came out a little worse for wear. Racing was suspended until the carnage could be cleaned up and the drag strip surface cleared of any debris.
These cars are hitting speeds of around 250km/h in 400m, so I can only imagine what the acceleration must be like, let alone trying to stop them.
This gave me some time to wander through the pits and check out the different classes of machines. The GT-Rs may have had the AWD advantage, but the RX-7s definitely had the personality edge. Three-rotor blocks were commonplace, and they screamed down the strip like howler monkeys on fire.
I have a couple of serious RX-7 drag machines coming up in a spotlight, so watch this space.
We leave the very popular R section and arrive at the more successful S category – the almighty Skyline. Really, is there anything this car can’t do? Just like its successor, the R35 GT-R, drag-spec Skylines cover the quarter mile like Scalextric cars on steroids.
There was a time when Sendai Hi-Land Raceway, the Fuji Speedway front straight and this location – Central Circuit – would have been packed full of Skyline GT-Rs setup for drag, but now there are only a handful of diehard fans keeping the tires burning. It’s a sign of the times in terms of the cost required to keep these cars running, the value of GT-Rs, and the fact that overseas teams – especially those in Australia – are now well ahead of Japan when it comes to pushing Skylines to their limit on the drag strip.
Then there’s the number of Japanese venues actually set up for drag racing these days. Sendai Hi-Land, for example, does not exist anymore after being damaged beyond salvage during Japan’s devastating 2011 earthquake.
So it makes it even more special to see people still driving their passions and pushing for quicker ETs and trap speeds. Of course, private cars are really only racing against themselves, but there were a couple of pro and semi-pro teams obviously chasing records.
One of the OGs of the Japanese drag scene is Kazushige Sakamato, AKA Mr. Carbon Fiber, AKA the head of Garage Active. Not only is he building top-tier, full carbon fibre GT-Rs, he’s also still developing drag GT-Rs. I didn’t manage to photograph Sakamoto-san’s new R34, but I will endeavour to grab a feature on it soon.
I did manage to see his original R33 drag machine though; it’s the one he used to race back in the day. Its side-exit, non-restricted exhaust let out such a visceral scream as it launched, I was bare barely able to take a photo as I recoiled in fear.
And this brings us to Z, which of course means Z cars. The Fairlady Z has been a favourite platform with drag racers in Japan for decades; its well-balanced body, iron block straight-six engine and sleek aerodynamics make it the perfect quarter-mile machine.
Watching two old Z cars put heat in their rear tires before shooting off into the sunset like a pair of whippets chasing a particularly juicy rabbit provided a feeling you just don’t get watching drag racing on a screen. It’s the raw unbridled sound of the engines revving to their limits, the smoke bellowing from the rear wheels, and the batted breath of the fans as the start lights flick from red to green. This is an atmosphere which is lost in video.
So no, I won’t suddenly start watching drag race events on Sunday mornings on the telly, but I’ll definitely be tracking down a few more events across Japan to attend and hopefully learn a bit more about the builds behind the machines. Because this is an electrifying sport, with some eccentric characters behind the cars and some madman behind their wheels.