Several weeks ago, Rich and I went to the NHRA Northwest Nations drag race at the Pacific Raceways in Kent, southeast of Seattle. It was the first time I’ve attended a National Hot Rod Association event; although, I’d heard Rich talked about it since we’d met.
When Rich was at Sequent, prior to it being acquired by IBM, he worked on dragsters and funny cars driven by Cristen Powell, Jim Epler, and Bob Vandergriff, Clay Milican.
His being a part of the race car team started off innocent enough when he introduced himself during a company picnic to Casey Powell, the CEO of Sequent and father of Cristen Powell. They started talking, and Rich was subsequently invited to fly on the Sequent corporate jet to Cristen’s next race.
He continued working on cars for the next few years, being an engineer at Sequent during the week, and flying to races on weekends to change tires, service motor heads, change oil, and do other miscellaneous mechanical tasks.
Until I went to the NHRA race, I found racing somewhat yawn-worthy. Occasionally, Rich would flip to a sports channel, and watch half an hour of a race. I’d immediately find something else to do.
However, when Rich said he really wanted to see the NHRA races, I said “okay,” even though the idea of sitting on bleachers, baking in the sun, while watching cars do burn-outs then rocket down the track seemed mind-numbing and unpleasant.
Happily, the day we went, the week’s heat had subsidized, and was replaced with overcast skies and cool breezes. We arrived within an hour of the track opening, and immediately zipped over to the pits, where the cars were being unloaded, and the crews were setting up.
I was intrigued by the trailers that transport the cars. They’re split into two horizontal levels, with tool chests, parts, tires, and “delivery” vehicles on the bottom, and the race cars, and less used parts and tools on the top. The back gate of the trailers can be folded down, and then raised up like an elevator to the top level. A race car can then be eased onto the gate, and lowered so they can be pushed into the pit area.
The delivery vehicles, ranging from motorcycles to golf carts and very small cars like Fiats and Mini Coopers, are used for moving the racecars onto the track, getting parts, removing and bringing drums of fuel and oil, and carting drivers and crew and from the track.
Once the race cars enter the pits, a team of technicians work on optimizing and testing their performance. Hydraulic stands are used for elevating and keeping the cars in place when they revved up. Because the nitro methane, the fuel used in the cars, is an irritant the pit crew wear gas masks when revving up the cars.
Next, we headed over to the Harley Davis tent, where Rich and I hoped onto several motorcycles to check ‘em out. After talking to the representative about our desire to do day trips — with me sitting behind Rich — he recommended we consider the Fat Boy Lo since it is stable, can accommodate two people, and has lots of horsepower, but doesn’t have all the extras of a touring bike – which we don’t need.
I was titillated with a small sportster, but know I’d never have the concentrate or coordination to ride a motorcycle by myself.
For Rich’s birthday, he wants to get his motorcycle license, and edge a bit closer to getting a Harley, and zooming around the Puget Sound!
Exhilarated from sitting on Harley’s, we breezed through the vendor area, then found great seats in the bleachers, half-way down the track. The lightly overcast sky kept the sun at bay, and my large hippy hat shaded my eyes.
The first set of cars were pro stock, which were fun to watch because each one is different, and it was entertaining to wonder whether the clunky, ‘70’s station wagon – tricked out with decals – could beat the zippy souped-up Toyota sedan. It was the amazing the breadth of stock cars from El Caminos and small trucks to muscle cars, sedans, traditional sports cars, and itty-bitty Fiats.
After I thought all the stock cars were done racing, a crazy fast Corvette with a custom silver body, owned by Martin Motorsports zoomed by. I screamed with delight, and turned to Rich, “Holy shit, that was f*cking awesome!”
Rich just smiled and said, “You ain’t seen nothing yet.”
Next up were the funny cars. Fast, but not particularly interesting. They look the same! Although, Rich was intrigued by them since he’d worked on a couple in the past.
While top fuel dragsters all basically look the same, they’re totally awesome. Totally! Cartoonish in design with two giant tires in the back, a moderate-sized, exposed engine, and a ridiculously long front that stretches 15 or so feet in length, balanced on two small, go-cart tires, they go over 300 miles in less than four seconds. To win, they need to accelerate to 100 miles per hour in less than 0.8 seconds.
Dragster drivers experience an average force of about 39 m/s2 (meter per second squared), nearly five times that of gravity, the same force a space shuttle leaves the launch pad at Cape Canaveral. They accelerate faster than a jumbo jet, fighter jet or Formula One race car.
In addition, a dragster consumes 1½ gallons of nitromethane per second, the same rate as a full loaded 747 plane, although with 4 times the energy volume. However, because they travel a very short distance, they use between 10 and 12 gallons of fuel per race – at a cost of $30 per gallon — including the burnout and return to the starting line. Their fuel pump can deliver 65 gallons of fuel per minute, which is equivalent to eight bathroom showers running at the same time.
According to Rich, the fuel is injected into the engine with 16 or more injectors, one for each cylinder, plus 8 for the blower.
The end result is a screaming fast car, which we found nearly impossible to photograph (or videotape) using our smart phones. The next time we go, we’ll bring our digital camera, which has a faster lenses, and can take multiple photos within seconds. Nevertheless, we did capture some great photos by anticipating where the cars would be, and then being prepared to quickly tap the shutter release.
Around 2 o’clock, having brought no food, and a small water bottle of water, we decided to buy a very expensive hotdog, which we shared, along with a coconut ice cream bar. Not only is the food at sports events very unhealthy, but ridiculously expensive.
Our bellies a little fuller, we found seats on the other side of the track. However, it was farther away and more difficult to take photos. As the afternoon progressed, the overcast sky turned to light showers, and hence the races were temporarily stopped until the weather conditions could be properly assessed. They started up half an hour later, but we decided to leave, avoiding the mad rush of traffic when the races concluded for the day.
In spite of my apprehensions, I truly loved going to NHRA… and can’t wait until next year!