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Drag Racing Story of the Day!

Jason Pratt's Drag Racing Debut!

By Bill Pratt

Jason and Dad set the ET Prediction dial-in. Photo by Greg Gage
Greg Gage photo

Jason Pratt made his drag racing debut on April 1, 2000, driving a rented race car from the Putnam Race Cars stables. Four progressively faster time runs and his first round of competition brought the sportís newest drag racer into the world of triumphs and tribulations experienced by drag racers for decades.

With Mom, Dad, Uncle Tim, and Sister Emily in tow, Jason arrived at Maryland International Raceway at about 1:30 p.m. on race day. Tom Putnam of Putnam Race Cars was scheduled to arrive at 2:00 p.m. This gave Dad an opportunity to walk Jason around the pits, staging lanes, and starting line, showing him where everything was. Tom Putnam later would repeat these steps, as he does for all new students.

At 2:00 p.m. on the dot, Tom Putnam rolled up with his Putnam Race Cars trailer. Tom dispatched Dad to the tech inspection line to get a technical inspection sticker for the race car (since Tom races at MIR every weekend, the actual car had already been inspected). Then he and Jason set about unloading the two Putnam Race Cars Junior Dragsters. When Dad returned, Tom and Jason were going over every inch of the cars, with Tom explaining what each part did and how to use it safely. 

Tom Putnam straps Jason into the car and fixes his helmet. Photo by Denise PrattTom fitted Jason with a fire jacket, a helmet, and driving gloves, then strapped him into the car with a five-point safety belts and arm restraints. The arm restraints are designed to keep the drivers arms free enough only to reach the steering wheel, but not free enough to exit the roll cage. Tom showed Jason the fuel shut off switch on the steering wheel and showed Dad the fuel shut off switch on the back of the roll cage. Dad then pushed Jason to the staging lanes, giving him his first taste of steering something this long. After a few admonitions from Dad to "Crank it hard, son," Jason positioned the bright red and white Putnam Race Cars machine at the head of the staging area.

Now came Jasonís turn to experience another thing that every drag racer has experienced -Ė pre race jitters. All this drag racing stuff sounded exciting for weeks and still sounded good this morning, but the cold reality of being strapped into a race car, trying to assimilate seemingly dozens of new rules and other bits of information brought out some self doubt. "Dad, Iím not really sure about this. Do we have to do it?" Dad offered some words of firm support, and Jason resigned himself to make the best of it. 

Tom Putnam showed up and went over the driving and safety rules one more time. He also told Jason to take his time at the starting line and to do everything at his own pace. Tom told Jason just to go as fast or as slowly as he felt comfortable, and to turn off -Ė slowly -Ė at the first turnoff onto the return road. Tom cinched the racing safety belts up tight and Jason waited for the call.

It soon was time for Jasonís first run! Since he had never raced before, Maryland International Racewayís outstanding and experienced starter, Jeff Taylor, held up the other car and pulled Jason up for a single time run. Jeff told Dad, "Take all the time you need. There is no rush." The concept of staging a race car at a drag strip is a difficult one indeed for a first time racer. Jason inched up to the starting line, but went across it. Starter Jeff pulled him back across the starting line with a tug on the top of the roll cage. Jeff then stooped down and held his hand right at the starting line so Jason could see it. Jason inched in again, turning on the Pre-Stage light, then the stage light. Jeff Taylor flipped the starterís switch and the lights came down Ė- amber, amber, amber, GREEN! Jason was off!

Dad had no idea what his son would do with a Junior Dragster. Would he keep it straight? Would he hit the gas and then let off, coasting through the eighth mile? After all, not only had Jason never raced before, he had never driven anything with a motor before! A broad grin of pride came across Dadís face as Jason kept it straight and true all the way down the eighth mile drag strip. His performance? A respectable 18.42 seconds at 34 mph. Not bad for his first run ever!

Jason exited the drag strip onto the return road, just as Tom Putnam had instructed him, but he turned the wrong way and headed towards the end of the track! With some assistance of the eagle-eyed Maryland International Raceway crew, Jason copped a U-turn and headed back up the return road towards the starting line. His Dad was waiting with proud applause. Jason carefully drove the car through the gate in the fence beside the tower and back into the Junior Dragster staging lanes.

What a difference a run makes! Jason was totally enthralled with this new adventure. Not only were the opening run jitters gone, now he wanted to know how soon the next round would be! Mom and Emily came down out of the tower, where they had watched the run from the third floor. While Jason and Dad missed the commentary in the excitement on the starting line, Mom related the kind comments of announcer Gene Richardson, who made sure to let everyone know that this was Jasonís first day of racing.

Jason waits in the staging lanes. Photo by Tim PrattTom Putnam told Jason he had done a fine job. After such a great first run, it was time to step on it a little. Tom then showed Dad how to assemble and fasten the safety belts, and Dad took over that duty. Jason couldnít wait to get going again, and soon all the "big cars" were finished with their time runs. Jason again pulled out of the staging lanes, around the corner, and onto the drag strip. 

Jeff Taylor motioned both cars to the line -- this time, Jason would face a competitor making a time run in the other lane. Jason pulled the car up slowly. Again, he overshot the starting line and had to be pulled back. Jason inched forward again but went a little too far, turning on the Stage light but also turning off the Pre-Stage light. This is called a Deep Stage. Some racers actually prefer to deep stage their cars, but a normal stage leaves both the Pre-Stage and Stage lights illuminated.

A Deep Stage wasnít Jasonís design, but thatís how it worked out and that was good enough for Jeff Taylor. Jeff flipped the starterís switch again and Jason leapt off the starting line with his best reaction time of the day. Jason left the starting line .288 seconds after the light turned green! He kept his foot planted throughout the eighth mile and was rewarded with an elapsed time (ET) nearly two seconds better that his first effort! The red Putnam Race Cars dragster stopped the clocks in 16.50 seconds at 34.54 mph!

Jason and Emily pose with the Putnam Race Cars Dragster. It won't be long, Emily! Photo by Tim PrattJason rolled right up the return road and back into the staging lanes. He was psyched up now! The run felt great. Tom Putnam remarked that he thought the car would go faster, although Jason reported that he had not let off the gas the entire time. Tom felt that the fuel tank gasket might be hurting performance, so he replaced it. Between rounds, Dad and Jason talked strategy. Namely, Jason had to work on getting that brake pedal applied on time when staging. If he had time after concentrating on that, he might want to consider leaving on an earlier yellow light. The fact is, if you actually see the green light on the "Christmas Tree," you are already late. These discussions went back and forth, in between posing for photos with the car, climbing around on the bleachers with Emily, and wrestling around with Dad.

On Jasonís third run, he again deep staged, but again got a clean start from Jeff Taylor. Jasonís reaction time was less quick this time (.425 seconds), but his overall run was quicker. Jason crossed the finish line in 15.92 seconds at a speed of 34.60 mph. This was getting great! To top it off, professional drag racing photographer Greg Gage was on hand, and captured some photos of the drag racing rookie.

The next run was the final time run of the day before the actual race began. It was also the "bogie run." A bogie is a target, so the object of the bogie run is an attempt to hit the target of a "perfect run." In Junior Dragster drag racing -Ė as in all ET bracket racing -- a perfect run occurs when the driver predicts an elapsed time, then hits that exact elapsed time after leaving the starting line with a perfect reaction time. The driverís reaction and the carís elapsed time are measured to the thousandth of a second, then are combined. The driver who comes closest to the bogie of a perfect run, wins. 

For those families who wanted to participate, Dad or Mom put $3.00 in a pot. The racer who made the best run during the bogie run session got half of this pot, and the remainder went to the Maryland International Raceway racerís fund, used to fund a racerís party at the end of each season.

With Jason improving his performance each round, the consensus was that he would continue to improve. The team decided to choose an elapsed time prediction of 15.85 seconds. Jason again took the car to the line -Ė again deep staged -- and took off in pursuit of the bogie title! Jasonís reaction time of .442 seconds wasnít an improvement, but his elapsed time was a shocker! Jason ran the eighth mile in 15.920 seconds at his best speed of the day -Ė 36.74 mph! 

Jason and Dad pose in the staging lanes. Photo by Tim PrattIf we had chosen the same elapsed time Jason had run in the previous round, we would have had a clear shot at the bogie title! As it happened, Jasonís combined reaction time and ET were .512 seconds away from a perfect run. Still, as Jason and Dad walked into the pits for an ice cream break, they heard the announcer state that Jason was in third place in the bogie competition at that point...

The sun was setting as the first round of competition approached at 6:15 p.m. Jason, Dad, and Uncle Tim talked racing strategy. Jason still needed to work on hitting those brakes HARD at the starting line to ensure he didnít go past it. This was important because once the actual racing begins, parents are not allowed to touch the Junior Dragsters on the starting line, except to pull them back across the line ONCE. 

The team selected an elapsed time of 15.87 seconds. While the car had not improved its performance on the previous run, this new prediction seemed prudent in light of the falling air temperature. Cooler temperatures mean more horsepower, so Dad "dialed down" to the new number. In bracket racing, you can be disqualified one of three ways -Ė by leaving the starting line too soon (redlighting), but crossing the centerline or outer boundaries of your drag strip lane, or by going quicker than your elapsed time prediction (breaking out). Jason seemed to have the first two possibilities covered, but the team didnít want him to cross the finish line first, only to find he had lost by breaking out.

The call soon went out for the racers to approach the starting line for round one of competition! Fourteen Junior Dragsters were in attendance. All would race in round one, seven would return for found two (where one racer would receive a "bye" run), four would return for the semifinals, and then two would return for the dayís title. Dad pulled the starter on the Raptor racing motor and Jason idled up to the starting line. Mom and Dad explained to Jason that this was it Ė- only seven racers would return to race in the second round. Jason had at best a 50/50 chance at being one of them. If he wasnít, his racing day would be over. This news wasnít enthusiastically accepted, but it was accepted nonetheless.

A few Motorcycle racers still had to make their final time runs, then Junior Dragsters would lead off the first round of the nightís racing. Unfortunately, the program was put on hold when one of the Motorcycle racers blew his motor, spilling oil on the track. The Maryland International Raceway track crew rolled into action to clean up the oil. 

Jason waits on the starting pad for a chance to pull up to the starting line. Photo by Tim PrattDad made the decision to keep the motor running on the Junior Dragster until the oil spill was cleaned up. This is because the small gasoline motors used to power the Junior Dragsters need to retain a good amount of heat to provide optimal power. Jason pressed the brake pedal to the floor. This went on for five minutes. Then ten. Then 15. Then 20! What appeared to be a simple cleanup turned out to be a case where oil was spilled almost the entire length of the track. Had we known it would take that long to clean up, we could have turned the car off and given Jason a rest. That never happened, however, so Jason was VERY relieved to get his foot off that brake and move to the starting line for the race!

As he had been in every time run session, Jason was one of the first two cars on the line. It now was 6:45 p.m. and pitch black. Only the track lighting illuminated the track. Jason inched toward the starting line. This was it! We had a good elapsed time prediction, Jason had four solid runs under his belt, and we were ready to give this other kid a good tussle in JasonĎs first actual side-by-side race! As Jason inched ever closer to the starting line, Dad backed away. It looked like Jason had things well in hand. 

Then it happened. Itís unclear how it happened, but it happened. Maybe it was nearly 25 minutes of holding down the brake pedal. Maybe it was the excitement of his first race. Maybe it was his first race in darkness. Maybe it was... well, who knows what it was. At any rate, Jason rolled the red dragster right past the starting line. Jeff Taylor and Dad sprung into action and attempted to grab the car by the roll bar and pull it back across the line. At that point, however, the car squirted another 100 feet down the strip and stopped. There was nothing Jeff could do at that point but give Jason a red-light disqualification and send the other racer on his way. It was only fair. Moments later, Jason started up again and idled down the drag strip.

A very dejected nine year old drove slowly up the return road and in front of the timing tower. Pats from Dad and handshakes and good wishes from his competitors and family werenít quite enough consolation at that point. Dad shut off the dragster and pushed the now silent racer as Jason steered it back to the Putnam Race Cars trailer in the pits. "What happened?" asked Jason as we took off his helmet, unbuckled the safety equipment, and pulled him up out of the tight roll cage. 

Dad leads Jason back to the staging lanes after a time run. Photo by Tim PrattWhat had happened wasnít clear to anyone, but Jason certainly had nothing to be ashamed of. Ten minutes of hugs from Mom, Dad, and Emily helped, as did Tom Putnamís praise that Jason had been a great student. He listened, followed all instructions, and made improvements on each run. Tom remarked, "Thatís racing. Even the Pros roll through the lights now and then." This helped, and in no time, Jason was more interested in our next outing to the Junior Dragster races than with this one.

I want to thank all the people who made my sonís first day of drag racing such a special memory for all of us. Thanks to Tom Putnam of Putnam Race Cars, who has a terrific program. Folks, if you are thinking about getting involved with Junior Dragsters and you live in the Maryland, Virginia, or DC area, you canít go wrong by giving Tom a call. His experience is invaluable and he can make your first try at it safe, fun, and a great learning experience. 

As many times as Iíve announced these cars from the tower at Maryland International Raceway, I learned more in about them in one day with Tom than in all that time. Tom also builds outstanding race cars, from Junior Dragsters to Pro Modifieds. Give Tom a call at 301-262-4100 to talk about your chassis or parts needs or check out his web page at http://www.drag-race.com.

Thanks to Maryland International Raceway for providing such a safe and well run drag racing facility. Iím not just saying that because Iíve announced there since the late Ď80s. This is truly one of the last great match race drag strips in the world and the Miller family keeps on improving it.

Thanks to Greg Gage, who made sure to be on hand to take some professional quality photographs of Jasonís big day. Thanks also to Charlie Willis, who got some shots of Jason in the staging lanes.

Thanks to MIR announcer Gene Richardson, who kindly announced Jasonís debut as if Jason was an established drag racing star.

Thanks to my brother, Tim, for the moral support and for doing digital camera duty.

Thanks to my wife, Denise, who put aside her motherly instincts and allowed her son to make his first foray into the world of motorized vehicles something decidedly more exciting (but actually safer) than a riding lawn mower. Mom got all the video coverage, too!

Thanks to my daughter, Emily, for being such a great sister to Jason. Despite not being the center of attention for a day, she was a terrific and non-jealous cheerleader for her brother. Her cheers during the early part of the day and her hugs during the sadder, later part of the day were equally appreciated. Donít worry sweetheart, youíll get your chance to drive one in a few years!

Finally, thanks to all of you for taking the time to read about our little family. In fact, we regard you all as part of our family, so we couldnít keep this story from you!

Come down and see us some time at MIR.

Still beaming with pride...

Bill Pratt

 

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