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.
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.
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!
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
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!
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.
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
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
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.
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...