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Drag Racing Story of the Day!

Kids' Questions About Drag Racing

by Bill Pratt

Here's some neat stuff I almost forgot about. Back in late 1997, I was privileged to be selected as a "drag racing expert" for a website that offered 6th through 8th graders in the U.S. and Canada a look into possible career choices. I thought you might be interested in the questions the kids asked, and my responses. I will upload these questions over three days. If some of the responses seem dated, remember this was 3.5 years ago! Lots of things have changed in the drag racing world since then. Enjoy the wisdom of kids! bp

From Clayton Duker -- Why do the cars light up on fire?

Hi Clayton! Well, there are a few things your question can mean, so I will answer them all and hopefully I'll get the one you want! There are several reasons you can see fire on or around a drag racing car. One reason, of course, is if the car actually IS on fire! Drag racing teams at the highest levels of competition are always experimenting with new ways to make more power. The cars at the very top always run 'on the edge.' There is a very fine line between running your equipment at its top level and running it just PAST its top level. Sometimes superchargers blow up, or piston connecting rods get blown out the side of an engine. These instances can cause huge explosions and fires, mostly resulting from the engine oil hitting the hot exhaust pipes, called 'headers.' Modern drag racing has extremely strict safety rules, however, and it is rare indeed to see racers get hurt during even the worst explosions.

That's one reason you can see fire. Or do you mean the fire coming out of the headers? That happens in the Top Fuel and Funny Car classes, the top two classes in the sport. These racers use 'nitromethane' fuel. It is very expensive and causes the engines to run very hot. In fact, most teams must take their engines apart after each run and replace all the pistons! They do this in an hour and are ready to race again! But I got off the point... The nitromethane fuel burns with various colors ranging from blue, to orange, to yellow, to white, and even green sometimes! When the race cars are idling, you can actually see each flame from each header pipe, one at a time. When the racers hit the throttle, however, the flames all seem to come out at the same time and actually reach lengths of ten feet! Pretty neat to watch, especially at night.

The third thing you could be referring to is the 'fire burnout.' This was done mostly for show and began in the late 1960's or early 1970's. Some funny car and top fuel racing teams poured a little bit of flammable liquid under the rear tires just before the 'burnout' procedure. The burnout is what all drag racing cars do just before they run. They pull into a small puddle of water, hit the throttle, and spin the tires very fast. The burnout cleans off the tires and actually transfers rubber from the tires to the drag strip surface. The racers need to 'line up' in this fresh rubber when they make their run. This gives them the traction they need to stick to the racing surface. Otherwise, they would spin their tires and basically 'sit there' as their opponent speeds off to a win! The burnout causes huge clouds of tire smoke mixed with steam from the water. This is very exciting to watch. During the fire burnouts, a crewperson would ignite that flammable liquid just as the racing driver did his burnout. This would cause not only a huge cloud of smoke, but also huge flames all around the car. I have attached a photo of a fire burnout. The driver is R.C. Sherman from Frederick, Maryland. The car was called the "Black Magic." It was a very popular and winning car in the 1970's. The photographer's name is Ray English. 

The fourth (and probably last) reason a drag racing car shoots out flames is because it is a jet powered car! There are several jet powered drag racing teams around the world. These racers literally use jet engines from retired military fighter planes. They go very fast and trail a thirty-foot flame behind them as they kick in the afterburner on the jet engine! They also are very exciting to watch! Well, Clayton, thanks for your question. You might have found out more about drag racing than you wanted to know, but I hope one of my answers told you what you wanted to know!

From Troy Adkins -- Why are "funny cars" called funny cars?

Hi Troy. Drag racing fans have asked this question for three decades! The answer is that in the first year or two of their existence, funny cars actually DID look funny! Racers did all sorts of experimentation to try to get better traction. One method was to radically alter the wheelbases of their cars. They would move the front wheels way back from their original position. This made for a very comical appearance. After about three years, funny cars didn't look funny at all. Since the late sixties, lots of people think they've been the coolest looking drag cars out there. There have been attempts to change the name. In the 1980's, there was a movement by one of the top racing magazines to change the name to "Fuel Coupe." This way the 'FC' part would be the same, but the class name would be closer to reality. It never caught on, though, so even today's $150,000, 315 mph technological marvels are called 'funny cars!'

From Jasmine Singh -- What's the most exciting thing you've ever seen in racing?

Hi Jasmine! That's a hard one. I've seen lots of exciting things, from great performances, to spectacular crashes, to seeing really nice and deserving people win their first races. Two of the most exciting things I saw recently happened at the same race, the IHRA World Nationals in Norwalk, Ohio. I was not working at that race, I was just spectating, so I hung out with my pal Bret Kepner, who does the drag racing television coverage for ESPN. We were standing just on the other side of the guardrail about 1,000 feet down the track. A funny car racer named Rudy McAdams had a mechanical failure that slammed his 230 mph Camaro right into and OVER the guardrail. Rudy's car, now on its side, was coming right at us, plowing up dirt the entire way. All we could see was the top of the car moving towards us! The car finally flipped over on its top and stopped about 100 feet from us. The IHRA rescue team was right on the scene and thanks to drag racing's rigorous safety rules, Rudy was OK. I came out of the experience a little humbled. I was reminded that drag racing safety rules are there for a reason. That goes for the car construction and seatbelt rules that saved Rudy, and also for the rules that tell spectators the SAFE places from which to watch the action! The other exciting thing I saw at the race was the world jet dragster speed record set by Bill Mattio of Chicago. He drove his 'Chicago Fire' jet car from zero to 319 mph in 4.9 seconds in a quarter mile!

From Grace Thompson -- Is drag racing an expensive hobby?

Hi Grace! At the highest levels of the sport, drag racing is EXTREMELY expensive. In fact, most teams simply could not do it without the sponsorship of large corporations. You may have seen the McDonalds team, or the Castrol Motor Oil team, or many others. The cost to put together a competitive racing car is from $100,000 to $200,000, and that doesn't include spare parts! Since these racing teams must basically rebuild their engines from four to eight times a weekend, the cost in spare parts is staggering. Now add $50,000 to $200,000 for a transporter and trailer. Now add the salaries of the driver, the crew chief, and all the associate crew members. Now add the cost of hotels, meals, gasoline, and all the other costs associated with traveling to 22 major races all over the country during the racing season! The costs are simply astronomical! I've been told that to compete for the world championship, you have to spend at LEAST one million U.S. dollars! Amazing. But that is the TOP end of the spectrum. At the BOTTOM end of the spectrum, you can take your Ford Escort to your local drag strip and race it! Where I work (Maryland International Raceway, near Washington, D.C.) it costs you seven dollars to get in, and only five dollars more to race your car! So the answer to your question on the cost of racing is: between $12 and $1,000,000, and there dozens of categories in between!

From Jake Kiddington -- Are there women racers?

Hi Jake. You bet there are! In fact, drag racing is the only sport in the WORLD where women compete on a completely even level with men. Top Fuel racer Shirley Muldowney was the sport's first three-time world champion in the fastest category in drag racing. Shirley still races, and finished in the top two or three in the world in 1997. You can read more about 'The First Lady of Drag Racing' at http://www.muldowney.com/. My dear friend Carol 'Bunny' Burkett won the IHRA Alcohol Funny Car world championship in 1986. Read more about Bunny at http://www.bunnyburkett.com. Shirley and Bunny are only two examples. Shelly Anderson, Rhonda Hartman, and Christine Powell (a teenager!) and many others race competitively in the Top Fuel category. All these ladies have won huge drag races over men. The top classes aren't the only place the ladies are making their mark. At tracks all over the world, ladies are joining the men in the winner's circle more and more. In fact, drag racing has a new class that will bring thousands of new lady drag racers into the sport, but as GIRLS! The class is called Junior Dragster, and it is for racers who are eight to 17 years old. The custom dragsters are powered by Briggs and Stratton lawn mower engines. It sounds lame, but the track records where I work are held by ten year old Damian Moore of Pasadena, Maryland. Damian's records: zero to 82 mph in 8.0 seconds! Anyway, back to the topic... There are hundreds of girls racing in Junior Dragster all over the world. I would put the numbers at about 60 percent boys and 40 percent girls at my track. Many of these girls will enter the faster racing categories as they get older. Already, it is not uncommon to see women qualify and win major drag races. In the near future, it may be a 50/50 proposition!

Bill Pratt


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