National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) drag racing fans and drivers often say to experience real side-by-side racing, you have to go to the track. HDTV delivers close and crisp NHRA Mello Yello action, but to really appreciate the power, you have to be there.
Simply put—to really know drag racing, you have to see it, hear it, feel it, taste it and know what it’s like to be overwhelmed by 8000 horsepower erupting at close range.
Recently, National Motorsports Press Association award-winning writer Amy Henderson accepted an invitation to attend her first NHRA drag race at zMAX Dragway in Concord, North Carolina. This reporter urged her to go to her local drag strip as it is a premier four-wide facility, which no other area in the U.S can claim.
Racetrack owner Bruton Smith, from Speedway Mortorsports, Inc., built the unique concrete track and deemed it the “Bellagio” of drag strips.
Henderson was impressed by the facility, race cars, drivers, teams and fans.
“I learned a lot about something I knew virtually nothing about before and had some great conversations,” Henderson said.
Veteran motorsports photographer Rhonda Hogue McCole accompanied Henderson to get images and explain what goes on in the pits where fans can roam.
“I love the sound of high-performance race motors," Henderson said. “I just do. The different pitches and sounds convey actual emotion from what should be an inanimate object—anger, anticipation, joy.”
Henderson compared NHRA to NASCAR.
“My favorite moment of a NASCAR race is that moment after the pace car drops off the track before the green waves to start the race, because that moment holds infinite possibility," she said. “In drag racing, it's that split second that the nitro cars drive by you and you feel them to the core, so deeply that you feel like you should be holding onto something.”
Henderson utilized her observation skills right away.
“It is so cool to see so many different kinds of cars at the race track all at once,” she said. “(It's) also cool that there's something for teams at all levels of funding and experience. That's one of the biggest differences between this and NASCAR—it's more accessible for teams and fans.”
Henderson wrote about her first impressions in a Racetake.com article.
“The first time the nitro-powered cars went by me four wide, I instinctively grabbed onto the fence that separated the stands from the racetrack, the feeling as so powerful,” she said. “It felt as if I didn't hold onto something, I might be swept away.
“Even the exhaust from the nitromethane, which brings tears to your eyes and makes your throat burn, was enticing instead of offensive. The flames shooting out of the headers are quite lovely in a still photo, as is the haze the fumes leave in each car's wake. It was entrancing.”
In her revealing commentary Henderson also noted an important difference between NHRA and NASCAR.
“I asked Antron Brown about his interactions with the fans, because he seems to relish that time…and he does. He told me that he remembers being a fan growing up, and the impression it had on him when he got to meet his heroes. That never left him, and he makes the most of his opportunities to spend time among fans.
“Every driver I spoke to talked about the access fans have, the time they spend with them, she said. “I spoke with Jeg Coughlin, Jr., Brittany Force, and Matt Hagan in addition to Brown, and all three were adamant about how special that interaction was to them. Watching them, it was clear that they mean it. It never looked rushed; they took the time to greet people and pose for photos and talk to their fans. In NASCAR, that interaction has largely gone by the wayside, and that's too bad—the NHRA fans were truly connected with the sport, and it was clear how loyal they are to drag racing as a sport. That's faded in NASCAR…the fans still watch, but lack a true connection at times, and that's a shame, because the NHRA pits are such a relaxed, wonderful place.
Henderson was especially impressed with JEGS.com Pro Stock champion Jeg Coughlin Jr. interacting with a young fan.
“A boy with his mother had waited for Coughlin for a long time the previous day, as he was the boy's favorite,” Henderson said. “Their paths hadn't crossed then, but once they shared that they had been waiting to meet him, Coughlin invited the boy right over for photos and showed him the race car. That child will probably be a fan of the sport for life because of that gesture…and that just doesn't happen in NASCAR to the degree that it should.”
Henderson concluded her article with this observation.
“My overall impressions of that first NHRA weekend were of a camaraderie between everyone that's just not seen in other forms of racing. Add to that the colorful carnival atmosphere, racing that you literally feel to the very core, and the chance for almost anybody to go home a winner, and it's easy to "get it" about NHRA racing. I get it…and I like it.”
Amy Henderson did an exceptional job in comparing the differences between NASCAR circle track racing and NHRA straight, side-by-side competition. She proved what fans and drivers have been saying for decades about NHRA drag racing.
You have to be there at least once.
FYI WIRZ is the select presentation of topics by Dwight Drum at Racetake.com. Unless otherwise noted, information and all quotes were obtained from personal interviews or official release materials provided by NASCAR and team representatives.