GAINESVILLE, Fla. — For all those people who fantasize about gripping the wheel of a 1,200-horsepower dragster and roaring down an asphalt ribbon at better than 200 m.p.h., Frank Hawley is your man.
In keeping with the proliferation of sports fantasy camps where the public can rub elbows with the big boys, Hawley, a two-time National Hot Rod Assn. funny car champion, has opened a three-day school, where, for $2,000, businessmen and bankers, farmers and housewives can learn to take a full-blown drag car through its paces.
But unlike the vacation baseball programs that give the general public a chance to play alongside former major-league stars with little or no hope of making the big-time, Hawley hopes to train people--if they so desire--to be the drag racing champions of the future.
"I've always thought there was a need to educate drivers about the machinery and how to handle it," Hawley said. "My school also offers an opportunity for students to see if they do have the talent and grit it takes to drive competitively."
The initial three days give students a chance to see how dragsters perform and an opportunity to actually drive one of the smoke-belching behemoths. That's where their fantasy ends. But for $2,000 more and an extra two days at the track, students can try to earn an NHRA license that will allow them to compete professionally.
"It's a unique opportunity in that (the students) can actually get the hands-on experience they need if they're going to make a living doing this," Hawley said. "While only about 10% of the students ever make it to the license portion of the school, they all have the opportunity to at least try it on for size. The school costs $2,000, the license is free."
Hawley said his main intention, though, is to give the people that want it the thrill of sitting behind a throbbing engine capable of hurtling a steel and fiberglass machine through the quarter-mile in a little more than six seconds.
"I don't know many people that haven't at least wondered if they could handle it," said Hawley, who came up with the unique idea after attending a stock-car driving school a couple of years ago. "To a person, everyone that has attended the sessions has come away saying, 'It's the most exciting three or four days I've every spent."'
Bill Hoeninger, a lawn and garden shop owner from Des Plaines, Ill., attended the five-day session and echoed Hawley's estimations.
"I've been an avid car and drag racing fan since I was 16, and always wondered how I would do with the big boys (top-fueler cars)," said Hoeninger, who races a Camaro street car. "It's something I've always wanted to do. This is a unique opportunity to get some hands-on experience with a $60,000 car."
"I just wanted to see if I could handle it," Hoeninger said after his initial 150-m.p.h. run at three- quarter throttle. "It's a real rush."
While Hoeninger has had some racing experience, others at the school are "fresh off the street," Hawley said. One such twosome is Richard and Theresa Molln, of LaMoille, Ill., married only a few weeks and spending their honeymoon learning how to handle a funny car.
"Neither Theresa or I have ever raced, but we've always been interested observers," said Richard, a farmer back home in Illinois. "Our families thought it was a big waste of time and money to come down here, but it is something we enjoy, so we figured it would be a good way to spend some time together."
Theresa said she got interested in racing through her then would-be husband several years ago.
"Richard was always interested in racing and I guess I got the bug just from being around him," Theresa said. "If you'd asked me five years ago, I'd never have thought I would have been here doing this. But now that I've done it, it's the greatest thrill I've ever had. The power involved is really awesome."
Hawley said the three-day program provides a videotaped introduction to drag racing, focusing on the mechanics of alcohol-burning funny cars, as well as a review of safety equipment and starting, stopping, shifting and driving techniques.
A slow run down the track is included in the second day, Hawley said, indicating the drivers probably "only reach in the neighborhood of 110 m.p.h."
The third and final day of the first session is devoted strictly to gearing up for full-power runs down the quarter-mile track, including "burn-outs" that heat up the oversized racing slick tires; short, three-quarter power runs and finally, the 200-plus-m.p.h. run.