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SPORTS WEEKEND | Motor Racing

Attending This Class Won't Turn Into a Drag

November 13, 1998|SHAV GLICK

So you want to be a drag racer?

It looks so easy. All you do is put on a helmet and gloves, crawl into a car and wait for the starting light. Then stomp on it.

Everybody does it. It's no different from accelerating the family Toyota off the line at an intersection when the light goes green.

Yeah, right!

Spend an afternoon at Frank Hawley's Drag Racing School at the Pomona Raceway and the complexity of hurtling a 600-horsepower gas dragster down a quarter-mile strip of asphalt becomes mind-boggling.

First off, it takes longer to get strapped in--what with driving suit, helmet, arm restraints, head sock and neck collar--than it does to make a run. Dressed for action, some students look more like a stick-up guy than wannabe race drivers.

"When they come here, students don't know what they don't know," says Hawley, a two-time National Hot Rod Assn. funny car champion. "You don't have to be an athlete, and you don't have to bring a high IQ, but you do have to think, and to concentrate.

"You take 10 drag racers and they probably couldn't run a quarter mile.

"Racing is a mind game, not something you're likely to improve by eating granola bars or doing push-ups."

It's not for everyone, however. No one with a heart problem, neck or back injuries, high blood pressure, under the influence or expectant mothers can enroll.

And before anyone gets into a car, there is class to attend on the second floor of the Winston tower at the Pomona Fairplex, where the NHRA Winston Finals are underway this weekend. Then comes a walk-through to become familiar with the start-line procedure.

"What a thrill, just standing here and looking down the track where Kenny Bernstein and Eddie Hill and Don Prudhomme and John Force and all the great drag racers have run," enthused Amanda Spencer, a student from England at a recent school session. "I can't believe I'm here."

Spencer and a friend, Adrien McInness, flew from London to Pomona as a gift from her boss. After two days of classes, they flew home.

"Just sitting in a car made the trip all worthwhile." Spencer said. "I've always been sort of a speed freak. I've been reading about Pomona since I was a little girl. This is the Mecca of the sport. There aren't many drag strips in England, but I go to as many as I can, and I wrote my college thesis on drag racing."

It was easy to know where she came from. She wore shorts with Union Jack stripes. On her application, for weight she wrote, "eight stones 10 pounds."

At the same session was Ruben Garnica, a retired fireman from Palos Verdes with a long, white beard. His class was a 60th birthday present from his wife, after he had casually mentioned to her during the Winternationals, "I'd kind of like to try that."

School isn't just for the speed freaks, or budding young would-be drag racers. Even the elite stop by to have Hawley fine-tune their starting line procedures.

Gary Scelzi, defending Winston top-fuel champion, sought help after he had not won in the first 11 events this season.

"I felt I was sloppy at the starting line, but I didn't know why," he said. "I got beat on hole-shots a couple of times and began to wonder what was wrong, so I came to see Frank.

"We talked about an hour and a half, discussing the problem. Then I made 15 runs off the starting line. Then we talked for another two hours, and then I made 15 more runs. When it was all over, he said I had been thinking too much, thinking about what could go wrong, and not focusing on the [starting] light."

Scelzi must have been a good student. He won the next three races and five of the last seven, overtaking Cory McClenathan and all but clinching his second consecutive championship.

When Hawley started his school in 1985 at Gainesville, Fla., he had one class for beginners and another for advanced drivers.

"No one wanted to start in the beginners' class, so now we lump them all together," Hawley said.

Procedures are the same--learn to control the dragster in a 200-foot run. If you pass, you get 600 feet. Then 1,000 feet, and when Hawley thinks you're ready for a full run, you get the quarter-mile.

"It's sort of like grade school," he said. "As you finish one grade, you advance to the next.

"The hardest thing to convince newcomers is that we don't count reaction times here. Everyone wants to show off their reflexes, but that is the least important thing.

"You must learn to drive a car before you learn to race a car. Students always look funny when I tell them that 200 feet is as far as they're allowed to go on the first run. You'd be surprised how many have to repeat the 200 before moving up to 600. It's all about learning the procedure."

SPRINT CARS

The Sprint Car Racing Assn. will conclude the 1998 season at two tracks, Saturday night at Ventura Raceway and Nov. 21 with the Jack Kindoll Classic at Perris Auto Speedway.

Richard Griffin, who lost the championship to the now-retired Ron Shuman on the final night last year, can clinch his first title just by starting the main event at Ventura.

LAST LAPS

Thanksgiving weekend will be a busy time for racing enthusiasts.

The 58th running of the Turkey Night Midget Grand Prix is scheduled Thanksgiving Night at Bakersfield Speedway's one-third-mile high-banked clay oval in Oildale. Jason Leffler of Long Beach, newly crowned U.S. Auto Club Silver Crown champion and defending USAC midget champ, holds a 10-point lead over Jay Drake of Val Verde with three races remaining. Leffler, 23, won at Bakersfield last month.

Also entered are Rick Hendrix, who has almost clinched the USAC Western States title, and USAC veterans Jimmy Sills, Robby Flock, Sleepy Tripp and Wally Pankratz. A TQ midget main event will be run Wednesday night, along with Turkey Night qualifying.

Vintage car fans get a choice the weekend after Thanksgiving, when the sporty car set convenes for the Palm Springs Grand Prix and the sprint-midget followers gather at Walt James Stadium in Willow Springs Motorsports Park.

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