NHRA funny car driver Ashley Force Hood launches off the starting line during… (Jennifer Stewart / US Presswire )
What goes through a drag racing driver's mind while he or she's rocketing to 300 mph in a mere 1,000 feet?
A lot, it turns out. While it looks simple enough -- steer the car straight and step on the gas pedal -- actually driving an NHRA top-fuel dragster or funny car is anything but.
In the four seconds or so it takes for the car to launch from a standing start to reach top speed, traversing the length of a football field in a second, its driver must instantly manage the fuel flow, handle a car that starts a race with its front wheels airborne, withstand pulverizing G-forces and release its parachute at the finish line, a demanding journey that takes less time than reading this sentence.
They're among the most crucial four seconds in sports, and all the information drag racers must process calls to mind other athletes who must make split-second decisions, such as NFL quarterbacks in the pocket and batters facing 95-mph major league fastballs.
But the others are not sitting in a dragster with a deafening roar and generating 8,000 horsepower -- 30 times more power than the average family sedan -- that slams drivers with five Gs the moment they step on the throttle. Now try steering the car while looking down the track. The intensity of these machines is such that two-time top-fuel champion Larry Dixon once likened it to "sitting on a paint shaker trying to read an eye chart."
Dixon and his fellow drivers will do it again this weekend as the National Hot Rod Assn.'s Full Throttle Series opens its season with the 50th running of the Winternationals, from Thursday through Sunday at Auto Club Raceway in Pomona.
To better understand the challenge of drag racing, Robert Hight, who will defend his crown as last year's funny car champion, explained at length what he does in the moments before the green light and during the frantic four-second race.
A dragster's giant rear tires must be warmed up to be effective, so drivers first do a "burnout" -- spinning the tires while traveling over a short distance -- at the starting line.
"You first roll through water so the tires get wet," said Hight, 40, who drives for John Force Racing, the Yorba Linda-based team led by 14-time funny car champion John Force. "Somebody is watching from behind and once the tire makes one revolution in the water . . . the guy in front of me motions to me to hit the throttle and do the burnout."
Serious and single-minded about his racing, Hight wants his actions consistent in every race, much as a PGA Tour golfer strives for a repeating swing that stays effective under pressure.
So, "I try to stop right at the 330-foot cone [on the drag strip] each time" with his burnout, he said.
Hight ignores the crowd lining each side of the drag strip, and owing to the car's enveloped cockpit, he can't see the driver he's racing against unless that driver is well ahead of him.
What does his car sound like at this point? "Inside it's not as loud because the [engine's] headers are pointing out and away," he said. "It's loud, don't get me wrong. But it's nothing like being on the outside" and hearing the engine. "You also have a helmet on, so it's muffled."
He can make his burnouts exactly 330 feet because there is a two-inch piece of metal attached to the throttle cable atop his supercharged engine that prevents the engine from reaching full power even with Hight's foot smashing the gas pedal to the floor.
("Gas" actually is a misnomer in the case of top-fuel and funny cars because their fuel isn't gasoline, it's nitromethane.)
The burnout generates plumes of smoke from his spinning tires, and now Hight's funny car rolls back to behind the starting line. His crew lifts the car's fiberglass body to remove the "throttle stop" from his engine and make last-second adjustments. Then they lower the body.
The starting line
As he inches toward the starting line, Hight said, "I'm constantly doing things in the car. I check the oil pressure 100 times. I'm always fiddling with the fuel."
That is, he's adjusting how much fuel is reaching the engine via a lever he tweaks with his left hand, "so I know I've got it in the exact spot I want." Too much fuel and the engine could be too cold for maximum power, too little and the engine could get too hot.
More important, "I'm trying to get the car [positioned] straight . . . because you can have the steering wheel straight but be pointing slightly to the right or left," Hight said.
The acceleration is so intense at the start that "the first 100 feet the front tires are mostly in the air, so you don't have any steering ability," he said.
Now he edges toward the starting line until his front tires cross an infrared beam that triggers up the "pre-stage light," the top row of yellow lights on the so-called electronic "Christmas tree" set of lights that start the race.