Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Track revs up thrills for novice drag races

Rex Roy: Car culture

It was back in 1973, so I can't exactly recall why my older brother was taking his '71 Dodge Charger R/T to the drag strip. It may have been to dial in the new Six Pack carburetor setup he installed on the car's thumping 440 Magnum, or he could have been testing a then high-tech Direct Connection transistorized ignition. Regardless of the reason, he took me. I was 11.

While details of my first trip to a drag strip are fuzzy, one memory remains razor sharp: the roar of uncorked exhaust pipes. It was more than sheer decibels that seared the event within my frontal lobes. It was the percussiveness quality of the sound that hit my chest with such force that I thought my ribs would cave in.

I opened the 2008 drag racing season with a few hundred other would-be and serious racers at Milan Dragway on April 5. Visiting the track as a driver this time, it happened again...somebody fired up their big block Camaro and there was that sound. Instantly I was transported to 1973. My chest rumbled as the driver blipped the throttle and the headers barked out that distinct V-8 rrraaAAAAPPPPPP! My adrenal gland shifted into overdrive.

Quarter mile is ultimate test

The whole point of heading to a place like Milan Dragway is to run your car as fast as it will go for exactly 1,320 feet. That's a full quarter mile, and most people never stand on their accelerator for anywhere near that long. It's a rush. Your results are delivered in an elapsed time (how long it took you) and a trap speed (how fast you were going at the end).


While I usually head to Milan once or twice a year just for kicks, this time I was evaluating the new Dodge Caliber SRT4 and the Chevrolet HHR SS. A racing buddy helped me put these turbocharged performance cars through their paces. Both cars posted quick times in the 14-second range at nearly 100 mph--fast enough to humble most muscle cars from the 1960s.

The thrills build as you wait in the staging lanes. When it's your turn you're waved to the bleach trough where you heat the tires by doing a smoky burn out. The next stop is the starting line where you position the front tires precisely between the staging lights and then watch the Christmas tree. You go on the green and keep the hammer down until the finish line. The shutdown zone is where you decelerate, and at the end of the return lane you pick up your run slip at the timing shack.

You'll be surprised at how quickly the competitiveness of drag racing draws you in. Not only do you want your car to be faster than the next guy's (or girl's), but you'll want to improve your own reaction times and launch techniques. Those run slips provide an immediate report card about your progress or lack thereof.

Try 'test and tune' sessions

You might think that tracks only welcome serious racers with purpose-built racecars. You'd be wrong. The Milan facility caters to rank amateurs in addition to serious professionals. As I'm clearly in the former camp, I only go Milan during their "test and tune" sessions. The atmosphere is relaxed and racing newbies can get acclimated without feeling stupid.

As for what to drive, the cars at Milan's opening day ran the gamut from dragsters to everyday drivers including a new Lincoln MKX, an older souped-up Saturn Ion, and a couple of current Hemi-powered Chryslers. Just about any car is fun to race flat out once.

Importantly, this kind of racing is affordable. Just $25 gets you and your car in for a day of runs. Your "crew" gets in for $12.

As a Detroiter, drag racing is a part of your heritage. Get in touch with it, and keep your races at the track.

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