For the past three years, the first weekend in August, we’ve been going to the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) race at the Pacific Raceway in Auburn, WA. This year, having moved to Coupeville, we needed to leave the Whidbey Island the day before to get to the races first thing in the morning.
We head south Friday afternoon, catching the ferry to Mukilteo. As always, the ferry is a fabulous experience with happy people, gorgeous scenery, and interesting people on-board. We struck up a conversation with a 70-year old man who was visiting his kids in Washington, and planned to do some fishing. For the past few decades, he’d been a school teacher in Southern California, a huge accomplishment since he hinted at being born and raised in a small Texas border town where he may or may not have completed high school.
He’d spent his savings paying off his kids’ school debts, enabling one to afford medical school, and several others to pursue equally prestigious, but expensive degrees. Yearning for adventure, he was contemplating teaching English in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). He reasoned he could easily travel down to Africa and across to Europe and Asia. And then, with his wanderlust quenched, he’d move back to the Pacific Northwest, get a small cabin near Bellingham, WA, and spend his remaining years fishing and living a simple life.
We wished him luck, thanking him for sharing his life story.
After getting off the ferry, we stopped at Taco Bell for a collection of tasty treats, which we ate while heading down to Woodinville, where Rich got his hair cut at Sports Clips. They also trim his beard, making him look very presentable.
While he got groomed, I walked over to Import Plaza, and purchased three tiny frames with sparkling baubles and beads on them. They’re bright teal, fuchsia, and gold. I was thrilled with my $2.43 purchase.
The shopping center where Sports Clips is located a few miles from where we used to live in Kirkland. We headed through the wine district in Woodinville, and up the hill to the house we’d sold a little over a year ago. I gasped at the tall weeds, which had overtaken the flower beds, piles of cedar needles and other riff-raff on the roof, unkempt lawn, and tacky curtains in the living room window. When we sold the house, I knew the new owners wouldn’t take care of the landscaping, even though I left them a three-page summary of the plants with pictures, along with a Western Gardening book.
Seattle Traffic. Grumble.
By early afternoon, we were heading south to Auburn, and making good time for about ten minutes. Maybe eleven minutes.
Because Seattle Seafair was occurring, which included the Blue Angels flying over Lake Washington, I-90 was closed to traffic, resulting in a HORRIFIC back-up through Bellevue. Using INRIX, I found an alternative route along the Mercer Slough, which flowed nicely for 5-6 minutes then it came to a dead STOP. Rich, the notorious Teflon Man, started cursing. At least, we had fluid refreshment, leftover from Taco Bell!
We finally converged back onto I-405, and were on track again.
Originally, we were going to stop at IKEA to check out some furniture, but decided to push ahead to Auburn, and the plush (cough, cough) Roadway Inn. Because it was a toasty outside, and I was tired of the sun glaring in my face, we decided to check in. It was nice to relax in an air-conditioned room, and truthfully, we had a pleasant room, which faced a landscaped area along the side of the motel.
Like many “lower-cost” motels, there were more permanent residents wandering around the parking lot, smoking cigarettes, carry bags of groceries, and shooting the breeze. Joining them in the parking lot were a handful of men in logoed shirts who were crew on NHRA teams or staff in vendor booths. Rich had made our reservations at the motel nearly a year earlier, knowing it would fill-up with people attending or working at the race
After resting for a bit, I called my friend Sarah, who I know from Microsoft. She invited us to her house, which is a hop-skip-and-jump from the race track. We had a fabulous, relaxing visit, including going to Habit Hamburger. I had a sensational “super foods” salad with baby kale, lettuce, quinoa, tomatoes, cucumbers, carrots, Craisins, feta cheese, and chicken breast with a kale pesto vinaigrette.
Rich had a California burger, and ordered a strawberry shake. They made an error, and brought two shakes, which Rich woofed down, after I had an itty-bitty sip. Oink.
The food was very good, and the conversation stimulating, just what Rich and I needed after months-and-months of home improvement projects, packing, unpacking, moving furniture, gardening, and countless trips to Value Village, Habitat for Humanity, and the Mount Vernon dump and recycling center.
Rich purchased tickets to NHRA within weeks of last year’s race. It was on the calendar for 12 months, and finally the day arrived. We’d taken an ice chest full of food, which we kept in our motel room with two large blocks of ice. In the morning, we transferred the food to our mini backpacks, stuffed our stadium chairs into a canvas bag (along with the sunblock), ensured my camera was charged, pulled on shorts, comfortable shoes, and light tee-shirts, and then headed to McDonald’s for a quick breakfast. The temperature was supposed to be in the high 80’s or low 90’s so I was a bit apprehensive about being outside all day.
We got to the track within half an hour of it opening, and for some strange reason, a gate attendant, seeing the reserved parking sticker on our car, directed us to a parking lot off the track… where the press, officials, race car drivers, and other VIPs were located. After realizing the error, we circled back, and found a parking spot at the back of the parking lots by an access road so it would be easier for us to leave later in the day.
One of my favorite parts of NHRA is watching the cars being unloaded. Teams have large, spotlessly clean semi-trucks. The trailers are divided in half horizontally with the cars on the top deck. The cars are lowered to the ground by lift gates, which double as trailers’ rear walls.
Typically, on the lower level is a work area, rows of tall, rolling tool chests and cabinets, pegboards with parts, and large parts, neatly stacked. These trailers carry the type and amount of equipment as a professional garage, including diagnostic tools for testing all aspect of a car’s mechanics and system. Some teams even have manufacturing stations for making small replacement parts.
Teams with two trucks, often have sides doors in the trailers that can be opened so mechanics can easily walk between the two trailers, which become work spaces with air conditioning, heat, fluorescent lights, and refreshment areas so it’s pleasant to work in any weather.
The front part of these trailers have lounges, usually consisting of a multi-purpose room for meetings with team owners and sponsors, area for engineers to analyze a racecar’s performance and determine weather and track conditions, and a locker room for the driver. This area might also have a small kitchenette and bathroom.
Between the semi-trucks are large awnings, underneath of which the cars are worked on. Large teams have reception areas for VIPs, and there’s usually a display of promotional pictures, which the drivers sign throughout the day.
NHRA prides themselves on having “open pits” that enable fans to get within feet of the action. When they unload the top fuel dragsters from the trucks, and turn them around to wheel them into the pits, the cars can be within inches of your feet. A crew can spin around a 25-foot long car faster than a crowd can back up. One moment, the car is 6 or so feet away, and the next, it’s inches from the tips of your Converses.
It’s super exciting!
The funny cars, which are much, much shorter, are unloaded in two pieces: The fiberglass body, and the rest of the car. The body is placed on a metal rack with wheels, and can easily be pushed out of the truck by one crew member.
Check out the photos from the pits.
Racing for All Bodies
Most of the professional top fuel and funny car race drivers are in great shape, groomed to appear before the camera, and graciously chat with fans while signing autographs. Their photos are splayed across the semi-trucks, and on the souvenir trucks (also housed in semi-truck-sized trailers). Many have been racing for decades or come from families who are well-known in the industry like the Coughlin’s, Kalitta’s, Schumacher’s, and Force’s.
A short walk from where the top fuel and funny car are taken apart and rebuilt between each race is a collection of trailers, trucks, RVs, canopies, and people working on the cars for the sportsman class, ranging from five-second top alcohol dragsters to top alcohol funny cars, and 15-second stockers. The latter included a gray VW bug, white Mustang called “Thumper,” clunky artificial-wood-paneled station wagon from the 70’s, spunky Toyota, Hyundai, and Honda sedans, and muscle cars, once the pride-and-joy of Detroit.
Prior to racing, these cars line up on a roadway at one end of the track. You can walk among the cars, chat with the drivers, and take pictures. I was admiring a dragster, when an older, tall, burly man walked up. He was the driver. I’m sure he has no problem plopping into the car, but they might need to put a strap around his chest and hoist him out when the race finishes!
Equally surprising, several of the dragsters are drive by older women. Women who looked to be in their fifties and sixties!
One dragster, which was owned by an upholstery company, had elegant gold-flaked upholstery where the driver sits. It looked like a booth you’d find in a 60’s upscale steak house.
The funny cars have fiberglass bodies, which are designed to look like popular racing cars like a Corvette, Dodge Charger, Chevy Bel Air, Pontiac Firebird, and Plymouth Duster. Underneath could be cobbled-together frame, engine, and necessary mechanics to thrust it down the track at over 200 miles per hour.
The sportsman class is where the true passion of racing lives with friends, family, and business associates pitching in to create a mean-lean-racing machine to score enough points to make it to SPORTSnationals or maybe just local bragging rights.
This year’s NHRA race at the Pacific Raceway also featured top fuel Harleys, bizarre looking motorcycle that can go up to 200 miles per hour. They’re elongated with a giant back wheel and smaller front wheel. Extended from the back wheel is a metal triangular cage with a small wheel at the back to help balance the monstrosity of a machine.
To slow the motorcycles, they have chutes that deploy from the back of the triangular cage.
The driver’s legs are stretched out over the back wheel, and the rest of their body lays over the engine with their arms outstretched over the hand bars. Because the engine is prone to explode, it’s illegal to start the engine while someone is sitting on the motorcycle.
They’re also difficult to keep running so several of the motorcycles were saw didn’t start or spurted down the track.
The coolest motorcycle – hands down – was the Joker, driven by Andy Beauchemin from Alberta, Canada. Andy, and his wife Kim, started racing in 1991, and have raced junior dragster, junior funny car, junior altered, modified gas Harley Davidsons, nitro Harleys, and nostalgia nitro funny cars. Check out this YouTube video of his racing a top fuel Harley.
Outside of Andy having the coolest painted motorcycle, trailer and truck, and helmet, he’s gracious, patient, and generous with his fans. He allows his fans to try on his helmets and take pictures with him. We watched two young boys pose with him. The littlest was a bit confused, but the older one probably talked about the experience for weeks.
A few minutes later, a man who truly looked like a joker with wild eyebrows, shaved head, tattoos on his arms and neck, and worn blue jeans approached Andy, eager to have his picture taken. The entire time he was riotously laughing, his mouth wide open, tongue curled up, and eyebrows moving up-and-down. I was so startled by the spectacular that I failed to shoot his picture.
Andy remained calm, smiling and trying to tactfully pose by the man, who strained to stand still for more than a few seconds.
In the morning, before the professional race, they have some hour-long sessions called Nitro School where a pit crew chief and driver present technical aspects about the cars, and allow fans to ask questions. Even though Rich worked on a top fuel funny car when he was with Sequent (the CEO’s daughter, Christen Powell drove the car), he’s always interested in learning about the latest technologies in the racing industry.
Del Worsham, the 2015 Funny Car world champion, and only one of three drivers to win world championships in both Top Fuel and Funny Car, joined the crew chief. As expected, he was very knowledgeable, sharing information about his experience, and how top fuel cars are engineered to enable them to go over 330 miles per hour within seconds.
He was also unexpected introspective, humble, and times, humorous. It was a joy listening to him, and his banter with the crew chief. I retained almost nothing, but at the time, I was engaged enough to stand in the sun for an hour.
I do recall Del saying the highest centrifugal force is felt not at the start, but a second or two later, when the car’s throttle (clutched, something) kicks in to give the car an extra boost. He also discussed how they delivered an insane amount of fuel to the pistons to… the mechanics were way above my head!
Our seats were towards the top of the grandstands, nearly opposite the Christmas tree, the electronic starting device between the lands on the starting line. Sitting next to us, were two couples from Canada, who were spending the weekend at the races. They were fun to chat with in-between races.
We’d brought plenty of food, along with stadium chairs, so once we were seated, we were “off to the races.” I’d brought my camera so I could capture video and photos. The challenge, however, was capturing cars, which passed by my camera shutter is less than a blink of an eye. I finally figured out if I changed my camera settings to “sports” it would take multiple exposures within a few seconds. I could then edit out the shot, which didn’t contain cars.
Mostly, I took pictures of the cars and motorcycles, following their burnout, spinning the rear tires in water before a run to heat and clean them, and put rubber on the track for better traction. It’s much easier to take a picture of a static car!
Even though Friday had been a scorcher, Saturday was significantly cooler with overcast skies (residual from the fires in Canada). For the most part, it was pleasant to sit in the grandstands and not too hot.
We stayed until the last race, and then headed back to our car. Because of where Rich parked, it was quick for us to leave. Our trip back to Mukilteo was uneventful, and thankfully without much traffic. Before boarding the ferry, we stopped at Taco Bell for sustenance.
It was a great adventure from visiting with my friend Sarah to snapping pictures and watching zippy cars.