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He’s Just a Tourist at Pomona

My first association with drag racing occurred as a cub reporter on the rewrite desk, when a local promoter phoned with information about a race.

The winner, I wrote, “toured the course in 5.1 seconds.”

The next day, an editor summoned me with words to live by:

“Son, in drag racing, they do not tour the course.”

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I thought of that Friday when I drove to a quarter-mile stretch of Pomona concrete and asphalt, attending my first drag race while trying to understand why more than 100,000 will show up this weekend for the NHRA Winternationals.

Once there, interviewing Upland driver Bobby Baldwin in pit row, I was given new words to live by.

“Drag racing is rorrrrrrr, coughcoughcough, sputtersputterputter, and it’s good for rrrrrrrr, arggggg, screeeeech and they love it,” he said.

It is loud. It is the loudest thing I have ever attended that didn’t take place during a Forum timeout.

It is so loud, the noise literally blows the baseball caps off the guys working the starting line.

It is so loud, the hottest sellers in the souvenir stands are $1 ear plugs.

But I grrrrrrrr howwwwwwwlll digress.

I was hesitant to attend this phenomenon because it violated two personal rules:

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1) Never associate with any type of automobile that requires the use of a parachute.

2) Never cover any sports event televised by The Nashville Network.

My fears were initially quelled, though, when it appeared that drag racing is just like the more popular stock car and Indy car racing.

There is a giant inflatable beer can. Cigarettes are cool. The women dress like Johnny Cash.

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Along pit row, fans rush to surround any car making unmentionable sounds and spitting out unthinkable poisons. They remain there, holding their ears and sucking in fumes, until the car shuts down, at which point they look as if they just lost their best friend.

It is when those cars leave the pits that drag racing becomes different from other motor sports.

This sport is simple. It’s straightforward. Two cars line up side by side, a green light flickers and two drivers respond to the intricate directive of “Floor it!”

In the final race, the first car to cross the finish line wins, and heaven help you if the parachute won’t work.

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Or, heaven help some poor Pomona citizen. There is a public street at the end of the Pomona Raceway track, beyond a sand pit and a giant net. No car has ever reached that point, but what a SigAlert that would be.

A motorist reportedly traveling in excess of 300 mph hit the back of a truck hauling sofas, and. . . .

The races this weekend are divided into three, easy-to-understand categories.

There are pro stocks, which means, essentially, your car. Next year I’m thinking about entering my van. Throw some kids in the back, tell me that McDonald’s closes in five minutes and I’m among the leaders.

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Then there are funny cars, so named because of their unusual design. Not so hilarious are escape hatches on the hood so, in an accident, drivers can jump out before they become French toast.

Finally, there are top fuels, which look like real race cars and eat fuel like my van. For one five-second race, they use 15 gallons of nitromethane, at about $20 a gallon.

Big Daddy Don Garlits and Shirley Muldowney were once top fuel drivers, which I mention because, before Friday, they were the only two drag racers I had heard of.

Garlits is retired and runs a museum in Florida. Muldowney--"Heart Like a Wheel,” remember?--is still so crusty at age 57, she has trouble getting sponsors for big events and has been reduced to running match races.

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Only in drag racing, it seems, could a legitimate legend be forced to continue earning her way.

It is the nature of the sport. Simple rules, no turns and anybody can try it.

Walk through NASCAR pits and bump into corporations like Earnhardt and Gordon and Jarrett.

Walk through Indy pits and bump into snooty engineers and rich kids.

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Walking through the pits of Pomona on Friday, I bumped into a guy who drives heavy machinery during the day, an 18-year-old woman who won a race on prom night, a former NBA star and a Hall of Fame NFL coach.

Not to mention thousands of exhaust-filled fans who take advantage of drag racings’s unique rule that allows anyone to hang out with the drivers.

“This is P.T. Barnum out here,” said John Force, seven-time national funny car champion from Yorba Linda. “This is the big top.”

Force is a former truck driver whose racing has made him a millionaire. He is swarmed by fans at every step here.

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Yet if you are saying “John who?” you are not alone.

Drag racing, which officially began in the Southland, is not about showtime. It’s about the old times.

“It goes back to the days in California when everybody first realized, to live here, you have to have a car,” Force said. “Soon, everybody had cars and people wanted to see how fast those cars would go. . . .”

Today, Cristen Powell, an 18-year-old from Portland, has a car and an NHRA national win.

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“You get in there and go ‘Whoooh,”’ she said, and I swear it.

Larry Nance, former NBA dunk king, drives a car. Joe Gibbs, former Washington Redskin coach, has two cars.

There is Bobby Baldwin, the heavy equipment operator from Upland, talking about why he left work at noon on Friday to bring a car here for qualifying.

“What I like best is when you are in that car, going for the finish line, and you can’t see the other car . . . you can only hear it behind you,” he said from the pits. “That’s the best feeling in the rroarrrrr, grrrrrr, screeeecch.”

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