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The Kid and the King

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Adam Saruwatari, the charismatic, baby-faced young racer who serves as a poster boy for import drag-racing, built his career as chief tuner and pilot of a stock-chassis Mazda RX-7 with a 79-cubic-inch rotary engine.

John Force, the charismatic, veteran racer who captured his ninth world championship this year and is one of the National Hot Rod Assn.'s top draws, built his career under the hood and behind the wheel of a series of funny cars--composite-bodied, streamlined versions of stock passenger cars, outfitted with 6,000-horsepower engines.

Saruwatari is at the top of the heap in his form of drag-racing, but he operates on an annual budget somewhere in the six figures and continues to hold down a full-time job on his family’s farm.

Force is at the top of the heap in his form of drag-racing, operating on an annual budget on the order of $10 million and flexing his muscles as a real estate developer and retailing entrepreneur when he is not at the strip.

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The kid and the king represent the two faces of drag-racing.

One is Force’s sport, born on the streets of Southern California in the 1940s and kept alive by enthusiasts who continually find new ways to pull more power out of the big American-made V-8s that propel their Dodges, Fords and Chevys down the quarter-mile drag strip.

The other is Saruwatari’s, born on those same Southern California streets half a century later and promoted by enthusiasts who continually seek new ways to pull more power out of the technologically complex, electronically controlled four- and six-cylinder engines that propel their Hondas, Mazdas and Toyotas through the quarter-mile.

The two worlds rarely meet.

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But in a move intended to help it bolster its appeal to younger speed enthusiasts who have been exposed only to import and small-displacement domestic cars, the venerable NHRA launched a pilot program this year to study the fast-growing sport of import-car drag-racing.

The study is being run in partnership with the new Irvine-based Import Drag Racing Circuit, or IDRC, which hopes to attract NHRA fans once they see what hot-rod Hondas can do.

Some fans of traditional drag-racing have let NHRA officials know, in colorful language, that they won’t sit still for an invasion of four-bangers with whiny turbochargers; that drag-racing is for V-8s whose thunderous roar can shred eardrums at 20 paces; and that drag slicks belong on the back end of the car, not up ahead of the driver--as is the case with the front-wheel-drive imports.

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But the study isn’t about pitting imports against domestics on the same asphalt. It is about creating an environment in which fans of each form of the sport can learn to appreciate and enjoy the other.

That’s important, Force says, “because nowadays, kids aren’t growing up with cars the way we did.”

“When I started, everybody knew how to tune an engine and change brakes, but now it’s a lost art,” he says. “And that hurts the sport of drag-racing. These import kids are doing what we used to do.”

Force says he would welcome import-car makers into the fold if they wanted to start sponsoring NHRA-type dragsters: “I’m for everybody coming in. Hell, a lot of these foreign cars are made in the U.S.”

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Both sides agree that the problems inherent in matching up such dissimilar machinery argue against a marriage of import and domestic drag-racing.

Top import racers are coaxing up to 1,000 horsepower from turbocharged, nitrous oxide-boosted Honda, Mazda, Nissan, Toyota and Mitsubishi engines and are gunning for seven-second quarter-miles and top speeds of more than 160 mph.

Saruwatari, for example, holds the world record for a stock-chassis, rotary-engine car with a best elapsed time through the quarter-mile in his Mazda RX-7 of 9.51 seconds, topping out at 142 mph.

Top-fuel and funny-car dragsters in the NHRA, by comparison, pull 6,000 to 7,000 horses out of their supercharged, nitro-methane-fueled V-8s. (An ill-kept drag-racing secret: No matter the brand name on the funny cars’ noses--Dodge, Ford or Chevy--virtually all are powered by Chrysler “hemi-head” engines.)

Force regularly runs the quarter in under 4.8 seconds. His world-record top speed is 324.05 mph.

Conventional dragsters roar and rumble and provide what fans say is an unrivaled adrenaline charge. The only thing more exciting than standing near a top-fuel dragster when the engine is fired up “is standing next to the space shuttle during a launch,” says Frank Hawley, owner of a drag-racing school in Pomona and a former NHRA world champion driver.

But asking a Honda to sound like a hemi is like asking a flute to imitate a tuba.

There are cultural and generational differences as well.

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The typical NHRA event is a shrine to big motors. But at most import races, performance shares the limelight with lifestyle products--displays celebrating everything from high fashion to high-fidelity sound systems.

And there’s financial inequality.

Even at the top levels of import drag-racing, budgets are low.

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Saruwatari, for instance, bases his A&L; Racing team in the tractor barn at his family’s 450-acre farm in Arroyo Grande, a small agricultural community north of Santa Barbara.

When the racer and his team aren’t working on the composite-bodied, 900-horsepower Acura NSX that A&L; is readying to campaign next year, Saruwatari serves as head mechanic for his family’s fleet of 30 tractors and 16 farm trucks. He is also the farm’s pest-control administrator.

A&L; has two major sponsors, Nitto Tires and Enkei Wheels. But the team’s annual budget--while one of the fattest in import racing--is about one-tenth of what a top NHRA team runs on, and certainly well under $1 million a year.

Saruwatari, who sheepishly confesses that his first car was a Chevrolet Camaro, says he gravitated to imports because they were what classmates at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo were driving when he went there in the early 1990s. “And I had an uncle who had an NSX and he let me drive it once. Life’s never been the same” since that ride in the 290-horsepower, lightweight aluminum sports car, he says.

“It’s a lifestyle as well as a sport,” he says of the import performance scene. When not competing, Saruwatari--usually accompanied by one or more of his support team and by his parents, Leroy and Lorene, the Ls in A&L; Racing--spends most weekends at import-car shows where he is in demand as a crowd-drawing attraction. It isn’t unusual for him to spend seven hours signing autographs for a line of fans that never diminishes.

“But the fans are what make this work,” he says. “We wouldn’t be anywhere without them. We’ve been really lucky and now, for us and for them, we need to bring this sport to the next level.”

About 200 miles south, in Yorba Linda, John Force Racing occupies a two-acre parcel that was once home to a luxury-car dealership. The old showroom is crammed with Force’s collection of antique cars and racing memorabilia. The service area holds test equipment and racks of worn-out parts that Force autographs and markets on the Internet and at his retail shop.

An autographed piston from one of his used-up engines fetches $35; he’ll get $1,000 for each of the 450 autographed pieces cut from the body of the car in which he won his seventh driving championship.

Force Racing’s annual budget is almost $10 million, with revenue from product licensing, retail sales, race purses and sponsorships. Principal sponsor Castrol Oil pays about $3 million a year, and Ford Motor Co. is not far behind.

One thing 50-year-old Force shares with Saruwatari, 25, is the adulation of a huge group of fans.

At the Northwest National Finals near Seattle this summer, Force spent hours signing T-shirts and programs, and the area in front of his compound on pit row was never empty of fans, who waited patiently--sometimes for hours--to get a glimpse of their hero.

“I’m here just to get his autograph,” said Annie Tuck, who had driven up from Yakima, Wash., with her husband, Greg, for the race. “He’s just cool. He’s not one of those pretty-boy drivers. He’s down-to-earth. He’s what the sport is all about.”

A week earlier, 27-year-old Bay Area computer engineer Greene Lumpkin said much the same of his drag-racing hero, Saruwatari. He stood in line at the San Jose Convention Center for almost an hour to get an autograph during one of the dozen or so import-car shows that Saruwatari attends on behalf of sponsor Nitto Tires each year.

“Adam means a lot to the sport,” said Lumpkin, who is building an import race car in his garage on weekends. “He’s an icon and he’s going to lead us into the NHRA.”

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There is justification for the idea that someday, some way, imports will be welcome at the same tracks as domestics, even if only on alternating weekends.

A blending is already happening at the grass-roots level--and grass-roots racing, NHRA officials tell anyone who will listen, is the wellspring of the sport.

There are 22 major events on the NHRA calendar each year--national finals that draw the big guns like Force and top-fuel dragster champion Gary Scelzi.

But there are 5,000 other races at NHRA-sanctioned tracks, and imports already are racing domestics at many of those venues.

The new import program, run in conjunction with the IDRC, is the first step in an effort to expose NHRA fans and officials to top-drawer import action, to attract import fans to major NHRA events and to help determine how best to help the two forms of racing come together.

About 8,000 import race fans turned out in March when the NHRA’s hallowed Pomona Raceway strip was first opened to an event jointly sanctioned by the NHRA and the IDRC. At least 50% greater attendance is expected this weekend at the second--and final--of this year’s NHRA-sanctioned import races at Pomona.

One reason the crowd is expected to grow is that the race was promoted by the NHRA at its season-ending world finals at Pomona earlier this month, a four-day race weekend attended by more than 100,000.

But audience tallies ignore an important fact: Most import races draw multiethnic crowds of under-30 fans, whereas NHRA crowds tend to be older and mostly white.

Both draw mainly male audiences, with NHRA studies pegging female attendance at its races at 34% of the average crowd. There are no similar figures for import racing, although organizers say that about a third of the audience at most events is female. And recent market studies by the performance parts industry show that about 15% of purchases of import-car performance equipment are made by women who consider themselves active participants in the sport.

“Our plan is to broaden our fan base and bring NHRA racing into the mainstream, as NASCAR has done,” says Tom Compton, incoming president of the 50-year-old drag-racing association. “We see imports playing an increasingly important role in this.”

Compton vows that the NHRA has no plans to incorporate import racing into its main events.

Peter Hipolito, the IDRC’s national director, sees even the most tenuous tie with NHRA as a benefit to his sport, with import dragging gaining new fans from among traditional drag fans as they see what the imports can do.

All of that, though, is years down the track.

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Right now, NHRA is a king with no rivals while organized import drag-racing is in its infancy, still struggling for identity and divided into several camps: Some import fans are more interested in their cars’ appearance and stereo systems than in raw speed, others blend performance and appearance, and a relative few pursue speed to the exclusion of all else. As a result, import racing has developed four major sanctioning groups, each with a slightly different reach.

The granddaddy is Battle of the Imports, a Southern California-based organization founded by race driver Frank Choi in 1990 when he grew tired of being excluded from NHRA events because he drove an import. A Battle of the Imports weekend draws an average of 15,000 spectators and up to 600 cars, and combines races, music, a car show and other events.

Georgia-based NOPI, a national auto-parts wholesale chain, runs the NOPI-ID Drag Wars, a series pitting imports against domestics such as the Ford Mustang and Dodge Neon. But the emphasis is on a national series of car shows.

The National Import Racing Assn. was formed in Los Angeles in 1996 to organize a series of import drag-race lifestyle events and was soon purchased by automotive publishing giant Emap Petersen Co., which uses the NIRA to promote both the import auto scene and its own SuperStreet magazine.

The newest sanctioning body, the IDRC, eschews lifestyle events to pursue a racing agenda and is in a gentle battle with the NIRA to become the dominant organization in import racing.

Hipolito of the IDRC said the sanctioning body was founded by racers “who felt that import racing so far had been centered on the promoters’ interests and who wanted a system centered on the racers.”

NIRA Director Craig Lieberman says neither racer nor promoter is being well served in import dragging yet.

With individual stars like Saruwatari, Honda CRX driver Lisa Kubo and Toyota Supra pilot Craig Paisley hitting races on a catch-as-catch-can basis, “there’s little incentive for sponsors to back them in a big way,” Lieberman says. “But if they are competing seriously in a championship series with television and press coverage, then there are all sorts of possibilities.” (Saruwatari, Kubo and Paisley are among the headline racers expected this weekend at Pomona.)

But import drag-racing is still pretty new, and Hipolito believes that the NHRA’s interest “shows the sport really is going somewhere.”

Mike Gonzaga, a Reseda racer who is building the world’s first import funny car, a Honda-bodied creation to be powered by a 2,000-horsepower V-6 from an Acura NSX, sees it this way:

“The fact that IDRC got any backing from NHRA is interesting. It opened the door a crack. I hope that when people see us at exhibitions at NHRA events next year, it will break the wall down.”

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Times staff writer John O’Dell can be reached at john.odell@latimes.com.

Drag Net: Selected Resources

Import Racing

IDRC/NHRA International Finals

Fairplex, 1101 W. McKinley Ave., Pomona; (909) 623-3111

Saturday and Sunday, 8 a.m. till dusk

Ages 12 and older: Saturday, $10; Sunday, $15; two-day pass, $20

Women’s discount, Saturday only: free admission with flier, available at area speed shops

Import Drag Racing Circuit

3972 Barranca Parkway, Suite J410

Irvine, CA 92606; (714) 536-8029

https://www.importdrag.com

Sport Compact Car Magazine

(800) 767-7006

https://www.sportcompactcarweb.com.

NHRA Racing

National Hot Rod Assn.

2035 Financial Way

Glendora, CA 91741; (626) 914-4761

https://www.nhra.com

NHRA Motorsports Museum

Fairplex, Gate 1, 1101 W. McKinley Ave.

Pomona, CA 91768; (909) 622-2133

https://www.nhra.com/museum


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