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December 2004

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ZipUSA: 29550

By Lynne Warren

Most days Darlington International Dragway doesn't look like much: battered chain-link fencing, coarse asphalt, and weedy dirt surround a few cinder-block buildings and two quarter-mile-long lanes of pavement. But overnight a miniature city has sprung up here along Highway 151 southeast of Hartsville, South Carolina. This is opening day of the three-day Lucas Oil Carolina Nationals, and clusters of motor coaches, tow rigs, cars, pickups, SUVs, and 18-wheelers, from as far away as New York and California, pack the grounds.

More than 350 hot-rodders will drag race this weekend, and hardly anybody came alone. Husbands, wives, children, grandchildren, grandparents, even pets are part of the scene. Drag racing demands a lot of time, says Kim Wood, whose family operates a high-performance auto parts business in northern Florida. "When we're not at a race, my husband, my son, my daughter, they're practicing at our local track, or they're in the garage working on the cars. The whole family's got to be committed to the sport, or it just won't work."

Car nut. Speed freak. Gearhead. They're titles of honor among drag racers. All the citizens of this temporary internal-combustion metropolis share a passion for cars, engines, horsepower, speed—and winning. "I like going fast," Kim's daughter, Lindsey, says, "but I like winning better than anything." The 20-year-old especially relishes beating men more than twice her age. "I'm a girl and I'm young, so some people don't expect me to be very good," she says. "But you earn a lot of respect by winning."

Hot rod passion comes with a hefty price tag—another investment that demands whole-family support. Jason Cannon's dad gave him his first go-cart when he was three-and-a-half years old; the horsepower and expense of Cannon family speed machines have climbed ever since. Jason's friend Will Hanna is his crew chief. "Every time we go down the track, it costs us a thousand dollars," Hanna says, "and that's if nothing goes wrong."

With its needle-nosed, 25-foot-long body riding scant inches above the pavement, the dragster Cannon now races is less a car than a projectile, an alcohol-fueled rocket built to fling the 30-year-old driver forward at speeds routinely exceeding 250 miles an hour. Engine parts like connecting rods ($1,200 a set) and crankshafts ($2,500 each) last for fewer than 15 racing miles. A $1,000 pair of racing tires lasts maybe ten runs. Accelerating flat-out to the finish line, dragsters "operate under tremendous stresses," says Bill Holt, southeast division director for the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA). "Just keeping up with maintenance is a major financial commitment."

Sometimes commitment isn't enough. After two long days of qualifying runs, a disappointed Lindsey Wood hasn't made the final cut, so when Sunday morning comes, her mother, father, and brother help her pack for the 420-mile trip home. Other racing clans spend Sunday morning in church, which here in zoom town means a trackside chapel service conducted by ten-year veteran driver Tom Ratliff. He's part of a nondenominational group called Racers for Christ, which sends chaplains to all NHRA weekend competitions. A couple hundred people pack the first ranks of bleachers. "This is a substitute for their home church for some racers," Ratliff says, "and for some it's the only church they have." Pacing the walkway between the front-row seats and the track wall as he preaches about "rods in the Bible," the lean Baptist minister wears dark sunglasses and a wireless headset microphone that make him look a little like a Secret Service agent and a little like a pop star. Scriptural rods were shepherds' crooks, not race cars, he grants, but insists that owners of both kinds identify powerfully with their tools. "A shepherd's crook says who he is, just like our cars tell the world who we are as racers."

"Moses," Ratliff reminds the crowd, "worked miracles with his rod."

Eight hours later Jason Cannon is in the Top Alcohol Dragster final, and he's hoping for a miracle of his own: a win to resurrect a racing season battered by a broken chassis in July and a broken hand in August.

Cannon eases his 3,000-horsepower vehicle into the staging area, until the rear tires sit in the burnout box, a constantly watered section of pavement where drivers spin their wheels to throw off debris and heat up the tread surface for optimum grip. His engine shifts into a howl, his back wheels blur into a fume of water vapor and scorched rubber, and the dragster jolts forward in a hot rod ritual that seems powered as much by adrenaline as by methanol. Fans cheer, reveling in the noise and the stink.

The crowd and their tires warmed up, Cannon and opponent Fran Monaghan, Jr., back up to the head of the track, then roll slowly toward their final confrontation. Cannon's father, Phil, watches intently, standing just a few feet from the edge of the track. "Jason's been doing this since he was 16," he says. "Racing's something we've always done together."

Starting lights flash, and two thunderbolts hurtle into the gathering dusk. Cannon and his midnight black dragster hit 258.24 miles an hour, catapulting down the quarter mile in 5.474 seconds. Monaghan trails an endless tenth of a second behind, and faster than you can read this sentence, Jason Cannon claims his victory.

As darkness settles, winners cluster near the control tower, hugging, backslapping, making a flurry of good-news cell phone calls. Cans open pop, pop, pop, and the Cannon team celebrates, showering a grinning Jason in cold beer.

Within hours, the bustling race town evaporates, mothers, daughters, fathers, sons, and their gleaming machines headed for distant homes. Darlington International Dragway stands empty, waiting for speed lovers to return for the next big race and bring its grounds to life once more.


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