By Paul Blaufuss
The sun shined brightly through the blinds that Saturday morning a few weeks ago, and I was hopeful that was a sign of a great day to come. I was looking forward to that day for quite awhile, as I was taking my nine-year-old little Princess B to her first NHRA drag race.
She has been to races already; Legends cars, NASCAR qualifying, late models, Truck races and so on. I waited a few years on drag racing though until she was a little older. Over the years I have witnessed many little kids leaving the track early in tears with looks of sheer terror on their faces from the overwhelming noise the beastly machines can produce. I decided to wait until she was a little older in hopes of a more favorable outcome from her first Nitro experience.
I have always loved drag racing. Some of my earliest racing memories were of watching the insanely fast drag machines on Wide World of Sports. The cars just looked so cool. And the driverâ€™s nicknames made them seem larger than life. I spent so many hours in the basement honing model car building skills on 1:24 versions of the Hawaiian, Revellution, The Snowman, the Swamp Rat, the Chi Town Hustler, and my all time favorites, Jungle Jim and the Snake, among so many others. And my father showing me how to build them properly, from attaching a windshield without getting glue marks on the clear plastic, wet sanding the body to get the paint glass smooth, and wiring and plumbing the tiny engines. I can still smell the plastic cement and Testors paint today.
And more recently since the drag strip in Charlotte has opened, I have come to enjoy drag racing so much again, but on other levels.
And so we packed up early and made the five-mile trip to the Charlotte Motor Speedway drag strip on that hot and dusty September day. We got parked, got tickets and arrived just as the gates opened. Our first stop has become a race weekend tradition of mine, that being the BRAKES breakfast. It is a fundraiser held on Saturday first thing in the morning at the Don Schumacher tent. For those not familiar with BRAKES, it stands for â€œBe Responsible and Keep Everyone Safe.â€ It is an organization founded by Top Fuel drag racer Doug Herbert. His story is a true inspiration.
A few years ago, Dougâ€™s two teenage sons were killed in an auto collision north of Charlotte. Many would allow this worst nightmare that could possibly befall a parent to destroy their life. Not so with Doug. He formed this organization to prevent such a tragedy from happening to other families. The program is held at racetracks in many areas across the country, and teaches advanced drivers education to teenagers age 15-19, going beyond standard drivers education to teach topics such as preventing distracted driving, accident avoidance, panic stops, car control and recovery. BRAKES statistics state that 11,000 students from 29 states have taken the program, and BRAKES graduates are markedly less likely to be involved in collisions. It is a program I feel very good about supporting. My 15-year-old is currently taking driverâ€™s education, and will be attending BRAKES as soon as she is eligible.
Not only is BRAKES a good cause, many drivers come out for the breakfast. It is a great place to meet the stars of the sport.
We arrived at breakfast early and were one of the first ones to arrive. Doug Herbert was of course there. Always kind and gracious I mentioned it was my daughterâ€™s first drag race. High fives all around from Doug and the BRAKES staff, and autographed pictures and other little trinkets came her way. They made her feel special. We got our pancakes and settled in to wait for some drivers to arrive. And soon many did: Larry Dixon, Antron Brown, Doug Kalitta, and Clay Millican, just to name a few. John Force stopped in, so I had to introduce my little girl- photos and autographs all around. She was thrilled to meet him after seeing him on TV so many times. Despite many people seeking his attention, he took a moment to speak to her.
I mentioned to the group of drivers it was my daughterâ€™s first race and asked some dopey question to the effect of what is the most important thing they learned from all their years in racing? One remarked â€œshow up early, be ready, cut a good light and stand on the gas â€˜til the finish.â€ I thought about that for a minute. Thatâ€™s was profound advice to live life by in general.
A nice lady brought us more pancakes, and then we found ourselves sitting next to motorcycle racer Angelle Sampey and her team. After a few moments of pleasant conversation she struck me as the sort of kind person you meet and hope to have as a friend. In short order, the multi time drag racing champion and North Carolina fourth grader hit it off like long lost buddies. The next thing I knew we were headed down to her pit area and hauler. She showed us all the different parts of her bike, the team tools and equipment, the computers where they do all the tuning. She showed my daughter her lounge, makeup table and her racing leathers. Princess B was thrilled! And we met a true role model for a little girl to look up to. By then it was time for her to get to work so we wished her luck in the race and headed off for more adventures.
From there the Dodge drivers were signing autographs, so we headed over. As we approached the table I again mentioned it was my daughterâ€™s first race. Someone ripped up some paper, tossed it up in the air like confetti. All the drivers cheered. Little Dodge trinkets came her way. As we walked down the autograph table every driver gave her a high five and took a minute to speak to her. Such simple but meaningful acts of kindness go a long way.
As we left, we passed a Nitro car being fired in the pits. Little Princess B just about jumped out of her skin as the engine roared to life. Her eyes started to tear a little bit from the fumes. In response she screamed â€œWhoa that was cool!!â€ Then after some frozen ice and a hamburger, it was time for qualifying, so we headed to our seats. As each pair of cars roared down the track, my daughter jumped and cheered for the drivers she had met that morning. Her loudest cheers of course were saved for when her new friend, Angelle, raced by!
Sitting in the seats below us was a nice couple who just happened to be wearing t-shirts from my tiny hometown drag strip in upstate New York. You donâ€™t meet too many folks around these parts who have heard of Lancaster Speedway, much less have been there. Pleasant conversation between runs, reminiscing of the old times and drivers we remember, and more new friends made.
Then it hit me why drag racing has become so appealing to me the last few years, over and above the speeds, great cars and competition. The drag environment has an atmosphere as much of a family reunion as a sporting event. We had so many great experiences that day. However such was by no means a unique experience. Over the years just to name a few, I have been fortunate enough to have coffee with Big Daddy and chatted with the Snake. I met TV Tommy Ivo and discussed old time television. I have had breakfast with Shirley Muldowney and Allen Johnson, got tours of haulers, pit areas and was allowed to sit in a Pro Stocker. I have been invited to a sportsman teamâ€™s food buffet. I discussed golf swings and pro football with top fuel racers. This stuff just doesnâ€™t generally happen at most races.
Every year when I come home from an NHRA race I have so many stories to tell of the people I met and cool things we did. During the week I am a cubicle schmo by day. I shlep the 8-5 (more like 7-7) life and save my shekels for race tickets, as most of us do. I am not a famous racing journalist or high powered sponsor. There is no reason for any of these folks to be so nice to me, other than the simple fact that they are nice. And they clearly value their fans.
The first round of pro qualifying took a long time to complete due to track issues. It was a hot and dusty day. I asked my little girl if she wanted to head home or stay for the second round of nitro qualifying. She thought for a minute and said â€œcan we go back to the play zone and get ice cream and say goodbye to Ms. Angelle?â€ And then words I hoped I would hear: â€œThen I think I would like to stay for more racing!â€
All too soon we were headed home. I asked Princess B. if she enjoyed her day and if she liked drag racing.
â€œI love drag racing! And I love you daddy. And can we stop for a slushy?â€ she said.
â€œYes honey,â€ I said. â€œI could go for a slushy too.â€
It was good thing. Just then, we were passing by all of the burger joints on Speedway Boulevard. I suddenly had to wipe a tear from eye at that minute. I am sure it was just a little dust from the parking lot.
Thanks to Doug Herbert, the BRAKES staff, the Dodge drivers: Tommy Johnson Jr, V. Gaines , Allen Johnson, Matt Hagen, â€˜Fastâ€™ Jack Beckman, Ron Capps, and of course most of all Angelle Sampey for making a wonderful little girlâ€™s first drag race such a memorable experience.
And special thanks to all for making the day so meaningful for an old racing dad.