17 November 2016

Hammering Toward the Horizon

A weekend warrior and his 160-mph slingshot dragster

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I fix my eyes on the Christmas tree and “bump in.” The pre-stage light glows, and I wait for my competitor to do the same. We roll forward to trip the stage light, which engages the start sequence. Forget what you’ve heard: There’s no waiting for the green light. Do that and you’ve already lost. It’s the third yellow; that’s when all hell breaks loose.

For one moment that tears through time, life flips from standstill to light speed. The alcohol-fueled 383 stroker V-8 howls four feet from my face, the fat slicks twist and bite beside me, and the car surges. My internal organs slosh into my spine, the front wheels lift and fall, and every object not directly in front of me is a blur as I hammer toward the horizon.

Once upon a time I was an avid circle-track racer. Then I bugged a buddy relentlessly until he sold me his 1966 Chevelle SS. Drag racing grabbed hold of me the first time I lined up the Chevelle and buried the gas pedal in a timed quarter-mile run. But while it’s a ferocious street car, it didn’t measure up on the strip, so I never had much luck. But it prepared me for bigger things to come, and I definitely wanted something more.

I found that something at the Carlisle Swap Meet in 2009, when race car builder John Worm let me sit in his front-engine dragster while he fired it up. I decided then and there I was going to own one. Front-engine dragsters came about in the mid-1950s with guys like Mickey Thompson, and it was racer Leroy Neumeyer who dubbed them slingshots, because the driver sat cradled like a stone out back of the rear axle. To me, a slingshot hits all the buttons of what drag racing is supposed to be, and there’s nothing more bare bones than sitting back there and straddling the motor and transmission, with four wheels and just enough tubing to connect it all.

The slingshots reached their peak in the late 1960s. Then, after Don Garlits’ clutch exploded off the line and tore his Swamp Rat 13 — and his right foot — in two, they started putting the engine behind the driver. But today’s slingshots are very different from yesterday’s cars. It was not uncommon, for instance, to build them back then using muffler tubing in the front bars to make them lighter. Muffler tubing! Now, tires are better for both traction and reliability, parts are stronger, there are “diapers” beneath the oil pans to catch any mess before it gets to the slicks, and the bellhousings are explosion-proof. One thing my car does share with the old ones is the lack of a wheelie bar. On launch, it’s typical for the front to come up four to 12 inches. That’s a good, controlled launch. But you get two, three feet off the ground and it starts to get a little hairy.

Cars and racing are a family affair in the Reckow household. My wife Tanya and I restored the Chevelle together in time for our wedding in 1996. Our 13-year-old daughter, Grace, races her own Jr. dragster, and my 6-year-old son, Anders, isn’t far behind. I have no doubt that he, too, will become a valuable member of Reckow Racing. There’s something special about having your wife and children involved in a hobby you love.

I’m an engineer by trade, but I’m also a builder, a tuner, a tinkerer. If you want to race drag cars, you need to be. In 2010, I started building my car, and the work came in spurts, completed little by little as time and money allowed. The whole thing took two years to complete, and what I’ve realized is this: You work countless hours to create the fastest car possible so you can spend as little time on the track as possible.

I race in the Nostalgia Drag Racing League (NDRL), which doesn’t receive the exposure of the NHRA, but it has a down-home feel that appeals to those of us who race for the fun of it — in places like Bowling Green, Kentucky; Martin, Michigan; Madison, Illinois; and Norwalk, Ohio.

No matter where we are, the night before qualifying is usually laid back. If the car is prepped and ready, I don’t lose any sleep, not even on a blow-up mattress in the rear of the trailer. But once the sun comes up and the first engine fires to life, I’m as fidgety as a kid on Christmas morning. It’s the beginning of an endless game of “hurry up and wait.”

The day’s checklist is ingrained in Tanya, Grace and me. We all have our roles; we know what is expected. We fire up the engine and check for leaks. We run it until it is warm, and I know exactly when that is, because the headers blow a fine mist of unburned fuel all over me in the meantime. We make sure the engine block is full of water to stabilize the cylinder walls. We check to make sure the chute is properly packed, check the air pressure in each tire, double-check all safety equipment, including helmet, gloves, fire boots, halon fire bottle and the four-layer fire suit I call “the sleeping bag.”

We don’t talk about the dangers much, but we’re all aware of the risks inherent in hurtling down a track at 160 mph in a 1,500-pound rail with your legs wrapped around a 550-horsepower V-8. Nothing’s enclosed and there’s no firewall in the traditional sense, but anything that blows in the motor generally goes out the side rather than into my face. That just means the slicks take the brunt, and blowing a tire is a real concern, because the car makes a hard turn in that direction. And a low center of gravity means nothing when your track width is 50 inches, because if you whip it sideways, it’s barrel-rolling. I suspect. I really don’t want to find out. Still, I’d argue racing a nostalgia dragster like this is safer than racing a “door car.” Those are heavier, and there’s more going on to get them down the strip in a hurry.

On race weekend, I don’t want to prep too early, but I also don’t want to miss my turn. When the call comes, I suit up and slip into the car, which is attached to a push bar mounted to the front of a golf cart. Tanya takes the wheel, Grace rides shotgun, and we push toward the staging lanes.

The wait there is the worst part, no matter how much time actually goes by. The staging area is just one loud corner away from the starting line, so I can hear cars making passes but I can’t see them. My own car is still. I’ve got my earplugs in and my helmet on, and the sleeping bag is stifling. All there is to do is think. This is when fear creeps in, those agonizing minutes when my mind is left to its own devices.

Then it’s go time.

The engine fires up (sweet relief), and the car begins to move under its own power. The front end has a torsion bar, and the sidewalls of the rear slicks are tall, but otherwise the car is hard, so even at a crawl every bump, every vibration hits me in the seat.

I make a slight turn and leave the staging lanes, and I can see down the track for the first time. Instantly my mind stops spinning. I’ve been here before. I know what I’m doing. Win or lose, this is the payoff for battered knuckles, lost sleep and an empty wallet. Sure, I’d like to win. But competing against myself and making a clean pass is its own reward.

The on-track official gives me a thumbs up and I warm the tires in the burn box. Centrifugal force pulls them out four inches, making them taller as they spin, but this drag racing ritual also cleans them, gets heat into them and, most importantly, lays down a clean two-track patch for my run. Grace is already up the track and when I come to a stop, she steps out front to guide me back to the start line, keeping me in my “groove.” She smiles as she comes past me. I feed off that smile. My bride double-checks the engine for leaks, pulls the safety flag off the chute and shows it to me so I know I’m good to go. There are no words, but we look one another in the eyes and hold it just long enough, until she, too, walks out of my field of vision.

I am alone. Every muscle in my body is clenched, and I don’t even know if I’m breathing. Inside my head, I’m howling even louder than the engine is.

I anticipate. The lights change. I react. The rear tires bite and the front end lifts, but not too much, and then it is less than nine seconds to that quarter-mile horizon. Across the line I’ll lift my right foot, deploy the chute and hit the brakes. Off throttle the engine will seem almost silent, and in its place will be a furious thumping that I’ll feel against the plugs pushed deep into my ears. I will know it is the sound of my own heart, because I have been here before.

In a few hours, I’ll do it all again.

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