PHOTO FINISH OR TOTAL DOMINATION?
Some round wins are better than others, and for Top Fuel racer Morgan Lucas, as for most drivers, the close ones are the best.
“Those are the ones you really remember,” says Lucas, driver of the GEICO dragster. But a neck-and-neck Top Fuel race isn't like a last-lap dash in other forms of racing. First, the cars are going waaaaay too fast, obviously, and second, drivers can't actually see their opponents to know just how close the race really is.
“The body around the roll cage is so high, and you're sitting so far back in there, that you can't see any part of the other car – not unless you're way behind, anyway,” Lucas explains. “But if it's close, you can hear him. It's like a blind person's other senses getting sharper. When the other guy is just a few feet ahead of you, it's even louder, I guess because his engine is right across from your roll cage.
“If he drops a cylinder or something and falls back, you can hear that, too – the pitch changes. And if the other guy smokes the tires and you win by a mile – especially if you make a really good run – it's almost like you wasted it.”
DO YOU EVER GET USED TO IT?
Funny Car ace Ron Capps (RIGHT) has started every NHRA race since the 1990s, and even he doesn't know what his car's going to do when he crawls into the seat for another run.
“Some of the nervousness you used to feel during pre-race introductions or while you're sitting there all strapped in, listening to the cars in front of you, goes away after you've been doing this long enough,” says Capps. “But with a Funny Car, there's still that uncertainty about what the car's going to do when you step on the gas. They're just completely unpredictable. John Force has been doing this longer than anybody, and he'll tell you the same thing. You know what the car's supposed to do, but you don't know what it's going to do. Every time I stage, I'm expecting something out of the ordinary, because there are just so many things that can go wrong. But that's why I've wanted to drive one since I was a little kid.
“The first test day of the season is always one of my favorite days of the year,” he adds. “That first time you warm it up on the jack stands, there's 8,000hp belching and snorting two feet in front of your face – and it's just idling. Then you step on the gas for that first run and hear the noise and feel the raw power and the unbelievable G-forces, and it's like you're starting all over again. It reminds you just how badass these cars really are.”
REFLEXES: NATURE OR NUTURE?
Why are some drivers better on the Christmas Tree than others? Do some people just have better reflexes, or is it something you can work on?
“Both,” says Shawn Langdon (RIGHT), the quickest-reacting driver in Top Fuel. “It takes natural ability, of course – some people are just quicker than others – but I think a lot of it is your mindset going in. There's a huge difference between telling yourself you're going to have a .050 light and thinking, ‘Oh, I hope I get at least a .070.' “
Langdon came up in the NHRA sportsman divisions of Super Comp and Super Gas, where it's not the heads-up, all-out sprint to the finish that professional racing is, and where the performance of the car usually has less to do with winning and losing than a driver's reaction times do.
“So much of racing is mental,” Langdon says. “Your attitude can be the difference between a .045 light and a .065 light, and it can be the difference between having a good light and red-lighting. Tell yourself not to red-light, and that's right when you'll either red-light or be dead late trying not to. Some people psyche themselves out before they even get there.”
WHAT'S IT LIKE TO BLOW UP?
“There are two kinds of blowups,” says Top Fuel veteran Larry Dixo. “The first is when the engine's burning itself up way before the finish line. You can feel the car start nosing over – that's your warning, the only one you're going to get.
“If it happens in qualifying, you shut it off because things are only going to get worse. If it's eliminations, you stay in it and hope the finish line gets there before the engine levels itself. The thing doesn't just have its tongue hanging out; its tongue's hanging out so far that you're driving over it. You already know you're bringing a dead horse back to the pits either way, so you just keep your foot in it and hope for the best. And that's the good kind of explosion.”
The other kind is worse...
“It usually happens when something in the valvetrain breaks, and there's never any warning,” Dixon says. “That's when they really blow up. Everything will be going fine, no problems at all, and then boom – it blows up and throws your head forward. That's when the fire burns your helmet so bad the paint starts running off of it. Those, you never get used to.”
and you've got races decided by a couple hundredths of a second all the time. Sometimes it's thousandths – sometimes it's even 10-thousandths.