Story & photos by ARNO HOLSCHUH
THE INTERNAL COMBUSTION ENGINE WORKS BY HARNESSING miniature explosions. Gas, mixed with air, is ignited by a spark plug and blows up, providing energy that moves the wheels of a vehicle.
One isn't often reminded about exactly how engines work since the average commuter vehicle has been muffled and tamed to the point where it can barely be heard. But sit by the starting line at the Samoa drag strip and the engine's explosive nature is brought home. The cars and motorcycles lining up to test their speed on the quarter-mile track are so loud you not only hear the noise, but you feel it in your guts. In the final second before the green light releases the racers, the deafening staccato reports of individual cylinders blur into a growl.
Then they take off. It seems that your mind must be playing tricks on you, because there's no logical way that cars that were 30 feet away mere moments ago could now be tiny little specks at a distance of a quarter mile.
It happens hundreds of times during each of the 10 days every summer when the drag strip is open: Two cars or motorcycles line up to race, and seconds later one wins and the other is eliminated. Gradually it dawns on you that yes, these cars really are that fast.
It is for those seconds between starting light and finish line that more than 100 drag racers from across California, Oregon and Washington gather on the Samoa Peninsula.
"Your eyes get about that big when you're going down the track," said Bill Butcher (photo at left) as he holds his fingers an impressive three inches apart. A teacher from Nice, Calif., near Ukiah, Butcher came to Samoa Aug. 19 to race his canary yellow '69 Chevy Nova.
"You can't think, it's such an adrenaline rush. It's like an amusement park ride, only with automobiles," Butcher said. "And I'm driving."
For Butcher, racing at Samoa is more than just a thrill. A Eureka native, he used to come watch the races as a young man.
"I was so poor going to high school and college. We didn't have the money for a car. A lot of my friends had cars, but I could never afford one."
Instead of racing a car, he and a friend would sneak up over the sand dunes that surround the drag strip to watch. He would marvel at the cars that went by and the sounds they made. "It was awesome, just awesome," he said.
Drag racing lay dormant in Butcher's life for the next three decades. He eventually had the resources to buy a drag racer but let it slip from his list of priorities.
A few years ago, he realized that racing "was still something I wanted to do. It was something I had wanted to do for more than 30 years. I decided I'd go drag racing. I ended up going to Sacramento and buying this car."
While Butcher waited 30 years to fulfill his fantasy, Glen Terry (photo at right) has spent almost 50 continuous years behind the wheel of dragsters. The Oklahoma native and Oroville resident started racing in 1953 and has been building and racing dragsters ever since.
"I've been drag racing all my life," he said in a flat drawl. "I don't fish, don't hunt, don't drink, don't bowl -- I just race."
And he's still good at it. Don't let his kind smile or his 67 years fool you; this man still has what it takes. He's cleared $2,800 in prize money in his '71 Vega this year alone.
Even with a winning season like that, Terry said drag racing is not a profitable venture. He constantly works on his car and said a dragster is a serious investment of time and money. Add to that the cost of towing the car to a drag strip -- the stripped down and rebuilt car is illegal to drive on the street -- and "you're doing all right if you make back expenses," he said.
"If you're in this to make money, you're in the wrong business," he said.
Terry said it is the human factor which keeps him in racing. "I do it for the people," he said. Drag racers are "a good bunch. If you break a part or something, they're there to help you figure it out. After the races, you go have pizza together. Good people."
That is especially the case at Samoa, Terry said. He has to drive 300 miles to reach the strip, but he comes here "more than any place else I race."
His motivation is more than humanistic, however. Part of the reason racers love Samoa is the atmosphere -- literally. The cool wind blowing in from the ocean helps the cars work harder without overheating. The air at sea level is richer in oxygen than that in high-altitude locales. Both factors translate into faster times.
"They run pretty fast out there," he said.
Just how fast is "pretty fast"?
"Well, my dragster runs about 126 miles per hour by the time I reach the quarter mile," said Dale Waddell. What's even more amazing than his speed is how quickly he reaches it -- in about 10 seconds.
Dale and Cody Waddell work on the family dragster
Waddell achieves that performance in a car that could have come out of Dr. Frankenstein's laboratory. It has the body of a roadster, the large engine of a full-size pickup truck, a homemade front suspension, giant back wheels and a steering system harvested from a Volkswagen Rabbit.
The relationship Waddell has with his drag racer is quite different from the one most people have with their cars. He knows it from the inside out -- he has to in order to keep it running. While Waddell claims that his car was built to be "low-maintenance," he still has to climb under it regularly to make sure all the bolts are tight.
And the engine gets a lot of wear. Often it isn't driven for weeks, then it's taken out and pushed to the absolute limit. Waddell said the motor is currently in need of what he calls a "freshening up," which includes checking the bearings, piston rings, and gaskets -- in other words, a major overhaul.
Waddell family with their racing
How long can an engine go between "freshenings"? After some quick mental math, Waddell answers: About 100 miles.
Waddell is good at driving his creation -- he won the overall points championship in his bracket for three years straight in the late '90s. He's currently in second place.
But he's more than a champion racer; Waddell is also president of the Samoa Drag Strip. That puts him in a unique place to wax philosophical about the nature of drag racing.
"You don't get second chances in drag racing," he said. Because the entire race is over in a matter of seconds, "you get no time to make up for mistakes. You win suddenly and lose suddenly."
That makes one thing key to success in a drag race: concentration. Getting off the starting line as soon as you get the green light often wins a race.
"You think to yourself, `How hard can it be to wait for a light to go?' Thing is, you have nothing in your mind for 15 seconds except waiting for that light. That's hard -- the hardest part of drag racing. You really have to pump yourself up."
When you are sitting at the starting line staring at the light and waiting for it to turn green, "what you're trying to do is look into the light bulb and see the filament as it lights up. If you're not looking at that, you're too late. If your focus isn't incredibly intense, you lose."
Waddell is trying to pass his keen focus and concentration on to his two sons, Cody and Robbie. Both come to Samoa not only to watch their father race but to race themselves.
Cody, 17, races the same '68 Chevy Nova his mother drives to the grocery store. Robbie races in a "junior dragster," a miniature version of a dragster powered by a lawn-mower engine.
"Drag racing is very family-oriented," said the elder Waddell. "You can start your kids as young as 8 years old."
Many do. When the junior dragsters race, parents -- many of whom are waiting to race in their grown-up cars -- stand along the fences to cheer their kids on. While the junior dragsters don't achieve anywhere near the speed of a their full-size cousins, the same rules apply: Two people start the race, but only one can win and go on to the next round.
Whether junior or full-size, drag racing brings the spectators on the weathered bleachers next to the track to the edge of their seats. Like the drivers, they've come to experience that brief snatch of time between start and finish.
Being a spectator lets him relive his days as a racer, said Fortuna resident Darell Arrasmith (photo at right).
Arrasmith, now 62, said his drag racing days are over --"It's what I did in the '50s and '60s" -- but he still loves to come out to watch the cars run.
And the noise?
"It's good. You can hear the power."
How to win a drag race in a Geo
WATCHING THE FAST CARS ZIP down the stripe of asphalt in Samoa as if they were fired from a slingshot, you can see the love of speed. These are cars with engines modified beyond recognition, cars whose seats have been removed and body panels replaced to save weight, cars that were built to transport exactly one person exactly a quarter of a mile -- nothing more -- all in the name of speed.
And the funny thing is that speed doesn't matter. The type of drag racing done on the Samoa strip levels the playing field for slower cars through a handicap system.
Each driver estimates the amount of time required to run the quarter mile, a process called "dialing in" a time. When two cars race, the slower car gets a head start equal to the difference between the faster car and slower car's estimated times. If a driver finishes faster than the estimated time, he or she loses.
It sounds complicated, but try this example: Joe, driving a Geo Metro with a leaky head gasket, can putter his way through the quarter mile in 20 seconds. Jane, in a supercharged Mustang, can make it in 10 seconds. That means that Joe's light will turn green 10 seconds before Jane's.When Jane's light turns green, she has to try to catch up. If Joe finishes in 20.01 seconds and Jane finishes in 10.02, Joe still crosses the finish line first.
Of course, Jane could have simply have fibbed and said she would finish in about 11 seconds -- that way, Joe would only get a nine-second head start and Jane could easily beat him to the finish line. But if she did so by finishing in less than 11 seconds -- if she was quicker than she said she would be -- she loses.
It is a system that rewards people who know how fast their cars are and then drive them consistently. It doesn't really matter how fast you are; as long as you finish in exactly the amount of time you said you would, you are almost invincible.
The handicap system in place at the Samoa drag strip often results in odd matchups, like this one between Mike Hagedorn's Datsun batchback and Victor Ruelas' Thunderbird.
Important to a good estimate is getting off the starting line exactly when the light turns green. As soon as you get the green light, the clock is ticking. If you sit for half a second at the light after it turns green, you have to make that half a second up before the end of the quarter mile.
Good racers, said track President Dale Waddell, will have a reaction time measured in hundredths of seconds.
"Consistency and a good light win the race," he said.
That said, few racers could be convinced to give up their souped-up cars and motorcycles for sensible sedans with good gas mileage. It goes against the grain of the sport. Even if it's not necessary for winning, driving fast is the heart of drag racing.
"It's an adrenaline roller coaster," Waddell said.
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