The setting is Cowboy Movie Classic: the baked brown Sandia Mountains loom up against the sky, and down the hill a piece lies Albuquerque, traditional watering stop of the old Southwest. A Conestoga wagon would not be out of place. Well, with one stark exception—the wagon would have to roll along at something more than 200 mph, which is what it would have taken to make it in this modern Western scene last weekend. The dragsters were in town.
For all the seeming incongruity of old and new in the backdrop, it was fitting that the thundering, mind-blowing vehicles were assembled there. This year the Albuquerque meet moved into the big time, becoming the fourth of five key divisional events in the National Hot Rod Association's Western Conference leading to the October world finals. And for the top winners in New Mexico there was not only a $25,000 purse but the points that would get the best of them into the big meet in Amarillo, a really loud contest that everybody knows is drag racing's Super Bowl.
The weekend, Albuquerque's first world championship class whingding, also served to prove that drag racers are adaptable—all they really need is a paved quarter mile in which to hang it all out in terms of going nowhere very fast. The Albuquerque Dragway sprawls dry and barren under 92� heat, and a few grumblers among the contestants complained that the dust was too dusty, penetrating vital engine parts as well as eyes and throats. The clumpy grass on all sides looked, as Driver Larry Brown said, "like it was good for nothing else except maybe smoking."
Still, on Saturday, there was Oklahoman Brown, strapped into his Top Fueler and threatening, as he put it, to wrap the pedal around the bottom of the car. "I'm gonna separate us from $350 worth of clutch disk," he promised—and away he flew in a blur: 7.430 seconds for the distance. In terms of speed at the finish line, that translates into the 200s, but the elapsed-time figure converted to only a fourth-fastest standing for Brown going into the Sunday finals. So much for demolishing clutch disks.
While the cowboy-hatted and shirt-sleeved crowd whooped the drivers on, the meet dealt in dizzying speeds divided by mere fractions of seconds. Along came 28-year-old Bill Wigginton of New Orleans to run a 7.355 burst for the No. 2 spot, then Texan Raymond Beadle exploded across the line at 208.80 mph (7.319 seconds ET). And if that didn't destroy enough eardrums in that wide-open country, Dan Rightsell, a 38-year-old from San Antonio, then whipped out a 7.237 for a 207.84 mph peak and took over the role of favorite to win it all in the Sunday final.
Not bad, considering Albuquerque's 4,943-foot altitude, which saps highly tuned engines more than it does humans. Experts in the crowd knew that dragsters are running in the six-plus second bracket at sea levels—but they also knew that the NHRA takes the elevations into consideration when calculating official records speeds.
There were other cars in the meet, of course, notably Funny Cars, which look vaguely stock on the outside but which open like iron clamshells to show that they're nothing but engine and bones on the inside, and an array of Group II machines ranging from 1927 Model T Fords to local, jazzed-up trucks that apparently spend their time between meets hauling hay bales to the barn. But in anybody's drag meet, the exotic Top Fuelers are clearly the class and, given the look of them, everybody knows immediately that the speeds they run are impossible. Nothing that goofy looking can possibly go that fast.
A Top Fueler is needle-nosed and runs roughly 18 feet in length. It is nothing but an assemblage of slender, fragile tubing with ridiculously thin wheels up front. Back at the business end are monster-size slick tires, each one 14 inches wide and containing from three to eight pounds of air. There is a driver cage, an engine that ranges from 1,800 to 2,000 horsepower—and a brake parachute which, when triggered, is supposed to hold the car reasonably connected to the world. The Fuelers burn nitromethane—an estimated $35 worth of the stuff on every run—and after each dash the engine is a mess; the driver usually changes oil and resets the valves.
But to drag racers like Beadle, who expects to go on to the superfinals, this is the only way to fly. "The start is everything," he says. Typically, Beadle stabs his Fueler toward the start line in short, fierce hiccups, his eye on the Christmas tree. This is a light pole, a vertical string of yellow lights bottomed by a green and a red. A split second after the last yellow blinks out, the green comes on and away he goes. (If he jumps the green, the red comes on and that's the end of that attempt.)
To spectators, it is a towering experience. Glynanna Ham, whose husband Dale is an NHRA director, is as wild as anybody about the emotions involved: "You don't hear it, you feel it right here," she says, pointing a finger at her sternum. "I've seen hundreds of these races, but every time that car comes up there I get this feeling all over again. The tension rises higher and higher as the lights go on. Finally, as the engine revolutions go up, I nearly burst until—vroom! It's gone. I tell you, there's nothing like it in the world because you know that the driver has got to do all the right things and he's only got about six seconds to do them in."