Above all, there was the noise, overwhelming the senses, obliterating thought, until one was completely lost in it and the activities of the machines that made it. These were the Winternationals of the National Hot Rod Association—650 competitors racing two by two in an immense ark of sound for $280,000 in prizes—and after each day's running last weekend at Pomona, Calif. ears were still ringing for hours.
Spectators in temporary bleachers lining the strip might at times look out to see a single-engine plane lazily descending to Brackett Field; they might cast a glance at the majestic, snow-capped San Bernardino Mountains far off beyond the starting line. But their ears drew them irretrievably back to the cars.
The most drenching sounds came from the machines called Funny Cars. And in truth they do look funny. Or, more precisely, odd. They consist of a tubular chassis, a 1,500-horsepower engine of gleaming aluminum and chrome and a tiny cockpit for the driver, who wears an asbestos fire suit and a spacemanlike mask—all concealed by a fiber-glass shell that vaguely resembles some automobile you know. The rear deck is short and raised high by 15-inch-wide racing tires that are without tread, while the front end is long and low to the ground, barely covering the front wheels.
With front ends up, the docile cars are led on a leash by a tow vehicle to the starting area. When a competitor is about 100 yards from the starting line the engine is fired up, the car is unhooked from the tow, the top is dropped and secured, and the idling car, crackling and spitting flames like a ton of burning dry wood, moves slowly along toward the strip.
It stops, its engine still crackling, the smell of nitromethane fuel pungent. Members of the pit crew splash water under each rear tire. There is an indescribable roar—a furnace blast that brings pain to the eardrums and sends a jolt up spectators' spines—as the rear wheels of the still stationary racer spin and the car "burns out," with smoke billowing and curling around it as if it is in a cyclone. The smoke clears. At the line two cars ease up to the staging lights. They wait for the timing lights to blink yellow, then green, and then they are off, covering the quarter-mile stretch in fewer than seven seconds and reaching speeds of more than 200 mph.
It is during these explosive runs that Funny Cars earn their name in an ironic, mad, black-humor sort of way. They handle oddly along that route, do funny things as they pick up speed. The front end tends to lift off the ground and the driver can no longer steer the car but is led by it, maybe into the guardrail or over it or maybe directly into the opposing lane and his opponent. Near the end of a race Funny Cars tend to lose weight rapidly and they can become airborne, literally fly.
At great speeds a dragster cannot be braked to a quick stop but must be reined in by a parachute that billows out from its rear end like a budding flower. Three cars at Pomona suffered chute failure at better than 200 mph and their drivers were saved from harm only by a catch net at the end of the strip.
There is an even faster machine than the Funny Car—the Top Fuel dragster—and it is long and low and pointed like a stiletto. Though swifter, it is less hazardous. "A Top Fueler is no way near as dangerous as a Funny Car," says Shirley Muldowney, one of the few women ever to compete in both. She quit Funny Cars when her machine became a torch a year ago at Indianapolis Raceway Park and she was severely burned. "The engine in a Top Fueler is behind the driver, so if it catches fire the flames don't explode in your face," she explains.
Pomona delivered a spectacular confirmation of Muldowney's point. On Saturday the veteran Tommy Ivo screamed through the clocks at 209 mph—and then his engine blew and the disintegrating dragster flipped. Ivo, saved by his roll cage and forward-of-the-engine position, walked away unscratched.
When all the wheels had stopped and all the noise had died away from Sunday's finals, the swiftest winners were Top Fuel driver Gary Beck of Canada with a remarkable 5.94-second elapsed time and a top speed of 243.24 mph, and Funny Car champion Dale Emery, an Ohioan, in a 222.77-mph screecher.