When the motor is started and the body is lowered into place, crew members hustle out of harm's way. Funny Car motors are the jungle drums of the drag strip, filling the air with pulsebeats that wash across the grandstands in great waves. Each stroke of the car's pistons gives you a sonic wallop at 50 feet.
From the exhaust pipes—four on each side of the chassis—spent fuel rushes out in sheets of blue fire, a sweet-acrid mixture of nitromethane and alcohol fumes that burns the eyes and stings the lungs.
As the cars move toward the starting lights, water is splashed under the treadless rear tires. These slicks are 36" high and 17" wide, and there is so little air in them that their skin is wrinkled like an elephant's. Suddenly the throttle is kicked open and as the wheel-wells begin to bloom with smoke, the centrifugal force of the torque makes the tires rise like baker's bread. As the keening of the engine reaches an almost intolerable volume, the car gets traction and vaults 25 yards down the track, leaving a billowing wall of white smoke as it goes. "Smoke burnouts" are not just saber rattling, though their effect on the crowd is momentary transfiguration. Without first heating up the tires, the cars would lose traction at the start of the race.
After the burnout, Prudhomme's car backs up past the starting line and spins its tires in a sticky liquid traction compound before it creeps into the starting lights. Already "staged," with its front wheels breaking the electric-eye beam, is another Funny Car. In professional racing, an amber staging light is followed by a green, with only four-tenths of a second delay. "If you wait for the green to come on," Prudhomme says, "you're history. The car has to be moving by the time the green flashes. But if your front wheels break the second light beam before the green goes on, you red-light." A red light means disqualification. There are no second chances.
When Prudhomme punches the accelerator, his body is immediately pinioned to the back of his seat, his spine tattooed to the roll cage. The first moment of thrust is all out, but then the throttle is eased back some to let the car catch up with the power its engine is putting out. Even Prudhomme seldom races his car as fast as it is capable of going. Before each race he calculates his opponent's limitations, then tunes his engine and mixes his fuel to run about a tenth of a second faster. "The trick is in not guessing wrong," he says. "If a guy beats me by running faster than I figured he would, I'm always very surprised."
If a driver wants to win a race badly enough, he can fine-tune his engine or put such a "pop" of nitro in the fuel mix that it will either make a great deal of speed or a very loud explosion. This technique is called "hand grenading," and its effects can be devastating. Last September the engine in Clayton Harris' fuel dragster exploded halfway through a race at Atlanta International Dragway, sending shrapnel flying into the grandstands 50 feet away, injuring 10 people.
In his first elimination pass at U.S. 131 Dragway, Prudhomme covers the quarter-mile in 6.13 seconds, a good time. Speed is not considered as important as elapsed time. "You wouldn't say that Jim Ryun ran a mile at 15 mph," says one driver. "It's about the same in drag racing."
After the first race Prudhomme's car is towed back to the pits, and two of the eight pistons are pulled out for examination. Both are fine and are dropped back in their chambers, nearly an hour of work for nothing. Most racers would have figured the pistons were fine and hoped for the best. " Prudhomme's a tyrant with his crew and with himself," says a friend, "but he gets results."
In the second round the Snake runs a commendable 6.17 seconds, again winning without trouble. Even after a routine race like this one, Prudhomme bounces out of the car, the adrenaline still bubbling in his blood.
"People go crazy in these cars sometimes, just to win a race," he says. "They'll blow the body off the car, or blow an engine right out of the chassis. Sometimes you get so involved in winning that you could drive the car down through there naked without giving it a thought. When I come up to that line with the motor popping and just nail one, it's the greatest feeling in the world."