Drive It Like You Stole It: Drag Racing Lessons Are Not For The Faint Of Heart

“Drive it like you stole it,” Derek Vazquez says half-jokingly as he straps me into the cockpit of an open-wheel race car. I crack a weak smile. This is no ordinary machine. It’s a traditional rail-type dragster with 750 horsepower and can rocket down a quarter mile of asphalt in under 8.5 seconds at 160 mph. To say I am intimidated is an understatement. I have never even sat in a dragster, let alone driven one.

I’m at the venerable Frank Hawley’s Drag Racing School, one of 20 students taking part in a two-day course at Summit Motorsports Park, a beautiful track complex in Norwalk, OH, owned by the Bader family. Some participants already have competition licenses and race on weekends in their own cars. Others, like me, are new to the sport. Brayden Nelson, an 18-year-old from Quincy, MI, and Zach Grant from Cincinnati, OH, are in that category. Still others are graduates who just want practice runs. We all have signed liability waiver forms.

Frank Hawley Drag Racing School
Frank Hawley with reporter Jim Clash at Summit Motorsports Park in Norwalk, OH.
Frank Hawley, born in Ontario, Canada, started his maverick school in 1985 and is a bit of an intellectual, not what you might expect of a two-time NHRA Fuel Funny Car Champion. He reads diligently and loves to meet people. At our dinner the night before class in a local Mexican restaurant, he talked about motivation and neuroscience as easily as about drag racing.

Hawley’s school has a fascinating pedigree. Car enthusiast Jay Leno filmed an episode of Jay Leno’s Garage there. Famous NHRA pro drivers who have attended include Alexis DeJoria, Courtney, Ashley and Brittany Force and Robert Hight. “For someone like me who had no background in racing, Hawley was the perfect opportunity to get acquainted, get my feet wet, get licensed and start racing,” says DeJoria. “I can’t thank Frank and his staff enough.”

After a few hours of complex classroom instruction (you had better pay attention), as is the case at most racing schools, Hawley took our group out to the cars and the track. There, we received more detailed direction about racing procedures. It all looks easy enough, but it’s not. I almost went to Hawley privately to tell him I didn’t want to drive, that I could do this story by observing and interviewing other students. Even though I had watched Hawley’s practice videos several times on YouTube, I just wasn’t sure I could handle 750 Chevy horses with no prior drag experience. But I sucked up the fear and decided to at least try.

We had a choice between the Pontiac Firebirds that look like passenger cars but are not—called Super Gas—and Super Comp, the traditional dragsters. I chose the latter because it represents more what I had envisioned as a kid watching legends like Big Daddy Don Garlits and Shirley Muldowney duke it out.

Frank Hawley Drag Racing School
Classroom instruction is an important part of the Frank Hawley Drag
Racing School.
Once in the car’s claustrophobic cockpit with helmet, neck collar, gloves, fireproof racing suit—and belted in with a multi-point harness and arm restraints—we started out with 200-foot runs. Before any ride down the sticky asphalt, though, there is a burnout to heat the Mickey Thompson tires. In second (high) gear, you drive through a puddle of water, then burn rubber by flooring the accelerator and letting off the brake almost simultaneously. It’s a loud, violent procedure that takes a few seconds, and, at first, I thought the car was going to spin out. It didn’t. There’s too much grip from the giant back tires.

Frank Hawley Drag Racing School
Students are strapped in with a harness system before they are allowed
on the dragstrip.
After the burnout, it gets more complicated. You put the gearshift, a small metal lever located on the right side of the car, into reverse and blindly back up slowly, getting ready to “stage” at the starting line. After stopping and putting the car into first gear, you slowly creep forward again. When the pre-stage yellow light comes on—then the staging light—you stop, ready for your run.

With the car centered in the lane (we were using the left) and pointed perfectly straight, you push a red trans-brake button that holds the thing absolutely stationary, hold your breath, take your foot off the brake and hammer the throttle. When three more yellow tree lights come on and then the green, you let up on the red button and launch. The difference between when the green comes on and when your car leaves the start line is called reaction time.

Now I’ve driven lots of supercars above 200 mph, including Ferraris, Lamborghinis, McLarens, Ruf Porsches and the like, but I have never felt such acceleration as with the dragster. It is like a controlled explosion of both machine and senses. You go from 0-60 mph in about 1.5 seconds. Compare the 1,001-hp, 253-mph Bugatti Veyron, which I’ve also driven. It goes from 0-60 mph in 2.5 seconds. A one-second difference may not sound like much, but it is. You pull more Gs, for sure, as you are pinned back against the seat.

After that first short run, I felt more confident and decided what the hell, let’s try some more. Our second passes were at 600 feet, thirds at 1,000 feet – the length NHRA Top Fuel dragsters run – and finally the quarter mile. On each, the speeds naturally increased as did our skill levels. I did well enough to secure runs in the quarter mile in an attempt to get a competition license. You need two passes, and they both have to be good.

My first quarter mile was a trip. The car kept accelerating in high gear all the way through the finish. I couldn’t believe the power. Time: 8.581 seconds with a top speed of 157.58 mph. Whoa. With a second comparable run, I was OK’d for my competition license by Hawley, meaning I can compete in quarter-mile runs of 7.5 seconds and above.

Not that I likely will. But if I do, I’ll drive it like I stole it. Scout’s honor.

Essentials: Super Comp and Super Gas course tuition on eight tracks across the U.S.: $1,995 ($1,695 if taken at the company headquarters track in Gainesville, FL). Additional quarter-mile runs: $200 each. In-car GoPro video: $49 (it’s worth it!). The company also offers more advanced courses: www.frankhawley.com

James M. (Jim) Clash, a New York-based journalist and Fellow at The Explorers Club, covers extreme adventure and culture. He owns a ticket to fly in space with Virgin Galactic.

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