Standing only feet away from a race car as it takes off and reaches speeds more than 100 mph at Colonel's Brainerd International Raceway is as big of a rush to a wide-eyed spectator like myself as it is to the adrenaline junkie seated inside the race car.
It's the smell of burning rubber and exhaust smoke, motor oil, the thunderous roar and vibrations from the car itself and the wind on your face as the car passes by in a blink of a second.
Until last Friday, I had never set foot inside the gates at CBIR, though I drive by the speedway on my way to work at least twice a day.
Watching race cars speed around a track just never struck me as something I would enjoy. I don't give my own car much thought, either. As long as it has gas in the tank and runs without emitting strange noises from the depths of compacted metal underneath its hood, I'm good to go.
Will Young, Brainerd, was at CBIR on Friday to test how fast his 1971 Chevelle would go during practice runs during last weekend's bracket races. In this run, Young was clocked at 120 mph in 10.8 seconds.
So when Tim Berns, chief starter at CBIR, called me up one day and asked whether I wanted to drop by CBIR to find out what it's like to be on the sidelines during the bracket drag races last weekend, I couldn't think of any reason why I shouldn't go.
No, really. I tried, but I couldn't come up with a good excuse. Standing around with race car drivers talking about their cars was to me like entering a foreign country without a passport, proper currency or a good "Learn How to Speak Drag Racing In A Week" translation manual.
I wasn't prepared.
But I thought I'd give it a try, anyhow. What's the worst that could happen, I reasoned. Look like a clueless idiot when a driver was explaining the intricate details of engine maintenance and transmission repair? I figured I might as well take that chance.
Like many racing enthusiasts who also work at the track, Berns works at the race track on weekends during the summer and also has a full-time job, working as a wholesale parts manager at Tanner Motors. He's worked at CBIR for the past 20 years. Since racing can be an expensive hobby, Berns and other CBIR part-time employees have found it's easier -- and cheaper -- to fuel their passion for fast cars by working at the track, rather than racing there.
Berns said many amateur drivers spend a minimum of $80,000 for a camper, $10,000 for a trailer to haul their car and $80,000 for the race car itself, considering the cost to buy replacement parts and other accessories. But there are also those who bring out their ordinary street cars, like mine, to find out how fast they'll fly.
Drag racing, for those who are as unfamiliar with the sport as I was, is when racers try to beat the clock -- and other drivers' times -- by revving their engines and speeding down a quarter-mile track. Most get up to speeds between 70-200 mph, which takes about 7-20 seconds.
CBIR staffers prepare the track for the drag races by applying rubber to the track and a mixture of alcohol to make it nice and sticky. The sticky black substance provides additional traction for the cars, which improves their times. Walking on the track feels almost like you're a doomed fly on a sticky fly strip -- only less deadly. I felt like a street-bound Spiderman when I was out on the track, my sandals sticking to the pavement.
Starters like Berns prepare drivers by pressing a button that automatically launches the lighted countdown on what is nicknamed the Christmas tree. Racers rev their engines and spin their wheels before they begin so the temperature of the rubber on their tires is the same as the track temperature, which provides better traction. It was a lesson in drag racing basics that never occurred to me before.
Will Young, head technician at Tanner Motors, has had "the itch" for competitive racing since he was about 18 when he was getting too many speeding tickets while driving around Brainerd in his 1971 Chevelle. He has renovated his street car into a true race car and tries to race most weekends in the summer. Like most drivers, he tracks the weather each day he races. High humidity can slow a car down, he said.
Racing is a family affair for Ron Zenzen, St. Cloud, and his two children, Becky, 16, and Brian, 11. Brian competed in the junior dragsters competition Saturday, traveling about 80 mph on a one-eighth mile course in a smaller scale dragster.
Becky, who has competed for five years in the junior dragsters, just got her driver's license. Ron bought Becky her first race car this year, a $20,000 1978 Corvette. Becky and her dad, who works for NSP and as a St. Cloud reserve police officer, both plan to compete at events at the NHRA Nationals this weekend. It will be the first time at Nationals for Becky, who will also compete against her dad for the first time.
"To be 16 years old and be racing in a Nationals event," Zenzen said of his daughter. "It's a hell of an opportunity."
While some families chose to spend their money on lakehomes or expensive family vacations, the Zenzen family, which includes wife and mom Kathy, have chosen to spend their money and time on a hobby they all enjoy.
"I use it as something to have in common with the kids," Ron said of drag racing. "It's my way of communicating with my kids."
"So, do you want to drive on the track?" Berns asked after giving me a first-class tour of the facility. It was an opportunity I couldn't turn down.
Unfortunately, we weren't able to take turns at 200 mph like other drivers, but I can now brag I've traveled where other drivers have feared to tread.
Standing in the middle of the starting line as two race cars rev their engines and take off alongside you is, in itself, a rush. One driver told me that when the nitro cars are here during Nationals, you can practically feel the vibrations in your soul. Race drivers hit the accelerator after they are flashed the second yellow light on the Christmas tree lights; If you actually see the light turn green, your reaction time was too slow.
After spending a few hours at CBIR last Friday, I learned a lot about drag racing and the racing culture. Just don't quiz me.
CBIR races are more of a family event than I think many lakes area residents, including myself, have given them credit for. Berns said even I could take my car out to the track during the bracket races and find out how fast it'll go if I wanted.
My mechanic is cringing right now.
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