Mama always told me not to look into the sights of the sun
Oh but mama, that's where the fun is.
-- Bruce Springsteen
Blinded By the Light, 1972
They first started racing in this big ol' Wayne County cornfield in 1958 – and not much has changed. The boys still gather several times a week to go head-to-head in their souped-up cars, to inhale cigarettes and gasoline fumes and exhale the worries and restraints of everyday life.
Dragway 42 boils down to two lanes of blacktop. It's machine vs. machine. Gearhead versus gearhead. The only thing missing is John Travolta dancing with Olivia Newton-John.
Well, that and my stomach. Thanks to a lunatic named Gene Kirby, my stomach is now located somewhere behind my vertebrae. That's what happens when you go from 0 to 123 mph in a quarter of a mile.
Longest 11 seconds of my life.
Kirby, who lives in Cuyahoga Falls, isn't much of a host. He couldn't even offer me a passenger's seat. Yanked the sucker out a long time ago so he could reduce the weight and go faster. Took about everything else out, too, until his 1984 Pontiac Grand Prix became essentially a gigantic engine on wheels. So I had to sit on the metal floor and clutch the roll cage in a state of sustained panic as he rocketed down the asphalt to a sonic accompaniment that resembled a perpetual explosion.
And nobody even asked me to sign a waiver! Man, this place really is 1958.
But I figured my chances of survival were at least 50-50. Kirby has been doing this for a long, long time. Started going to the track at age 6 with his older brother. He's 43 now and has raced all over the place for decades.
Besides, what could possibly go wrong? Well, yeah, a few years ago a guy got to going so fast that he flew right off the end of the runway, went airborne over the little rural road that divides southern Medina County from northern Wayne, and wound up dead in a field. And, yeah, earlier this season a motorcycle racer lost a foot when he slammed into the guardrail. And, OK, just last month Gene's own machine burst into flames when he blew out the transmission at the starting line. "I got it off to the side and got the fire out," he says. "Two days later I had it all back together." No big deal.
But if you think Kirby's wheels are missing a few ball bearings, so to speak, what about the judgment of his good pal, Bob Dove? Imagine this: Dove, who has operated Dove Auto Body in the Falls since 1974, actually let me run his dragster. Really. After giving me a 10-minute crash course (oops, poor choice of words), Dove sent me out on the blacktop to put his pride and joy -- a juiced-up 1964 Plymouth Barracuda -- through actual time trials.
What a trip! Heck, I'd have been delighted just to "burn the tires," a move that surely was invented by somebody who was looking for a way to get back at his driver-education teacher.
To do a burn, you plant your left foot firmly on the brake pedal, stomp on the accelerator with your right foot and breathe deeply as the cabin fills with smoke from your tires. In addition to delighting tire manufacturers, this little maneuver heats up the rubber so the car gets better traction. You don't want to hang around the starting line spinning your wheels while the guy in the next lane is roaring down the track.
The start is everything. (Well, shifting into the right gears helps, too, but we'll get to that in a minute.) As you pull your car up next to the "Christmas tree," a pole with colored lights that controls the start, you creep toward an electronic eye. When your front tires hit the proper spot, a double yellow light glows on the tree. Then, even more slowly, you edge forward to a second electronic eye, which triggers another double yellow light. When both cars are in that position, the countdown begins.
You get a big yellow light, then another, then a third. The instant the third light comes on, you initiate your blastoff in anticipation of the green light that follows. But if you leave a hair too soon, you get the dreaded red light -- a foul. Fouling is a serious problem. We're not talking about free throws here. In an actual drag race, we're talking about instant defeat. And in time trials, we're talking about a clocking that doesn't count.
Now, compared to Kirby's car, Dove's gold Barracuda is a tricycle. Kirby's Grand Prix uses 7 gallons of fuel per mile and has to be carted around on a trailer because it isn't street legal. Dove drives his 'Cuda back and forth to work each day. If you saw it in a parking lot, you'd never dream it could turn the quarter-mile in as little as 15 1/2 seconds. And it even has a passenger's seat.
Still, as Dove climbed into that passenger's seat and I drove toward the starting line for the first time, my eyes were bigger than Little Orphan Annie's.
Double yellow. Double yellow. Yellow . . . yellow . . . yellow – go!
Dove would later call my reaction time – .570 seconds, according to the computer printout given to each racer after a run – "real good. Better than mine."
I roared down the track in first gear, one eye on the road, the other on the tachometer mounted down by the gearshift. The special gearshift looks like an automatic -- unlike the "H" shifting pattern in a normal car, these gears are in a straight line, and there's no clutch. But you're supposed to shift forward each time the tach gets to the red line. Which is exactly what I did -- except I pushed the stick a tad too far and shifted from first into third. Not good.
Immediately I realized my mistake, downshifted to second and completed the run in semicompetent fashion. But the damage had been done, competitively speaking. I finished with a lame 16.5 seconds and a top speed of 85 mph.
Much to my astonishment, the easygoing Dove declared me ready to solo. "I'm gonna get a cup of coffee," he said, climbing out. Then he pointed to his cell phone and laughed. "If you need help, here's the phone."
Fortunately, all of this madness takes place in the middle of nowhere. Dragway 42 is so isolated, in fact, that when Jack Ehrmantaut bought the place in 1991, he had to match an offer from a garbage company that was preparing to convert it to a landfill.
Ehrmantaut had raced professionally all over the country and was ready to put down roots. But he wasn't ready to give up his first love. "It's a personal challenge to see how good you can get," he says of the sport. "And it's competitive. You're trying to beat the other guy."
But you're not trying to beat the law. Notes Jack's son, Toby: "The racers can take their cars out and see how fast they can go without worrying about the cops."
Race down that runway just once and you can fully understand the appeal. Time slows to a crawl. Your senses come alive. There's just the right touch of danger. Well, more than the right touch. In fact, I haven't been this scared since I had to drive through the Tallmadge Circle.
On my second run, I was determined to block everything out and combine a quick start with the proper shifting. And I did. Started so fast, in fact, that I fouled. But, hey, I cut more than half a second off my time and hit 86 mph. Foul, schmoul.
On my final run, wary of fouling again, I held back a bit and logged a reaction time of .660. But that was good enough to win. Yep, I actually beat somebody! Zoomed across the finish line in 16.2, more than a second better than my opponent. (OK, he was driving a pickup truck. But we don't need to dwell on that.)
And so, loyal readers, we're on a roll. In June, I was invited to drive a city bus; went around plastic pylons at 5 mph. In August, I was invited to drive a freight train; went down the rails at 20 mph. Now I'm drag racing at 86 mph.
Maybe we should call a halt to this before it gets completely out of hand. If I go any faster, I'll be airborne.
Speaking of which . . . I've always wondered what it would be like to pilot the Goodyear blimp. Not that I'm trying to drop a hint or anything.
Bob Dyer can be reached at 330-996-3580 or email@example.com