Catch me if you can

Sunday, October 25, 1998, Tulsa International Raceway, Tulsa, Oklahoma - 7:21 a.m. I am awakened from a sound sleep by the guy next to me starting his car to go to work. Something is wrong with his engine because it is making a hellish noise - BOOOWAAAAHHH, BOOOWAAAAH - he guns it a few times. Then the lughead next to him starts his and it's even louder - BRAAAAAAH, BRAAAAAAAH. I feel like I'm on the front lines of a tank battle.

No, something is right with his engine, darned right. He has the thing warmed up and nearly ready to compete in the elimination round of the fourth annual American Drag News Bracket Finals. I camped out at the drag strip last night and this is my 700 horsepower alarm clock. I am in no danger of a mortar strike.

My subjects for this article, Duane Bryant and Terry Hodgens, arrive at 8 a.m. and unload Hodgens' '66 Chevy Nova II from its trailer. They drove down from Fairland, Oklahoma this morning - about a two hour drive. They have been at this race for the past two days, (Friday and Saturday were time trials) but they spend nights at home with their families. Today is the the big day.

I stumble around the pit for a while, watching the heavy metal mania. There are more vehicles here than there are people. Every team has at least one race car, one truck, a golf cart or a three or four-wheeler and a moped. Kids barely old enough to spell t-r-a-c-t-i-o-n are piled three high on a scooter as it races by. Someone a few rigs down is filling his moped with alcohol fuel.

At this race, the drivers are on teams according to their hometowns. This builds up the comraderie and competition and helps out in the Saturday night tug of war. There are teams from; Texas, Tennessee, Arkansas, Nebraska and Missouri as well as from Oklahoma. Bryant and Hodgens are on the Tulsa Team.

What's Going On?
There are two types of drag racing; one is called "heads-up" racing, which is a flat-out race, with the first driver to the finish line taking the purse. This is unfair in most cases, because it relies far too heavily on the car, and not the driver. It is used in the top-end races you see on TV and on low-end races you see at stop lights and on Friday nights at the drag strip.

The second is the bracket race. This is the most popular format. Here, you actually tell the official how long it will take you to drive the distance (a "dial-in" time) then you drive it, and the person who comes closest to their dial-in times without going under wins the race. Sort of like a reverse "Price is Right" only a lot louder. WHAT?... I SAID A LOT LOUDER!

In brackets, a car can complete a race in 15 seconds and actually beat the car that completes it in 8 seconds, if the driver came closer to his "dial-in" time. So, why bother going fast? Why the horsepower, why the noise, why the smoking tires, why the speed?


For those of you who insist on a better reason, these races are won by thousandths of a second. A good driver who dials-in, say, 7.86 seconds may finish in 7.874 or only .014 seconds off. The faster your car, the more precise are your times and the smaller is your margin.

And it makes more noise.

Want to make your car really haul? Here are a few things you can do:

Feed it fire. Use methanol, racing fuel or Nitrous Oxide. These have a higher octane rating (usually 110 - 120) than that syrup you get on the street, and they burn cleaner. Bryant and Hodgens use methanol.

Duane Bryant (left) and Terry Hodgens remove the "front clip" of the Nova to access the engine.

Tear your engine apart. Get under the hood - heck, tear the hood right off - and "bore out" your cylinders. Those are the round tubes you just pulled your pistons out of. Hodgens had a 454 cubic inch engine before he made it a 482 from which he can demand 650-700 horsepower.

Tear your car apart. Take out the seats, the spare tire, the windows, the radio... shed pounds, gain speed. The only parts on Hodgen's '66 Chevy that are '66 Chevy are the doors, the roof and the quarter panels.

Throw money at it. Buy lightweight parts wherever possible. Hodgens' aluminum cylinder heads dropped his car's weight down from 2,410 to 2,350 pounds. The fuel lines are aircraft grade. Anything that moves, moves on bearings to reduce friction. Give it fuel injection and a "toilet bowl" air intake. Don't ask, just pay.

Put big, fat paws on it. The Nova has huge slicks on its rear wheels, which cost $500 a pair and last only 100 - 150 races (at less than a half mile per race, that's 75 miles per tire.) Put 5 - 5.5 pounds of air in them and keep a close eye on that.

Bryant has been racing for ten years, Hodgens for only two. Bryant is driving Hodgens' Nova II in this race because he is trying to sell his '71 Camaro ($4,500 without motor and tranny) and because Hodgens enjoys working on cars more than driving them.

Terry Hodgens inspects the Nova II's engine before a race.

These are not serious, cutthroat racers, here. "We're just in it for the fun," Hodgens says. "If we even make it to the second round, we'll be happy." They enjoy racing like some guys enjoy bass fishing. "It's no fun when you're by yourself," says Bryant. "Here we get to joke, relax, have fun. We don't have to drive the 80 miles home and back alone each night. It'd be nice to win though - the winner gets three grand!" Entry fee for the race is $75.

Bryant paints motor homes for a living and Hodgens is a landscaper. On weekends he earns his "drag money." They haven't tried to get sponsors yet. "I have a customer that owns 146 banks in Manhattan," Hodgens says. "I could get him to sponsor me, but I'll wait until I get better."

Hodgens prefers the old muscle cars - Chevelles, Mustangs, Novas, '55 Chevys and Camaros - to the longrail dragsters, which he says are actually cheaper and easier to make. He has about $20,000 to $25,000 invested in his car.

The time trials yesterday were for the drivers to tune their engines. Cars perform differently depending on the temperature and relative humidity. The difference we don't notice in our family cars becomes a major change in the speed of these top performers.

Getting ready for the first round, Hodgens and Bryant decide on a time to dial-in. They choose 7.85 seconds to drive the 1,000 foot-long track and they put that number on the car's driver window.

The track announcer calls for top pro cars to line up and we head for the marshalling lanes. This is an exciting time in the pits as all the cars roar to life and squirm around each other toward the start line. With five lanes of cars waiting to race, a track worker draws pairs of playing cards to determine who races with whom. We push the Nova - engine turned off - to the front of the line.

Bryant gets ready, putting on his helmet and flame retardant jacket. He climbs into the Nova. Hodgens goes to the rear bumper and turns a switch for the battery and Bryant starts the car. WAABROOOM. WAABROOOOM!

Bryant is pitted against a red and white longrail, its huge engine bared and threatening. They enter the strip, Bryant on the left. Someone sprays a chemical on the pavement and Bryant locks his front brakes and lets loose with his throttle, smoking his back tires and making them hot and sticky. People near the track cover their ears.

The two cars approach the light tree. When one crosses a "courtesy line" six inches behind the start line, the top yellow tree lights glow and the other driver pulls up. Then they both "stage" exactly on the start line, signaled by the second set of lights. The lineman starts the race and the top amber lights glow.

"That's when Bryant locks his transmission brake and revs his engine to its power band, up to 5,500 rpm. The timer on his brake will release just as the green light glows, and he's off.

7.885 seconds later, Duane Bryant wins the round. A top speed of nearly 129 mph gets him into the second round. We head back to the pit for a while.

It takes hours for all the cars to finish the first round - there are over 400 entries in this race - and grab a barbeque lunch over at the Tulsa tent and head back for another round. This time Bryant is alongside a white Dodge and he has dialed-in 7.35, feeling he can easily clear a half second more off his time.

The Dodge leaves the starting line before his green light comes on and he is disqualified. Bryant knows he has won, so he "hangs it out the back door." That would be Oklahoman for "flooring it" and, though he got a late start, he comes in with a top speed of 138mph.

The wait isn't so long for the third round, as there are only half as many cars left, and we are in the pit for only an hour or so. Bryant dials-in a time of 8.69, slower than his first two, because the weather has changed. Time for seconds on lunch and we're back out on the track.

Bryant is in the left lane against a '72 Ford. He burns-out in a magnificent display of either a deep hatred for petroleum products, or a passionate love for them. The two cars inch to the line and Bryant guns his engine, he concentrates on the tree. His light turns amber and he hits his tranny brake and pounds on his gas... BRAAAHAAAHAAAAHAA amber, amber... green - Bryant's wheels lock on the rubber coated asphalt, his power train surges and roars and yanks the yellow car off the line and down the strip. In 8.716 seconds he is 1,000 feet away, with the closest run to his dial-in yet, only .026 seconds off.

But Bryant has some stiff competition and he loses the round and is out of the race. "I got out of the groove," Bryant tells me back at the pit. "There are two rows of rubber down the strip for your tires and I didn't stay on them. Also, my response time was off - I need to get my practice tree back out"

Hodgens and Bryant stow their gear for the ride home. They let me drive the Nova before they pull it into the trailer. There is something very cool about driving a car that you start with a switch mounted on the ceiling. BROOOHOOOM! Most impressive is how responsive the engine is - there is absolutely no delay between a tap on the gas and the jump of the tachometer. The rumble is greater than a Harley, the roar of the engine is deafening and the stark fear in Hodgens' eyes as I pull his baby toward the trailer is touching.

All packed up, Hodgens sums up the race for me. "It was a good weekend. We didn't break anything and we had fun." They'll be back at it again next Friday night, on a smaller scale, and they'll race every weekend "until the snow flies" then they'll have to wait until next spring. Next time you're in Tulsa, come by the drag strip and catch these guys, if you can.

How drag racing has changed in the past few decades.

  • Shifting - No need to shift from first to second gear. A solonoid, like the thing that "clunks" your electric door locks in and out, pushes your shifter into second gear at an rpm you select.
  • Tranny Lock - No fumbling with the brake and gas pedals during the prestart revving. This electronic device does that for you, for the exact time it takes the lights to change from the first yellow to green.
  • Crossover relay - Takes the tranny lock one step further to consider the timing of your opponent.
  • Commerce - Anything and everything you could want for your dragster is available, for a price. Where you once had to make a part yourself, all it takes is a checkbook.
  • Like Father, Like Daughter - We are now in the second and third generations of drag racing. Where guys once tore off to the track with or without their parents' approval (or knowledge) today, fathers and mothers guide their children through the races. "In probably three to four years, I'll get my kids into junior drag racing," says Hodgens. "Give them a go at it."

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