NHRA Nationals for Beginners

by Frank Jameson IV 

This is for those who have never been to a drag racing event before from the perspective of a first time attendee. So, who exactly is the first time attendee? Well, it’s me.

Having lived in Brownsburg, Indiana, where the National Hot Rod Association’s (NHRA) annual Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals are held, I had heard the sounds of the races several times but never went to check them out. Not being a big sports fan, it didn’t interest me. But, I’m all about new experiences. So, off I went to Lucas Oil Raceway, not knowing what to expect. What I found was a very open and family-friendly event.

The event takes place over five days during the Labor Day weekend, beginning the Thursday before and concluding on Labor Day. Due to previous engagements, I was unable to attend on Saturday and Sunday. But what I found is that every day is an experience.

With that said here’s my take on the Nationals as a first-timer.

You may have thought that — having previously lived in Brownsburg and having heard the cars from about a mile away — I would have been prepared for this event. I wasn’t. Arriving on Thursday afternoon, I wanted to walk in with no knowledge of drag racing events during this assignment. After acquiring my press credentials, I headed to the stands to get my first taste of drag racing. Now I knew it was going to be loud, but I was not prepared at all for how loud some of these cars were. If you don’t want to sit with your fingers in your ears, and, honestly, against Top Fuel dragsters that won’t even help much, get some hearing protection. Top Fuel cars shook me to the bones when launching off the start line. During the Top Fuel runs, if I wasn’t paying attention to the “Christmas tree” — that’s the light tower that starts the race — I would jump when they took off. And I was not alone in that aspect - almost every time the Top Fuel dragsters took off car alarms would go off in the parking lot.

There are multiple classes in drag racing - from your everyday stock cars, like a Chevy Cobalt, to what is called Top Fuel. Top-fuel cars burn the same fuel used in rockets — and it shows. When they launch, flames shoot out of the exhaust pipes.

One of the coolest parts about the Nationals is the access I — and pretty much everyone else — had to the teams. The teams pulled up in trailers, popped tents, and got right to work just behind the grandstands. Many of the bigger teams had full-on event tents with catering. As for some of the smaller teams, it was a pick-up truck and a trailer. Some of the teams stayed at the track the whole time.

You can watch as they set up or repair their cars and motorcycles for the next run. Oh, and the smell of nitromethane when they start the cars in the bays was also interesting — it stings your eyes a little if you are standing right behind the car.

The drivers and mechanics were also very open and accessible when it came to taking pictures and signing autographs. I was able to talk to a few of the smaller teams and their owners. Interesting group to say the least. One team I talked with, their car had at one time set a couple of speed records.

Now, I can’t tell you who won what other than John Force won Top Fuel Funny Car for the first time at Lucas Oil Raceway in about 15 years. What is a drag racing article without mentioning John Force?

Overall, the spectators were more friendly than I expected. I figured this would be a good ole’ boy event. . . But I found the crowd and the drivers were more diverse than I expected and I’d say that anyone who is thinking of attending, regardless of race, gender or knowledge of drag racing, would find something interesting over the weekend.

Just be sure to bring earplugs and enjoy the vibrations!