The violence of the launch was astonishing. Vibration short-circuited my senses, and the acceleration clouted my helmet back against the car's roll cage. For 200 feet, I couldn't tell where I was. I'm not used to feeling fear while in a car–I've cornered 185-mph Ferraris at top speed–but this dragster scared me. After a couple of runs, they told me, I'd get used to it: The car would go straight for 200 feet until I could see.
For some idea of what it's like to drive a Top Fuel dragster, take that experience and multiply by 10. My learner car was a 700-plus-horsepower McKinney Super Comp gas dragster from the Frank Hawley Drag Racing School in Gainesville, Florida-plenty fast, with more than Nascar-level horsepower. But it was a go-kart compared with the 6,000-plus horsepower, nitro-fueled dragsters raced by the pros. In the quarter-mile, a Top Fuel "rail" dragster has reached 332.18 mph (the record, set in 2001 by Kenny Bernstein), covering the distance in 4.477 seconds. Moving that fast requires a shotgun marriage of brute power and precarious, finicky mechanical engineering, performed over one of the briefest timed events in competitive sport. Downforce, G-force, parasitic drag, and assorted other manifestations of the violence of this sport must be overcome. A rail's purposely flexible chromaloy frame is designed to bow upward in the middle like a saw on the track, as carbon fiber and magnesium wings push the front and rear of the car down. The super-soft dragster tires, inflated to just 6 psi, wrinkle elastically at launch, slingshot forward, then, disfigured by centrifugal force, balloon zanily in the heat of the run.
The fastest car-to-car sport in the world, drag racing is also one of the purest expressions of mechanical prowess. Unlike tech-obsessed Formula 1, however, drag racing has never gone fancy. In the fully crowd-accessible paddock, where the air wrenches squeal and the nitromethane fumes flow, fans stand five deep, watching crewmen work on the cars after each run. It's like viewing open-heart surgery at speed: a full teardown and rebuild of the supercharged 500-cubic-inch V8-new pistons, heads, belts, and whatever else is required-in 45 minutes. Aside from the lightning-fast crews, though, the pit atmosphere is easy. Close your eyes and the party atmosphere of 1950s drag racing returns: flathead Ford V8s and skinny tires, Saturday-night bravado, the guy with the pack of Luckies rolled up in his sleeve. Same now as it ever was: Get from here to there in a straight line fastest, making as much noise and smoke as possible.