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Great Balls of Fire: Texas Drag Racing

Two roaring, missile-like machines streak down a 1,320-foot strip of pavement—side by side, just a few feet apart—in a quarter-mile acceleration test of pure power. Less than a minute later another pair launches from a standing start, and rockets down the same course. Slick professional teams buzz with activity alongside shoestring mom-and-pop operations. Everyone feels the need for speed. Thundering engines, one winner, one loser, no whining—that’s professional drag racing in Texas.

A Top Fuel dragster launches from the starting line with a fiery burst at Houston Raceway Park during the NHRA Spring Nationals in Baytown.

Dallas native and Texas A&M graduate Brandon Bernstein’s sleek, pointy Top Fuel dragster is 25 feet long, weighs more than 2,000 pounds, and is bright red with his primary sponsor’s Budweiser logo prominently displayed. Brandon’s job is to hang onto that nitromethane-fueled rocket, keep it in a straight line, and beat whoever is in the opposing lane to the finish. He says, “I just loved it from the second that I started. Everybody loves the speed of these cars. They love to come to the track and watch us go 330-plus [mph].”

Texas hosts two major National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) drag races every year, plus hundreds of smaller events at tracks all over the Lone Star State. The Spring Nationals in March are a seagull’s flight from the Gulf of Mexico at Houston Raceway Park in Baytown, and the Fall Nationals in September blast across rolling farmland south of Dallas, at the Texas Motorplex in Ennis. Both are televised on ESPN2, but racers insist that there is no substitute for seeing the flaming action in person.

“It’s a sensory overload,” says Brandon. “Your eyes are going to water, your ears are going to pound, your body’s gonna literally shake, but it’s going to be the biggest adrenaline rush you’ve ever experienced. TV does not do it justice; you have to physically be here. Once you get people here, they’re hooked for life.”

Hot rodders have always tested their cars on back roads, but more formal drag-racing competition was born in Southern California in 1951, when the National Hot Rod Association was founded by Wally Parks (who died in 2007 at age 94). Today, the NHRA is the world’s largest promoter of professional drag racing, with a total prize-money payout of more than $3.2 million across all pro competitions, record-breaking attendance in 2007, and an expanded race schedule in 2008. About 30,000 fans fill the Texas race facilities on a national-event weekend. Adult ticket prices vary based on day and seating area; they range from single-day admission of about $35-$50, to nearly $200 for a Saturday/Sunday two-day ticket. You’ll pay more for a reserved seat. Admission for kids runs from $10-$24; age five and under are usually free.

For newcomers, the Friday of a race weekend is probably the best day to attend. It is less crowded, all of the different classes will run qualification rounds to make it into final eliminations, and the pro classes do some evening runs when it’s cooler. The darkness ensures a spectacular show from the nitro car flames.

Arrive as early as possible to park closer to the track, and plan on dealing with a lot of traffic when it’s time to leave. Be prepared for the noise with double hearing protection (foamies/inserts plus ear muffs) and don’t forget hearing protection for your children. Wear sunglasses, a hat, and sunscreen. Don’t forget to visit the pits during a few of the rounds and watch the engine rebuilds.

The NHRA Web site has detailed “Day at the Drags” info:

Want to race yourself? Check with your local track for Junior Drag Racing League programs, “Street Legal” nights, Test ‘n’ Tune, and bracket racing.

Houston Raceway Park, 2525 FM 565, Baytown, 281/383-RACE; The NHRA O’Reilly Spring Nationals are scheduled for March 28-30.

Texas Motorplex, US 287 South, between Ennis and Waxahachie, 972/878-2641; The NHRA O’Reilly Fall Nationals are scheduled for Sep. 18-21.

For additional information, visit

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From the March 2008 issue.

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