THRILLS ON FOUR WHEELS

Bliss in a Quarter Mile

 

People have been riveted by the concept of speed since a foot race kicked off the first Olympic Games nearly 3,000 years ago.

But nothing has captured the human imagination like the automobile. Here’s how today’s creative car drivers are pushing the limits of horsepower in inspired ways.

You’ve just picked up your first “go fast” vehicle. You want to put those power numbers to the test. You want to show the guy with the muscle car down the street what’s up. You want to experience the horsepower, the thrill, the “fast” that your car is promised to deliver. Local laws allow for none of that fun—what do you do?

 

You go to your local drag strip.

 

If you have never been to a drag strip but have seen drag racing on television, you might think it is a sport reserved for 10,000-horsepower cars that are only slowed by parachutes. Nope.

 

The vast majority of vehicles racing every night at one of the hundreds of tracks around the country are unmodified or slightly modified streetcars. That means you can participate in the same format of the sport—on the same track, and prompted to press pedal to victory by the same sets of lights—as professionals. Best of all, it will probably cost you less than $50 for a night of safe, legal, high-performance fun.

 

In 1951, the National Hot Rod Association was founded as the first sanctioning body for the sport. What had long been an underground hobby—racing on deserted airstrips, dry lake beds and, of course, the street—led to early drag racers being looked at by society as outlaws. The introduction of the NHRA and the spread of sanctioned tracks around the United States brought drag racing and drag racers into the world of mainstream motorsports.

 

The popularity of sanctioned drag racing boomed in the 1960s and 1970s, as American automakers rolled out countless cars that shined brightest on the drag strip. In addition to creating a professional racing league, the NHRA put together a set of rules for all tracks around the country, bringing uniformity and regulations to the sport. Over time, a second sanctioning body, the International Hot Rod Association, or IHRA, was founded, sparking more growth.

 

“It has never been easier to go drag racing at a local strip, especially in a late model car, than it is today. Anything newer than 2008 requires only a cursory safety inspection, and the driver to have a helmet on, to have fun on the track,” says Brian Lohnes, who late last year was

appointed lead announcer for NHRA TV. “It is the safest and most awesome way to gauge your car’s performance and your ability to drive said car. NHRA sanctions over 120 strips, the IHRA 100 more and there are other tracks out there as well—get on the strip and have some fun.”

 

Lohnes was practically born on the track; his father was a hot-rodder and racer. “We followed the sport when I was a kid and we were always doing car stuff. I never had a junior dragster or anything but I could not wait to get my license and drive my own car to New England Dragway in New Hampshire,” says Lohnes, who grew up in southeastern Massachusetts.

 

“When that moment came for me it was in a four-speed truck that ran 19-second quarter-mile times with a tired, old, small block. It felt heroic and it was fun. It sunk the hook into what would become my life in drag racing that continues today.”

 

Most tracks around the United States operate under NHRA or IHRA rules to this very day. Most NHRA tracks are a quarter mile, though many are an eighth mile.

 

A Quarter Mile of Pure Power

Philip Baglieri, 34, a Los Angeles district sales manager for a beer distributor, races at four NHRA California tracks: Auto Club Dragway at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana; Auto Club Famoso Raceway in McFarland; Auto Club Raceway at Pomona—each a quarter mile—and the eighth-mile Irwindale Dragstrip in Irwindale. Baglieri says he likes the diversity of driving experiences at the different tracks.

 

“You get different climates, different temperatures, different race environments,” he says. “Then, for instance, Irwindale is a local track so it’s a smaller venue; some of the others are a little bigger. It’s like the difference between playing a high school basketball court and the Staples Center in LA.”

 

Baglieri prefers taking his heavily modified, cherry-red 1967 Chevy Nova out on quarter-mile tracks because the longer distance lets him reach faster speeds—on a recent quarter-mile run he hit 156 mph—versus speeds roughly 30 mph slower on an eighth-mile track. “For a driver, you really get to see what your car’s made of,” Baglieri says of a quarter-mile run. “Once I get past the eighth-mile point I have no more shifting to do. It’s a matter of holding on, keeping the car straight and enjoying the ride.”

 

The shorter tracks involve a lot more work on the part of the driver, he adds. “With an eighth-mile, you’re shifting, you’re making sure you’re keeping the car straight, and at the end of that you’re releasing the parachute and slowing down. There’s a lot going on in an eighth mile, and everything happens really quickly.”

 

“From an owner standpoint,” Baglieri adds, “I prefer the eighth-mile track because it doesn’t hurt the car as much. There’s less stress on the car because it’s so quick.”

 

His Chevy Nova touts a body of fiberglass and high-tensile strength Chromoly, or “chromium-molybdenum steel,” a material that is easily welded and considerably stronger and more durable than standard steel. It is also one of the lightest metals, Baglieri adds, meaning he needs less horsepower to go faster.

 

Baglieri’s car has a 1,000-horsepower engine, “a big block 498. It’s all motor, so no turbos, no nitrous, no pro-charger—it’s powered just by the motor. It’s a disadvantage, to be honest, because it takes a lot of money to make a lot of horsepower just with the motor. But there’s a sense of more accomplishment. In the racing community, if you run a decent number with an all-motor car, it’s got a little more clout than if you’re assisted with nitrous or any power adders.”

 

Tackling the Track

Some pointers—almost all tracks require racers to wear long pants, a shirt with sleeves and closed-toe shoes. You can’t run in shorts, a tank top or sandals.

 

Your vehicle has to be safe. Every vehicle has to undergo a tech inspection, and, in most cases, an unmodified daily driver will have no problems passing that inspection. The inspector is using guidelines set forth by the sanctioning association of the track. Your car can’t leak fluids or have worn tires—and needs to be roadworthy.

 

You might think you need a helmet, but NHRA rules state that only drivers running the quarter mile in 13.99 seconds or less need a helmet. Many tracks have loaner helmets available, but loaners are the drag racing equivalent of rental bowling shoes…so they might be a bit, well, used. If you plan to keep going to the track, those loaners make buying your own helmet that much more attractive. Note that some tracks may require all drivers to have a helmet, even if your vehicle runs in the 14-second range or slower.

 

On an average race night at most tracks, there will be hundreds of cars, trucks, SUVs and motorcycles on hand. At first, there won’t be much action as the racers go through tech inspection, but when the staging lanes open, the venue becomes a carnival for the senses.

 

The racing field is like a rolling car show, with a collection of machines that will wow you based strictly on their appearance. When the racing begins, all of these vehicles roar to life, filling the air with a soundtrack that will excite any automotive enthusiast. What first-time racers don’t expect is the unique smell. The mixture of tire smoke and the fumes from copious amounts of gasoline being burned creates a scent that every racer comes to know and love, as it is a smell that can only come from the drag strip.

 

Those sights, sounds and smells are present from the second that the vehicles hit the track, as action at the strip continues non-stop.

 

You will wait in the pits until the cars are called to the staging lanes; this is where the cars preparing to run line up, and you’ll want to stay with your car as the vehicles continually move towards the track. Track officials move quickly; when it is your turn, you will be instructed to pull into the burnout box, where you will spin your tires to remove dirt and debris in addition to heating up the rubber, all of which leads to the best possible launch traction.

 

After your burnout—meek or spirited, you decide—pull forward to the starting line, which is a trio of lasers projected across the width of the track. The first two beams are the pre-stage and stage beams, which trigger the first two sets of lights on the “Christmas tree” that starts the race. Once both vehicles have lit the stage bulbs, the amber lights that signify the start of the race light up. Each of three yellow bulbs lights in sequence, followed by the green light. On green, you hammer down, propelling your car down the track.

 

After crossing the finish line, you turn off and head down the return road, where you will get your time slip. You are now a drag racer. This first run will create a passion that can only be satisfied by more trips to the track, and over time, you will learn how to get your car down the track in less and less time.

 

With many drag races over within 15 seconds, a track can run several pairs per minute, leading to literally hundreds of side-by-side races in the course of a few hours.

Despite the huge crowds of enthusiasts, the ultimate thrill is between man and machine. “What do I feel in the car? It’s funny to say this but once I’m strapped in, I’m relieved,” says Baglieri. “I’m in my comfort zone. It’s like everything around me is nonexistent at that moment. The adrenaline, the excitement, the accomplishment of winning a race—I feed off of all that stuff.”

 

For a listing of NHRA drag strips around the country, visit https://www.nhra.com/member-track-locator.

 

 

 

Racing Against the Law

 

Post-World War II, Wally Parks was the editor of Hot Rod magazine when he saw young men coming home from the war, tinkering with engines and finding new ways to modify their cars. With no place to race their more powerful machines, the young men took to the streets to race their cars illegally.

 

Before long, they were getting a reputation as bad kids when in fact they were innovators and had engineering mindsets; Parks didn’t want them punished for that. So he scoured the country for airstrips and other available land to create dragstrips where the young men could race in safe, controlled environments, giving birth to the National Hot Rod Association.

 

Jessica Hatcher, an NHRA spokesperson, said she has no statistics to show whether the rise of legal drag racing has put a crimp in illegal drag racing, also called street racing. But she said that anecdotally, street racing has been shown to be on the decline where there are legal race strips. Those legal strips can’t be everywhere, however, and more than six decades after Parks put his vision into practice, street racing seems to continue to flourish as illegal racers become savvier about evading police.

 

Consider Suffolk County on New York’s Long Island. Arrests and summonses issued for what the police call illegal speed contests have dropped dramatically over the past five years, from eight arrests in 2014 to one in 2018, and 16 summonses issued down to four issued over the same time period in the county, except for the easternmost districts, according to the police. But police are unsure what to attribute the decline to and whether street racing has declined along with the drop in arrests and summonses.

 

“We find that many of these [street races] are very impromptu. They’ll go to different locations, they’ll have a flagman many times, they’ll race, and they’re out of there,” says Deputy Inspector David Regina, commanding officer of the Suffolk Police Department’s Highway Patrol Bureau. “They’re very quick.” Social media and the age of cell phones have let the racers communicate and set up quickly, Regina said. “I would imagine that’s probably affected our enforcement ability.”

 

Further, local laws mandate that police must catch the racers in the act in order to issue summonses or make arrests. “We have to see someone engaged in this,” Regina adds. “It’s not the easiest ticket to write.”

 

As of mid-March, the last street race in Suffolk County for which arrests were made was on Sept. 23 last year. Some 100 cars were on hand at the race, which police happened upon on routine patrol.

 

John Cozzali, 60, a Long Island sheet metal worker who has been drag racing since he was 14, says illegal street racing is “pretty rampant” on the Island because it has no legal dragstrips. New York National Speedway in Center Moriches closed in the late 1990s, and Westhampton Dragway closed in 2004.

 

So Cozzali founded Long Island Needs a Dragstrip two years ago. He has identified two locations, in Brookhaven and Riverhead, but faces opposition from area neighbors concerned about noise. The other obstacle is that Long Island property is expensive. He said he has employed a firm to do an economic impact study that will show the benefits of having a Long Island dragstrip; the study is due out shortly.

 

In the meantime, Cozzali and other racers head to dragstrips in Pennsylvania and New Jersey when they feel the itch. “We shouldn’t have to give New Jersey and Pennsylvania our revenue,” Cozzali says. “That revenue should stay here.”

 

Avid racer Billy Swinford swears by legal dragstrips. “Although street racing when you’re young can be kind of exciting, the risk-to-reward is too high,” says Swinford, 39, who runs the Lonestar Elite Automotive Shop in Fort Worth, Texas, and operates the DFWSpeed YouTube channel, featuring all of his track-driven street cars.

 

“Jail time, fines, putting yourself and other at risk—it is much safer and cheaper to keep it on the track in a controlled environment,” says Swinford, who has made at least a few trips to the track each month for the past 22 years. “Instead of paying fines and legal fees, you can spend that money on your car and, most importantly, you can see real results through improved track times. Set goals for yourself and your car. Stay focused on those goals. Learn your car and setup, and more than anything, have the proper safety equipment.” –Allan Richter

He Swapped Police Wheels for Wings

 

When he was a commander in the Albuquerque Police Department, Murray Conrad had a big-picture view of the city and oversaw a high-crime district called the War Zone. Now Conrad has more of a birds-eye view: he is chief pilot with the Albuquerque-based commercial balloon outfit World Balloon (worldballoon.com).

 

Though Conrad retired from the police department eight years ago, his law enforcement background gives riders a glimpse of Albuquerque they might not otherwise see. On one flight, as his American flag-themed balloon slowly lifted off during the early morning hours from a fast food restaurant parking lot, Conrad nodded toward a house below.

 

It was where police would bring children to remove them from danger or if parents were taken to jail. “I always try to fly as low as I can just in case there’s a kid who’s awake and can see us, just to bring a little joy to their life,” Conrad says.

 

On the same ride, Conrad, 56, briefly dropped the basket floor into the Rio Grande for a “dip and dash.” Elsewhere, Conrad was close enough to the ground for passengers to see jackrabbits scampering across fields.

 

Conrad, who resembles actor Sam Elliott, piloted the balloon just over residential rooftops, as dogs in yards barked at the strange thing overhead and curious residents in their bathrobes came out of their homes. One man yelled up to invite passengers and crew for coffee.

 

On one of his flights when he was still with the police force, Conrad saw what looked like marijuana plants growing in the courtyard in the center of a house. So he dropped lower and took out his camera.

 

“I called my detectives, sent them the photos and video, and said ‘I want a warrant for this house before I land.’ We got 68 plants out of that, and the DA’s office refused to prosecute because the people who lived there were in their late 70s or early 80s and said they were growing it for themselves.” That didn’t jibe with Conrad: “Even if you went to Woodstock,” he says, “68 plants is more than you could smoke.”

 

Conrad’s career as a pilot marks a return to his young adulthood. He and his high school sweetheart, Julie, now his wife, would crew for balloon pilots in their senior year and continued with the sport. Their first balloon was a gift, as long as they would fly it with an advertising banner: Mrs. B’s Pawn Shop.

 

Conrad retired from the force in 2011 after 23 years and says he has piloted 2,100 safe balloon flights.

In his early flying days, piloting way out in the mesas, the sighting of a car or truck meant a possible crime scene, Conrad says. “Even today,” he says, “if I see a vehicle, I call it in and make sure it’s not stolen.”

 

Message in the Skies:
Remember the POW-MIA Vets

 

The two teenagers approached Luke Cesnik at his Balloon Fiesta balloon site and asked the pilot for collectible pins, a common practice on the festival field. “Let me ask you something,” Cesnik said to the young men before giving them the pins depicting his balloon. “Do you know what POW-MIA stands for?”

 

They didn’t, and Cesnik explained the abbreviations. Then he handed over the mementos.

 

For 30 years Cesnik, the president and chief pilot of St. Cloud, Minnesota-based Freedom Flight (freedomflight.org), has been flying a hot air balloon to make sure veterans who were prisoners of war or missing in action are not forgotten. Families are still learning about the fates of loved ones who served as far back as the Vietnam and Korean wars and World War II. And remains are still being identified, thanks to DNA advances.

 

Freedom Flight’s black balloon—one of four—features an eagle’s head, barbed wire, “POW-MIA” in large white letters and the phrase “You are not forgotten.” At Balloon Fiesta, the black, pear-shaped balloon stood out among the hundreds of rainbow-colored balloons of odd shapes dotting the sky.

 

Just before Balloon Fiesta, Freedom Flight was awarded a $37,500 grant from the Minnesota Veterans Affairs Department for a wheelchair-accessible basket and the trailer to haul it, said Cesnik, a Vietnam Air Force veteran. To enter a standard balloon basket, riders ordinarily have to climb over the top.

 

The special basket has a door, and passengers can ride in a wheelchair or a special racecar-like seat attached to the basket and equipped with a four-point harness. “We’ll be able to take people that have never been up in a balloon,” Cesnik said.

 

At Balloon Fiesta, Cesnik flew the names of veterans on ribbons affixed to his basket. The names included that of Senator John McCain, who had died a little over a month earlier.

 

As Cesnik was speaking, other veterans approached the balloon and signed a festival poster on the basket. Michele Boutell, 39, of Waco, Texas, lauded the Freedom Flight mission. “They’re doing amazing things,” said Boutell, whose Air Force reserves unit was the second in Afghanistan after 9/11.

“A lot of young people I meet don’t know a veteran.”

 

 

For Chase Crews, the Action is On the Ground

 

The unsung heroes of hot air ballooning are the chase crews—the teams of young men and women who track their operation’s balloon from a pickup truck or van to help bring the craft to a safe landing.

Kurt Spruhan, who crews for his family, says pilots and chase crews share a single important lesson: expect the unexpected. “You have to expect something different each time out,” Spruhan says.

 

Chase crews rely on visuals and knowing the wind, he says. “Sometimes you’ll put up a helium balloon. Sometimes the wind is going one direction, but the last 50 feet over the surface it’s going a different direction. Just because the balloon is going one direction doesn’t mean you’re going to catch it in that direction.”

 

In one adrenaline-pumping episode four years ago, Spruhan was tracking the balloon his stepfather, Tom Keller, was piloting with two passengers near their Coachella Valley home.

 

Winds shifted, putting the balloon just past some power lines and over the only viable landing area: a patch of open land about the size of a tennis court that was bordered by tall trees. “He drops really fast and then has to make the balloon stop at a point where he’s not hitting these trees,” Spruhan recounts.

 

Worse, radios weren’t working, and Spruhan couldn’t communicate with the pilot. Spruhan ultimately anchored a drop line that the pilot had tossed before the balloon could hit the trees.

 

In pilot Jonathan Wright’s most memorable episode when he was on a chase crew, the radios of both pilot and crew on the ground were working. But the chase crew was wise enough to keep its radio silent and avoid distracting the pilot with the mishap it was tending to on the ground.

 

Wright and the rest of the team were chasing the balloon of a pilot during a competition at an Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta in the mid-90s. They were using Wright’s father’s truck, a one-ton ’89 Chevy Crew Cab Dually when the U-joint in the drive shaft suddenly broke and an axle dropped to the ground, leaving the crew immobile.

 

“The pilot is scoring great,” Wright recalls. “We haven’t told him we have a broken truck. My dad is a general contractor, and he calls his heating contractor, who’s a spectator at the field. We jumped into his truck, and we were there when [the pilot] landed with a totally different truck, ready to pick him up.”

 

Many pilots say their chase crews are typically already at a landing site when they are ready to bring the balloon down. Daryl Tatum, owner and chief pilot at Balloons Over Georgia, recalls one instance after a night flight that ended up with his balloon in a dark cow pasture, and he and his chase crew couldn’t find each other for two hours—even with working radios.

 

"It wasn’t anybody’s fault," Tatum says. "It was an evening flight.”

 

Now and then, a pilot dispenses with an official chase crew altogether. Jeffrey Ashworth, 46, said his two sons typically crew for him on the ground when he pilots their balloon, Slainte! (pronounced Slan-Tcha, meaning "Cheers" in Gaelic).  When his sons want to fly, however, Ashworth does what many do when they need a ride: He calls an Uber to pick them up at the landing site.

 

“The driver doesn’t get it for a while until they pull up to our chase truck,” Ashworth says, “and then we retrieve the balloon.”

 

 

The Enemy of Balloon Pilots: Power Lines

 

The wind—it’s both friend and foe to balloon pilots. The operators use the fuel burners of their crafts to ascend and catch air currents that will bring them to a spacious landing field owned by a friendly neighbor—or they fire up the burner to escape a current that might take them to their biggest nemesis: power lines.

 

In one of the deadliest balloon incidents, a pilot and 15 passengers died 44 minutes after launching at sunrise on July 30, 2016, when their balloon struck power lines and crashed in a field near Lockhart, Texas. The balloon, owned by the pilot, was destroyed by the impact and a fire after the crash, according to a 55-page National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) accident report.

 

The October 2017 report said that the ground crew and witnesses saw “patchy fog” along the route to and near the launch site. The ground crew chief said weather at the launch site was clear, the report said, citing a post-crash interview with NTSB investigators, while a ground crew member said fog was visible near the launch site but that “vertical visibility was unobscured.”

 

When the pilot checked weather conditions about two hours before the launch, clouds were as low as 1,100 feet above ground. Other conditions indicated fog could form, though fog was not forecast. “The pilot did not check weather again before launch,” the NTSB said in the report, adding that updated forecasts indicated “deteriorating conditions.”

 

In addition to missing the opportunity to cancel the flight by not checking the weather again, the pilot “exhibited poor decision-making” when he did not land during “suitable” opportunities, the NTSB report concluded.

 

The pilot had medical conditions, the report said. Prescribed medicine for high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes and depression did not affect his performance, though his depression, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, “and the combined effects of multiple central nervous system-

impairing drugs likely affected the pilot’s ability to make safe decisions,” the report said.

 

The NTSB also took the Federal Aviation Administration to task for not requiring medical clearance for balloon pilots.

 

The FAA said it is examining the issue. “One notable exception in the regulations is that balloon pilots do not require medical certificates,” the FAA said in an email response to a Discover Life query. “The history of this exception is unclear, as that rule was written decades ago. The NTSB submitted a safety recommendation to the FAA regarding that rule, and the FAA Reauthorization of 2018 required rulemaking regarding second-class medicals. The FAA is reviewing that mandate at this time.”

 

Pilot judgment plays a big role in accidents, says Tom McConnell, MD, an air safety expert and author of Balloon Safety (Rio Grande), a collection of his seminars on the subject.

 

“In the first 30 balloon accident reconstructions that I did for safety seminars over the years, only one of them did not involve pilot error,” says McConnell. “It was a malfunction of the equipment and the pilot did everything right. In the other 29, the pilot screwed up.”

 

In one incident near Balloon Fiesta, a pilot trying to land with a passenger flew over a tall power line but “apparently he didn’t put the power to the burner when he should have,” McConnell says. “They fell 30 or 40 feet to the ground and both men were killed.”

 

In only two cases that McConnell knows of involving power lines, pilots or passengers were likely electrocuted. In most cases when a balloon collides with power lines, the balloon tips and the fall is fatal.

 

In the meantime, Balloon Fiesta, Albuquerque and New Mexico officials are laying the groundwork to improve safety in and around the balloon festival. Under Federal Aviation Administration rules, drones were prohibited this year from flying within four miles from the center of Balloon Fiesta Park.

 

Nonetheless, hundreds of drones were detected.

 

Just before the 2018 Balloon Fiesta, a task force met to explore other ways to make flight paths more balloon-friendly, says Jim Garcia, a task force and Fiesta board member. The group is looking at land that could serve as a balloon landing site during the Fiesta and as soccer fields and parks the rest of the year. It has discussed whether power line poles can be made to break away upon impact, or if the power lines could be put underground.

 

Preemptive initiatives are making the Fiesta and the ballooning industry safer, McConnell says. Stronger materials with heavier stitching are being used for the balloon envelope and burners are more efficient. At the Fiesta, weather forecasting and the launch routine are always upgraded.

Weather observations, for instance, are made as close to the Fiesta site as possible, he says.

“In the real old days, you got a briefing from the airport,” McConnell notes, “but if the airport is 10 miles away from where you’re ballooning, it may not be the same as where you’re going to take off.”

 

 

Racing Against the Law

Post-World War II, Wally Parks was the editor of Hot Rod magazine when he saw young men coming home from the war, tinkering with engines and finding new ways to modify their cars. With no place to race their more powerful machines, the young men took to the streets to race their cars illegally.

 

Before long, they were getting a reputation as bad kids when in fact they were innovators and had engineering mindsets; Parks didn’t want them punished for that. So he scoured the country for airstrips and other available land to create dragstrips where the young men could race in safe, controlled environments, giving birth to the National Hot Rod Association.

 

Jessica Hatcher, an NHRA spokesperson, said she has no statistics to show whether the rise of legal drag racing has put a crimp in illegal drag racing, also called street racing. But she said that anecdotally, street racing has been shown to be on the decline where there are legal race strips.

 

Those legal strips can’t be everywhere, however, and more than six decades after Parks put his vision into practice, street racing seems to continue to flourish as illegal racers become savvier about evading police.

 

Consider Suffolk County on New York’s Long Island. Arrests and summonses issued for what the police call illegal speed contests have dropped dramatically over the past five years, from eight arrests in 2014 to one in 2018, and 16 summonses issued down to four issued over the same time period in the county, except for the easternmost districts, according to the police. But police are unsure what to attribute the decline to and whether street racing has declined along with the drop in arrests and summonses.

 

“We find that many of these [street races] are very impromptu. They’ll go to different locations, they’ll have a flagman many times, they’ll race, and they’re out of there,” says Deputy Inspector David Regina, commanding officer of the Suffolk Police Department’s Highway Patrol Bureau. “They’re very quick.” Social media and the age of cell phones have let the racers communicate and set up quickly, Regina said. “I would imagine that’s probably affected our enforcement ability.”

 

Further, local laws mandate that police must catch the racers in the act in order to issue summonses or make arrests. “We have to see someone engaged in this,” Regina adds. “It’s not the easiest ticket to write.”

 

As of mid-March, the last street race in Suffolk County for which arrests were made was on Sept. 23 last year. Some 100 cars were on hand at the race, which police happened upon on routine patrol.

John Cozzali, 60, a Long Island sheet metal worker who has been drag racing since he was 14, says illegal street racing is “pretty rampant” on the Island because it has no legal dragstrips. New York National Speedway in Center Moriches closed in the late 1990s, and Westhampton Dragway closed in 2004.

 

So Cozzali founded Long Island Needs a Dragstrip two years ago. He has identified two locations, in Brookhaven and Riverhead, but faces opposition from area neighbors concerned about noise. The other obstacle is that Long Island property is expensive. He said he has employed a firm to do an economic impact study that will show the benefits of having a Long Island dragstrip; the study is due out shortly.

 

In the meantime, Cozzali and other racers head to dragstrips in Pennsylvania and New Jersey when they feel the itch. “We shouldn’t have to give New Jersey and Pennsylvania our revenue,” Cozzali says. “That revenue should stay here.”

 

Avid racer Billy Swinford swears by legal dragstrips. “Although street racing when you’re young can be kind of exciting, the risk-to-reward is too high,” says Swinford, 39, who runs the Lonestar Elite Automotive Shop in Fort Worth, Texas, and operates the DFWSpeed YouTube channel, featuring all of his track-driven street cars.

 

“Jail time, fines, putting yourself and other at risk—it is much safer and cheaper to keep it on the track in a controlled environment,” says Swinford, who has made at least a few trips to the track each month for the past 22 years. “Instead of paying fines and legal fees, you can spend that money on your car and, most importantly, you can see real results through improved track times. Set goals for yourself and your car. Stay focused on those goals. Learn your car and setup, and more than anything, have the proper safety equipment.” –Allan Richter