The ins and outs of street-legal drag racing around Southern California.

The driver of a Ford F-150 SVT Lightning warms his tires before making a run down the quarter mile drag strip at California Speedway in Fontana. Warmer tires generate more grip for a faster time and higher speed at the finish line. / photo by Lindsey Gooding

The driver of a Ford F-150 SVT Lightning warms his tires before making a run down the quarter mile drag strip at California Speedway in Fontana. Warmer tires generate more grip for a faster time and higher speed at the finish line. / photo by Lindsey Gooding

As I let the car idle its way up to the starting line, my pulse jumps into overdrive as I contemplate what I’m about to do. The arrow-straight ribbon of asphalt laid out before me beckons silently, taunting me with the 1,320 feet that separate my mechanical steed and me from our prize. Inch by inch we creep into the staging beams, waiting for the front wheels to trip them and light the top row of bulbs on the semi-automated starting device aptly named the Christmas tree. The first bulbs light up, and we creep just that little bit further forward. The second row of bulbs lights, and the adrenaline content of my blood begins to climb. On comes the first countdown light, then it switches off. The second one then does the same. As the third and final amber bulb goes dark, I stomp on the accelerator. Microseconds later, the green light comes on and we begin our charge. The battle has begun.

How many times have you been lounging on the sofa, watching stock car racing, sports car racing, open wheel racing, drag racing or any other motorsports discipline on the tube and thought to yourself, “Psssh, that looks so easy even I could do it!” Or have you ever wondered just how fast your car can take a corner or accelerate away from a dead stop? Well if you have, I do hope you haven’t tried testing the mettle of you or your ride on public roads, because there’s always the chance of getting arrested, injured, killed or some other outcome that could be described as “not good.” Besides, you’d want some hard numbers to back up your boasting, right?

That’s where events like street legal drag races and road course track days come into play. Remarkable that they even exist in this hyper-litigious society of ours, these “run-what-ya-brung” speed trials allow you to push yourself and your car (provided the latter passes tech inspection) to the limit in a controlled, safe environment and get accurate, quantitative measurements of your performance. But are all those perks worth the prices of admission? Your card-carrying motor maniac of an author set out to find out.

The first event I decided to play guinea pig for was street legal drag racing, specifically a late September meet at Auto Club Dragway on the grounds of California Speedway in Fontana. Granted, the facility at Irwindale Speedway is considerably closer for many people – myself included – but there were two issues with that venue: One, their street legal drags are held on Thursday nights, a time and date that conflicted directly with my class schedule, and two, the fact that the Irwindale track is one-eighth of a mile in length, exactly half the length of Fontana and the drag strips the vast majority of professional drag racers compete on. Or to put a stick-and-ball spin on things, the digs at Irwindale are the speed freak equivalent of t-ball or flag football. Don’t get me wrong, Irwindale is still fun, but almost any purist will tell you there’s simply no substitute for a quarter mile, and many still curse the long ago day the original Irwindale Raceway quarter mile strip was bulldozed to make way for the Miller brewery.

Anyway, that Saturday I was up well before dawn, allowing a good hour to traverse the 210 Freeway east from Monrovia to Fontana. My father, a longtime drag racing fan who even competed at the old Irwindale track in the heavily-modified black 1965 Chevy Impala he owned back in the day decided to tag along and take in the rare-for-us treat of street legal drags on a full length track. By the time we arrived there was already a pretty long line of vehicles waiting to get in. Once the gates opened we all began the long procession to the area of the parking lot where we were divided up into vehicles that were going to race and vehicles that weren’t. But they didn’t start that process for another hour, which gave everyone time to get out, stretch, explore what sorts of vehicles were in line, catch-up with friends and bench race. So just what sorts of machinery was queued up? Everything from groups of 2004 through 2006 Pontiac GTOs, Dodge SRT-4s and Subaru Impreza WRXs to Ford Super Duty diesel pickups and Volkswagen Golf R32s. Some of the solitary machines included the likes of a vintage Mercury Cougar, a classic Jaguar XJ sedan powered by a big-block Chevy V8, a handful of motorcycles, a gargantuan Chevy Kodiak-based pickup and, a vivid reminder that this is Southern California, a brand new, $150,000-plus, metallic orange Lamborghini Gallardo, complete with the temporary registration slip taped inside the windshield and the paperboard plates from the Lamborghini dealer in Beverly Hills.

As for yours truly, I brought the proverbial knife to the gun fight in the form of my 1983 Mercedes-Benz 300 SD Turbodiesel. That’s right, I was going to drag race a vintage German landboot that packs all of 120 horsepower measured on a scale that seems to have been calculated from the force exerted by a pregnant mare with two broken legs and a sandbag full of lead shot tied around her neck. Why, you ask? Well first, nothing more suitable (read: powerful) was really available at the time and second, why the bleepety-bleep not?

At any rate, the officials soon began ushering competitor cars into the tech inspection lines, taking our $20 fee and giving us a tech card before doing so. Then we drove another couple hundred yards through the maze to the tech lines to await the scrutineering process. Once it was our turn, the inspector did a walk-around and asked to look under the hood. After getting approved, I walked over to the registration booth to sign the waiver, get my wristband, run card and the car number card, the latter of which I would show to the guy inscribing numbers on everyone’s windows with temporary paint. Then it was time to drive off to the pit area, which was just that, an area of the north parking lot.

After all this, it’s finally time to run, right? Well, no, there is still another hour and a half before the first group of cars – my group – is called. So we decided to wander the pits and explore while we waited. Scores of people were either letting some air out of their tires or changing their street tires for ones with significantly less tread on them, both with the objective of getting more grip for a quicker getaway off the starting line. Some racers were also making various other adjustments, like adding racing gasoline, filling and installing nitrous oxide bottles, and filling radiators and intercoolers with ice, all time tested tricks for making just that little bit more power and thus going just that little bit faster.

photo by Linsdey Gooding

photo by Linsdey Gooding

Finally, the track was ready and group 1 – my group – was called to the staging lanes. We lined up and were directed by an official into one of six parallel lanes that curve around and spill out onto the drag strip. Two at a time, vehicles were motioned forward, first to wait well behind the starting line and then, once the pair ahead had started down the track, do a burnout if desired to warm up the tires, thereby increasing grip and rolling into the staging beams that would help time our runs. After a few minutes, I reached the head of the line and handed my run card to the official, who punched out the first hole on it to signify that this was my first run of the day. Finally, the other driver and I were motioned up to the line.

WuhguhguhguhguhguhguhguAAAA AHHHHHHG!!!WAAAAAAAHG!!! WAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHG!!!!!! With the all the ferocity of a week-old kitten, and enough discordant mechanical racket to be mistaken for North Korean missile launch, the turbocharged five-cylinder engine and four-speed automatic pushed me down the track. And pushed. And pushed some more. Finally, just as the speedometer reached the magic 60-mile-per-hour mark (Hallelujah!), we crossed the finish line. Then it was time to ease onto the brakes to make the first turnout.

I’m sorry to say it, but the whole experience left me pretty cold. Whether this was a result of the decidedly simplistic nature of the sport, the under-whelming velocities attainable by my car or some combination of the two is unclear. My enthusiasm waned even more when I stopped by the timing booth on my way back to the pits. My first run clocked in at 21.686 seconds at a yawn-worthy 63.58 miles per hour.

Upon my return to the pits it became painfully obvious that the Santa Ana winds were blowing fiercely, as temporary canopies, empty fuel cans, folding chairs and just about everything else lighter than a vehicle was getting thrown in a southeasterly direction. To make matters worse, all the dust and sand being blown from the north was apparently causing the track’s timing system to alternate between reporting preposterous times and speeds and omitting such figures entirely, much to the displeasure of many of my fellow racers. Add the fact that that same dust and debris was compromising the already marginal pavement conditions and the wind itself was blowing in a direction to push the vehicles sideways and create a headwind, and you’re left with a racing environment that couldn’t get much further from ideal.

Despite all this, I decided to make another run when my group was called, to see if I could improve on my first run by using a different start technique. So after group 1 was called again it was the same procedure as before, only this time I tried some different footwork on the pedals to get a slightly quicker launch. The second run didn’t really feel any different, and the speedometer indicated roughly the same speed at the finish. However, the time slip said I had run a 20.125 elapsed time at…um…well, you see, there was no trap speed on the printout. Chalk up another point for the weather.

Despite the difficult conditions, most of my fellow competitors still seemed to be having fun. One of them was Dan Gray, a Mission Viejo resident, who was running the black 1993 Chevrolet Camaro Z28 he says he’s been racing since “the day I got it.” His participation in drag racing, however, dates back to his high school days. (He graduated in 1967.) The engine is a 383 cubic inch “stroker” version of the original 350 cubic inch LT1 V8, and includes a nitrous oxide injection system that adds 150 horsepower in short bursts. This was Gray’s first time on California Speedway’s “new” drag strip, as opposed to the original one located behind the oval’s main grandstand, and like many racers he felt the new track was a step backward.

Nevertheless, Gray is still glad the opportunity even exists.

“To be able to have a performance car and see what it’ll do in a safe environment is a really good thing,” he said.

Interestingly, Generation Y racers, though they often drive Impreza WRXs and Lancer Evolutions instead of Mustangs and Camaros, seem to be attracted to street legal drag racing for many of the same reasons Baby Boomers like Gray are. One member of this youth movement is B Agahzadeh, owner of Design Force Racing in San Bernardino. DFR campaigns a white 1992 Honda Civic hatchback whose turbocharged four-cylinder engine belts out a manic 600 horsepower with the help of nitrous oxide.

Agahzadeh said he’d “rather be on the track than the street,” even though he’s raced on both. He cited the advantages in terms of safety, legality and stability of conditions as the aspects most appealing to him. And the simple fact of the matter is that for Agahzadeh, Gray and thousands upon thousands of others, people with an addiction to going fast are going to find one way or another to get their high, so there might as well be ways to get it safely and legally.

“Speed’s like a drug, man,” Agahzadeh said. “(Once) you take it…you can’t stop.”

Tom Anderson finishes a basic check-up on a 1999 Oldsmobile Alero before racing it at Willow Springs Raceway in Rosamond. / photo by Lindsey Gooding

Tom Anderson finishes a basic check-up on a 1999 Oldsmobile Alero before racing it at Willow Springs Raceway in Rosamond. / photo by Lindsey Gooding