Fast times and loads of fun, despite expensive gas

Photo story: Drag racing today is a AAA-sanctioned activity for high school students — on a track, without alcohol, and with plenty of supervision. But high-priced fuel takes a toll.
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For some kids the coolest place to be is at the annual High School Drag Races, held at Pacific Raceways in Kent, Wash. (Andrew McDonald)

Photo story: Drag racing today is a AAA-sanctioned activity for high school students — on a track, without alcohol, and with plenty of supervision. But high-priced fuel takes a toll.

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For some kids, the coolest place to be is at the annual High School Drag Races, held at Pacific Raceways in Kent, Wash. Students can win a trophy for their high school and one for themselves, as well. It costs $30 to race but only $5 to watch after producing a student ID card. Last weekend, 65 non-students and would-be racers over 18 were turned away.

Kent Lake, White River, Tahoma, and Emerald Ridge high schools are usually well-represented. "We own every year," boasts Chelsea Throop, 17, a junior at Kent Lake. She's interested in psychology; friend Andrea Kendrickson is thinking of a career in medicine. They aren't racing, but they love to watch. Andrea explains the social groups of jocks and rednecks; racers are cool, and partiers are cool, too. "Racers and partiers go together. Racing makes the guys get all excited - they're funner."

Tyler Wilson, 17, says he's been coming to the drag strip with his grandfather all his life. But this is his first time actually racing, with the 1993 Chevy S-10 pick-up he got from his step-dad's cousin. "It was sitting in his yard for four years," he says. Tyler figures he's put about $1,000 into getting it running again, and putting in a new EGR (exhaust gas recirculation) valve. He came up with the money by working at a Dairy Queen in Tacoma, where he lives. "I hate that job," he admits. But, "Being a car guy is definitely cool," he says modestly. "I love this place." Conversely, "I cannot stand Fords," he says firmly. He can barely put up with Ford people. "I've been brought up around Chevys. They're a hell of a lot easier to work on and a lot less expensive."

Starting in the 1980s, and certainly by the 1990's, cars came with fuel injection systems that make fussing with the air-gas ratios impossible - that's all programmed now by computer. But there's something about gathering by the open hood of any car, even a relatively new one, that's part of the whole experience.

Even if they're not the type who can hear or smell what's wrong with a car simply by turning the key in the ignition, the thrill of speeding down the quarter-mile drag strip at an average 100 mph lures friends to pile in for the ride. Where's the beer? "We don't allow any of that stuff," says Tracie Brandenburg, the raceway's manager of marketing and media. "Nothing. Zero tolerance. Our motorcade security is on site, patrolling the premises, even afterwards." There were hardly any cigarettes to be seen, either. Booths set up outside the pit and beside the stands included blaring radio station set-ups, a live band, a few energy drink giveaways, and a jacked-up Humvee painted in the stars and stripes to promote the National Guard recruitment effort. AAA is a big sponsor, encouraging racers off the streets and freeways, and offering college scholarship money. Green River Community College, another sponsor, is practically next door and offers body shop and auto tech courses.

Pacific Raceways used to be known as Seattle International Raceway. It's been around since the 1960s. Robert Pugh, 42, has been racing here for years, and is passing the passion on to his stepson, Josh Basebelle, 17, who waits to race a vintage '71 VW bug. Pugh has his own auto shop and is extremely concerned about the effect of high gas prices: "It sucks." More importantly, he says, it will crush this very definitive American culture. "It's going to end up taking away from our kids doing what we did when we were younger."

Cars line up in the staging lanes, first for the two trial runs and then for the actual elimination races. The only restriction is that no car can race faster than 11.5 seconds down the strip. (This is not the race for using parachutes.) There are nerdy sedans, dull station wagons, plenty of pick-up trucks, and even a flashy luxury car. Chris Carlson of Bothell works 30 hours a week in a grocery store, and says it's worth it: he's racing his own Lexus IS300. Nearby were a Suburban with an extreme lift and a dune buggy with a carefully-helmeted driver. Last year someone raced a high-speed minivan.

Of course, classic Detroit is well represented, dripping with chrome and sporting car parts long since out of stock. Plenty of rumbling, American automotive muscle is hre for the ogling: Camaros, Firebirds, and Pontiac Trans-Ams.

Dan Poteet, a 17-year-old junior at Monroe High School, put all his spare time and dollars into his Chevy El Camino pick-up, which has a mean-looking hood scoop. The vehicle was a gift from his dad on his 15th birthday. Dan works at his father's auto repair shop to earn the money to pay for the big new engine and gas to match. He's not pleased about the rising price at the pump, but he's "willing to pay for it to drive a V-8." Happy to approach the starting line, he says what they all say: "I'm excited." Later, he says there was a flood of adrenaline as he was poised at the starting line. Some of the racers heat the tires by running them at high speed, called power-braking, while at the vehicle is at a standstill. This creates a dramatic cloud of white smoke and gives the slick tires better traction. Dan wasn't able to do that because there isn't enough weight in the back of his vehicle, making the tires hop.

The green bulb lights up and he's off. How'd he do? "I did alright - I ran a 14.8 and a 14.4." Those are seconds, of course.

Chloe West, 16, is one of a handful of girls racing. She goes to Enumclaw High and gets to drive the 1967 Mustang fastback that used to belong to her grandfather. Everybody in her family races, but the little ones haven't had a chance yet - she is the second-oldest, with three brothers and five sisters. Chloe used to dream of being a NASCAR driver, but these days she isn't sure what she would like to do.

Chloe wins her first race of the evening. As she awaits the loudspeaker's announcement to rejoin the setup lanes for the next run, she patiently tries to explain the culture: "Enumclaw's a really hick town." About the cars and trucks, she says: "We like to lift 'em and do mudding, where you roll them." She works at Baskin-Robbins to pay for gas, and shrugs off the price: "It's always been expensive." Her friend, Travis Wallace, also 16 and racing for the first time, agrees. He works at a ranch and feeds the animals there. "Gas is just one of those things," he says. "It's a priority."


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