By Sam Levin
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They slide the glossy black '63 Corvette Stingray out of its berth. Firesuit still unzipped, drag racer and onetime world champion Tim McAmis perches half in, half out of the driver's seat, and the four-wheeler tugs the car along behind it like a supercharged duck on a string. Crew members jog alongside, clad in their bad-bowling-shirt uniforms, black and gray poly with red diagonal stripes.
They pass drag-racing legend John Force's luxe trailers, handpainted with his flourished signature, his drivers' costumed crews wielding power tools. They pass Anheuser-Busch's classy little German beer school on wheels, Miller Lite's hospitality café, the U.S. Army's black-and-gold rig for its sponsored driver, "an army of one."
McAmis shakes his head. Ten years ago, people came in open trailers and pickup trucks. Now you wouldn't dare pull in with something like that; you need a huge rig and a huge crew and a ton of money.
Every time the car slows, his brother, Chris McAmis, squats to measure the distance from the wheelie bar to the ground. Everything's got to be perfect: The guys they're running against have corporations paying for spare engines, state-of-the-art parts, trained crews. He measures again.
In the air, the scents of musky nitromethane and clean, sharp alcohol mix with grease. A carnival town has risen overnight: Pronto Pups and fried turkey wings, Race Girl tank tops and pricey souvenirs and parts vendors pack the asphalt surround of Gateway International Raceway. Crowds started gathering at 7 a.m. on Thursday, June 27, and they'll pour into Madison County all weekend. By Sunday, reserved seats will cost $55 a pop, and record numbers will sweat out the finals of the Sears Craftsman Nationals, midpoint of the National Hot Rod Association's drag-race series.
Motorsports czar Chris Pook bought this place in 1995, seeing a future for the swampy old road course. He moved the old dragstrip and built a challenging egg-shaped oval track (fondly known as "the paperclip") alongside it, winding the original road course through the middle for the sports-car drivers. Then he sold the facility to Dover Motorsports, which hopes to lure one of NASCAR's Winston Cup races here.
The timing's right. In the past decade, America has consummated its long love affair with the car. Motorsports are now the United States' top spectator sport, growing late but fast in the Midwest. Drag racing's hot on NASCAR's heels, with a widening fanbase, ESPN2 coverage and Coca-Cola's five-year POWERade sponsorship splashed everywhere in sight.
McAmis is about to run the first of four qualifying races, his pro-mod category -- for professional drivers in modified cars -- scheduled for Friday afternoon and evening, Saturday morning and afternoon. He's competing against twenty other drivers; by Sunday, the field will have narrowed to eight.
Right now, he just has to make it down the quarter-mile as fast as he can.
Lining up to watch the slow procession of cars are the spectators: Women in bra tops and shorts. Guys shirtless, tattoos splotched on bare shoulders, dark as the leaves in their camouflage pants. Middle-aged men in wheelchairs, craving vicarious speed. Toddlers in tiny racing helmets, earplugs already stuffed into the whorls of their small ears.
Even the suits are here, sitting polo-clad in air-conditioned party boxes, waiting to see the vice money of Anheuser-Busch or Miller or Skoal burn up the track. Slicked up from its hillbilly days, drag racing puts all the emphasis on technology and speed. It's judged in intense six-second bursts that match the nation's attention span nicely. And it's finally attracting big-money sponsorship.
Back in 1990, when McAmis won the first pro-mod world championship, nobody had company money. They raced for the joy of it. The first car he built cost $30,000, the engine $40,000. His wife repacked the parachute, scraped the gaskets and laid out the tools. He did the service work himself between races.
Now the cars cost about $100,000, the engines about $70,000, and a driver needs a crew of at least four, ideally six. Racers with sponsors pay their crews; McAmis and his partners, Mike and Roger Sanders of North Carolina, can't afford to. McAmis' brother Chris does the Web site and helps on race days; their stepdad, Lou Hoelscher, is in charge of the fat back Hoosier tires. As they pull the car along, he squats every few minutes to check the pressure, muttering how, in heat like this, they'll pick up two or three pounds easy. He hangs a heavy white flap over the right back tire to block the sun.
Fans point with delight to the '63 Corvette -- and the '48 Willys, the '00 Viper, the '53 Studebaker. Elevated from the top sportsman category a decade ago, pro-mod parades every kind of "doorslammer." Not only do their doors open, they wear the skin of real cars.
Granted, the windows latch so the 280 mph speeds don't suck them off and spin them to Kansas, and the insides have been gutted into Italian industrial sculpture -- tubes and switches and no place to rest a Sonic tray.
But they have doors. And they conjure memories: Saving three summers of lawn money. Sleeping in the garage the first night so nobody steals her. Revving at stoplights, best friend in the other lane. Flying down the highway without a care in the world.
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