Speed Isn't Enough

Tim McAmis, drag-racing champ, tries to be a millisecond faster than the big-money boys. Tough duty.

The lurid praying-mantis dragsters and five-second, short-bodied "funny cars" suggest nothing but speed.

McAmis wouldn't mind pushing his Corvette past 300 mph, but he'd never give it up for a solid-shell dragster just to shave a second from his quarter-mile. He wants to race the cars he builds in his Hawk Point, Missouri, shop, the cars old men recognize from their wild youth.

Pro-mod is changing, though. Two years ago, it became an exhibition class of the National Hot Rod Association, and there's talk of turning it into an official competition class as early as next year. For McAmis, that would mean running all sixteen races and spending a lot more than the $100,000 or so he and the Sanders brothers divvy up now.

In his Hawk Point shop, McAmis and his staff of sixteen bend tubes and melt fiberglass, fabricating pro-mod chassis for the competition and for enthusiasts all over the world.
Jennifer Silverberg
In his Hawk Point shop, McAmis and his staff of sixteen bend tubes and melt fiberglass, fabricating pro-mod chassis for the competition and for enthusiasts all over the world.
By Friday evening, the crowd stands six deep at the rail of Gateway's dragstrip, high on vicarious speed.
Jennifer Silverberg
By Friday evening, the crowd stands six deep at the rail of Gateway's dragstrip, high on vicarious speed.

Money he doesn't have. Time he can't afford to steal from his business, Tim McAmis Race Cars Inc. With a staff of sixteen, he's the largest employer in tiny Hawk Point, 60 miles west of St. Louis. They fabricate pro-mod cars for customers all over the world -- including many of his competitors.

McAmis glances back at the Budweiser King's rig. This is Kenny Bernstein's 23rd and last season racing Budweiser-sponsored top-fuel and funny-car entries. He's on his Forever Red tour, and he's set up camp at Gateway with red café tables, a bright-red awning, fold-down trays and surgical carts for the tools, guys in uniforms polishing the engine with clean white cloths.

McAmis shrugs. Maybe he'll get a big sponsor, stand in store aisles a week before the race displaying products.

Chris drags the car to a stop alongside Shannon Jenkins' '68 Camaro, emblazoned with the Western Beef logo of his sponsor. They line up behind Mitch Stott, who's consecrated his '63 Corvette to Radiac Abrasives, and in front of Wayne Torkelson's '55 Thunderbird, hawking Red Line Oil's WaterWetter supercoolant, and Cody McNamara's '57 Bel Air, an homage to Dunkin' Donuts. The cars' graphics scream in neon green, fluorescent orange and acid yellow, with '70s typefaces and licking flames and so many logos the eye can't focus on any of them. The top of McAmis' Corvette is clean black, a few minor sponsor logos on the side like stickers on a 1940s steamer trunk.

As they inch, pair by pair, toward the starting line, McAmis pushes the distractions aside. Ahead stretches the quarter-mile dragstrip.

Empty space, waiting to be swallowed.

Focus the mind, sharp as Occam's razor. All that matters: six seconds of pure speed.

Strapped in tight, McAmis pulls the helmet on and feels fresh air flow over his face, ducted in through canals. He gulps it. Comforts -- such as the cool air and the gel vest he freezes in an ice chest, then slips under his firesuit -- came to drag racing only recently. Of course, at eighteen, he didn't mind the 130-degree heat inside the car or the expectation of machismo.

At 37, he questions the need for either.

Time for the burnout. McAmis rolls through water so the back wheels don't bog, then throws the car into high gear and burns rubber halfway down the track. Particles of debris spin from the wheels in a cloud of white smoke. He wants to get the tires hot enough to melt some of their rubber onto the track, give them something to hold onto.

Job done, he reverses, stopping just behind the starting line and positioning himself carefully. Other drivers have crew members stand there, motioning them an inch to the left, an inch-and-a-half to the right. McAmis finds the process annoying.

He checks the ignition switch and oxygen bottle, draws a deep breath and rolls forward, his tires blocking a light beam and triggering the pre-staging light on the "Christmas tree" that starts the race. His light goes on, and the other driver's follows almost immediately. At least the guy hasn't rushed him, rolling the next six inches to trigger the staging light and thus forcing McAmis to go before he's ready. He hates that, and he'll stall if they try it, freeze stubbornly until an aggravated official waves him up.

You treat people the way you want to be treated, he figures.

Relaxed by the extra second or so, he rolls forward to the starting line and waits for the three amber lights. They flash. In a coordinated blur of movement, McAmis releases the hand brake, lets out the clutch and floors it.

He can't leave before amber. But if he waited for green to start, his opponent would already be halfway to the finish line.

Literally a split second later -- .5 -- the green go light comes on, and he's flying down the dragstrip.

Another .9 second, and he pulls the lever on the carbon dioxide tank, forcing gas into the transmission to shift it into second gear. As soon as it does, he throws it to third. The engine's 2400 horsepower roars through the wheels, and 3 g's of force knock him against the back of the seat.

For the first 60 feet, McAmis' front wheels don't touch the ground. Forget steering; this is launching. He prays he's in the groove, the dull dark strip in the center of the track where enough rubber has been laid down for traction. If the wheels slip outside that strip, he'll scrub away time recovering control.

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