Speed Isn't Enough

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

Just past the halfway mark, McAmis starts feeling for the parachute switch overhead. Another second and he releases it. As he sails past the finish line, black parachutes blossom behind him and pull him to a stop. He's gone 220.69 mph, making the run in 6.45 seconds.


McAmis doesn't want to jump through hoops for a sponsor -- but he wouldn't mind flying to the end of the dragstrip without worrying about damaging his engine.
Jennifer Silverberg
McAmis doesn't want to jump through hoops for a sponsor -- but he wouldn't mind flying to the end of the dragstrip without worrying about damaging his engine.
Tim McAmis burns rubber, on purpose, in his shiny black supercharged '63 Corvette.
Jennifer Silverberg
Tim McAmis burns rubber, on purpose, in his shiny black supercharged '63 Corvette.

McAmis qualifies, finishing number four in the pool of twenty-one drivers. But by the time the crew picks him up, disappointment has thickened in his throat. Usually he's first or second. Just weeks ago, in the balmy air of Rockingham, North Carolina, he ran the quarter-mile in 6.11 seconds.

Supercharged engines hate steamy weather.

Only in this hellish heat do nitrous oxide injection engines have the advantage, by pumping in extra, cooler oxygen. McAmis drove nitrous for years, then switched to a supercharged -- "blown-alcohol" -- engine. It forces more air-fuel mixture into the engine, pushes the car to higher speeds.

In any conditions but these.

Back at the pit, one of hundreds of makeshift garage-and-trailer combos slotted into the vast asphalt lot, the crew pries off bits of the car's skin. McAmis squints into the wooden box of temperature, air pressure and humidity gauges, then gives a short, resolute nod. Time to compensate. Tonight's run will be at 7:45 p.m., in cooler air. That means he can get more aggressive with the clutch, throw more power to the wheels, pick up speed.

McAmis reaches for his prize, the $8,500 data-acquisition box tucked above the clutch, and carries it inside the trailer. When he downloads its findings to a computer, he'll know how the car reacted to the settings they tried and to the blazing heat. Then they'll experiment a little.

The Sanders brothers lift off the entire front of the car, setting it down three feet away. The fiberglass is molded so thin, it wobbles in the breeze of a big box fan. They remove the doors and run a fat black accordion hose inside, hooking it to a yellow-gold Power Cat fan to cool off the clutch.

"Remember the '94 car we had?" Mike Sanders asks. "Sawed it down the middle and made it narrow, like an arrow. Aerodynamic." He turns to one of the onlookers who's wandered in to watch, part of drag racing's populist tradition of touring the pit area.

"Tim an' them can do anything," brags Mike. "Tim built one of our first cars, you know. And he was always straight and honest with us. So when he couldn't afford a car and we didn't want to drive, we called him."

Roger Sanders nods. He's the sterner of the two brothers; with his eyebrows knit low, his black beard and short, burly body, he looks ready to head back to a Tolkien mine. Mike's friendlier looking, pink-cheeked and bespectacled, his little mustache salt-and-pepper, his bald spot hidden under a blue ball cap. They come from Lenoir, North Carolina, "where all the furniture's made," and they live 45 minutes from a cluster of NASCAR teams and the Hickory oval track. Their dad drag-raced, though, and they helped him, and because motorsports fans always choose, they chose drag. Now they own a company that makes industrial and specialty motors, and they run a racecar for the fun of it.

Mike stands at the engine for twenty minutes, waiting, listening, cranking the belt around with a long wrench. Roger points what looks like a gun, flashing a light beam on the front of the engine to check the timing. Diane McAmis, neat in white leather tennies and navy shorts, chats over by the fan, telling somebody how she would've died if they'd told her, back at Buchanan High School in Troy, Missouri, that she was going to marry Tim McAmis.

"He was Mr. Future Farmers of America," she groans, "and I was on drill team -- I thought I was cooler than I was." Years later, she ran into him at his class reunion after breaking up with somebody else and deciding she didn't like guys very much. "He just kind of weaseled his way in there, asked me to a Sammy Hagar concert," she says, running a hand through deliberately shaggy blond hair. "We've been together for twelve years now." She laughs about how opposite they are, summing it up in shorthand:

"I smoke and drink, he never did."

Then she smiles, tilts her head.

"Tim's loosened up a lot."

In his version, she's settled down.

"I didn't think she was the type for me," he tells a friend later. "She's wild. She likes to have a good time. But she livened me up a bit, and I've kind of calmed her down." A grin sneaks over his even, sweet Christopher Robin features. "She'd probably be in a halfway house by now!"

A dad in a Budweiser Lawn Lizard tee stops to gawk. Acquaintances come by, and McAmis asks how they're doing.

"How are you doing?" they correct him, startled by his niceness. He's the hero -- he shouldn't be asking about them.

One woman pronounces him "calm as a cucumber."

"I've been doing this a long time," he says with a shrug. "On Sunday, it'll be more nerve-wracking. People will be throwing things in here, tearing the whole engine apart in 45 minutes. You might not want to hear the language."

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