Speed Isn't Enough

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

He flashes back to Bristol, Tennessee, last fall, when they had to strip the car down to the frame rails and replace the engine, transmission and clutch before going into the final. Five people busting ass in 45 minutes, shoving on heat-resistant gloves to yank out the sizzling engine.

Hoelscher interrupts the memory, thrusting "hero cards" into his stepson's hands for autographs. They buy 10,000 at a time, and they last maybe five races. They're not cheap, either, McAmis thinks ruefully. But you've got to have them. People come around with bags and collect them.

He leans against the trailer, listening to his stepdad tell a fan how they started out doing tractor pulls when Tim was in high school and how Tim pulled that little tractor all the way to the state championship.

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.

"He's long since passed me up," says Hoelscher. "Tim's real smart."

McAmis waves away the compliment and walks behind the car. He prefers work to praise, believes people make their own luck.

The rear right tire's flabby now, slumped against the wall, waiting to be pumped back to importance. McAmis glances at the eighth-inch dimples engineered into the $500 treadless tire, knowing its gummy-smooth surface will wear that far in just a few races. Then he frowns and crawls under the wheel well, not even noticing that he's kneeling on a wrench. He runs a finger over a spot worn white, palpating the metal like an ER doctor.

Wheel shake. Too much clutch.

How much can he get away with tonight?

He glances over to the shady patch where family members, in from out of town, sit on folding chairs, fan themselves, hold cold beer cans against their foreheads. Nice that they came, but he can feel the pressure building. When you're racing near home, people come and watch. They want to see you win.

At 7 p.m., the air's only marginally cooler, sticky with the day's $5 lemonades, corndogs and cotton candy. A kid has his head down on a picnic bench. Flushed vendors lean on their booths' counters, selling the gloves and helmets and wheel covers that turn the morning commute into fantasy.

The crowd's denser by the minute, people standing six deep at the rail.

On the way to line up for the evening race, McAmis passes the pro-stock bikers' rigs. Mike Phillips' tall, beautiful wife stands with her hands on her hips, already sick of the smell of motor oil on her clothes and hair. The couple's little girls sleep on a blanket, their African-American skin dark against its pink folds. McAmis thanks God one more time that drag racing's not lily-white.

NASCAR's still "redneck racin'" at its root, shaped by the good ol' boys who love to see those Confederate flags flying in the stands. It started in the Southeast in the 1930s, when moonshine runners, whiskey-trippers, tried to elude federal and state revenuers on winding roads. But drag's a simple impulse, a way to settle the age-old question of whose car goes faster, and it's influenced by just about everybody. McAmis has won trophies in Puerto Rico, and he's built cars for racers from Sweden, England, Australia and Canada.

The car glides to a stop in a long line. He rubs his dark-blue eyes, stinging from the nitromethane the funny cars have just plumed into the air. When it's dark, they'll look like moving torches, their headers shooting orange flames into the blackness. The heat of the exhaust actually sets the excess fuel on fire.

He stares straight ahead, eyes crinkled, mind as still as a Zen monk's.

The roar of the engines does not suggest lions. Purely mechanical, akin to nothing in nature, it fills the air, shakes the ground, fills the chest of every human at the rail. People wince happily, clap their hands over their ears, smile like saints during a vision. The sound is superhuman, its power transcendent.

But the rhythm of the revving is primal, cresting in the body like lust or rage.

McAmis hears this without hearing it. Anticipation calms him. He'll do the burnout in the usual blur, his mind leaping ahead of habit to reckon with the only six seconds that matter.

The Sanders brothers strap him into his five-point harness, hook the air line to his helmet, tug the belt tight. McAmis slides his foot under the metal that holds it in place above the accelerator, locking in, glad he can pry up on the metal if the pedal gets stuck.

He likes safety. Most drag racers die of natural causes, he regularly reminds his wife and mother.

February scared them.

He'd gone alone, sick with the flu, to run tests in Darlington, South Carolina. Got in at 1 a.m., up at 5 a.m. Dosed himself good with Tylenol; no food since noon the day before. Strapped in, took off -- and lost consciousness.

He woke up in a field of cows.

All this flashes in a millisecond as he watches workers powder the bald spot at the starting line, rubber torn away by launch after launch. He takes better care of himself now; he's stopped guzzling Sun-Drop citrus soda and eating miniature Milky Ways for lunch.

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