Speed Isn't Enough

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

Time is erasing his immortality.

The starter points. He cranks the engine, goes through the burnout and takes off, wrapping his gloved fingers tight around the steering wheel.

Pro-mod are the most violent cars on the dragstrip -- as a friend of his put it, "The ass end of the car is literally trying to eat the front end." Funny-car champ John Force cringes at the thought of driving one of these babies. But McAmis won't drive anything else.

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 fights to hold the car steady at maximum speed.

He qualifies again, finishing in 6.374 seconds, but drops to sixth position.

Early Saturday morning, and already a long line of cars creeps along Gateway's outer road looking for parking, the chug-and-brake rhythm an ironic contrast to the 300 mph dragsters they've come to watch. Gateway's managers searched so desperately for more parking space, they got their hands slapped by the Illinois Supreme Court: OK, the place is the economic hope of Madison County, but that doesn't mean it's in the public interest to turn over land to them.

Now Gateway's color-coding lots and running shuttles, engineering ingress every way its staff can think of.

McAmis and his crew keep it simple: They sleep here. They've been running tests since sunup.

Heat's already rising from the asphalt, and the air's wavy as old glass. Mike plays around with the temperature gauge, comparing the white and silver and black vehicles parked across from their trailer.

By early afternoon, the black one will be 158 degrees Fahrenheit, and the thermometer hanging on the shady side of the trailer will read 99.

Today, they don't bother setting a chair in front of the fan. Nobody's going to have time to sit in it.

The morning's debate: what size fuel jets to use. The air hangs heavy with humidity, so they need the right balance of air to fuel. Run it too rich, and they won't have optimum performance. Lean is mean. But if they go too lean, they'll blow their cylinders.

McAmis weighs every opinion. Running a shop has taught him to listen.

Around 10 a.m., Diane carries Snoozer, the elder of the couple's two schnauzers, out of the motor home for a break, then returns him and comes out with Pebbles, the puppy. As they pass Mike, Pebbles reaches up and licks his cheek. She's incorrigible, compared with the dignified and perfect 11-year-old Snoozer, and Diane complains that she has to be the disciplinarian:

"She don't get no swats from Tim."

He's more likely to button her into her life vest, knowing she's too much of a prima donna to swim in their lake. The McAmises don't have kids. But they do have schnauzers.

Mike returns to the compressor, but Pebbles' visit has smoothed the frown lines from his forehead. He and Chris gab a minute about oval-track racing -- who wants to make left turns all day? -- and how there's more luck involved than skill, because you've got all that time to recover your position. Drag racing, you control as much as you can, do whatever you have to do to stay in front. And you either make it or you don't.

Mike goes to the big purple drum inside the trailer, siphons out Mach Series Racing Methanol. This car turns normal mileage upside down, drinking about 28 gallons per mile. They use a giant double funnel and pour slowly; it splashes anyway.

"These are the exhaust headers," he tells a bystander, pointing to what look like fat, dirty organ pipes. "You wouldn't want to try to get this emissions-inspected."

McAmis climbs into the driver's seat, and, one by one, the crew members pop in their orange earplugs. He revs the engine, but steadily, not for effect. Voom, voom, voom. Then he builds to a crescendo so they can check the timing.

Afterward, he rolls his neck, but just once. He doesn't want to make a production of it. Everybody's tense; everybody's working hard.

Chris walks by and hands him a jar of Aleve.

In the middle of it all sits the car, low and flat and implacable, as though it already knows what's going to happen.

Third race, McAmis waits forever in the lineup. He closes his hands over the steering wheel, opens them and lifts them, closes them again. Hears the announcer call out times better than his last run.

Finally he's motioned forward. Burnout. Position. He looks hard at the track at the transition, the stretch where it changes from concrete to asphalt. Oil rises to the asphalt's surface in this heat, greasing it. Can't let the tires spin out.

He rolls the car forward, triggering the staging lights. Amber. Out.

McAmis starts fast, really fast. Halfway down the scorched track, the tires start to shake. A month's worth of thoughts spin through his head. He lifts off the gas, feathering the pedal to regain control of the car, and coasts to the finish. He pulls the parachute lever with a tingle of dread.

He's "on the bump," in eighth position. Still qualified, but last on the list, easily knocked out of the running if somebody else improves. Nobody can predict a drag race; the competition changes every time. Weather, engine, how many bits of rubber stick to the groove, how easily the other driver panics, how many engines a team can afford to destroy.

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