Speed Isn't Enough

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

Each variable recalculates the equation, changes the outcome.

Every time is different.

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.

After the race, the Sanders brothers get back to the pit first. They uncoil power cords and run them back and forth, fast as canned string on Halloween. The car glides up, curving into the bay, tires sliding onto the metal plates Roger has just set in place. Working smoothly, the brothers ratchet up the back end and then the front, rip out the spark plugs and set up the blower.

Nobody says a word.

McAmis knows they're tiptoeing. He never raises his voice -- he barely cusses. But at times like this, something flattens inside him, pulling him taut.

He sees his mother frown, hears her murmur, "I think he feels like he's let everybody down when he doesn't have a good pass."

Letting out a long breath, he carries the data-acquisition box into the trailer, wishing for a door he could lock. Instead, he pushes through the clear strips of plastic, feeling as if he's in the dairy section of a little grocery.

Once the data starts charting itself on the computer screen, he reaches for a blue binder and a calculator and starts playing with weight combinations for the clutch. How much pressure? How much slippage? A gram could make the difference.

Finished, he totals the weights and compares them against an adding-machine tape neatly glued to the next page. Then he stacks the binder back in its overhead compartment. Nothing's out of place in the trailer. If a soda's half-finished, a crew member initials its lid with a Sharpie and repacks it neatly in the cooler.

At home, Diane teases him, saying the couple's twenty acres of grass look as if he cuts it with scissors.

He hears Chris outside, reminding somebody that they always do better on fourth-round qualifying:

"Tim's good under pressure. And the air's gonna cool down a little. If it would get down to 60 or 70, we'd be in the low 6.2's."

Their stepdad drums his fingers nervously on the rack that holds the doors, trying to figure out where to move them out of the way. The car needs room. She's like a diva during a costume change, with a dozen hands fussing and fixing every inch of her.

Around one, a friend fires up the barbecue grill, three feet from the hot engine, and cooks for them. The smoke mixes with motor oil and sweat and, soon, roasting meat. Mike carries his brat into the cool trailer, setting the paper plate on top of the fuel drum. McAmis goes back outside, afraid to stay too long in the air conditioning.

"He doesn't eat, drink or breathe before a race," says Chris. He reaches for the stat sheet a runner just brought, and they compare times.

"Some of 'em will hurt some parts next time around," predicts Mike. "Do or die. And a lot will leave tonight."

Hoelscher looks up from the stat sheet.

"We might be one of them," he says heavily.

McAmis finishes the last run in 6.37 seconds and misses the eighth position by a thousandth of a second.

He's out.

The crowd barely registers the pro-mod results; they're still recovering from the apocalypse. Larry Dixon, the Miller Lite champ who's been beating Kenny Bernstein all year, just smoked his tires. He didn't even qualify -- for the first time in 64 races.

"And there was rejoicing in Budweiserland," one wag intones. "But they do it like this" -- he mimes tiny discreet claps -- "because they don't want to be bad sports."

Bernstein did qualify, but he finished the last race in tenth position, his worst result all year.

"That's how bad the track is," somebody mutters. "Tomorrow is going to be one wild wide-open shootout."

For a week after the race, McAmis grinds it through his brain. Mainly it was the heat. Nobody could have stopped the sun from baking that track to 131 degrees Fahrenheit. The guy who bumped him to ninth position in the last race was driving a nitrous car. So was Shannon Jenkins, who won the final on Sunday in 6.29 seconds.

But if McAmis hadn't been worried about blowing up his engine, he could have run his blown engine leaner, risked melting the pistons, bending a rod, gutting the engine.

A lot of guys did that. One pro-mod driver went through four engines.

He had a sponsor.

Sponsorship's everywhere in drag racing now; they're soaking in it. John Force, whose outrageous comments long ago made him the sports reporters' darling, now talks reflexively, every time he's asked a question, about how the real goal is to get his sponsors' names to the finish line. Castrol, Syntec and AAA, he says again and again, trotting out their names like the Three Little Pigs. Announcers speak sympathetically about the pressure on the guy driving the Sears Craftsman car because this is the Sears Craftsman event, about the pressure on the Miller Lite team when they're on Anheuser-Busch turf.

McAmis never thought drag racing would change this fast. Sponsors want exposure for their advertising dollars. Drag racing's a six-second blast; then it's over. If somebody makes it to the finals, that only guarantees four six-second shots on TV. Even the guy who runs last in NASCAR gets more than that.

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