Speed Isn't Enough

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

It's time.

They slide the glossy black '63 Corvette Stingray out of its berth. Firesuit still unzipped, drag racer and onetime world champion Tim McAmis perches half in, half out of the driver's seat, and the four-wheeler tugs the car along behind it like a supercharged duck on a string. Crew members jog alongside, clad in their bad-bowling-shirt uniforms, black and gray poly with red diagonal stripes.

They pass drag-racing legend John Force's luxe trailers, handpainted with his flourished signature, his drivers' costumed crews wielding power tools. They pass Anheuser-Busch's classy little German beer school on wheels, Miller Lite's hospitality café, the U.S. Army's black-and-gold rig for its sponsored driver, "an army of one."

McAmis shakes his head. Ten years ago, people came in open trailers and pickup trucks. Now you wouldn't dare pull in with something like that; you need a huge rig and a huge crew and a ton of money.

Every time the car slows, his brother, Chris McAmis, squats to measure the distance from the wheelie bar to the ground. Everything's got to be perfect: The guys they're running against have corporations paying for spare engines, state-of-the-art parts, trained crews. He measures again.

In the air, the scents of musky nitromethane and clean, sharp alcohol mix with grease. A carnival town has risen overnight: Pronto Pups and fried turkey wings, Race Girl tank tops and pricey souvenirs and parts vendors pack the asphalt surround of Gateway International Raceway. Crowds started gathering at 7 a.m. on Thursday, June 27, and they'll pour into Madison County all weekend. By Sunday, reserved seats will cost $55 a pop, and record numbers will sweat out the finals of the Sears Craftsman Nationals, midpoint of the National Hot Rod Association's drag-race series.

Motorsports czar Chris Pook bought this place in 1995, seeing a future for the swampy old road course. He moved the old dragstrip and built a challenging egg-shaped oval track (fondly known as "the paperclip") alongside it, winding the original road course through the middle for the sports-car drivers. Then he sold the facility to Dover Motorsports, which hopes to lure one of NASCAR's Winston Cup races here.

The timing's right. In the past decade, America has consummated its long love affair with the car. Motorsports are now the United States' top spectator sport, growing late but fast in the Midwest. Drag racing's hot on NASCAR's heels, with a widening fanbase, ESPN2 coverage and Coca-Cola's five-year POWERade sponsorship splashed everywhere in sight.

McAmis is about to run the first of four qualifying races, his pro-mod category -- for professional drivers in modified cars -- scheduled for Friday afternoon and evening, Saturday morning and afternoon. He's competing against twenty other drivers; by Sunday, the field will have narrowed to eight.

Right now, he just has to make it down the quarter-mile as fast as he can.

Lining up to watch the slow procession of cars are the spectators: Women in bra tops and shorts. Guys shirtless, tattoos splotched on bare shoulders, dark as the leaves in their camouflage pants. Middle-aged men in wheelchairs, craving vicarious speed. Toddlers in tiny racing helmets, earplugs already stuffed into the whorls of their small ears.

Even the suits are here, sitting polo-clad in air-conditioned party boxes, waiting to see the vice money of Anheuser-Busch or Miller or Skoal burn up the track. Slicked up from its hillbilly days, drag racing puts all the emphasis on technology and speed. It's judged in intense six-second bursts that match the nation's attention span nicely. And it's finally attracting big-money sponsorship.

Back in 1990, when McAmis won the first pro-mod world championship, nobody had company money. They raced for the joy of it. The first car he built cost $30,000, the engine $40,000. His wife repacked the parachute, scraped the gaskets and laid out the tools. He did the service work himself between races.

Now the cars cost about $100,000, the engines about $70,000, and a driver needs a crew of at least four, ideally six. Racers with sponsors pay their crews; McAmis and his partners, Mike and Roger Sanders of North Carolina, can't afford to. McAmis' brother Chris does the Web site and helps on race days; their stepdad, Lou Hoelscher, is in charge of the fat back Hoosier tires. As they pull the car along, he squats every few minutes to check the pressure, muttering how, in heat like this, they'll pick up two or three pounds easy. He hangs a heavy white flap over the right back tire to block the sun.

Fans point with delight to the '63 Corvette -- and the '48 Willys, the '00 Viper, the '53 Studebaker. Elevated from the top sportsman category a decade ago, pro-mod parades every kind of "doorslammer." Not only do their doors open, they wear the skin of real cars.

Granted, the windows latch so the 280 mph speeds don't suck them off and spin them to Kansas, and the insides have been gutted into Italian industrial sculpture -- tubes and switches and no place to rest a Sonic tray.

But they have doors. And they conjure memories: Saving three summers of lawn money. Sleeping in the garage the first night so nobody steals her. Revving at stoplights, best friend in the other lane. Flying down the highway without a care in the world.

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.

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.

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 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."

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.

"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.

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.

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.

Each variable recalculates the equation, changes the outcome.

Every time is different.

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.

Oval-track's never appealed to him. Sixteen cars going around at once, beating their way to the finish line. Somebody makes a mistake, they have 20 or 30 laps to make it up. Drag racing feels cleaner, more sophisticated -- one on one, and speed's what counts. Make a mistake, lose by one-thousandth of a second, and it's over.

Completely over.

He winces. The Craftsman cut's still raw. Not even qualifying, that close to home -- it'll take a while for that to heal.

He wonders, again, just how much difference a sponsor would make. He's used to converting uncertainties into certainties, risk into speed. He knows all the variables of drag racing, from humidity to flu medicine to a ten-cent ignition wire mysteriously come loose.

Now money's become the biggest variable of all.

He can't stand the thought of doing 25 displays and getting to races three days early and getting bribed with performance bonuses, the way some sponsors do with their drivers.

But he loves racing enough to want what money could give them.

They could hire a full-time pit crew. Run tests under every condition, experiment with every combination of settings. Buy top-of-the-line equipment, and plenty of spare parts.

With Budweiser's money, Kenny Bernstein broke the 300 mph barrier in 1992, reached 310 mph in 1994, won six NHRA championships, set a world-record time in 2001. The mayors of St. Louis and Madison proclaimed last Sunday Kenny Bernstein Day.


Maybe a sponsor.

McAmis just hired an agent to make presentations to likely corporations. His brother even called up the Navy, but, like the Army and the Marines, they wanted to sponsor one of the flashy top-fuel or funny-car teams.

McAmis feels his brain brake, slide to a stop, rethink the whole thing. He's set five national records, won five national events and the first pro-mod world championship. Maybe it's time to quit.

But it'd sure be nice to run one year with a sponsor, race the way he wants to, take chances without worrying about breaking equipment. Really go for it, and see what happens.

Before his time runs out.

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