If you’ve never been to an NHRA (National Hot Rod Association) drag race, I definitely encourage you put on the list. Even if racing isn’t your fancy, the experience is unforgettable. First, the cars are the LOUDEST THING ON EARTH. Okay, maybe not, but pretty damn close. These 10,000 horsepower cars, shaking and rattling like they may fly apart at any minute (and sometimes do), shake your innards when they go by. I can’t even really explain the bone jarring power of these machines. Well, they go over 300 mph in a 1/4 mile, so that might help illustrate it.
And to fuel all this power, the cars burn nitromethane. Yep, rocket fuel. And this insanely combustible compound produces a greenish exhaust that, once inhaled, feels like a raging fire inside your head. It starts as a little burn in the back of the throat , but a few seconds later, your entire head is begging for relief. Your nostrils feel as though they’ve been scorched, you eyes burn, oh man do they burn. “Make it stop!” is all you can think as you wonder why on Earth you allowed yourself to breathe in this awful stuff.
Don’t worry, you won’t have to experience this by simply attending the race. Only if you are right next to the car while it’s running does it affect you (the grand stands are far enough back where this isn’t an issue). In the pits, however, it is a different story. One thing to note is that NHRA racing differs from most other motorsports in that all fans (who have a ticket to the race) can access the pits. (Other racing, NASCAR, for example, all require special passes for people to get up and close and personal to the crews working on cars).
Another thing to know is that, in top fuel and funny car racing, each crew rebuilds their engine after every race. That works out to be about 3-4 times per car, per day. And it’s during the rebuild that each team will test-fire the engine for minute or two. The cars are under tents and surrounded by haulers and trailers, so the godawful gas hangs in the air, creating a hazy green cloud. Hard core fans bring gas masks so they can stand right against the barrier keeping folks out of the garage while the engine is warming up. Here is a YouTube video from this engine testing in the pits:
But, as you can see in the video, some just stand there and breathe it all in. It’s kind of like a rite of passage for true NHRA fans. I experienced it as a kid, when my dad took me to the Southern Nationals in Commerce, Ga. All I can remember is the pain and wondering why all these grown people were doing this.
This essay is a collection of documentary images from inside the pits, as well as a few portraits of gas-mask wielding fans. I’ve taken these photos to hopefully tell the story of these crazy fans and show what the Nitro Experience is all about.