Fast and Furious

Tire-smoking burnouts are just part of the fun at Frank Hawley’s NHRA Drag Racing School.

As the bottom light on the eight-foot-tall Christmas tree flashes green, I simultaneously lift my left foot from the brake pedal and mash down on the gas with my right. With the 700-plus horsepower V-8 roaring just inches behind my shoulders and the G-forces pressing me back into the carbon-fiber seat, I watch as the grandstands on either side of this quarter-mile stretch of asphalt are quickly transformed into one long blur.

As a daydream-prone kid, I spent hours drawing pictures of my drag racing heroes’ long, low cars, studying the action-packed racing photos in hot rod magazines, and wondering what it’d be like to pilot one of these extreme machines. And now I know, thanks to the Dragster Adventure program at Frank Hawley’s NHRA Drag Racing School.

After a 90-minute classroom session that included a guided tour of a cockpit simulator and a lengthy list of do’s and don’ts from the school’s chief instructor, my classmates and I headed downstairs to the track. The cars we found waiting for us are the real deal—NHRA Super Comp rear-engine dragsters capable of covering the quarter-mile in just over 8 seconds at 150 miles-per-hour, though the school dials that potential back a bit for this novice-oriented one-day program.

As my turn behind the tiny bow tie-shaped aluminum steering wheel approached, I suited up in full protective gear that included thickly padded pants and jacket, a head sock, and leather-palmed gloves, all made of fireproof Nomex, plus a full-face helmet and neck collar. After stepping carefully over the car’s fragile aluminum body panels and Lexan windscreen, I lowered myself into the cockpit where school staffers belted me into the five-point racing harness and fastened the elbow restraints designed to keep my arms inside the roll cage in the event of a crash.

Each run begins with a grin-inducing burnout—spinning the fat rear slicks at full throttle for a couple of seconds in order to heat the rubber up for maximum traction on the launch. After pulling the two-speed automatic transmission’s shift lever back into first gear, I inched toward the starting line until the top bulbs on the Christmas tree lit up to confirm my car was staged for the start. Fractions of a second later, I got the green light and I was gone.

In the end, it wasn’t my elapsed times or top speeds that made this experience so remarkable. Rather it’s the full-scale assault on my senses that I remember most: The smells of hot metal and tire smoke, the sounds of that monster motor at full throttle, the sight of those grandstands going by in one heck of a hurry. Not to mention the serious adrenaline rush that comes from traveling those same 1,320 feet my boyhood drag racing heroes did in about the same amount of time it takes you to read this sentence!

Xtrordinary Xtra
If this entry-level Dragster Adventure program sounds a little too tame, the school also offers a program that puts you behind the wheel of an alcohol-powered funny car capable of covering the quarter-mile in about five-seconds at 230 miles-per-hour. Yikes!

Xtrordinary Xtra
Licensed riders can sign up for the Pro Stock Motorcycle class that allows you to swing your leg over a professionally-prepared 250-horsepower Suzuki GSXR drag bike.

The Facts
Name: Frank Hawley’s NHRA Drag Racing School
Location: Based in Gainesville, FL, the school takes its show on the road to dragstrips across the country throughout the summer.
Phone: 866-480-7223/888-901-7223

My Advice

  • Dress comfortably and in layers. On a warm sunny day, the protective get-ups that help keep you safe double as wearable saunas
  • The school’s specially-built cars include adjustable seats and pedals to fit a wide range of individuals, but folks over 6’5” or 250 pounds should check with the school before signing up.
  • While the Dragster Adventure is fine for folks looking for a quick thrill, hardcore gear-heads should consider the school’s two-day Super Comp or Super Gas programs that can earn you your NHRA competition license.
  • Finally, three important words: Bring a camera!