Eat my dust!

Drag Racing

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And we'll have fun, fun, fun, ' til my Daddy takes the Nissan away.

She's real fine, my Nissan Altima.

Little red Nissan Altima/ Baby you're much 2 fast.

Mmmmm. Lacks a certain ring, doesn't it? Oh well, I wanted to race a car on an official drag strip, and — seeing as there was no '67 Camaro with a 427 in my garage, and I couldn't summon up a friend with a Shelby Mustang — I was left with my 2003 Nissan Altima. It's silver, with automatic transmission and a 2.5-liter 4-cylinder engine. One-hundred-and-seventy-five horsepower. She's a beaut.

Where do you drag race a car such as this, you ask? Why, Wednesdays at Sunshine Dragstrip in Pinellas Park. For a $15 fee, anyone can bring a streetcar or racecar and run it on an eighth-mile strip (a regulation drag strip is a quarter mile), outfitted with standard "Christmas tree" starting lights and all. After each run, an attendant hands you a slip of paper with your total time, various split times and miles-per-hour.

I arrived at the track around 5:15 p.m. and was met by race organizer Todd Dickinson. He showed me to the pit area. About a dozen speed fiends were already there, unloading muscle cars out of trailers, tinkering under the hoods. There were Mustangs and Camaros and Dusters and Pintos and even a blindingly red '55 Chevy. The cars' hoods bulged, their interiors were gutted and roll bars installed. (The Altima has beige cloth seats.) Some of these men were pros looking to tune-up for the Friday night drags at the same park; others were very committed hobbyists.

As the 6 p.m. start time approached, more and more cars streamed in and fired up. In time, the place would sound like 10,000 popcorn poppers punctuated by cherry bombs. As the sun fell, the track began to smell like a pungent combination of burnt rubber and oil, exhaust and hot dogs. Funny, I didn't find it offensive at all.

Dickinson jumped in the Altima's passenger seat to show me the ropes on my first run. (He was a pretty big fella, I thought, probably going to slow me down.) We drove from the pits up a driveway to the track, where I ended up in the left lane next to another streetcar. (The pairings are random — dragsters vs. dragsters, streetcars vs. streetcars — and drivers are really racing against the clock.)

At Dickinson's instruction, I pulled up to a line and began to inch forward. The starting tree was some 20 feet ahead. Two yellow lights went off in quick succession, which meant I was in place and ready, that the starter could cut us loose at any time. Then a quick series of descending yellows, then the green, at which point your ass is supposed to be off and hauling down the strip. This sounds kind of easy. It's not. A couple of other drivers told me to stomp the gas at the last yellow. In order to come quickly off the line, I had to press the accelerator to get the car moderately revved while holding down the brake with my left foot. This way I could attempt to release the Altima with a head of steam.

All of these tricks are reflected in a driver's response time, the make-or-break skill among drag racers, be it a 700-horsepower beast or a Nissan Altima. A response time of .50 seconds is ideal. On my first run, I posted a 1.026, which Dickinson politely informed me was "shitty." I blistered the eighth mile at 10.877 seconds, achieving a top speed of 64.81 mph.

On my second pass, I thought I jumped the gun, but impressed myself with a .507 at the start. The Altima reached 65.10 mph. My eighth-mile time, though, was 11.606. This I did not understand. How could I improve my response time by a half-second and achieve a higher top speed but have a slower finish time? No one could explain this to me from a physics standpoint — Dickinson said my car had probably heated up, and thus ran slower — but I decided not to push for a formal inquest.

The track was getting crowded. I decided to take one more pass, this time with one eye on the car in the other lane — an actual race. My competition was a late-model white Mustang. I looked over and smiled at the driver, a little pre-race gamesmanship, but his eyes were fixed straight ahead. Off went the green, and off went the Mustang — in a matter of about 10 seconds, it got increasingly smaller. Conservatively, I'd say I lost by 15 car lengths. I notched my worst response time (a dreadful .129), my second-worst final time (11.357), but my fastest top speed (67.22). Go figure.

At this point, I heard the Nissan Altima croak, "Enough, already." I really hadn't been fair to my car. I'd run her too hard, didn't give her a chance to compete; hell, I didn't even give her some premium gas. Yeah, she went in there and took an ass whuppin', all because I wanted some jollies. Sorry, Nissan Altima. You were doomed from the start — although I really think you'd have had a chance against the blue minivan.

Tuning & Testing at Sunshine Dragstrip, every Wednesday from 6-10 p.m. To reach the entrance, go east on 126th Avenue off 49th Street in Pinellas Park. $15 to drive, $7 to watch. 727-573-9700.

About The Author

Eric Snider

Eric Snider is the dean of Bay area music critics. He started in the early 1980s as one of the founding members of Music magazine, a free bi-monthly. He was the pop music critic for the then-St. Petersburg Times from ‘87-’93. Snider was the music critic, arts editor and senior editor of Weekly Planet/Creative...
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