National Geographic : 2004 Dec
HARTSVILLE, SOUTH CAROLINA friend Will Hanna is his crew chief. "Every time we go down the track, it costs us a thousand dollars," Hanna says, "and that's if nothing goes wrong." With its needle-nosed, 25-foot-long body riding scant inches above the pavement, the dragster Cannon now races is less a car than a projectile, an alcohol-fueled rocket built to fling the 30-year-old driver forward at speeds routinely exceeding 250 miles an hour. Engine parts like connecting rods ($1,200 a set) and crankshafts ($2,500 each) last for fewer than 15 racing miles. A $1,000 pair of racing tires lasts maybe ten runs. Accelerating flat-out to the finish line, dragsters "operate under tremendous stresses," says Bill Holt, southeast division director for the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA). "Just keep ing up with maintenance is a major financial commitment." Sometimes commitment isn't enough. After two long days of quali fying runs, a disappointed Lindsey Wood hasn't made the final cut, so when Sunday morning comes, her mother, father, and brother help her pack for the 420-mile trip home. Other racing clans spend Sunday morn ing in church, which here in zoom town means a trackside chapel service conducted by ten-year veteran driver Tom Ratliff. He's part of a non denominational group called Racers for Christ, which sends chaplains to all NHRA weekend competitions. A couple hundred people pack the first ranks of bleachers. "This is a substitute for their home church for some racers," Ratliff says, "and for some it's the only church they have." Pacing the walkway between the front-row seats and the track wall as he preaches about "rods in the Bible," the lean Baptist minister wears dark sunglasses and a wireless headset microphone that make him look a little like a Secret Service agent and a little like a pop star. Scriptural rods were shepherds' crooks, not race cars, he grants, but insists that owners of both kinds identify powerfully with their tools. "A shepherd's crook says who he is, just like our cars tell the world who we are as racers." "Moses," Ratliff reminds the crowd, "worked miracles with his rod." Racing's a team effort: A pint-size crew member (top) Inspects a bit of hot rod fuselage, and bigger kids roll a stripped-down VW to the starting line (above). Whether they're covered in custom flames or sporting plainer stock finishes (below), every car gleams. "These vehicles are extensions of the people who race them" says driver Tom Ratliff. "Even if you lose, you want to lose with style."