Drag Week, and events like them, help keep Great Bend relevant in the world of racing. Especially when Hot Rod Magazine chose the Sunflower Rod and Custom Association Dragstrip to host Day 4 of the event. Not only did they signal to the racing world that Great Bend is a great place to race, it gave a nod to the history of the track, where the first NHRA drag racing event was held in 1955.
All vehicles in the event must be street legal because cars are required to drive the distances between races. This year, racers started in Tulsa Okla., drove to Topeka, then down to Noble Okla., north to Great Bend, and would finish out the race Friday and Saturday in Tulsa again.
Attending car shows, admiring body styles and engines, perhaps working side by side grandpa or dad to change oil, check fluids, do some basic tuning up of the family’s vehicles are all common experiences nearly everyone has had. Drag racers take it a few steps further. Not satisfied with a vehicle that is merely running well, they go the extra distance to tweak their machines to achieve better, more efficient performance. The pay-off is shaving tenths and hundredths of seconds from a car’s average speed, which can lead to some pretty tight races.
Mike Finnegan, host of Road Kill and Hot Rod Garage, called into the Tribune Wednesday morning. It was Day 3 of Hot Rod Magazine Drag Week, with racers in Nobel, Okla. completing their passes before hitting the road to travel to Great Bend for Day 4 at the SRCA Dragstrip. Finnegan promises those attending will never meet a crazier group of guys or see a greater variety of cars and combinations of equipment anywhere,
“These are cars you could see driving down the road on any given Sunday, and they also happen to travel at speeds around 200 miles per hour,” he said.
Unlike traditional dragsters that are towed in trailers from venue to venue, all the vehicles competing in Drag Week are street legal, and drivers are required to drive the cars from one track to the next, and must also carry all tools and equipment they might need in the car or in small trailers towed behind the trailer.
“It’s a true torture test of man and machine,” Finnegan said. For many racers, simply making to the end of the five course race is a worthy accomplishment. It’s not something everyone can pull off.
Unlike the cars most people drive, these cars have super high horsepower engines (think 2500 HP to the average car with 150 HP), hand built with custom parts. Not only are they pushed to the limit on the track to reach the highest speeds possible, they also have to navigate traffic jams, hot weather, and all the unexpected problems that can arise over a 1,000 mile trip. It’s not for the faint of heart.
On top of that, should they break down along the way, no tow trucks or flatbeds are allowed. Repairs must be made on the road, under far less than ideal conditions.
The road, in fact, can be an amazing ground leveler between the “Daily driver” and the well-heeled pros like Jeff Lutz and Larry Larson, both of whom have held the top spot in years past.
In fact, Larry Lutz, last year’s overall winner, hadn’t arrived at the track yet by 11 a.m. because he had repairs to be made on the road, Finnegan said. The crew left Topeka around 3 a.m., waited out a rain storm, only to have the car’s charging system go out. They hooked a generator up and motored on, commentators said.
Over 7,000 spectators were tuned in to the live feed on YouTube for the final 20 minutes of the race. Larry finally arrived in Noble at that point to stay in the running with Jeff Lutz. With only 7 minutes left to go, Lutz, was working on a cylinder head on his 1957 Chevy, “The evil twin,” at the track on his 1957 Chevy. With five minutes left, this crew pushed the car into the staging lane. With only three minutes left, Larry had not arrived at the staging lane. Commentators speculated what this could mean. Then, Larry pulled past the line in his modified S-10 pickup truck, less than a second from being disqualified. Both racers now had only five minutes to make their runs. Lutz went first. His team pushed the car to the burnout box. and he pushed his car to 6.94; 213.47 mph, short of his best time so far of 6.52; 225 mph.
Larry needed to get a 6.55 to get ahead of Lutz. After a showy burnout, he ran, or rather, rolled, down the track at 28.36 miles per hour, just barely making it down the track. 43.27 was the E.T. “Agony and win,” is what the commentators had to say about it.
Around 7 p.m., 10th Street evolved into a miles long shine and show with hotel and restaurant parking lots filled with race cars with the familiar white letter and number combinations on the rear windows and groups of compadres talking in parking lots. Some towed small trailers behind them filled with tools, and parts for the eventualities they might face. Duct tape, zip-ties and baling wire, as well as more sophisticated quick fix supplies were stashed wherever they could fit. Some trickled into the Expo grounds and set up “camp” and worked on cars into the night. Sometime during the night, clouds and mist drifted in to blanket the city, despite positive forecasts.
The mist continued to plague the track, causing the start of the races to be delayed by more than an hour and a half. Some racers hit the tree one time, and packed up to head to Tulsa, having met their qualifications. For those still waiting for their chance, SRCA Dragstrip personnel worked diligently to dry the track, “sweeping” it with high powered blowers to remove moisture. Racing tires and water, after all, can be a deadly combination.
On a positive note, both Jeff Lutz and Larry Larson made it to the track with working vehicles. In the morning, before races began, spectators had the opportunity to see both vehicles up close, and to witness the camaraderie between Lutz and Larry as they looked over each other’s engine’s.
Around noon, the clouds began to lift, the staging lanes filled all the way to the east end of the track, and racers began to take their mandatory passes. Many began the long trek to Tulsa soon after. Racers in the unlimited class, however, continued to work on their vehicles, and spectators admired the 2,500 HP to 3,000 HP engines on display. Larry and Lutz were there, along with Tom Baily, last year’s winner, in his orange and black Camaro SS, and Nick Plewniak with “The Stretchy Truck,” an S-10 extended cab with a stretched rear where the engine sits, and Doug Cline and his orange and white camaro, next in line after Jeff Lutz for the title “Fastest Street Car in America.”
The lanes were shut down at 3:30 p.m. instead of 2:30 p.m. due to the morning delay. Those who managed to get a pass by then began the trip to Tulsa for the final day of Drag Week. Saturday, all finishers of Drag Week will be eligible to take part in the Saturday “Head to Head” race with no categories, fastest car wins.