Rockets on wheels

Pro Stock- Greg Anderson
Charlotte native Greg Anderson, above, gets a little sideways as he performs a burn out before his first qualifying run during the inaugural running of the NHRA Carolina Nationals at the new zMax Dragway in Concord on Sept. 12. Gary Scelzi, below, drives his nitro funny car in the first of two qualifying runs on Friday. Jerry Toliver, bottom, performs a burn out in his nitro funny car during the first of two qualifying rounds on Friday.

Funny car- Gary Scelzi

Funny car- Jerry Toliver

It's hard to describe the feeling of standing not 20 feet away from an 8,000 horsepower monster on wheels whizzing by at over 100 miles per hour.

Not that 100 miles per hour is all that fast for these cars--they'll be going over 330 mph by the end of the quarter-mile drag strip-- 100mph is about how fast they are traveling when they pass the end of the photographers area 200 feet from the start line (where I was standing).

The Gazette sent me out to the new zMax Dragway in Concord on Friday to get some shots of the action in the inaugural running of the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) Carolina Nationals drag race, and the experience was right on the knife edge between thrilling and chilling.

People can tell you these cars are loud, that they shake the ground like an earthquake, that they almost knock you off your feet when they go by, how they choke the air with nitromethane fumes and tire smoke... but none of that can prepare you for the experience of actually being there.

I suppose a description of the photo are is in order here; the drag strip consists of two lanes about 20 wide with a yellow line in between and a knee-high concrete wall on either side. On one side of the wall is a race car, on the other side is a bunch of photographers.

And when the green lights go on for the first nitro car you can tell which photographers have been to one of these events before. The nitro cars are unlike anything else on earth except maybe the space shuttle or a Saturn V rocket. They spew nitro fumes almost 100 feet into the air--and that's just when they're idling!

When the first nitro cars came to the line I looked through my camera ready to shoot, and then it happened. It wasn't the sound of a car engine as mere mortals know it, but instead the scream and roar of (seemingly) the Earth itself being torn asunder. In an instant the cars take a set, shoot out amber flames and shred the air around you into a dozen ninjas that kick you in the chest at the same time.

I ducked for cover while the NHRA staff photographer next to me just smirked at my awkward initiation to the sport.

During a break in the action I asked him if he thought it was safe standing this close to the action with nothing but that knee-high wall between us and an 8,000 horsepower death machine. No, he said, but in thirteen years of shooting the sport he's only seen three photographers get killed.


And this after one of the pro stock drivers got a little sideways and headed straight towards me a few minutes earlier. I wasn't in any real danger, but when a dragster gets out of control and gets pointed your way it gets your attention.

Fortunately, I kept my finger on the button and got this unique shot below.

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