The Most Exhilarating, High-Risk Four Seconds of Your Life. Hint: It’s Not Between the Sheets1
By Brad Littlefield
For most, the sport of drag racing evokes iconic images of James Dean tossing a cigarette before revving up in Rebel Without a Cause or John Travolta waiting for that yellow handkerchief to drop in Grease. The 61-year-old sport has since matured into an elaborate enterprise of technological and competitive prowess. Its zenith is the Nitro Funny Car Drag, a dangerous sect whose races resemble a marriage between the SpaceX rocket launch and a UFC event.
Now, KoldCast TV brings audiences a novel front row experience to drag racing with the Tequila Patron-sponsored series Alexis DeJoria: Her First Nitro Funny Car Season. The show introduces us to the perilous sport as well as it’s most interesting and promising newcomer, Alexis DeJoria, a woman with the world at her disposal who chooses to put her life in harm’s way day in and day out, to be the fastest. Period. Her reflection on this career path is both practical and nonchalant. “Life is a risk,” she says. “Sometimes you have to take risks, and when you do well… oh it’s so gratifying.”
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Drag racing is an acceleration contest in its purest form. The tight competition at 320 mph is intensified by the visceral experience of nitromethane-burning monsters shaking the earth, evaporating 15 gallons of fuel in a 1,000-foot run, and roaring at decibels comparable to an AC/DC concert. The office each driver occupies gives them a harsh working environment of 6 G’s of acceleration and a nearly equal amount of deceleration when both parachutes blossom to eventually slow the scorching-hot behemoths.
An outsider might believe that all a drag racer has to do is go straight. What they don’t realize is the cars that drag racers drive at the top level are inclined to go anywhere but straight. Drivers, by rule, have the area between the concrete barrier and the centerline to work with, but they know differently. They must keep their cars planted within the groove, the rubber-darkened stripe in the middle of the concrete lane, to achieve maximum traction and keep all Hell from breaking loose.
A driver’s skill becomes most apparent when things go awry. And in an 8,000-horsepower machine that approaches 320 mph at 1,000 feet from a standing start, things can go wrong in a hurry. A single dropped cylinder will subtract 1,000 horsepower worth of downforce-providing thrust from the Zoomie pipes on one side of the car, instantly making a fuel-burning flopper act like a Winnebago caught in a gust of wind.
The hyper focus needed in the busiest, most exhilarating four seconds imaginable requires blinders of both literal and figurative varieties. Blinders are placed on the visor to black out peripheral distractions to narrow the driver’s vision to the groove in the middle of the racetrack.
Putting up mental blinders is not as simple.
The gospel preached to drivers is to treat every run the same whether it’s the first round of qualifying or the final round of eliminations. There are no do-overs, provisional positions, or extra laps to recover at any of the 23 stops on the NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series. Every consequence suffered in a drag race is as permanent as it is immediate.
When a drag racer refers to risk, they aren’t just talking about risk in the life-or-death variety. They never know whether a run will end with a career-best time, a crushing loss, or a concussing supercharger explosion that launches the body up in the air. Their names, the respect of their fans and peers, and their livelihoods are all at risk every time they mash on the gas.
A driver is the last link to the chain held together by the sponsor that finances the operation, the eight-person crew that completely tears down the engine and clutch, then immaculately reassembles it in the span of one hour, and the crew chiefs that agonize day and night over the best way to get the car down the track as fast as possible without smoking the tires or expiring the billet-aluminum engine parts before the finish line.
Fortunes can change in a hurry. A driver with little acclaim can engrave his or her name among the sport’s immortals like “Big Daddy” Don Garlits, Don “The Snake” Prudhomme, and Kenny Bernstein with four round-wins at the sport’s oldest and most prestigious event, the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals held in Indianapolis every Labor Day Weekend.
Fans experience the gamut of emotions that their favorite teams and drivers endure because the line between the fan and the racer is more blurred than in other forms of motorsports. A ticket to a National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) event grants a fan more access than anywhere else. The face-to-face time with their favorite drivers and the opportunity to see the highly-specialized mechanics thrash between-rounds out of their mammoth trailers that serve as mobile garages gives them an emotional connection unlike that in any venue. Rows of entertaining displays further add to the fan experience.
One of the beauties of a nitromethane-burning Funny Car is that it does not discriminate. An engineering marvel of billet-aluminum parts designed to fit together with clearances to the one-thousandth of an inch, chromoly tubing, and composite body, the beast does not care whether it is being navigated by the likes of 15-time world champ John Force or a class rookie such as Alexis DeJoria.
A Newcomer Makes Some Noise
DeJoria came to be a part of the Funny Car wars a little differently than her opposition. Being a female in the sport is not a novelty – legends such as Shirley Muldowney paved the way in Top Fuel decades ago, and women such as Ashley Force Hood, Melanie Troxel, and Courtney Force have shown they can hold their own – but the rest of her story is outside of the mold.
The daughter of Paul Mitchell Systems and Tequila Patron founder John Paul DeJoria, Alexis was the self-proclaimed wild child of her family. The little girl who dreamed of becoming a fighter pilot grew up in Southern California seeking thrills with hot rods, skydiving, and rock ‘n’ roll. As a teenager, she experienced the sensation of nitro-burning Funny Cars from the top-end grandstands in Pomona, Calif., and she finally found her match in an adrenaline-laced challenged that would receive her undivided attention.
John Paul DeJoria with Racing Fan Dan Aykroyd
Alexis began competing as a Sportsman driver in the Super Comp (8.90-second dragsters) and Super Gas (9.90-second doorslammers) categories in 2005. The sad reality for drag racers is that a small percentage of racers who participate ever get to experience a national event win. However, she achieved that milestone quickly with a win in Super Comp at the 2006 NHRA JEGS Pacific SPORTSnationals in Fontana, Calif. That prompted her to move to Top Alcohol Funny Car, the methanol-burning equivalent of her current ride, considered by many to be the most difficult car to master in the entire sport.
It is a testament to Alexis’ competitive nature that she chose the more difficult car to master when others who used the Sportsman ranks as a launch pad would choose an A/Fuel dragster, a car that is more procedurally similar to a nitro car but poses less challenge. Not only was she in a short wheelbase (read: squirrely) car that required her to raise the engine to 7,000 rpm on the starting line, swap feet, and shift twice with deadly accuracy on runs that lasted 5.4 seconds and topped out at over 260 mph, but she was racing against 20- and 30-year veterans on a regular basis. She went through the learning curve, experienced lumps such as a scary top-end accident at the 2009 event in Englishtown, N.J., and accomplished feats in her last of five seasons that were a worthy sendoff before she moved up to the Pro ranks.
Building a Team
Alexis had dueling interests on the track in 2011: finish what she started in Top Alcohol Funny Car, and prepare for her nitro debut. On the former, she posted a 266 mph speed in Gainesville, Fla., that eclipsed the previous record, and she won the national event in Seattle, Wash., with only a few races to go before her time in the class came to an end. On the latter, she made testing laps in a Funny Car owned by Del Worsham, the 2011 Top Fuel world champion who now serves as her crew chief, and built an entire Funny Car operation alongside NHRA legend Connie Kalitta, the Michigan-based owner of cargo giant Kalitta Air who also owns another Funny Car operation and two Top Fuel dragsters.
Preparation for her debut was no simple task. The first step after getting Tequila Patron onboard was aligning with Kalitta, a hardcore drag racer whose shared vision and enthusiasm struck a chord with Alexis after years of talking with various team owners. With a strong infrastructure in place, Kalitta’s team made additional hires in anticipation of DeJoria’s debut to increase its staff to 40 people on the road – three who work in hospitality in addition to the mechanics – and a team of machinists, fabricators, and various front office and marketing employees who work out of their Ypsilanti, Mich. based facility. The mobile race shop, hospitality center, and souvenir trailers were constructed as the crew built two complete racecars with countless spare parts in a matter of months.
Click to watch Episode 2 of Alexis DeJoria: Her First Nitro Funny Car Season
Her official debut at the Dallas event last fall began with a red carpet gala that week that set a new bar for team announcements. The preparation, the years of mastering the Sportsman ranks, the extensive media coverage, the hoopla surrounding the race, the expectations: Alexis used her blinders to shield herself from all those things when it was time to burn rubber.
Alexis has allowed for fans to follow every step in her journey through her official rookie season in a way like no other. Her personality and backstory may be anything but traditional, but her preparation and talent have her on track to etch her name among the drivers and moments that have defined a sport reserved for the most fearless and talented drivers.
Brad Littlefield is an associate editor at National DRAGSTER magazine.