Straight and narrow: Autocar goes drag racing

“Don’t yank the wheel. Tell me how that works out for you if you do…” The message from Doug Foley, former drag racer turned drag racing tutor, is plain: if I make too much of an impression on the steering wheel of the dragster I’ll shortly be driving down the Las Vegas Motor Speedway strip, the ambulance crew at the end of it should cancel any dinner plans.

I’m in Vegas to be taught by Foley and his team how to be a drag racer, keeping that wheel straight and all. It’s an experience he’s offered through his company, Pure Speed, at the speedway since 1999 after an eight-year professional career as a top-fuel drag racer ended.

Foley’s dragsters are entry-level cars in the drag racing fraternity but look more than grown-up enough when I clap eyes on one under the speedway lights for the first time. Well, after my eyes have stopped watering from the fuel being burned off from the big boys in the top-fuel and funny car dragsters doing practice runs, some breaking the 4.0sec barrier for the quarter mile at speeds of more than 320mph. My eyes might recover, but my ears are still ringing. Thank heavens for the ear defenders.

Anyway, Foley’s more ‘sedate’ cars are purpose-built to a 4.5-metre-long wheelbase specification, power coming from a water-cooled 500bhp 6.6-litre V8 that revs to 7500rpm. The car weighs just 680kg and should be capable of the quarter-mile run in around 10.0sec at a speed of 130mph across the line. That’s more than fast enough for me.

There’s remarkably little science involved in driving one. There are two pedals: an accelerator for your right foot and for your left a brake, which I’m advised against using because it will unsettle the car. Hmmm.

The transmission is a self-shifting electronic two-speed unit. So when you’re on the start line, you floor it and go. And don’t touch the steering wheel. “Just assume it will go straight,” says Foley. “Don’t anticipate something that’s not happening.”

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I back off after 330ft before returning for run two, which goes to 660ft. I feel in control this time, knowing what to expect, driving the car again. The apprehension is replaced by a huge smile.

To the third and final run, the full quarter of a mile. Foley gave a polite warning earlier about this run: “After you’re past the grandstand on the full run, the wind comes in. If you’ve not done it before, it can scare the hell out of you.” Only he didn’t quite say ‘hell’.

He’s not wrong. It’s another good start, and then I go past that grandstand. At this point the car feels light. It’s moving around a lot and I have to touch the wheel slightly. Touch, luckily, not yank. It’s unnerving, and I think to myself that I might have backed off the throttle ever so slightly.

The times confirm it: I’m as fast as anyone off the start line, but across the finish line I’m 6mph down on the best, at 124.24mph, in a time of 10.655sec. Others in the same car were going sub-10.0sec. Still, that’ll do for me.

The dragster was one of the most exhilarating things I’ve driven, but it was also at times the scariest. For once, I’m glad to go back to the day job.

This article was originally published on 4 January 2016.