As the earsplitting sound of revving, high-performance engines reaches a crescendo, the starting-line official throws a switch to activate the countdown “Christmas tree.” The green light flashes, tires scream, and a pair of cars rocket down the quarter-mile ribbon of asphalt.
This adrenaline-charged scene is what you’d expect at a professional drag race, but today’s driver lineup includes a real estate broker and a forklift technician.
I’m at the Auto Club Dragway in Fontana for Wednesday Night Lights, a weekly event where everyday drivers with drag racing dreams strut their stuff in a well-lit and controlled environment—with ample separation between spectators and speeding vehicles.
As an avid drag racing fan, I’ve participated in many of these events, and I know how much fun the sport can be. I also know it can intimidate a newbie. To show how easy it is to engage in the sport, I decided to introduce it to my friend’s son, Brenton Hudak, 23, of Yorba Linda, whose only previous exposure to auto racing was sitting in the stands at a NASCAR race.
While Brenton says he’s not a “car guy,” he appreciates high-performance machinery, as is evidenced by his vehicle of choice, a 2018 Dodge Challenger. Powered by a V6 engine, the Challenger isn’t the fastest in Fiat Chrysler’s fleet of modern muscle, but the car is capable of performance rivaling many factory muscle cars from the 1960s and ’70s.
The beauty of racing at this event is you don’t need to have the fastest car or be a veteran racer. Anyone with a valid driver’s license can bring their car, truck, or motorcycle to the track, pay a $20 entry fee, and enjoy multiple high-speed passes. It’s a lot of bang for the buck, and it’s far cheaper than the huge fines or jail time that are levied for illegal street racing.
On the night Brenton and I attended, imports, pickup trucks, Jeeps, and a Porsche 911 shared the track with traditional muscle cars. The drivers were diverse in race, age, and gender. (Fun fact: The 2017 NHRA Top Fuel World Champion, Brittany Force, is one of many females competing at the pinnacle of the sport.)
Before Brenton was allowed on the strip, he had to put his car through a technical inspection conducted by NHRA-certified officials, and he got a rundown of track rules and procedures. “I was afraid I wasn’t going to remember everything, but the tech guy said to just ask anyone wearing the same shirt he was and to have a good time,” Brenton said. “He made me feel welcome.”
As the Challenger’s inspection proved, a vehicle doesn’t have to be a full-blown dragster to be deemed race-worthy. Most cars in good working order make the grade. In fact, any red flags discovered at the track should probably be addressed for the car’s regular road use. Still, Brenton and I were relieved when his Challenger was cleared.
“Go straight, go fast” is drag racing’s basic premise, but the sport can take years to master. The point of this evening was to have fun. “Just mash the throttle to the floor and keep it there,” I coached Brenton before he maneuvered the car to the staging lanes to wait his turn to race.
“I was really nervous. I didn’t want to make a mistake,” Brenton said. “In my mind I was thinking, Just floor it and go straight.”
Brenton’s first pass clocked in at 15.11 seconds and 94.26 mph. With each successive run, he felt more at ease behind the wheel and his time and speed improved. Overall, he showed remarkable consistency, turning in elapsed times in the low 15-second range at speeds of around 95 mph—pretty much middle of the pack. Before calling it a night, he had made no fewer than nine passes.
“It was a blast. I’d love to come back,” Brenton said, adding that next time he’ll bring friends. “It’d be fun to not only compete with myself, but with someone else you know on the track.”
We’ve all seen the carnage on the evening news: crumpled cars wrapped around light poles and innocent bystanders injured or killed as a result of illegal street racing.
“Street racing has become an epidemic, and it has evolved,” says Sergeant Jesse Garcia, a 22-year veteran of the Los Angeles Police Department. The latest fad is the so-called street takeover. Participants illegally block busy intersections so their pals can perform tire-smoking stunts, often while being filmed by others standing within a few inches of cars that are on the ragged edge of control.
“A lot of it is fueled by social media,” Garcia adds. “The racers are looking for notoriety. The more brazen the act, the more people will look at it.” Garcia was instrumental in the formation two years ago of the joint Street Racing Task Force, involving the CHP and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, whose aim is to curb the illegal activity.
While some of the racing is spontaneous, a lot of it is planned, and many street racers justify it by asserting they have no place to race. Legal drag racing venues such as the Auto Club Dragway in Fontana provide alternatives. Drivers can race without the worry of speed limits, traffic lights, cross traffic, pedestrians, or speeding tickets—or the possibility of being killed or killing someone else in a car crash. Says Garcia, “The people in my unit all have motorsports backgrounds, and we highly support these legal venues.”
While it’s true Southern California is the birthplace of hot rodding, it’s seen its fair share of drag strips come and go since the sport exploded in popularity after World War II. The good news is, several facilities in the region offer street-legal programs. There are two standard drag strip formats: quarter-mile and eighth-mile. The events are run the same, but top speeds are naturally lower on the eighth-mile track, making them particularly well suited for new or younger racers.
Wednesday Night Lights
Auto Club Dragway
at Auto Club Speedway
Wednesdays, 4–10 p.m.
Thursday Night Thunder
Thursdays, 4–10 pm.
(can be adjusted to eighth-mile)
Saturday Night Street Tuner
Auto Club Famoso Raceway
Check website for schedule
SDCCU Stadium parking lot
Fridays (usually twice per month; check event schedule), 5–11 p.m.