THERE’S an empty backlot attached to the Soboba Casino, about two hours into the desert from Los Angeles. Once a year it plays host to a small but devout group of competitors armed with paddles and horsepower. The event is the Hammer Down Nationals, and these men and women are So-Cal’s sand drag racers.
Now in its second year, the Hammer Down Nats are put on by the Southern California Sand Drag Association (SCSDA), and the event attracts a respectable field of competitors in classes ranging from two-stroke quad bikes to altered-body Jeeps, all the way to fire-breathing, ear-bursting Top Fuel. Yep, that’s right – there are people crazy enough to race nitro rails on sand.
The racing, while staying mostly true to its roots on the blacktop, is like nothing else around. The cars are built to race on loose terrain with altered bodies and gnarly paddled tyres, and are a sight to see as they scream down the 300-foot track. Most are equipped with wheelie bars, which are often relied upon though soon ndistinguishable in the storeys-high rooster tails that are thrown at the fall of the tree. In fact, excessive wheelstanding will get you booted from the race!
ETs fall between mid-two to four seconds across the range, so the racing is fast-paced and violent. Thankfully, everyone gets a breather every few runs as the track needs to be groomed frequently to keep it from sinking further into the Earth’s crust. Two trucks, one towing what’s basically a giant shovel and the other a hoe, ensure the ruts and digs get pulled over to keep the track flat and safe, and a water truck comes through to help provide a little more traction through terrain density.
Races are run on a pro tree, and the fiercest competition comes in the Top Eliminator class with a 2.950 bracket. There were 11 entrants in the TE class over the weekend, and it came down to Paul Graham running back-to-back 2.950s to take home the top spot, which was seriously impressive given the unpredictability involved in sand drag racing.
That said, nothing impresses the punters more than the Top Fuel bouts, which are absolute mayhem. These are 7000hp nitro-breathing Hemis hurling down 300 feet of loamy dirt in the low two seconds at 150mph or more. The cars are exactly the same as asphalt fuellers, though kitted out with reduction gears and tyres with huge paddles to make at least some of that monster grunt hook up in the dirt. The SCSDA itself describes the class as having “virtually NO rules, except for safety considerations.” So yes, it’s a whole lotta fun.
Dennis Rieck in Addicted To Nitro took home Top Fuel at the event with a 2.29 over Matt Ludlow’s 2.46 in the Coldwater Kid. The third entrant in the class was Marcus Norris in the #528 Fueller, funnily enough sponsored in part by Aussie bloke Paul Chambers and his Outback Plants company.
Nipping at the rooster tails of the Fuel guys are those in the Top Alcohol class – equally as impressive, though not as eye-searing. A field of four saw the quickest ET of 2.55 going to overall winner Jake Morton in the #5252 meth-injected rail.
The Pro classes are where the majority of racers lie, with altered-body and original steel vehicles. Some of these guys can also be found at local nostalgia drag events like Famoso’s infamous March Meet, with not much more done than swapping out the rear rubbers for some slicks. Top Fuel winner Dennis Rieck was pretty competitive in his fluoro-orange Hammer Down Jeep, and commented that he enjoyed it almost more than his dragster, since he can just jump in and race rather than having to endure the expensive and stressful process of Top Fuel upkeep.
While the fields are small compared to most asphalt championships, the sand racing is just as competitive and exciting, and is a must-watch if you find yourself near an event anywhere across the United States. Considering racers from Canada, Hawaii and the Cayman Islands all ended up diggin’ at the Hammer Down Nationals, it’s definitely worth the time. And the sand in your shoes.
Top Fuel and Alcohol dragsters are almost identical platforms on both asphalt and sand. Even the more popular Pro classes are essentially Altereds or HAMBsters, though they tend to run bodies similar to Jeeps, rather than vintage Fords and Chevs like the nostalgia asphalt guys.
The most obvious difference is the tyre choice – racing slicks with large vulcanised paddles attached scoop through the loose sand and provide more traction through surface-area contact and resistance. The SCSDA and other sanctioning bodies have rules on paddle dimensions to stop guys from running what could essentially be Bobcat diggers.
Most folks will run gear ratios in the fives and sixes considering the 300ft track and the terrain, and some won’t even need to shift for the duration of the race. Finding gearing like that for the hi-po classes is tricky, so most of the big guns will run reduction gears before the final drive.
Wheelie bars are a must for anyone lifting the fronts. Not only do they help the driver to steer, but they’ll keep you in competition, as the officials can deem excessive wheelstanding a violation and disqualify you.
Sand drag tracks are officially set at 300 feet, with all the same lighting and timing as asphalt tracks. The terrains range between all sand and all dirt, which means each race event is a whole new ballgame for the drivers. Racers prefer dirt, as it’s more dense and holds water better, making it more solid for finding traction, though racing on more dirt-based surfaces usually raises issues with rocks underneath. Digging up rocks is a normal part of racing, and everyone, even spectators, will casually pick them up and clear them off the track to keep everyone and their cars safe from what could be flying missiles.
The tracks are groomed after every few runs – sometimes after each run for the quicker classes – since the paddled tyres do a great job of moving huge amounts of sand very quickly. One truck will drag a giant shovel to replace some of the dislodged earth at the startline, and as it continues down the track, a second one follows with a hoe-like contraption to even out and break up the dirt. A water truck will also run occasionally to keep the ground moist, which is better for traction and means less dust for the punters.
Racers say that the track is at its best on the end of the last day, despite being dug up so much. There will be less rocks, and as more and more water is sprayed on it, it will become more dense and better for traction. Ruts will still form underneath the groomed layer of sand; some racers choose to avoid those, while others will ride them – it’s a matter of driving style/preference. Gaining an advantage in the ruts comes down to a little black magic, it seems.
Racing at the Hammer Down Nationals is done on a pro tree across all classes. Chatting to the racers, you’ll find a lot of them will stage deep to cut a good light, because there’s more time between mashing the gas pedal and actually finding any traction on the sand. There are so many variables when it comes to getting faster on the day, including track condition (which can change after every grooming lap), so things like staging and reaction times can be a make-or-break when it comes to being competitive. As amateur racer Tom Bray said: “Just when you think you’ve got it dialed in, it all changes!”
Top Fuel: The biggest dogs in racing, these are the same 7000hp nitro Hemi V8s as asphalt Fuellers, capable of running low twos and upwards of 150mph
Top Alcohol: Methanol-burning dragsters that can run low-to-mid twos, set up similarly to asphalt rails and making around 3000hp
Top Eliminator: A more diverse class, with an index of 2.950. This can include alcohol, nitro funny cars, turbo fours, and aspo set-ups, as long as you’re competitive at that bracket
Fast Fours: Four-cylinder racers including rail jobs and buggies, running as quick as 2.8
Pro: There are three Pro classes, with varying brackets. Pro 1 is a 3.10 bracket, Pro 2 is 3.75 and Pro 3 is 4.26. This is where you’ll see the most competitors and the biggest variety of cars – anything from small dragsters to Jeeps to custom-built altereds and buggies
Pro Motorcycle: In the moto classes all racers are trikes and quads. Pro 1 is anything quicker than 4.49; Pro 2 is 4.49 and slower
1. Randy Mings lifts the front of his Moto Pro 2 class entry in a finals face-off with his own son, Caleb
2. Like the other competitors in the Top Fuel class, Matt Ludlow’s Coldwater Kid is set up like an asphalt Fueller – over 7000hp of nitro Hemi fury digging scoopfuls of dirt and traversing 300ft in under 2.5sec
3. Tommy Zavala set up his big-block Chev-powered dragster to run in both the Pro 1 and Pro 2 brackets, but unfortunately came second in both
4. Tyres like these are typical for most of the quicker classes, with vulcanised three-quarter-length paddles staggered across the width of the rubber
5. Kenny Hayes took home top spot in the Pro 1 class in his small-block Chev-powered Jeep
6. After taking home the gong in Top Fuel, Dennis Rieck whipped out his eye-searing Jeep and had a dig in the Pro 3 class, earning second place on the podium to top it off
7. Nick Shultzman has earned the nickname ‘Wheelie King’ behind the wheel of his Fuel’n Around Jeep. It’s easy to see why
8. Kris Lauffer grenaded his engine on the testing passes on the Friday at the Nationals, but rebuilt it in time to make third place in the Fast Fours class in his Sand Hater dragster
9. Joey Weaver expertly piloted his Motorcycle Pro 1-classed two-stroker to victory
10. Marcus Norris was one of three Top Fuel competitors at the Hammer Down Nationals, and after being holeshotted in eliminations, still came back afterwards for a nice exhibition pass. He’s even sponsored by an Aussie company!
11. Hawaiian racer Lance Kaaina came over to give it all in the Fast Fours class. His four-cylinder rail Crazy Coconut earned him second place overall
12. Top Alcohol driver Jim Hammond in the April's Dream dragster gave it everything in the class final against Jake Morton, but fell short by 0.07sec