RADIAL-tyre drag racing might just be a cult – and if it is, South Georgia Motorsport Park (SGMP) is its Jonestown. Three times a year, thousands of devotees of the stiff-sidewall rubber make a pilgrimage to the tiny town of Cecil, Georgia, for a set of races that are equal parts thrilling, brain-numbing and mystifying. Of those, Lights Out is by far the biggest.
Here, followers drink the world-record Kool-Aid. Each February, barrier-breaking bursts on the eighth-mile aren’t hoped for, they are expected. Lights Out goes so far as to schedule more qualifying rounds than necessary (when timing allows) to give racers the most chances possible of making headlines.
There’s fear of the outside: The traditional mode of going fast – the bias-ply slick tyre – is mocked, derided and excommunicated, its merits not even permitted to be discussed.
Justin ‘Lil Country’ Swanstrom had a weekend he’d rather forget, his Pro 275 nitrous Camaro blowing the motor during qualifying. “We’ve run this motor for two years and I have never had this issue,” he said. “It spat all eight sparkplugs out of the motor, torched the heads and the pistons are bad. I’m guessing it had some kind of ignition glitch. All I saw was a big fireball.”
And then there’s the cult’s enigmatic leader – Florida’s Donald Long. He wasn’t the first to run radial-tyre races, but he was the one to bring Don King-style flair to the promotion. His stream-of-consciousness Facebook live videos are an unpredictable mix of racer gossip, industry commentary and controversy, as seen this year with a swipe at the local police department over harassment and dangerous driving. Long will do whatever it takes to keep his races front of mind, and he steps on plenty of toes to do so.
Nitrous combinations such as Jamie Hancock’s were under-represented in RvW this year, with screw-supercharged cars piling on instead.
Every good cult needs a reason to belong, and the stars of this show are to be found in Radial v The World (RvW). What began as Pro Street cars on radials is now all about purpose-built Pro Mod chassis running an assortment of screw-supercharged, turbocharged and nitrous combinations. Going into the event, the record was 3.546 seconds, held by Stevie ‘Fast’ Jackson.
Daniel Pierce’s popular diesel Cummins-powered Nova looked good early in X275, but later got into the wall in a big way, crunching up the front end.
The 11th running of Lights Out faced a meteorological challenge, with at least two days of predicted rainfall, including Sunday’s eliminations. Two sessions of RvW were completed early in the week before a thousand-mile-long storm front swept through the American south on Thursday afternoon, dragging cold Arctic air behind it. That presented a challenge to the track prep team on Friday as they attempted to pull the moisture from the cold racing surface. The sub-sea level density altitude readings created a power headache for racers, too.
Jordan Lasik’s X275 Chevy Nova has a bit of a Pro Street-style appearance and comes packed with a Noonan Hemi. “The car is brand new,” Jordan said. “It has stock front suspension, stock firewall, stock floorpans and Mustang Fox-body rear suspension. We saw how well the Noonan was working with the Pro Mod teams; we could bolt it down and know we were going to make good power.”
Not least among those was Australia’s Jarrod Wood. After spending the early part of the event still testing in Orlando, he made the drive to Georgia on Thursday, but the storm beat him to the track. Two qualifying sessions were originally scheduled for Friday, but the schedule moved at a glacial pace due to track prep and oil-downs. That left Wood with just one shot to make the RvW field in his fresh Noonan Hemi-powered Corvette, but when he spun the tyres shortly after launching the dream was over.
The new DXP Street class aimed to provide a heads-up class to suit budget racers, and also offered a $2500 wheelstand bounty – producing spectacular results.
“We turned it down heaps and we still spun,” a disappointed Wood said. “We had a lot of valve spring issues that we sorted out in Orlando and we made a string of test runs with sub-1sec 60-foot times. We’ll be back for Sweet 16.”
The track preparation required for modern radial beasts is otherworldly – and time consuming. Where a track for slick tyres may be lucky to get hand sprayed a few times during an event, at South Georgia Motorsport Park there is a complete spray from the start line to the finish line between every class, and sometimes more during RvW. Debris is brushed off and a rubber sled is dragged to complete the treatment. It is not an exaggeration to say the track spends more time being prepared for racing than it does actually being raced on. But that is what it takes for radial-tyre world records to be set.
Last year’s winner Alex Laughlin suffered the ignominy of a first-round exit in 2020 in his Speed Society Corvette.
One of the most dramatic moments of the event came from former world record holder Marcus Birt, who was aiming to restore his title in his Pat Musi-motored nitrous Corvette. Birt went into low orbit when the front end came up so quick that the back wheels were almost off the ground before he could lift. The crash landing took the Corvette out of competition, but Birt was uninjured. South Georgia Motorsports Park hasn’t earned the nickname ‘Home of the Flying Cars’ for nothing!
Stevie ‘Fast’ Jackson came into Lights Out 11 with a vicious mindset, taunting competitors to try and match the uber-consistent 3.5s doled out by Shadow 2.0.
Stevie ‘Fast’ Jackson tamed the track with a 3.552 to top-qualify, as news broke that Saturday would be the final day of the event, meaning all five rounds of eliminations for the 32-car field would be run and done.
The spotlight shifted to Melanie Salemi in round one of eliminations when she tied Jackson’s outright radial world record of 3.546, with most choosing to bestow the record on her by virtue of her higher top-end speed of 213.57mph.
Pit oddities included the ToyMakerz Street Digger, a street-legal twin-seat dragster! It was recently tuned by Kevin Mullins of TKM Performance and will make its first runs soon.
However, Salemi’s run at the event’s $40,000 prize came to a heartbreaking end in the semi-finals when her supercharged Camaro lost fire after the burnout. Taking advantage of the opportunity in the other lane was David Reese in the El Diablo 2.0 Camaro, running the world’s most insane supercharged small-block. Reese was living in the high 3.5s and low 3.6s – an incredible performance given his cubic capacity deficit. Reese is a former no-time racer whose talents were revealed late last year when he sold the original El Diablo and revealed an incredible 3.69 timeslip on a 275 tyre.
Jackson was predictably cutting his way through the field, never leaving the 3.5s as he sought to continue a winning streak that included No Mercy and the NHRA Pro Mod World Championship. He defeated Shawn Ayers in the semi-finals, who was driving NFL player Fletcher Cox’s stunning Mustang at its first ever event.
Aussie drag racer Grant O’Rourke has been living in the States for a couple of years now, helping out with a variety of teams. Here he brings Ronnie Hobbs into stage with the former world record-holding ex-Daniel Pharris Mustang.
The post-midnight final was a David v Goliath battle. Reese was no doubt the underdog against the giant Jackson, and he threw down everything he had. He treed Jackson by four-hundredths and clocked one of his quickest times of the weekend, a 3.594@205mph, but Jackson’s Billy Stocklin-tuned Hemi came by just before the finish line with a 3.548@213mph.
“Georgia is my stomping ground. You ain’t gonna come into SGMP and slap me around too often,” the quick-talking Jackson said. “Me and Billy Stocklin’s motto is to absolutely crush ’em from the time we unload to the time we leave. We try to make them think they need to do something they can’t do.”
Team Enemies Everywhere’s Camaro still had the scars of a fire that almost destroyed the entire Horsepower Wars field. The Aussie crew rallied though, beating Lyle Barnett in the final at Lights Out 11 to win the second Horsepower Wars Drag Shootout.
A surprisingly popular sideshow to RvW was the final of the Horsepower Wars Drag Shootout, a YouTube-televised competition that gave four teams a starter car worth $500 and a $10,000 modification budget to see how quick they could go. And it was Australia going home with the gold!
Drag Week regulars Jamie Farmer and Robby Abbott, along with Kev Morton, Ross Wye and Nathan Clarke, formed Team Enemies Everywhere and were accepted early last year to join the comp. The team had 10 days to turn a 1998 Camaro into a drag-ready machine. Despite being saddled with a tricky option due to the Camaro’s engine placement and rear end, the Australians rallied and in went an LS3 with an 80mm turbo – the maximum allowed by the rules – along with a ladder-bar rear end.
Kevin Rivenbark burns out in the ProCharger-equipped Galot Camaro. Rivenbark was last year’s $101,000 Sweet 16 winner, but Lights Out 11 was not so kind, as he bowed out in the second round.
Horsepower Wars took a bizarre turn in September last year when the cars were severely damaged by a fire while in transport. The Aussies’ Camaro was the least injured of the lot, though it still needed a bunch of wiring replaced. The scheduled final at No Mercy was postponed to Lights Out to give the teams a chance to rebuild. That meant some team substitutions were needed, with Campbell Farmer, Nigel Alexander, Jon Hedrick and Steve Metcalfe coming in to replace Morton and Wye.
Jason Rueckert is one of the grassroots supporters of radial drag racing and was one of the creators of Limited Drag Radial, dubbed ‘the working man’s radial class’. This 1982 Oldsmobile was his first car, but has since become a drag-only monster with a Tony Bischoff billet block and twin turbos.
Once they got to the track, the Australians shone. Farmer top-qualified with a 5.59 and put the Dream Team Mustang on the trailer with another 5.59 in round one. That set up a final against reigning Horsepower Wars champion Lyle Barnett and Team Bigun. Despite Barnett’s nitrous Ford Granada wagon being plagued with issues, the Aussies were still regarded as the underdogs. Farmer didn’t let the title stick though, as he holeshot Barnett .107 to .115 and then marginally outran him 5.721@121mph to 5.722@115mph.
David Reese changed the game for small-blocks with epic 3.5sec runs in El Diablo 2.0. This car is still just a few months old and has plenty more in it.
“We dominated all weekend, but I think the turbo might be a little hurt,” Farmer said. “It was getting slower and slower and I knew Lyle was stepping up. “I had to be sharp off the line and we just got him on the other end.
“We came over here and took on the world’s best in their own backyard and we dominated. Not only did we win the competition, but we made lifelong friends.”
Melanie Salemi set a new world record in RvW round one, with her 3.546 matching Stevie ‘Fast’ Jackson’s record to the thousandth but getting the nod based on a higher top speed. However, a short in the ignition system cost her a chance at making the final round.
The Camaro will now be prepared for street and strip duties at Hot Rod Drag Week in September.
Lights Out 11 is an event that will be remembered fondly by some and critically by others, but remembered nonetheless. For the radial-tyre faithful, there is no other church. Once the Sportsman category finals were completed at 3.40am on Sunday morning, the cult disbanded until their next radial-tyre worship meeting, leaving only empty cans of Bud Light and hot dog wrappers in their wake.
THE EAGLE HAS LANDED
LIGHTS Out is known as the Superbowl of radial drag racing, and takes place shortly after the actual Superbowl each year. For Philadelphia Eagles defensive tackle Fletcher Cox, that could not work out any better.
The 193cm-tall, 140kg NFL player has long been a drag racing addict, though the risks of driving mean he is restricted to team ownership until his playing days reach an end, instead handing steering responsibilities to his buddy Shawn Ayers.
Cox has owned a number of radial rockets, including a Pro Line-powered Ford Mustang that ended up in the hands of Australia’s Shaun Hale, followed up by another Fox-body Mustang known as Gold Dust. The latter was a former Limited Drag Radial world record holder that also contested X275 and the NMCA Street Outlaws.
Lights Out 11 marked the racing debut of a brand new tube-chassis 1967 Ford Mustang for Radial v The World duties, driven once again by Ayers and tuned by Canadian Mark Savage (a frequent visitor Down Under, crew-chiefing on Sam Fenech’s Sydney-based Pro Slammer).
The car has actually been ready to go for some time. “I built this car two years ago and it was just sitting in the shop; I didn’t want to run it,” Cox said. “But we finally got ready to run and we’ve got a hot rod.
“Lights Out is the race to be at; it is competitive and you get to see where you’re at against the top-tier guys, and we plan on being at the top with them. The car is responding really well; I couldn’t be happier.”