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Opinion: Drag racing is an art

By Tim Keen, 28 Jan 2019 Features

Opinion Drag racing is an art feature

Keen takes a walk on the wild side. And it is glorious

I’ve never been too interested in drag racing. Speeding up and then stopping again has always seemed like the least activity you can possibly aim for in motorsport – anything less than that is just being parked. Even NASCAR – “go fast, turn left” – has literally twice as many steps to remember as drag racing.

But I’m warming to drag racing. Because I realised that I’ve been thinking about it all wrong.

Picture source: Winternationals 2018 preview

I was perusing the 2018/19 handbook for ANDRA, the Australian National Drag Racing Association, and three wonderful words caught my eye: “Any modification permitted.” Now there’s an innovative way to prevent people from overstepping the rules: not have any.

I was looking at the Modified Bike Eliminators – MB class, “dial your own handicap”. The “anything goes” class of drag bikes.

Drag bikes are for people who like the idea of drag racing, but find sitting on an exploding rocket with four wheels too safe. “How can I make my drag car less stable?” ponders the nascent drag biker.

Somewhere in the drag bike community, there must be someone tinkering with a drag unicycle. And if there is, the Modified Bike Eliminator class is where you’ll find them.

Any modification permitted. Glorious. Here are the actual ANDRA regulations, word for word:
- Any internal combustion engine to a maximum of 2500cc permitted.
- Any modification permitted.
- A maximum of three true motorcycle engines may be fitted with no capacity limit.
- Superchargers, turbochargers or nitrous oxide injection permitted.
- All classes restricted to Ethanol, Methanol or Petrol only.

You can have up to three engines! They just can’t be powered by diesel, sled dogs or a nuclear reactor. And they have to be under 2500cc, which is sort of a non-condition, since the biggest production motorbike engine ever, uh, produced is in the Triumph Rocket III, and weighs in at 2294cc.

Plus, you need to have a helmet and a chain guard. That’s it. That’s the rules. It’s like Group B rallying without any corners. It’s the opposite of what we get in Formula One.

F1 engineer: “How can I make a smaller, quieter engine?”
Drag biker: “Hmm, two engines just isn’t getting it done. Let’s add another one!”

Why isn’t drag racing the biggest sport in Australia? It’s perfect for the modern Instagram attention span – the race that stops a nation for six seconds. “Aaaand they’re away! And they’re done.”

Picture source: Drag Challenge 2018

That’s when I realised I had been thinking about it wrong. Drag racing is actually less like sport, and more like art: it’s less about what you do, more about what you make. And the MB Eliminators are like modern art: anything goes.

Look at the kings of drag (as opposed to drag queens) compared to other motorsports. Around the time that Mark Webber was living on diet water and the smell of sunshine to keep his bodyweight at Olsen twin levels, Victor Bray was being mistaken for a small crowd. Victor may be skinny now (well, skinny-ish) but he’s also the same age as Chuck Berry’s debut album – he’s literally the same age as rock-and-roll – and he’s still competitive.

Picture: Victor Bray's Chevy Doorslammer

Excellent, yes – but an athlete? Hmm.

While it’s no small skill to steer a land-rocket down a two-lane without ending up as a quarter-mile streak of smoking wreckage, the real wizardry is done before you even get to the track. The workshop is the art studio – the drag strip is just the gallery.

Sport is generally about rules and regulations – whether you choose to accept them or choose to “win at any cost”. But drag racing – that’s art. High-performance art.