Variety Suits: Drag Racing Pro's

It's not unusual for drag racers to contest several classes a year, as American ace Melanie Troxel explains

It’s a shame that modern Formula 1 drivers don’t regularly race in other series. Some of them compete in the Race of Champions, and this year Vitaly Petrov very nearly took part in the Goodwood Revival. However, as a rule it doesn’t happen, thanks to contracts forbidding anything that might prevent them from being in top physical condition for the next Grand Prix.

Drag racing is very different, as many of the top drivers race in more than one class. Melanie Troxel is one such driver. The American has won eight National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) Pro and Sportsman events to date and is the only woman to have won in four different NHRA classes, including Pro Mod, Top Fuel, Funny Car and Top Alcohol Dragster.

I must admit that before I started watching drag racing I couldn’t fathom how it could be that difficult, and also how one car would really differ from another. This year Troxel has been competing in the Funny Car and Pro Modified classes, and although the cars may look similar to the untrained eye she was keen to point out just how different they are.

“The Funny Cars and Pro Mods are so different,” she told me a few days before the European Finals at Santa Pod in September. “The Pro Mod (which does a standing quarter-mile in 5.9 seconds and reaches 240mph) is slower of course, but it’s just a different animal, you’re focusing on a whole different set of problems. In the Funny Car (which does the quarter-mile in 4.6sec and reaches over 330mph) you don’t have to shift and you’re not physically doing a lot of things in there, but you have a tonne of g-force, a lot of speed and you’ve got to try very hard to keep the car in the groove. Sometimes you have to really manhandle it and often you’ll be crossing the line on opposite lock, wondering what’s going to happen when you step off the throttle.

“The first half of the track is almost counter-intuitive,” Troxel added, “because when you leave the startline the chassis torques up and the car starts twisting all over the place. All you want to do is to react to it, but if you do that you’ll be chasing it all the way down the track.

“The Pro Mod is just wild – it leaves the line and then at any point it might decide to turn 45 degrees and face the wall. You’ve got to be ready for it. I had a real quick lesson in that when we first went out testing as I managed to put it on its lid first time out. It’s a totally different set of sensations in that car and I was a bit worried when I started driving both the Pro Mod and Funny Car that I wouldn’t be able to separate them. Surprisingly, that part is actually very easy. The hard part is knowing where I need to be and when, and which car I’m supposed to be warming up!”

Dragster crashes can make circuit accidents look insignificant, so I couldn’t resist asking Melanie how she could get back in a car that she’d crashed last time out. “If it’s something you have chosen to do for a living then you accept it,” she explained. “Yes, you’re aware of it and of course you take it into account when you’re getting fitted for the car, but you have to be able to turn that off as soon as you start the engine. If you’re thinking, ‘Am I going to put this into the wall?’ then not only are you not going to be a very good driver, but you shouldn’t be in the car. You have to be able to block it out, but to be honest some of that danger is what gives you the adrenalin and the edge, it’s what makes it exciting.

“The other thing about drag racing is that it’s not like other forms of motor sport where if you don’t get a corner right and lose a place you can always make it up on the next lap. If you make one mistake in drag racing that could be enough to put you out. You’ve got four, five or six seconds – depending on which class you’re in – and if you leave the door open a little someone will sneak in.”

Thanks to a burst oil line Troxel was knocked out in the semi-final of the Pro Mod class at Santa Pod, but her team – R2B2 Racing – is planning on running full seasons in the Funny Car and Pro Mod classes next year, so there’ll be plenty more chances to add to her record.