Discoveries: Need for Speed

THOUGH I’M MOST DEFINITELY a safe city driver, I’ve always had a thing for fast, tricked-out cars. So when I took my first trip up to Epping, New Hampshire, for the New England Dragway’s Street Night in 2006, I was excited to find the place teeming with grease monkeys in hoodies, with their tools and tricks and souped-up wheels.   

What I hadn’t expected was the sheer thrill of watching them drive. When an all-black Monte Carlo, dubbed the Beast, rolled up to the line growling with muscle, a huge grin crept over my face. The hood and tailpipe leaked ghostly white smoke (the telltale sign of nitrous oxide–boosting) like a rocket engine. As the light tree blinked from red to yellow, the Beast popped a wheelie, then slammed back onto all fours, ripping down the course, reaching 120 miles per hour on the quarter-mile straightaway. And just like that, I was hooked on drag racing.

Sitting that night on metal bleachers, listening to the cheers and roaring engines, I found myself itching to get behind the wheel and cut loose…in my own four-speed Corolla Sport. Anyone with a license can race on Street Night, but I had a crack in my windshield—one of the few things that prevent you from competing. (You usually don’t even need a helmet.) After I stopped pouting, I chatted up dragway owner Joe Lombardo, who talked about the lengths to which people go to modify their vehicles. A few here are actually professional drivers who use Street Night to test out their latest experiments. They race, buy more nitrous, tweak their engines, and then get back in line for another round.

Lombardo also told me about "sticky" tires: specially made, gummy wheels that cling to the road and get you going faster. Then he pooh-poohed testosterone-fueled pre-race burnouts (speeding and braking quickly to heat up tires and make them stickier still). "The kids love to do them," he said. "They can make the right tires adhere to the track better, but for most cars, it’s pointless." I filed that away for the next time I was tempted to peel rubber.

Two years later, I finally found myself at the starting line. Behind the wheel, eyes fixed on the light tree, the rest of me focused on the gas pedal quivering under my foot, I was dying to see how fast my little Corolla could go. When the signal came, I mashed the pedal down, sending my tires spinning and squealing. I didn’t see the bleachers to the side, or the parking lot, or the trees and hills in the distance. It was me, the car to the left of me trailing slightly behind, and the road ahead. No speed traps, no pedestrians, no kids on bikes. I glanced at the speedometer once, keeping the pedal pegged to the floor.

Fourteen seconds later, I crossed the finish line at 75 miles per hour. (I only know this from the infrared beams that crisscross the track—I was going too fast for my car’s speedometer to keep up.) I hit the brakes, and it took a long time for the Corolla to rev down. Maybe it was into racing, too. I was proud of my time (not too shabby, I’m told), even if it wasn’t exactly in the same class as the Beast. And I’m convinced I can do better. Next time, I’m going up on empty so I can fill up with high-octane drink, let some air out of the tires, and show those kids that this chick from Boston can drive.

Street Nights, Wednesdays and Fridays at 5 p.m., 4/1–10/31, $10 per spectator, $20 per participant; New England Dragway, 280 Exeter Rd., Epping, 603-679-8001, newenglanddragway.com.