NHRA in Japan: USA Drag Festival
Reprinted from the June 2, 1989 issue of National DRAGSTER
GLENDORA, Calif. - "It was like a beautiful sunset, you had to share it with someone." That's how Bernie Partridge, NHRA Vice President-Field Administration, described the inaugural USA Drag Festival tour to Japan.
"Nobody will ever understand what happened to us while we were in Japan," NHRA President Dallas Gardner told the NHRA contingent after the event was complete. "Mere words can't capture the affection we now feel for the Japanese racers and people."
The Far Eastern tour involved an exhibition by nine NHRA drag racing vehicles -- five cars and four motorcycles - and their drivers/riders and crews, accompanied by a small contingent of NHRA personnel. It marked the first time that an NHRA sanction was bestowed on an event outside North America and Hawaii.
huge The main purpose of the trip was the exhibition by the American racers at Fuji International Speedway, Thursday and Friday, May 4 and 5, during the height of the Japanese Golden Week holiday.
A mere four months earlier, the trip was just an idea, so advance publicity in Japan was hurried and somewhat scattered. However, the Japanese race fans came out en masse, filling the 20,000-seat main grandstand Friday after nearly filling it for the one "practice" run Thursday.
The size of the crowd was stunning to Fuji Speedway officials, who expected a club-type atmosphere for the event, similar to some of the "non-spectator" road races held in the United States.
It was impossible to put any star billing on the USA Drag Festival starting lineup. The team represented an overall cross section of the most powerful types of cars and bikes in the American sport of drag racing. There were no stars. This was a team. Nakajima had requested certain types of vehicles, but NHRA contacted the specific racers involved:
- the "Mob" Top Fuel operation from San Bernardino, Calif., with driver Ed Moore and wife Devon, owner Donna Mills, crew chief Phil Miller, and crewmembers Bob and Kathy Thompson
- veteran fuel Funny Car racer Jim Dunn, wife Diane, and crewman Joe "Goofy" Turner
- the jet dragster of Scott Hammack and wife Linda
- the Black & Decker jet Funny Car of Roger Gustin, wife Jeri, and crewman Phil Gustin, Roger's brother
- the Jolly Rancher/Circle K "Candyland Express" stagecoach wheelstander of Ed Jones and wife Wendy, along with a good supply of candy for the fans
- the defending NHRA Castrol GTX Pro Stock Bike Champion Dave Schultz from Florida, whose family-oriented Eagle-1 crew consisted of wife Meredith, son Brian, and daughter Kimberly
- Kawasaki rider Steve Johnson from California and crewman Scott Valentine
- veteran Suzuki rider Paul Ray from Tennessee and his crewman, Harry Gunnison
- and transplanted Englishman Nigel Patrick and wife Joy, who now reside in California. Patrick rides a Suzuki in Pro Stock Motorcycle action.
After the day-long job of unloading the containers and moving the cars and equipment to the garages that were supplied for the USA contingent, the group was anxious to get at the virgin asphalt of Fuji Speedway for the practice session Thursday afternoon. A burnout had never been done on the starting-line area at Fuji, so the fuel-car drivers and motorcycle riders wanted to get acquainted with the surface in a hurry.
After a get-acquainted day, the team arrived at the track at 9 a.m. the next day, and was gratified to see the grandstands nearly full in anticipation of the 1 p.m. first run. Motorcycles were already road racing, but the grandstands were filling up from the drag strip starting line to the finish line. The fans were there to see a drag race.
Organizers had another big surprise in store for the team. The group and their cars were paraded down to the center of the main straightaway, in front of the royal suite. The American racers then were introduced individually to the crowd. All the while, a marching band played John Philip Souza music. Then came the "Star Spangled Banner," thousands of balloons, and six men carrying a huge American flag.
After the ceremony, the entourage rolled the race vehicles back behind the starting line. It was show time.
First up were the motorcycles, with Ray, Patrick, Johnson, and Schultz working the crowd into a frenzy with full-power runs in the low eight-second range.
Moore then fired the "Mob" Top Fueler and did the first "official" burnout in Japan, a half-track smokey that brought "oohs" and "ahhs" from the crowd. When Moore backed up and staged, the crowd came to its feet. His run looked like another burnout, and he was in and out of the throttle enough to make the car sound like a four-speed. But he drove it all the way through. There would be no half-passes for this crowd.
The wily veteran Dunn brought the "Fireman's Quickie" Olds Firenza to life next. He did a burnout that nearly took him to the finish line. Then he did two chirps through some VHT poured by his wife, Diane. He then did another dry.
Dunn was gone in a flash and recorded a 6.03 on the Japanese timing system. He would run 6.07 in the second round, truly remarkable under the circumstances. The crowd, becoming more sophisticated drag racing fans by the second, roared its approval. All of Dunn's thrashing had paid off in a big way.
The jet cars were next, with Hammack ringing up a 5.85 clocking and Gustin a 6.00. Considering the fickle way jet cars leave the staring line and the different timing system used, both runs must be described as equally impressive. The fans certainly thought so.
It was now time for Jones to close out the first show with his "wheeliecar." He literally ran the tank dry by giving the fans the "long program" while the other racers began pushing and towing back toward the starting line.
After Jones had climbed the wheel fence and threw candy to the fans, the racers were again stopped on the track. One by one they were reintroduced. The ovation was astounding.
The second run yielded some impressive runs in addition to Dunn's 6.07. Moore smoked the tires again but slalomed to a 6.20. The jets both ran in the low sixes, and the bikes knocked the fans over with a 7.91 from Schultz, an 8.25 from Johnson, an 8.28 from Patrick, and an 8.31 from Ray.
That same afternoon, a Japanese drag racer drove a turbocharged Nissan to the quickest run in Japanese drag racing history, a 9.19, so the American vehicles were turning in stellar times.
Before the event had begun, those involved decided that after the final run Friday, the cars would go directly back in their containers, which had to be done that night.
But after the final run, the racers came back down the track. This love affair with the fans was too good to miss.