Monday, May 18, 2009

They Live to Drag

Kevin Romeo, left, and Bob Jones stand beside their dragster at Pittsburgh Raceway Park in New Alexandria, Pa. Romeo, a student at Cal U, and Jones, of Eighty Four, Pa., were featured May 17 in the Observer-Reporter of Washington.


By Michael Jones
Staff writer

NEW ALEXANDRIA, Pa. – Kevin Romeo smashes the gas when the light flashes green and his car roars down the quarter-mile drag strip in less than eight seconds.

After the first run of the year in his dragster, Romeo turns the vehicle back to the pits and pulls up to an enclosed mobile trailer overlooking the track as cars whiz by just a few feet away.

Inside the trailer, Bob Jones hunches over a couple of laptop computers and crunches numbers ranging from engine performance to air temperature. The data streams in from wires connected directly to the dragster while a weather instrument whirls around on the roof of the trailer.

But this isn't a high-tech professional racing team looking to make big bucks on a national circuit.

Romeo and Jones are just two of the many racing enthusiasts who come to Pittsburgh Raceway Park in this Westmoreland County community for a weekend of fun, even relaxation.

Jones, of Eighty Four, has been racing for 50 years, and has been coming to the tracks for even longer than that. He marvels at the technology that professional teams gradually passed down to the local racers.

"It's unreal," Jones said of the technology. "If you have an issue, you'd know right away rather than chasing your tail."

As a car owner and mechanic, he is able to make minor adjustments and prevent costly equipment failures during a high-speed run. The improved technology has increased the cost to race nowadays, Jones said, and he needs three sponsors on the car just to break even.

"We made everything (back then)," Jones said. "We'd tear apart an engine to find the problem. I still don't know it all. That's why I got a young driver. I'm not swift with that stuff, but Kevin understands that stuff."

That's when Romeo, his 21-year-old driver, walks from the car and into the trailer to take a peek at the computers. Jones quit racing a couple years ago and handed the keys to Romeo.

"After that many years, I get more of a kick out of making it work," Jones said.

Romeo, a New Alexandria resident and student at California University of Pennsylvania, comes from a family of racers. He drove his own car for the past five years until Jones brought him over for this season.

Romeo is well aware of the technology changes.

"It's amazing to see the equipment they had in the '70s compared to now," Romeo said. "Bob's been doing this for 50 years. I've been doing it for five."

The sport isn't new to D.J. Johnson, who has watched racing since the late 1960s when he was a boy. Since then, the Cecil Township resident has labored under the hood, driven briefly and worked as the media relations coordinator at this track.

He remembers the days when a band of friends rolled their street cars onto an open trailer and hauled it to the local strip. They didn't have to worry about spare parts because they just borrowed them from other teams.

"Technology and safety is really what changed and they trickled down from the (professional) ranks," Johnson said. "It's not like you're taking your street car to the drag strip. Those days are over for us. Everything is so tied into computers, barometric pressure, track elevation, everything."

And that information is exactly what Jones is checking before putting the car back on the track for its second practice run.

In the staging area near the starting line, Romeo and his fiancée, Justine Illar, chat with other drivers and mechanics while Jones checks the tire pressure.

When it's time to race, Romeo lowers himself into the tight cockpit and buckles up. Illar hands him his helmet and he squeezes it over his head, pulls on the gloves and fist bumps another driver.

The car will reach nearly 180 mph at the end of the track, but that's not what stirs Romeo.

"I get more of a rush out of the competition than the speed," he said. "I'm more nervous because I want to win."

Romeo pulls the dragster up to the starting line and floors the gas for a burnout to warm the tires. The driver and car owner communicate through a two-way radio to properly line up the car.

When the Christmas tree – the yellow, green and red light fixture that acts like a traffic light – begins to flash, Romeo reacts and an onboard computer automatically launches the car when the light turns green.

Then it's time for the ride.

"I let go of the bottom (lever) and then the car is in control," Romeo said. "I just hold the accelerator and the wheel and guide it down the track."

The run is over in 7.46 seconds with a top speed of 179.82 mph. The time is a fraction slower than expected, but this was just a practice session before the real racing begins later in the day.

Romeo pulls his car back to the trailer and Jones begins refueling the car with Octane 116 racing gasoline before connecting the computer circuits to download information.

Romeo, Jones and Illar are back at the computers and poring over the streaming numbers. A few moments later, they're already discussing how to make the car go even faster next time.


Brant said...

That's a great read, Mike. One question. Do I read correctly that when the light turns green, the car automatically roars off the line? Jumping on the gas at the exact right moment used to be a major element of drag racing. Am I right? I used to know some of those guys who worked on their own race cars in their own backyard garages. I think things were better in those days. But, of course, I'm just an old man living in the past. ;-)

Mike Jones said...

The game for the driver doesn't start when the light turns green, but when the staging lights start turning yellow. He hits the button/lever at the first yellow light and the car's computerized timer apparently launches it at green. So there is still reaction time, but it's a little different. I thought that was kinda bizarre, but that's the way the sport is going. I personally like the human element.