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Close enough to sniff nitro fumes

Want access? Forget NASCAR and take a walk among NHRA legends.

By JOANNE KORTH, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 17, 2002

Want access? Forget NASCAR and take a walk among NHRA legends.

GAINESVILLE -- In NASCAR, gaining access to the Winston Cup garage requires knowing someone with pull, a team or sponsor honcho.

Getting into the NHRA garage is much easier. Just walk.

In NHRA, little is off limits to fans. Included in the price of admission is the right to meander from the stands to the garage to the souvenir trailers and food vendors without anyone asking to see identification.

No one is excluded.

"NHRA has always allowed fans in the pits and it is a massive amount of people," Top Fuel champion Kenny Bernstein said. "With all the power and speed and noise and smells that make NHRA racing, what's so exciting is that the fans can get up close and personal."

Nearly 150,000 people will pass through the gates at Gainesville Raceway during the three days of Gatornationals, which concludes today with finals at 11 a.m.

Permanent-ink markers uncapped and video cameras rolling, fans scurry from stall to stall in search of the complete sensory experience. When an engine fires they rush toward the ground-shaking roar. When the wind shifts they jockey to get a whiff of nitro fuel.

"I think it adds a lot to see them working on the cars and doing their thing," said Bob Earing, 45, who drove from Valrico to get his annual quarter-mile fix. "It's really awesome being able to take video while they're tearing the engines down and putting them back together."

For Top Fuel and Funny Car crews, the most intense moments of any weekend are the 75-minute intervals between rounds, during which they tear down and rebuild the 6,000-horsepower motors. This task is performed with balletlike precision.

Five feet away, fans lick ice cream cones.

"I go way back with the fans to the old days when they actually fed us," 11-time Funny Car champion John Force said. "They'd see you working between the rounds on your car and say, 'Hey we've got a sandwich for you, something to drink.' "

Winston Cup drivers complain the growing legion of fans in the garage makes it hard to do their jobs. The most popular drivers, such as Dale Earnhardt and Jeff Gordon, are mobbed by autograph seekers as they walk from their cars to the haulers.

The NHRA garage is more low key.

Between qualifying rounds Saturday, legendary Top Fuel driver Shirley Muldowney perched on a chair near the edge of her garage to receive fans, chat and sign autographs.

"If not for my fans I probably wouldn't be here," said Muldowney, 61, who qualified ninth. "Souvenir sales and the fan following is what has sustained me the last 12 years since I've not had a major program fund me to be out here on the major NHRA circuit. I appreciate the fans for what they've been to me."

More than a decade ago Billy Hammel sneaked into the Winston Cup garage at Daytona International Speedway for a closer look at the machinery. Officials tossed him out.

Hammel, who drove from Key Largo to attend his 16th Gatornationals, is fascinated by the technical side of racing. Saturday he casually stood by while members of Bernstein's crew replaced cylinder heads and pistons.

"When I first started coming here there was a good crowd, but nothing like it is now," said Hammel, 39. "Every year it's more and more and more. I'm a mechanic, and it amazes me that they can get that much horsepower out of these things."

Force, who has toured for 25 years, hopes drag racing never gets so big it must keep fans at a distance. If it weren't for the fans he might not have made it through the lean years.

"I saw women who were pregnant, and now their daughters are coming with their children," Force said. "In the heat of battle, you don't forget the people who brought you there. That's what I love about this sport, is the closeness with the fans."

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