I never knew how much I loved drag racing until I knew how much I loved drag racing.
Because watching two cars go head-to-head in a straight line for a few seconds on a tiny laptop screen with peanut-sized speakers isn’t very exciting. Not in the same way as watching a car tackle Japanese mountain roads or the streets of Monte Carlo. Nor is it as thrilling as watching a swarm of F1 cars roll their massive fenders around the corners of Suzuka.
So while I probably won’t start following drag racing championships on Youtube, I’ll definitely be back at Hyogo Prefecture’s Central Circuit for next year’s Drag Festival. Here’s why…
Unlike other forms of competitive motorsport in Japan, drag racing is very specialized. Once upon a time, Option magazines and Video Option The VHS releases were about zeroyon – both sanctioned events and a little more doubtful – but what Japanese drag racing lacks today, it more than makes up for in diversity.
Not all letters of the alphabet were represented at the Drag Festival, as unfortunately all Prius, Qashqai and Lada drivers were busy. We still have more than enough to play with, starting with K and the coolest thing in the world. kei car class, the Suzuki Alto Works.
Then there was this tire-smoking Volkswagen Bug. I couldn’t check under the rear hood, but whatever pushed it worked fine, as it was tracking the Z car it was up against in that particular race.
Across the Pacific Ocean, American muscle was represented by many letters, with the Camaro being one of the coolest. There were a few generations of Camaros running that day, their aggressive demeanor and Chevy V8 blast easily recognizable from a quarter mile away.
Now, still on the letter C, this is where I started to moisten my pants slightly. As I found the courage to get closer and closer to cars like this Toyota Chaser warming up its tires before rolling through the staging area, the appeal of drag racing became very, very clear.
Probably because he was shouting at me by very angry, very powerful and completely unbalanced cars.
The noise these cars make is unlike anything I’ve experienced before. I saw F1 cars screeching under my feet under the pedestrian bridge at the Goodwood Festival of Speed, and then I touched fabric. Drag racing took it up a notch.
In terms of noise, GT-R racing was actually surprisingly tame. That’s not to say they weren’t fast as some of them were running in the low 8 second zone, not bad considering the white Jet Wake R35 above is also road registered.
In the middle of the day, one of the cars left the track. Fortunately, the driver escaped unscathed, but his car came out a little more worn. The race has been suspended until the carnage can be cleaned up and the surface of the drag strip is cleared of debris.
These cars reach speeds of around 250km/h over 400m, so I can only imagine what accelerating must be like, let alone trying to stop them.
This gave me some time to walk around the pits and learn about the different classes of machines. The GT-Rs might have had the all-wheel-drive advantage, but the RX-7s definitely had the personality advantage. Three-rotor blocks were commonplace and they howled over the tape like howler monkeys on fire.
I have some serious RX-7 drag machines coming into the spotlight, so watch this space.
We leave the hugely popular R section and come to the more successful S category – the almighty Skyline. Really, is there anything this car can’t do? Much like its successor, the R35 GT-R, the drag-spec Skylines cover the quarter-mile like Scalextric cars on steroids.
There was a time when Sendai Hi-Land Raceway, the front straight of Fuji Speedway and this place – Central Circuit – would have been filled with Skyline GT-R setups for drag, but now there are only a handful of diehard fans keeping the tires burning. It’s a sign of the times in terms of the cost needed to run these cars, the value of GT-Rs and the fact that overseas teams – especially those in Australia – are now good ahead of Japan when it comes to pushing Skylines to their limit on the drag strip.
Then there’s the number of Japanese venues actually set up for drag racing these days. Sendai Hi-Land, for example, no longer exists after being damaged beyond salvage in the devastating 2011 earthquake in Japan.
So it’s even more special to see people continue to pursue their passions and push for faster ETs and trap speeds. Of course, the private cars really only race against themselves, but there were obviously a few pro and semi-pro teams chasing records.
One of the OGs of the Japanese drag scene is Kazushige Sakamato, aka Mr. Carbon Fiber, aka the leader of Garage Active. Not only does it build to a high standard, Full carbon fiber GT-R, it also still develops GT-R drag. I failed to photograph Sakamoto-san’s new R34but I will endeavor to grab a feature of it soon.
I did, however, manage to see his original R33 drag machine; it’s the one he used to race at the time. Its side-exit, unrestricted exhaust let out such a visceral scream on launch, I was barely able to take a shot as I backed away in fear.
And that brings us to Z, which of course means Z cars. The Fairlady Z has been a favorite rig of drag racers in Japan for decades; its well-balanced body, iron-block inline six-cylinder engine and sleek aerodynamics make it the perfect quarter-mile machine.
Watching two old Z cars put heat in their rear tires before driving off into the sunset like a pair of whippets chasing a particularly juicy bunny felt like you just don’t get to watch drag racing on a screen. It’s the raw, unbridled sound of engines revving to their limits, the smoke billowing from the rear wheels and the muffled blast of fans as the starter lights turn from red to green. It’s an atmosphere that gets lost in the video.
So no, I won’t suddenly start watching Sunday morning drag racing events on TV, but I will definitely follow a few other events around Japan to attend and hopefully learn a bit more about the constructions behind the machines. Because it’s an electrifying sport, with eccentric characters behind the cars and crazy people behind the wheels.