Local drivers gets their thrills at NOPI Nationals

Jeff Birchfield • May 31, 2014 at 8:00 PM

BRISTOL — This weekend’s NOPI Nationals at Bristol Dragway gave local racers Rick Whitaker and Joey Street another opportunity to live out their passion.

Drag racing is more than a hobby for these men. To roar down the drag strip in excess of 100 mph, at times closer to 200 mph, can make the mere mortal feel like a superhero.

Whitaker, 50, still works for his family’s roofing business in Johnson City which he grew up with. Drag racing his 2003 rail car gives him an outlet from the everyday business. It tends to take one’s entire focus when you scream down the 1,000-feet strip in less than five seconds at 184 mph.

“It’s a thrill,” Whitaker said. “I used to run a tube-chassis (Chevy) Beretta door car and that would run five seconds, but I’m about a second faster in the rail than I was the car. When I first got that (rail), I drove it like a car, but you have to hold your hands close to the wheel. You don’t drive it like you do the car, it drives itself.”

The enormous speeds in the Top Dragster class are nothing to take lightly. However, Whitaker said his regular occupation, which includes working on roofs of different pitches and around custom-built gables, is actually more dangerous than the sport which gives him so much enjoyment.

“The roofing is more dangerous because you don’t have a safety net to catch you,” Whitaker said. “There’s usually nothing between you and the ground to catch you. I’m real safe in the car. The Beretta, when I wrecked it, I did over $13,000 worth of damage and tore the front wheel off of it. That night, I climbed out of the car, not a pain anywhere. The cars are safe.”

His proudest moment was a perfect light and perfect run in 2012 when he was recognized both by the folks at Bristol Dragway and his peers. Another proud moment came Saturday when the local racer downed Lauren Freer, a former Super Comp winner at the NHRA Thunder Valley Nationals, in the first round of eliminations.

“The one I put out in that round, she is a world champ,” Whitaker said. “She’s one of the best and when you put out the best, it makes you feel so good. But any round win up here, these guys are hard to beat.”

Street, a 1992 graduate of Cloudland High School who still lives in Roan Mountain, has always been intrigued by the race track. Drag racing has been something he’s done for 21 years and something he’s followed as long as he can remember.

“Mom and Dad took me when I was a little bitty kid to watch them race,” Street said. “I’ve always loved drag racing. It’s one of those things, once you get it in you, you can’t get it out of you.”

Street, who works as a truck driver for FedEx Freight, runs a white1964 Chevrolet Chevelle in the Sportsman division. He’s done all kinds of racing including a great amount of bracket racing on all the area’s tracks. Overall, he’s more of a fan of the heads-up racing, simply being the first one to make it to the finish line first.

It was the case in Saturday’s opening round when his Chevelle screamed down the track at 128.65 mph to outrun the 1996 Corvette of North Carolina racer James Bunton. He described the powerplant which made a 50-year-old Chevrolet go so fast.

“It’s got a 588 (cubic-inch motor),” Street said. “Danny Shortridge built it and it’s got nitrous system on it too. It’s about 1,117 horsepower without nitrous and then what you put on it from there.”

The car, which was originally a street car, is equipped with plenty of safety features like a roll cage built by Jeff Guy of Hampton. With his car being a former street car instead of a custom-built car from a fiberglass chassis, Street typically gives away an advantage of around 1,000 pounds.

Still, he stays competitive and has even accomplished the perfect run on a couple of occasions.

“It’s nice to get that perfect run, especially when they were giving away $25,000 here,” he said. “My luck, the guy in front of me had a perfect run and then I had one right behind him. He got the $25,000 and I didn’t. That was heartbreaking.”

The perfect run starts with the perfect light. To achieve that, Street said a car has to be equipped with a delay box. Still, a good start is still based on driver skill more than anything else, and the driver’s reaction when the lights at the starting line tree are on the top bulb. Like the NHRA pros, Street has a practice tree he uses at home to help with the starts.

The driving part comes natural, although running in a straight line down the track is sometimes no more challenging than day job of putting his 18-wheeler in tight quarters.

“Which one is more dangerous depends on where you go with the tractor and trailer, and which track you are on,” he said. “Last night, this place was horrible. You couldn’t hook a wheelbarrow on it last night. Today, it was prepped good. Each track has its problems and you have to figure them out. At Farmington, it’s tough getting stopped. At Wilkesboro, there are bumps and Rogersville is just rough all the way around. It can be dangerous if you have a fast car.”

The drag racing, which Whitaker and Street are so passionate about, is just part of the NOPI Nationals. The event also included drifting competitions and a massive car show, including an car-hopping exhibition featuring the cars with the hydraulic lift kits like seen in the movies.

Still for the racers, any chance to race on the famed strip at Thunder Valley is worth making the short trip to Bristol.

While the NOPI Nationals brought in people from all over, Whitaker likes the family atmosphere at Bristol throughout the racing season.

It’s a big reason he is spending all weekend at the track, sharing time with his wife in their recreational vehicle.

“All of our kids are grown and me and my wife will get away on Friday and head up here,” he said. “We stay up here all week long with the motorhome. It’s like a big family. I ran the Spring Fling race a couple of weeks ago. My vacuum pump went out and when I pulled in the pits, I had six guys swarm my car and they told me to go sit down while they worked on the car. You enjoy the thrill, you enjoy winning, but you enjoy how everyone here is like family.”

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