NHRA’s top drag racing event calls Hendricks County home

Hendricks County
Sunset at the speedway. Lucas Oil Nationals participants get ready for some night racing.

I recall as a kid watching car racing at Omaha’s old Sunset Speedway. It was a long time ago. The track closed in 2000. Omaha has since grown past the old northwest Omaha spot. That memory came back as Lisa and I took in our first drag racing championships in Hendricks County, Indiana.

We took in the Lucas Oil Nationals at the race track courtesy of the Hendricks County visitors bureau. What an adventure! We watched rocket-like motorcycles, Funny ars and Top Fuel dragsters speed down the 4,400 foot long strip, setting records throughout the event.

The races at Lucas Oil Raceway Indianapolis are considered the Super Bowl of drag racing. The event is referred to as “The Big Go.”

Hendricks County
Lucas Oil Raceway Indianapolis hosts oval and drag races.

We knew we were in for a treat as soon as we parked the car on the oval track, used for NASCAR and CART-style racing. We zigged when we were supposed to zag to get to the suite to watch the races. It proved a good mistake, as we walked through the pit area. We watched cars being towed into the area following their time on the race strip.

The cool thing about NHRA (National Hot Rod Association) is that fans have access to the pit areas. You can walk up to a crew working on a car, and talk with them if they time. Rarely, though, do they have time. Crews have about 45 minutes to completely rebuild engines for the next race. Crews have been known to give parts of the car they no longer need or can use to young fans. I saw one kid and his dad pushing a large tire through the area. Not sure what the little one will do it, but he got a trophy for his visit to the nationals.

Hendricks County
Crew members prep a car for its next race in the pit area.

As we walked through the pit area, Lisa noticed the semi-trailers for the Force family. John Force and his three daughters – Ashley, Brittany and Courtney – have been involved with NHRA racing for years. Ashley no longer races, but runs the family’s entertainment company.

Brittany races Top Fuel dragsters on the circuit. She is one of the best in NHRA, becoming the first woman the NHRA Four-wide Nationals this year. . Brittany has been racing since 2013. Courtney has been racing in the NHRA since 2005. She races Funny Cars. She is the winningest female driver in the Funny Car division. John is a 16-time NHRA champion. So, it’s easy to see where the talent came from with the kids.

Hendricks County
The Force family races all types of cars.

So, while in the pit area, I got the “the whole nitro experience.” I saw a bunch of people standing near Brittany’s pit area, so we joined everyone. I had a front row view for the work being done. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, I heard a bang and then smoke blew in our faces, blinding us and choking us. It was the nitro being tested.

Hendricks County
The “Nitro experience” is not fun to go through. But, it provides a great memory.

I tried to keep my eyes open as I turned away looking for an escape route to a clean spot. No luck. My eyes burned, tears ran down my cheeks. I could barely breathe. I finally found a spot where some others had also headed to. The smoke cleared in a few seconds. I was able to breathe normally. My eyes still burned. But, after a couple of minutes, I was back to my normal (if I can call myself that) self. Wow! I was later told by our hosts that situation is referred to as the “nitro experience.” Once you experience, you know better. Indeed, I do. Now.

Honestly, I doubt I would trade that experience. It may not have been fun at the time, but it’s a great memory – the day I was gassed in Hendricks County, Indiana. LOL.

In addition to the pit area, drivers and sponsors had cars on display for fans to check out. We passed a few Funny Cars. They are impressive vehicles. We had a great time taking in the attractions inbetween races.

Hendricks County
A Funny Car.

The races, meanwhile were a blast. We started with some Funny Cars during the daylight hours. Then, on to the motorcycles.

We watched a celebrity race of sorts. “Papa John” Schnatter – the founder of Papa John’s Pizza – raced his personal Camaro against Leah Pritchett, a NHRA driver his company sponsors. The winner determined which charity to donate a $20,000 wager. Pritchett smoked the pizza maker. But it was OK with him. After all, shouldn’t a racer show her sponsor how good she is on the track?

Hendricks County
Pizza magnate “Papa John,” in the gold car, gets beat by his racer in a charity duel.

Schnatter actually owned the car twice. He sold the 1971 Camaro in 1983 to help his father’s business and to start his own. Later, he tracked down its whereabouts and bought it from the owner.

The official races were enjoyable to watch. With darkness falling, we were encouraged to watch them from the stands, close to the track as the nitro explodes and flames shoot out of the sides of the cars, illuminating the night. And, man, are they loud. We wore earplugs and they still sounded like a bomb going off next to me. You could feel the reverberation in your chest. Still, it was a great experience.

Hendricks County
The fire igniting from the sides of cars was fun to watch in the dark.

I’ve watched NHRA drag racing on television, but it’s nothing compared to seeing it live. Drag racing has gained a couple of new fans. If you have not attended a drag race event before, we recommend you do. If you’re in Hendricks County any time they have a racing event, we encourage you to attend. You will gain an appreciation for what these men and women go through to spend a few seconds on the race strip.

Hendricks County
A Top Fuel dragster.

For more information on Hendricks County and the Lucas Oil Raceway at Indianapolis, please visit www.visithendrickscounty.com, www.lucasoilraceway.com or www.nhra.com.

Disclaimer: Thank you to Hendricks County Visitors Bureau and Lucas Oil Raceway for the complimentary access. However, all opinions and views are ours.